My Olivetti will be buried with me: Remembering Harper Lee

My+Olivetti+will+be+buried+with+me%3A+Remembering+Harper+Lee

UA photography instructor Chip Cooper poses with Harper Lee. Photo courtesy of Chip Cooper

Elizabeth Elkin

Nelle Harper Lee sits at the podium in front of a crowd of 200 people. The photographer kneels down and points his camera, prepared to take a picture.

Lee looks at him and stops talking to the audience. She stands up. She walks toward him.

“Who are you?” she says.

The photographer, floored at the recognition, looks up at her from behind his camera.

“I’m Chip Cooper,” he says.

“I thought that’s who you were,” Lee says. “I’m Nelle Lee.”

Lee died on Feb. 19, 2016, at the age of 89. She not only wrote fiction novels, but also attended The University of Alabama and wrote for its school newspaper, The Crimson White.

Cooper, current faculty member and faculty in residence of The University of Alabama Honors College, stood to animatedly demonstrate while telling this story. This was 20 years ago, he said, and the first time he met the person he knew as Nelle Lee, who had complimented one of his photography books.

“I was absolutely shocked that she, first of all, stopped what she was saying, acknowledged me, and then recognized in her brain that this might be the person she’d been writing about,” he said. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I was that somebody that famous would acknowledge me or even have a comment for me.”

Lee had this captivating effect on everyone she interacted with, Cooper said. Each time she came to the University, he saw a light go on her eyes when she interacted with students. This fascinated him, that someone who he described as a reclusive person could give so much of herself in conversations with students.

“I believe she knew the importance of this moment for these individuals, so she gave, in this moment, 110 percent,” Cooper said. “She gave this empowerment to these people.”

Lee continued to look at Cooper’s work for years. Once, she wrote that he painted with film.

“I was floored that if I stopped my career right then, in 2000, I would have something to put on my epitaph that means more to me than anything else in the world,” Cooper said.

He said Lee’s encouragement and the feeling of empowerment she gave him helped him to do what he could to give back and inspire those feelings in someone else.

“I would credit her in the year 1996 with shaking me up by me having to acknowledge, if she did this for me, what could I do for others?” Cooper said.

While Lee didn’t come into Cooper’s life until he was 46, he said he’d been affected by her since he was 16, which he first read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The novel made him realize that if he wasn’t a part of the solution in the civil rights movement, then he was a part of the problem.

Lee’s book, Cooper said, made a younger generation of white people take another look at the way they treated others based on race. This deeply affected him as a teenager.

Cooper said the thing he’s going to remember the most about Lee is her smile.

“She had this incredibly beautiful smile,” he said. “It was almost mischievous.”

Cooper greatly enjoyed going from knowing of Harper Lee to getting to know Nelle Lee.

Lee wrote a letter to Mark Mayfield, who at the time was executive editor of Southern Accents magazine. He wrote her asking if she would write an essay about southern photography for the magazine because he knew she loved southern photography. She responded, declining to write but giving another name as a potential writer for the piece.

“When you are my age and are as arthritic you will make as many typing errors but nobody will know it because you will be using a 21st Century word processor,” Lee wrote. “My Olivetti will be buried with me.”

Rick Bragg, a journalism professor at the University and winner of the Harper Lee Award in 2009, said winning the award and meeting Lee was an honor. He said she wrote a book that became one of the great morality plays of the time.

“It showed the cruelty and the backwardness of our state while showing the fragile notions of kindness and courage,” Bragg said. “The woman who wrote one of the great books of our time, of our century, to win an award in her name was a great honor.”

Bragg said he’d never sought her out because he’d heard she was a very private person, but toward the end of her life he was encouraged to go see her. She was very kind, he said.

“I walked away on air,” Bragg said.

At the time, Lee was living in a retirement home in Monroeville. Wayne Flynt, a history professor from Auburn University, was there with his wife. When the two left, Lee motioned for Bragg to come closer to her.

“She said, ‘there go the only two people from Auburn I could ever stand,’” Bragg said. “She was funny and sweet and complimentary.”

Bragg said Lee was and still is a point of pride for the University.

“She is in the bricks and mortar of it and in the spirit of it,” Bragg said. “If the University really is made up of the people who pass through its doors, then who better. Not just in the world of literature, not just in the world of books, not just in prizes or attention or book sales, then who better than Harper Lee to attach to your university. When you talk about spirit, certainly I was said that we won’t be able to see her face again, that she won’t pop up at one of her rare appearances, certainly there is sadness, but she passed in spirit and in legend a long time ago. And in that, she has passed into the legend and spirit of the University.”

Editor’s note (2/22/16 2:58 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that Harper Lee graduated from The University of Alabama. This article has been corrected to say that she attended the University but did not graduate.