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Wednesday, April 06, 2005 

The Tragedies Of Dixie

When I was in high school, I could've been a stunt double for Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. (I had a buddy who, when drunk or stoned, would get me to say "Can I borrow your underpants for ten minutes?" and would bust a gut laughing every time.) One of my classmates was a young woman named Mary Pat Langford, bright-eyed and kinky-haired in that cute '80s Flashdance kind of way. We were only close in the way that people who spend five years (my high school started in eighth grade) in the same bio classes, football games, and folks-out-of-town parties are. But I remember with perfect clarity one chilly November Friday night in my senior year when our Riverwood Raiders reached the playoffs. An armada of station wagons left the north Atlanta suburbs and descended on a stadium in the heart of the city. And that night in the stands, I found myself sharing a blanket with Mary Pat. Nothing naughty took place, just a little platonic celebration and some shared hot chocolate. It was one of those little moments where absolutely all was right with the world.

Fifteen or so months later, Mary Pat was at Ole Miss, a pledge at the Chi Omega sorority. She and her sorority sisters were participating in a charity walk-a-thon, walking along a lonely, dusty divided highway in the piney North Mississippi hills between Batesville and Oxford. A truck driver--I don't know if he was drunk or just stupid, but I hope he burns--plowed into the walkers. Five of them died, including Mary Pat. Ten years later, I stood at the monument that's been erected on the spot of the tragedy. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life.

I cannot imagine a group of people more revered and sheltered than Southern sorority girls. And the fact that horror could so casually strike even them seemed both obscene and, for the South, sadly appropriate. This entry was originally going to be a review of the book Dixie, by Curtis Wilkie, which--among other themes--hits on the way tragedy of near-gothic proportions lies just beneath the surface of Southern life. But it strikes me now that using Mary Pat's story to set up a book report would be, to put it mildly, disrespectful. So I'll close off here with a thought and a prayer for Mary Pat, forever young and beautiful in our memories. We should all be so lucky.

[Addendum: The following comments were posted when this entry was over on my LiveJournal account.]

lylangford 2005-04-08 08:16 pm UTC (link)
Jay,I am Mary Pat's little sister Leslie. I came across this on a Goggle search. You are so sweet to rememeber her so fondly. It was 18 years on March 26th and everyday is a struggle. I hope you are well.

jay_busbee 2005-04-08 08:31 pm UTC (link)
Leslie, thanks so much for the note. Mary Pat meant so much to so many people--every time I was in Oxford, I met another person who remembered her and her sorority sisters. My best wishes to you and your family.

A prayer for them all (Anonymous) 2005-10-14 01:49 am UTC (link)
I am now a "non-traditional" student at Ole Miss, and five days a week I drive by the memorial to the girls. I often think of stopping, but I never have. Maybe tomorrow I will, but surely tonight I will say a prayer for you and your friend Mary Pat, as well as the other girls and their families. I will also say a prayer for the family of the truck driver, who later took his own life.

Re: A prayer for them all jay_busbee 2005-10-14 02:35 am UTC (link)
Thanks for writing...and for your thoughts. I didn't know about the truck driver...tragedy atop tragedy.

Re: A prayer for them all (Anonymous) 2006-02-26 01:51 am UTC (link)
Hi,I hope you don't mind if I leave a note. It's meant for Leslie if she ever checks backs here. (Feel free to delete it if for any reason you don't want it here.) I knew Mary Pat when she was a little girl. We lived in the same neighborhood. My family lived on the corner three houses away. When I was in high school and college I cut grass and painted houses to pay my way through. That's how I met your family. Your parents hired me sometimes to cut the grass and once to do some painting. That's how I know you and Mary Pat. You were very young so probably don't remember me. One day when I was cutting grass Mary Pat came out to give me a glass of ice water. When I finished working I went to the front door so your Mom could pay me and thanked her for the water. She said it was Mary Pat's idea and then said, "Don't you know that Mary Pat has a crush on you?" I had tons of crushes growing up. I have a vivid memory of telling my second grade teacher that I loved her and then asking her to marry me. Until that day it never occurred to me that a little girl would have a crush on me. I think Mary Pat was about 10-12 years old.I remember a few more times that summer when Mary Pat brought me ice water. Since I knew why she was bringing it, I tried to talk to her mostly asking questions that she was barely able to answer because she was so shy. Each time I thanked her for the water, gave her the glass and she went back inside. It may be that I graduated and moved away but I don't remember Mary Pat when she was in high school. Sometimes I think about her and your family. I did a google search a few years ago and was thinking about her again the other day and thought I'd take another look. I wish I had a better story or could remember more like the host on this page. I guess I wanted to write something for a couple of reasons. The first would be to tell you a little something about her that maybe you didn't know. She was just like the rest of us as we grow up. Perhaps a little sweeter than most girls. The other reason I wanted to write is so you would know that even though my memory is from 30 years ago and I hardly knew her, I'll always remember that little girl that brought me glasses of ice water on hot summer days. I don't think any of us will ever know how many lives she touched. Those that remember will always keep her in our thoughts, hearts and prayers. I hope you are doing well. Don Nash

Mary Pat (Anonymous) 2006-03-14 09:39 pm UTC (link)
I was a Chi O pledge sister of Mary Pat's. It's been almost 20 years and I can recall that day like yesterday. Thanks for posting this.

i am a current chi-o at ole miss and i found your blog by chance. each year, our philanthropy is in memory of the girls lost in the accident. the love for those girls is still very much apparent at the chi omega house at ole miss.

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Jay Busbee runs Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR Blog From The Marbles, Atlanta Magazine's Atlanta sports blog Right Down Peachtree, and the Southern sports/humor blog Sports Gone South. He also writes for damn near anybody who'll throw him a buck and a byline, and he's at work on the books The Quiet Dynasty: The History Of The Atlanta Braves' Championship Run (2009, Sports Publishing LLC) and God Is A Bulldog: Georgia, Florida, And The Greatest Play In College Football History (2010, Sports Publishing LLC). Click below for more info on his novels, articles, and comics.
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