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Kathryn Windham: An Unlikely Revolutionary

On a warm Sunday afternoon in June, more than 500 people gathered at the First United Methodist Church in Selma, Alabama, to honor the life of well-loved storyteller Kathryn Windham. I was there, as one of Kathryn’s many friends and as a representative of the International Storytelling Center.

The memorial service, so rich in meaning and memory, gave us all a glimpse into Kathryn’s life of 93 years.

Storyteller Donald Davis, who delivered Kathryn’s eulogy, was engaging and funny as he recounted her remarkable life. The church choir performed a comb performance of “I’ll Fly Away,” and the Dill Pickers, an old-time band, played and sang some of Kathryn’s favorite hymns. The audience members, charmed anew with Kathryn’s life and her service to the world, sang and tapped their toes with the music. We laughed. We cried. We nodded in agreement as we celebrated Kathryn’s life of love, laughter, and leadership. 

During the service, my mind drifted back almost 40 years ago when Kathryn plied her storytelling skills for the first time at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough. Other than her Sunday-School teachings, this was the first time Kathryn had ever publicly told a story. That was 1974, the second annual Festival, and it was then that Kathryn joined our storytelling family and began her remarkable storytelling journey.

As my mind quickly surveyed the past, I thought back to the early years—the mid-70s—the time it all began. I remembered the little band of storytellers and friends who gave life to the Festival productions, both then and now, and helped ignite what has today become a worldwide revival of storytelling.

Kathryn joined this band of revolutionaries—storytellers Connie Regan-Blake and Barbara Freeman, medicine-show barker and storyteller Doc McConnell, Kentucky poet and storyteller Lee Pennington, and writer Ardi St. Clair. Together, we founded the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation, a forerunner organization of the International Storytelling Center, and served as members of NAPPS’s first board of directors. 

Kathryn and her colleagues were all unlikely revolutionaries, unknowingly the soldiers of a Story Revolution who led the charge.  Even then, we all shared the vision of a better life and a better world through the power of our stories and the commitment to spread the revival of storytelling across America.

Demonstrating her commitment to this important and noble cause, Kathryn, in1974, wrote a $10 check—paying a $5 membership fee and giving a $5 donation, the first of both for NAPPS.  Kathryn gave ISC her $10 cancelled check, maybe a decade ago, and it is now framed and sitting on the fireplace mantle in my office.

We will always honor and be grateful for those early revolutionaries, like Kathryn, who were among the first to advance the power and promise of storytelling and give life to ISC and the National Storytelling Network and the worldwide storytelling revival.