Jewish World Review July 29, 2004 / 11 Menachem-Av, 5764

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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Honorariums from the heart are best | Nobody does table arrangements as well as retired teachers, who, I presume, hone their artistic skills on bulletin boards and class murals and the smiley faces for A-plus papers.

And so recently, when I spoke to a meeting of Mississippi retired teachers, I came home with not one, but three gorgeous flower arrangements, the day's centerpieces. The teachers had emptied their own gardens and created huge, heaping displays to brighten the restaurant where the meeting was held.

For an entire week my home was transformed — a veritable garden of blue hydrangea and Queen Anne's lace and day lilies the color of new school buses.

That gift of flowers was one of the best honorariums I have ever received for public speaking.

The all-time best might be the walking cane made from a horse apple tree, also known in these parts as a bodock tree. The cane was polished and had a rubber tip. It was not only beautiful, but useful. It comes in handy for threatening my dogs. They, of course, studiously ignore both my empty threats and the cane.

When you write a newspaper column for several decades, people see your face above the words and can't help but think of you when it's time to engage a public speaker. It doesn't matter one whit that you're no good at speaking; most clubs don't require a good speaker, simply a live one.

Most clubs don't have budgets to pay speakers, which might be just as well. With certain organizations, pay might be a conflict of interest for a newspaper person.

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So usually I don't quibble about honorariums; I just show up if the group is one I admire, or if I owe a favor to the program chairman, or both.

Somebody on TV speculated that former President Bill Clinton is losing money while promoting his new book because he makes $10 million a year giving speeches. I thought a lot about that. I could promote a book and not lose.

While I have received pretty good money for a few speeches, most of the time my honorarium is something far more interesting than a check. I've been privileged to receive everything from handmade ceramic fruit in a bowl — the banana was particularly real-looking — to a purple jogging suit.

One great speech gift was a beautiful needlepoint pillow made by a woman who had heard me speak before. I had mentioned my favorite song title and said that if I could needlepoint, I'd needlepoint those words.

That sweet woman had the pillow ready for me next appearance, the precious words in turquoise against a nice ivory background: "If You Don't Leave Me Alone I'll Find Someone Who Will."

Most newspapers have a rule against employees accepting gifts worth more than $10 or so. The newspapers know their own pay scales and figure we're cheaply bought.

But sometimes readers send me such wonderful items I can't bring myself to refuse them. Assigning a value to most would be impossible anyhow. They are priceless to me.

One Alabama man made me a mosaic garden steppingstone, replete with my initials, two pencils and an Auburn University insignia.

A Tennessee artisan sent me a miniature version of the wooden chair that goes inside each of his handmade boats.

A Fairhope, Ala., artist sent me a dogwood bloom he had carved out of wood; he carves tombstones. I lost his address before I could thank him, something that's always bothered me.

I get lots of books, everything from cookbooks to poetry collections. Many of the cookbooks I take to Pat at the post office; she collects them. I try to read every book I receive because I know how hard it is to write one.

A Memphis nurseryman once sent me a stick with a ball of dirt wrapped in a net on one end, an ugly-looking gift to get by mail or otherwise.

I planted the stick in the front yard, ball end down, and today it's a beautiful, full-grown Japanese magnolia that gives me joy and shade every day of my life.

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07/22/04: Something cold, something new
07/15/04: The simple life, Cajun style
07/08/04: You simply didn't strike out on family vacation in a dirty Buick
07/02/04: I fuss and cuss but know where my heart is

© 2004, Rheta Grimsley Johnson Distributed by King Features Syndicate