Harper Lee and the Football Coach

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When To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee died last Friday, she left behind a host of admirers, a group of close friends and family, and one unlikely pen pal: retired Auburn football coach Pat Dye.

Dye, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005, is something of a legend in his home state. He served as assistant coach under Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama, and went on to coaching stints at East Carolina University and the University of Wyoming before settling at Auburn University in 1981, where he coached for a decade. Several years ago, Dye, now retired from coaching but still active on the sports commentary and speaking circuit, made a resolve to read more. One of the books on his list was To Kill a Mockingbird, and it inspired him to strike up a friendship with the notoriously private Lee.

"When I closed the book, I thought, 'Well, this woman is a hero to me. I’m going to see her.' " Dye said. Though Lee rarely agreed to visitors outside a tight-knit circle of friends, Dye found a connection in her hometown of Monroeville who agreed to float the idea.

"The first thing she said was, 'I don’t know why he wants to come see me. I don't know anything about football.' And I said, 'You tell her I don't know anything about literature, either, but I want to come see her," Dye said. Lee agreed, so, accompanied by a mutual friend, Dye went to see Lee at the assisted living facility she lived in. “When I saw her, she was in a wheelchair with a big old smile. I said, ‘Miss Lee, you want meet to call you Miss Lee? Or Harper Lee?’ And she said, 'My good friends call me Nelle. You can call me Nelle.' "

In their conversation, Dye talked to Lee about her book, and about her writing career. "She said, 'I wrote two or three books, but I never could finish one,' " Dye said. "And I told her, 'That’s all right. If you had finished one, it might not have been as good as the one you wrote.' " Though Lee was reticent about signing copies of To Kill a Mockingbird in her later years, Dye convinced her to autograph one for an upcoming auction for Auburn’s nursing school. "I said Nelle, I know you’re not accustomed to autographing books, but this one, if you autograph it, I will too. It’ll be the only copy of To Kill a Mockingbird ever signed by Harper Lee and Pat Dye." She agreed, and it brought $7,500 at auction.

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From that first meeting, a friendship blossomed. Dye's admiration for the author seemed to only deepen. "I'm 13 years younger than she was, but I remember growing up in a small Southern town in the late '40s and '50s," Dye said. "I've lived my life in the Southeastern Conference, as a football player and a coach, and seen how much the state has changed. And I knew what it took, how much guts, for her to put down on the page what was going on, for her to have enough foresight and wisdom to look at it from a different perspective. I don’t know anything about literature, but I know something about growing up in the South, and what it took in the way of courage to write that book."

Dye and Lee corresponded by letter, and Dye would stop by Monroeville when his schedule allowed. "She liked to have a drink in the afternoon, and she loved chocolate. So I'd always take her a sack of chocolate candy and a bottle when I went down there. That would get me in the door," Dye laughed. 

The last time Dye dropped in on Lee was, he estimated, about a year and a half before she died. He had spoken the following evening at the Auburn club in Biloxi, and drove in to Monroeville early. "Course, it wasn't visiting hours," Dye said. "I came in the nursing home, and she was still asleep. I said 'Well, get her up!' And she came wheeling down the hall, sure enough. We spent about two hours together talking and laughing, she would kid me, and I’d kid her. Her friendship was special to me."

"I'm not a hero kind of guy," Dye added. "Presidents, they don't impress me. But that woman was a hero to me."

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