At one time or another, every member of our staff has had to answer the same question: "What's it like to work there?" Truthfully, you don't so much work at Southern Living as live and breathe it.
Call it a lasting legacy from the band of true believers who created the magazine in the 1960s and sent it soaring into the stratosphere during the late seventies and early eighties. Genuinely passionate about the South, they expected rookie staff to share their zeal—and work like the daylights.
Some of those early staff members stayed with Southern Living for over 30 years. While they retired with laptops, cell phones, Google, and Facebook, they had begun their careers with typewriters, film photography, and tattered road maps. Putting the magazine together back then was a very human process, one that brought together all sorts of people. There are far too many to thank, but we wanted to share at least a few snapshots.
Gary McCalla was an Oklahoman of Native American descent (who sometimes interviewed befuddled job candidates while wearing a full headdress). John Logue grew up in tiny Pine Apple, Alabama. The two were risk-taking, rule-breaking amigos. John persuaded such notable Southern authors as James Dickey and Pat Conroy to write for Southern Living. The first long-term Editor in Chief, Gary anchored the magazine to the pillars of Food, Homes, Travel, and Gardens, ending the editorial drift that had led to stories on everything from bass fishing to bouffants.
He also had an eye for talent and saw enough of it in part-timer Karen Lingo to promote her to full time, hiding her salary on his expense report until he could get company brass to approve what he had already done. Mentored by founding Travel Editor Caleb Pirtle, Karen would help shape Southern Living Travel editorial for decades.
In the mid-seventies, founding Food Editor Lena Sturges had to step down for health reasons and was succeeded by her friend and protégé, Jean Wickstrom Liles. By all accounts, Lena was a take-no-prisoners Texan who liked to swap jokes with the guys on the sales force and had little patience with staff she deemed inept. Those she respected most were hard workers who knew their way around the kitchen, people she could count on to deliver quality recipes for readers. Soft-spoken and refined, Jean had a very different personal style from Lena, but when she took the helm, she proved herself a strong editor who developed a phenomenal Test Kitchen team—Peggy Smith, Patty Vann, Judy Feagin, Diane Hogan, Jane Cairns, and Kaye Adams, who directed the group for many years. Together with the Food Editors, "the T.K." enabled Southern Living to do something no magazine had ever done: build a successful Food section from reader recipes, which made it, in effect, the community cookbook of the South. The T.K. would prove to be a magnet for culinary talent. Mary Allen Perry was the creative powerhouse behind years of December white cake covers. Pam Lolley, whose "Pam-cakes" remain a reader favorite, is as inventive as ever after 13 years in the kitchens. Many young staff members made lasting impressions at the tasting table; among them were Marian Cooper Cairns and Lyda Jones Burnette. Marian followed her mom, Jane, into the T.K. and has since authored cookbooks for us. Lyda's deep respect for traditional Southern cooking helped her rise to become T.K. Director.
While the Food staff has had many moments in the sun over the past 50 years, one of its most dramatic episodes happened back in the seventies. Jean and company were putting together their first special Food section when Clay Nordan joined the magazine as Production Manager, just in time for what he describes as "a hostage situation." The only person on staff who knew how to create the ad makeup—that's the complex map of all the ads and editorial space for each issue—resigned. When he left, he was so disgruntled that he completed the ad makeup at home and demanded $10,000 for it. The company refused to pay, leaving Clay, Copy Chief Sharon Watkins, and Mary Ann Biederman from the printer in Nashville to sort it out before deadline. That's the only time Southern Living has ever come close to missing an issue.
Two editors who probably had the greatest influence on what readers came to see as "the Southern Living look" were Philip Morris and John Floyd. Together with colleagues like Louis Joyner, Carole Engle, and Linda Hallam, Philip kept the Homes department focused on the traditional design that a growing audience sought. Not only did readers want traditional, but they also wanted this magazine's interpretation of it. That sparked an idea that would become a major franchise. Southern Living opened several designer homes for tours during the seventies and eighties before a team led by Burton Craige in advertising and Bill McDougald, Mary McWilliams, and Lil Petrusnek in editorial fully developed the Southern Living Idea House program, working with architects and designers to open signature homes all across the South for readers to tour—in person and on our pages every year.
Just as Philip had done in Homes, John Floyd brought a traditional aesthetic and an emphasis on good design to Gardens in the late seventies. He would become one of the magazine's most tenured Editors in Chief, though he couldn't have predicted that from one of his earliest assignments. Having learned of John's horticultural expertise, company president Eugene Butler, who was based in Texas, asked the new Gardens Editor to design his cemetery plot in Dallas. "Shortly thereafter, the Dallas office sent me 12 pictures of the plot—with Mr. Butler standing in it for scale," John remembers.
Steve Bender never worked the graveyard shift, but even before he became The Grumpy Gardener, his acerbic wit—matched with the talents of Linda Askey, Charlie Thigpen, Lois Trigg Chaplin, and Gene Bussell—helped build the magazine's gardening audience.
Also attracting readers were all the seasoned storytellers at Southern Living. Many a greenhorn staffer was schooled by Dianne Young, a lyrical and literary writer who reviewed all of our stories and spearheaded many new sections and special issues. From Steve, Tommy Black, Wanda McKinney, and Carolanne Roberts, we learned to hook readers with humor and color. We marveled at Dana Campbell's ability to blend Food and Travel and Donna Florio's talent for weaving foodways into the story of the South. Two genial Texans, Les Thomas and Gary Ford, gave us object lessons in marrying people to place.
Les once caught a ride in a private plane with a world-famous pep squad and said he halfway hoped the plane would go down because he couldn't imagine a better obituary than "Les Thomas Dies in Crash with Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders." In the days before ubiquitous cell phones and GPS, a young Travel writer named Jennifer McKenzie Frazier got lost in a Texas border town, with no English speakers in sight. She went to a phone booth, called Gary Ford in Birmingham, and said, "If I describe what I see, can you tell me where I am?" And he did.
Some of our best storytellers were the photographers. Early on, Charles Walton, Bruce Roberts, and Geoff Gilbert helped establish the magazine's style, which relied more on real Southerners than paid models and aimed for an emotional connection with the audience. Readers were always so excited to see our photographers and stylists—especially in small towns—that our guys had to learn to work around fans who showed up at shoots. As SL grew, so did the photography staff, encouraged by such visual Editors in Chief as Eleanor Griffin and Lindsay Bierman. Among those who ferried bags and tripods across the South were Mark Sandlin, Art Meripol, Gary Clark, and Robbie Caponetto in Travel; Van Chaplin and Ralph Anderson in Gardens; Sylvia Martin, John O'Hagan, and Laurey Glenn in Homes; and Jim Bathie, Tina Cornett, and Beth Hontzas in Food. Also among our alums are such art photographers as Melissa Springer and Beth Maynor Young.
Tom Ford, Donovan Harris, Jon Thompson, and other Art/Creative Directors took all that photography and turned it into covers and layouts that would draw readers into the magazine. And Illustrator Ralph Mark always made time to answer questions from all of us admiring onlookers as he captured the South on canvas, working at a big easel in the art department.
Then there were the meticulous Copy Chiefs like Carol Boker, Dawn Cannon, and Susan Alison, who saved many a writer the embarrassment of a misplaced comma, misspelled town (it's Gautier, not Goshay), or misidentified paint color.
You could say it takes a village to produce a magazine like Southern Living, but truly, it takes a family—a big, rambunctious, endearingly eccentric group of people whose shared fascination with the South forms a kind of kinship that never goes away.
When we lost beloved writer Sara Askew Jones, so many past and present staff filled the church that Sara's service was like a family reunion. And when her friends looked for a way to remember this woman with the flowing red hair and enormous heart, they decided to join with her family and others in the community to create a memorial arbor at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Architect Rob Martin, a Homes alum, designed it. Former colleagues Charles Walton and Todd Childs coordinated an online auction of art, photography, books, and crafts—all donated by Sara's friends to help fund the arbor. Like many times before, the SL family pulled together and helped make something wonderful happen. Visit Sara's arbor sometime. On that serene spot, you'll understand why we thought it important to make a lasting connection between a person we loved and a place that she loved. Families are like that.