I first met Susie in a filing cabinet at the old Margaret Mitchell Library in Fayetteville, Georgia. Not that she was actually in the filing cabinet, of course. It was her book I discovered there, tucked away in a file labeled “Holliday Family,” and where I was searching for information for the newly begun restoration of the circa 1855 Holliday House in Fayetteville, forty miles south of Atlanta. The house was a classic antebellum beauty, with tall white columns across a wide front veranda, a breezeway between the twin parlors, fireplaces in every one of the eight large rooms and hand-blown glass in the multi-paned windows. But it was an aging beauty: 150 years old and being considered for demolition when I found it and fell in love and started up a community action group and then a non-profit organization to save it and restore it as a museum of Fayette County history. As the home of a Civil War-era doctor, it was interesting enough, but with the family’s connections to Gone With the Wind and Doc Holliday, it seemed a priceless piece of Georgia’s history.
So with the restoration work soon to begin, I had been tasked with learning all about the Holliday family, and started my search at the Fayette County Historical Society, itself a historic site. The simple one-story block building had been constructed in the 1930’s with the help, both in money and labor, of Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell herself, whose family was also from Fayette County. Mitchell had donated the first boxes of books to what was then the only lending library in Fayette County, and accepted an honorary position on the Board of Directors in thanks for her help. She stayed in touch with some of the original board members throughout her life, their correspondence recorded in the book Remembering Margaret Mitchell, compiled by some of the ladies of the library.
The library’s holdings have since moved on to bigger and better quarters and a new main building that bears the honorable name Fayette County Margaret Mitchell Library, and the little building that Mitchell knew now houses the Historical Society and its collections of memorabilia and files of local family history. Which is where I first came across the little book that would change my life, and through which I met Susie.
The book was a slender paperback edition called In Search of the Hollidays: The Story of Doc Holliday and His Holliday and McKey Families. It was stuck down into the hanging files, having lost its cover but still bearing the authors’ names: Albert S. Pendleton, Jr. and Susan McKey Thomas. I knew right off that I had found a treasure, a family history written by Doc’s own relatives, and filled with wonderful surprises I didn’t know existed: family reminiscences, notes from long-lost newspapers, the previously unpublished memoirs of Sister Melanie (Doc’s cousin Mattie Holliday) about her Holliday and Fitzgerald families, pages of footnotes that led to other resources. I sat at a long table in the old library-turned historical society and watched an unknown world open up in the book’s pages. I had to find the authors and learn more! So I took a chance and made a phone call to the operator in Valdosta, asking for the number of the “Little River Press,” which was listed as the book’s publisher. If I could find the publishers, they might be able to put me in touch with those Holliday relatives who had written the book. I didn’t know that the address listed for the publisher was actually the home of Susan McKey Thomas herself until she answered the phone.
“Why, how nice to meet you!” she said in a melodious drawl, as gracious and welcoming as her ladylike Southern manners. She was, indeed, the author of the book, along with her cousin Albert Pendleton to whom she gave much credit, and would be glad to send me one of the copies she had left. And thus began a correspondence and a friendship that lasted over twenty years, as we wrote dozens of letters to one another, spent hours talking on the phone, and visited together many times at her home in Valdosta. Once when I arrived there, I found her out in the yard, perched on a tall ladder, trimming dead branches from the top of a tree. She was in her eighties then, the youngest old woman I had ever known.
Although we were born in different generations, with nearly thirty-five years between our ages, Susie and I recognized in each other a kindred spirit. She was done writing her book but still doing family history research, with her dining room table often piled high with files and photos and newspaper clippings. I was just beginning my own research with an idea for a book dramatizing the real connection between Doc Holliday and Gone With the Wind. We shared our discoveries and our theories about her cousin John Henry, and she’d nod and smile and say, “That’s right! That’s right!” She knew him in a way no other living person did, having been born and raised in his hometown and surrounded by their common relatives.
Many of her stories came from her aunt Lillian McKey, herself a great family historian, who lived down the road from Susie and loved to talk about the old days and the folks passed on. In much the same way that Margaret Mitchell grew up hearing her elderly Fitzgerald aunts tell the stories of the plantation south and the Civil War that inspired Gone With the Wind, Susie grew up hearing stories about her McKey ancestors and their Holliday relatives, and the boy who became Doc Holliday. If my retelling of John Henry’s story in Southern Son: The Saga of Doc Holliday comes alive for others, it’s because of how Susie made the history come alive for me, and it’s fitting that the title of the first book in the trilogy is Inheritance as so much of it comes from her inherited stories. Her own book, In Search of the Hollidays, has now been reprinted by the Lowndes County Historical Society, and will be a continuing resource to students of Holliday and McKey family history, of Doc Holliday and early Valdosta, of the War in Georgia and the Reconstruction that followed. It is, as I knew it was the day I found the little book without a cover, a treasure.
Susan McKey Thomas passed away this week, having reached the great age of 92 and still residing in Valdosta, the town her family helped to settle. She will be laid to rest in Sunset Hill Cemetery, where Doc’s mother Alice Jane McKey Holliday and so many other McKey relatives are buried. It’s a fitting final home for Susie’s mortal body, close to the people she loved. But as she believed, and as I believe, her spirit won’t remain there, but will move on to a joyous reunion beyond this life. She had so many friends here, and many more waiting for her there who celebrate her life and her work. Her sunset is really a new sunrise.