You might find a beloved friend missing in today’s Sun Herald.
For almost 20 years, Gulfport native George Thatcher has written “Beach Walks,” his musings inspired by the sand, sun and surf of the Mississippi Sound, which ran on the Opinion page daily and during the past couple of years on Sundays.
Thatcher has chosen to retire his “little notes.” In fact, the Feb. 26 “Beach Walks” was his final submission. He’s earned it; his 95th birthday will be in September.
This “true gentleman,” as a much younger admirer has called him, has written four books that compiled several of his writings.
“Writing the column has really been important to me,” he said Friday afternoon. “I tried to translate things I saw on my daily beach walks to something interesting not only to readers but good for the Mississippi Coast.”
Retired Sun Herald Editorial Page Editor Marie Harris always looked forward to working with Thatcher.
“Working with George was one of the highlights of my career,” she said. “I learned more about birds and plants and the beach and history and faith than I could have imagined from his short diary entries every day, and I know thousands of our Sun Herald readers did, too. That makes me happy.
“His writing helped readers get a better sense of place, of where we live and many of the things we take for granted,” she said.
Beach Walks revisited
The following is a feature story I wrote on Thatcher as he celebrated his 15th year of writing “Beach Walks:”
A sand-dusted pair of shoes usually sits on the front porch of George Thatcher’s home on Second Street in Gulfport. Since he was expecting guests, however, he moved them.
“My housekeeper will not let me wear them inside, “ he said.
They and his iPhone are Thatcher’s essential pieces of equipment on his daily beach walks, which are fodder for his “Beach Walks” entry on the Opinion page of the Sun Herald. Here, in just a few words, Thatcher notes the extraordinary in the ordinary.
This week marks two landmarks for Thatcher: His 90th birthday is today, and 15 years ago, on Sept. 22, 1997, the first “Beach Walks” was published.
“I have walked on the beach for years, “ Thatcher said. “I took little notes in a journal so cryptic nobody could translate them but me. A friend said to me, ‘Why don’t you publish your daily journals? Why don’t you show them to the Sun Herald?’”
I learned more about birds and plants and the beach and history and faith than I could have imagined from his short diary entries every day, and I know thousands of our Sun Herald readers did, too.
Retired Sun Herald Editorial Page Editor Marie Harris
He and Roland Weeks, then the publisher of the Sun Herald, are close friends, but Thatcher didn’t want to go that route. Instead, he contacted Mike Tonos, managing editor at the time, and asked if the newspaper might be interested.
“He called me back and said they’d like to do that; a three-month trial and see how it goes? So I turned in those.
“Marie Harris (former opinion page editor) is really responsible for its success. She would choose the illustrations that went with them; all I did was the text. I tell people all the time the illustrations are better, “ he said. “At the end of three months, Marie said the readers like it.”
Thatcher quickly calculated he will have written 4,680 columns come Saturday — and the only possible repeats he can recall is “maybe one month when I took a sabbatical.”
Thatcher takes his own photographs for many of the columns, also using his smartphone. The phone is a recent addition; for several years, Thatcher continued to use his trusty journal.
He tends to walk the section just south of his home, usually in the mornings but sometimes in late afternoons.
“Mostly I just go out front here, “ he said. “In the winter, I’ll go to the beach between Moses and Urie (piers). It’s not manicured there in the winter.”
Delight in small things
Thatcher finds the gems for his column in those less-groomed spots, or in areas where several feet already have left prints in the sand.
“It’s not the truly unusual or rare things I focus on. It’s the mundane — a chipped seashell probably nobody would pick up but me. Or a wildflower people would pass by. On the way to the beach, on the neutral ground, there are wonderful flowers. There’s a whole patch of Indian blankets right now, “ he said.
Thatcher usually gets one “Beach Walk” entry out of a walk.
“After the hurricane (Isaac), though, I’ve gotten two or three out of one. After Katrina, it was terrible. The sea life. I will never forget the carcass of a great blue heron on the seawall by my house. It was terrible, grotesque, “ he said.
The weeks and months after Katrina, however, also brought some unexpected beauty. A few months after the storm, sunflowers began dotting Beach Boulevard and some neighborhoods just inland.
“I love sunflowers, “ he said, smiling. “It’s so amazing how they follow the sun all day. Early in the morning they’re facing east, waiting for the sun to come up.”
Busy, even at 90
In his 90th year, Thatcher retirement maintains a schedule many half his age would envy. He attends Mass every morning and is lector on Mondays and Thursdays. He is an avid chess player. He is a regular tennis player and has won several titles, including a bronze medal in tennis singles (85 to 90 age group) at the National Senior Olympics at Stanford University in 2009. He will represent Mississippi in 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio, at a tournament.
“I regularly win the senior trophy in Mississippi, “ he said impishly. “That’s because I’m usually the only one in my age group that shows up. I almost feel bad accepting the trophy, just for being there.”
He’s also enjoying being a man of leisure.
After Katrina, it was terrible. The sea life. I will never forget the carcass of a great blue heron on the seawall by my house. It was terrible, grotesque.
“The Lord’s been good to me. Old age is not bad; it’s a sweet time in my life.”
Thatcher retired as a banker but has his roots in newspapers. Early in his career, he was a partner in Rand-Thatcher Advertising Agency, then was part owner of The Dixie Press.
“Clayton Rand and I were partners in The Dixie Press; I was junior partner. I sold ads, wrote articles, you name it. There were some hardscrabble days when we didn’t have enough to pay everybody on Fridays, so we would wait until after 1 p.m. and give them their checks, then I would spend the weekend collecting payments that we were owed to cover them on Mondays, “ he said.
He grew up in the house he lived in until Hurricane Katrina tore it away. A small guest house, badly damaged, remained, and it was restored as his “unplanned downsizing” home.
His Sunday-Friday columns and his four related books — “Beach Walks, “ “Beach Walks II, “ “Scenes from the Beach” and “A Decade of Beach Walks” — have gained him some loyal fans.
“I get a lot of email from people, “ he said. “I get a good bit of feedback from the books. They have been added to the Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind, and through that I got the most emotional call from someone. He called me and said, ‘I took a beach walk with you today. I’m blind. Thank you.’”