By Kyle Huneycutt, A&E Editor
Since 2003, the Byron Herbert Reece Society has worked diligently to commemorate the man whose life and legacy continues to have an impact in the lives of those who have an appreciation for the rich cultural history and tradition in the mountains of North Georgia. The society also celebrates anyone who enjoys reading poetry and rural fiction inspired by the dynamic and agrarian qualities of the area.
Reece was born on September 14, 1917, near Blairsville. His birthplace is nestled in the very bottom of the Appalachian Mountains; and at the time, it was such an isolated area that Reece never saw a car until he was eight or twelve years old. Due to these circumstances, Reece grew up in an agricultural cocoon, where he developed a strong connection with the land around him.
After graduating from Blairsville High School, Reece did not wander very far and decided to attend Young Harris College, a school located in the neighboring county for the next several years. Reece would write many poems that would gradually gain him popularity among many of the journals and newspapers of the area. While at the same time, he was teaching and taking care of the family farm due to his parents’ recent illness.
Although Reece’s works never brought him much financial stability, he won various awards and honors for his contributions to literature, including the Georgia Writer’s Association’s literary achievement award five times, the position of poet-in-residence at Young Harris College and Emory University and a nomination for a Pulitzer’s Prize in poetry for his work, “Bow Down in Jericho,” in 1950.
Due to contracting tuberculosis, the same disease that his parents suffered from for several years, and continual financial instability, Reece plunged into a deep depression. On June 3, 1958, Reece ended his life by shooting himself in the lungs, which is where his disease was festering. This occurred in his dormitory room on the campus of Young Harris College where he was currently teaching.
In order to preserve Reece’s legacy, The Byron Herbert Reece Society was officially founded by various distinguished members of the community including Lamar Paris, Dr. John Kay, the chair of the society, and Dr. Bettie Sellers.
According to Debra March, recently elected recording secretary of the society and associate library director and head of special collections at YHC, the society’s general goals are to “keep his name out there, continue to commemorate his writings and to simply keep people aware.”
One way the society plans to do this is by taking Reece’s home farm, located near Vogel State Park, and turning it into a Heritage Center including a visitors center, displays about farming, a group pavilion, amphitheater and walking paths highlighting the sights that had such an impact in Reece’s life. If all goes well, the center is expected to open in 2012.
Other methods of keeping his legacy intact include a school program called “Reece in the Schools,” in which public schools around the area will incorporate Reece’s works into their curriculum. Young Harris College has also done this by encouraging professors to incorporate some of Reece’s poetry in their own literature courses. Trails have been named after him, and even a play inspired by his works called “The Reach of Song” was created and became the official state drama in 1990.
When asked why Reece is such an important figure to study and be aware of, March said, “he conveys the message that anybody can succeed. It doesn’t matter where you are or where you come from. When you’re from the middle of nowhere, that [message] has a lot of significance.”