Above photo: Jim Auchmutey at the Decatur Book Festival book-signing
Photo courtesy of Jim Auchmutey
What do writers do when they retire? They often write. At least that’s what Jim Auchmutey did. He wrote and edited for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for nearly 30 years. Even for an award-winning journalist, that’s a long time.
Auchmutey wrote about everything from religion and politics to food and Southern culture. He left the newspaper in 2009 when it was reducing its staff in the face of declining circulation and advertising; he was 53.
“When I first left the paper, people asked, ‘Aren’t you retired?’” he said. “It was that ‘R’ word that grated on me. I really didn’t like it.”
While he knew that retirement didn’t have to mean a rocking chair or playing golf, Auchmutey says he’d get defensive. He really didn’t think of himself as retired.
Auchmutey had started working for the paper at age 24, and his situation seemed similar to what military personnel might face in their early 50s. It’s what happens next that really matters.
Using the one year’s salary he got from the newspaper, Auchmutey set out to write a book he’d been thinking about for years. Though he acknowledges that there was a brief delay.
“The first six months, I did a lot of reading and loafing,” he admitted. “My wife, Pam, was still working full time at Emory as a publications editor, and she still is. I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the newspaper’s buy-out and tackle a book without her support.”
Then Auchmutey got serious about his first nonfiction book, and not only finished it, but made it a success. In 2016, Auchmutey’s book, “The Class of ’65: A Student, A Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness”, was included in the list of Books All Georgians Should Read.
The story takes place in Koinonia [COY·no·nee-ia], a south Georgia community not too far from Americus and Plains. It had, and still has, a unique place in Southern history. In 1942, Clarence Jordan founded Koinonia, after graduating from Kentucky’s Southern Baptist Seminary.
His community farm soon ran afoul of local customs because of its support for racial equality. The farm’s residents practiced communal living, which made it Communist-like in the eyes of many. To add to their troubles, Jordan’s followers were pacifists during World War II.
In the 1950s, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists vandalized the farm and undertook a terror campaign that included drive-by shootings and two bombings.
Auchmutey’s book focuses on teens from Koinonia who attended Americus High School around the time of desegregation. The school admitted a handful of black students.
“White classmates blamed the Koinonia kids for what was happening and hazed them mercilessly in retribution,” Auchmutey said.
In a 2005 interview for Christianity Today, Jim Jordan, Clarence’s son, said, “When it became clear in the South that the old ways were not going to last forever, the strong resistance started. Koinonia became a symbol for the change and the lightning rod for the opposition.”
Auchmutey grew up in Atlanta, a fifth-generation Georgian, and is interested in Southern history. In his blog, he says: “I learned about Koinonia when I was working for Presbyterian Survey, a denominational magazine in Atlanta.”
That was before his AJC work. But the Koinonia story never really left Auchmutey. His book leaves a lasting impression and a realistic lesson on redemption.
About the time Auchmutey was leaving the Journal-Constitution, the Atlanta History Center, an organization he’d written a lot about over the years, asked if he’d be part of an advisory group for an exhibition in May 2018. The center was at the beginning stages of a history and culture display dedicated to another staple of the South — barbecue.
“They asked if I’d like to be involved in a companion book to go along with the exhibition,” said Auchmutey. “It’s an illustrated history of barbecue. There are 50,000 words of text, and about 200 images about what I think is the truly American food — and it’s not apple pie!”
His paternal grandfather, Bob Auchmutey, was a barbecue pit master in his day, he says.
One thing led to another and the book is turning out to be a much bigger project than Auchmutey initially thought. Recently, the Atlanta History Center asked him to be guest curator for the barbecue exhibition. “So now I’m the curator as well as the author of the book of barbecue history,” Auchmutey said. “I’m up to my wazoo in pulled pork!”
He’s teaching, too. Auchmutey says he taught a course on nonfiction narrative for the Decatur Writers Studio, an outgrowth of the Decatur Book Festival. In July, he was a nonfiction Wofford College’s writer in residence in Spartanburg, S.C.
And finally, he’s helping support the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris — another former Constitution writer and a folklorist best known for his collection of Br’er Rabbit stories — and the heritage of African American folklore by serving on board of The Wren’s Nest, Chandler’s home in Atlanta.
“Some days, I’m busier than I ever was at the paper,” said Auchmutey. “I really don’t feel retired, but when the pension check arrives, it serves as a reminder.”