I first met Anne Caudill, widow of Eastern Kentucky lawyer, activist, orator and writer Harry Caudill, in 2013 at a meeting of the Cherokee Round Table writers club in New Albany, Ind.
After just a few moments of chatting, I noticed she was holding a picture of herself as a student at the University of Kentucky in the 1940s. I casually mentioned to her that she favored the girl I had dated in college and immediately she shot back with, “And I would have dated you when I was in college!”
From that moment I was completely taken with this charming lady who died Dec. 28 at age 93.
Our paths crossed again several months later at another meeting of the Round Table. This time we chatted more about her late husband, a man whom I held in high regard. But as the meeting ended, some words popped out of my mouth that caught even me by surprise, “Anne, lets make a film about Harry!”
“No, I don’t think so,” was all she said. I told her I’d already made a film about feuds in east Kentucky, but, “It’s too painful,” was her response.
A few months passed, and I saw Anne at another event in Louisville. I had not let go of the idea, and sometime during the evening I mentioned again my interest in making a film about Harry. Almost immediately her response was, “Jerry I’ve thought it over and I think we should.”
For a moment I was stunned. I had just undertaken the enormous task of making a documentary film about one of Kentucky’s most prominent figures.
Over the next year and a half, I would visit Anne in New Albany, surrounded in her home by memories of her author and activist husband. As we visited, she told stories that helped me develop a picture of this brave and determined man, and I told her of my only encounter with Harry.
It was at the Kentucky Book Fair in November 1990, just weeks before he died by suicide. I bought what was likely one of the last books he ever signed, a copy of “The Mountain, the Miner and the Lord.” My only memory of him was that he did not seem to feel well that day.
As I grew to know Anne, it was obvious that she’d been a valuable resource to Harry. She’d managed the household, served as his secretary at the law office and had provided insight into the ideas and principles that Harry would put into his books, articles and speeches over the 40-plus years of his career and their marriage.
Anne took copious notes when Harry came in from work or after his walks in the woods, spilling out his thoughts. These notes would eventually become, “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” Caudill’s seminal work on Eastern Kentucky.
As time passed we made progress, but filmmaking is slow and complex. After about a year, Anne would say, “Jerry I’m an old lady and could go at any minute. I sure would like to see this film get made.”
I would laugh, sweat a little and tell her we were getting there. And live to see it, she did. But due to an illness , she couldn’t make it to the screening. The packed house at the Speed Museum in Louisville seemed very pleased with the film, “Harry Caudill, A Man of Courage.” Christie Brown, the benefactor of our project, was even there to honor Caudill.
Anne and I remained close friends after the project, and I called or visited frequently, because I missed her voice. On our visits we chatted about politics and life and before it was over she’d say, “OK now tell me what your girls are doing.” And each time as we parted, she thanked me for making our film and for getting it on KET.
I visited her on Dec. 22, and though a bit under the weather, she was spunky and just as pretty as ever. We chatted for nearly an hour and I left confident I would see her many times over the coming years.
But Anne passed away just six days after our visit. When I received the news, surprisingly what washed over me was not grief, but rather the joy of having known such an incredible person.
Several days after her death, I was stunned to find a letter from her waiting on me in the mailbox. She had written it just after our visit, and posted it the day before she’d gotten sick. It was vintage Anne — full of joy and love of life. She appreciated the bourbon balls I’d taken to her for Christmas, and in the final sentence, she thanked me one last time for making our film.
Jerry Deaton of Frankfort is an author, filmmaker and playwright.