Eagle columnist, reporter Rick Watson dead at 69

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Daily Mountain Eagle reporter and photographer Rick Watson, whose weekend column entertained readers with relaxed observations ranging from backyard gardens to guitars, died suddenly early Thursday morning. He was 69.

Watson had battled a short illness at home this week, but texted at length to News Editor Ed Howell late afternoon Wednesday about a story. His last newspaper story appeared in Thursday's editions, while a Walker Magazine story still has to run.

"He had more energy than some of the rest of us put together," Howell said. "He was constantly offering to help, and when he came to staff meetings he had a million ideas." 

His multi-faceted interests was extending to digital toward the end, after covering so many other ways of communication. His Facebook page said simply, "I tell stories with pictures, songs and words."

He started writing columns for the Daily Mountain Eagle's Lifestyle section in 2007. Watson also became part-time reporter a few years ago, at the invitation of his nephew, Publisher James Phillips. He covered the East Walker area, including Dora and Sumiton city councils, and also did some stories of businesses and schools. 

"He would tell me, 'I've got a great scoop,'" Howell said. "No one in the business uses that term any more, but I loved to hear him say it and never corrected him. You could tell he enjoyed a 'scoop' as much as anything he did." 

However, his specialty appeared to be features of people in the area, ranging from musicians to students to entrepreneurs. 

"He especially loved to do veteran stories," Howell said. "He talked about how in a short time all these veterans would be gone, and we would lose their stories." 

He remained humble about his talent. According to his blog page, he joked that "if he'd known he wanted to be a writer when he grew up, he would have paid more attention in high school English class."

However, he began to keep a personal journal after a two-year stint in the Army in the early 1970s, which led to a love of writing. 

Even before joining as a reporter, Watson entertained Eagle readers, first in the Sunday edition and lately in the weekend edition, with his column, Life 101. While Watson was full of energy, his columns tapped the breaks to enjoy country life. 

In many respects, Watson's 12-acre farm - which was a welcome haven for people from all walks of life - became the Walden of Walker County through these pieces. They were literate, rural columns that savored sipping coffee on the back porch and observing the joys of rural life, such as his dog looking up at him or a bee landing on a flower. Nothing seemed to escape his attention or interest, as he ambled along to take action, whether of his own initiative or his wife of more than 40 years, Jilda, who also featured prominently in the column. 

Many times something he saw would send him back to memories in his life, of friends he conversed or played music with, of early vehicles, of his home - whatever struck his fancy. 

A recent textbook example was how he loved to cut grass, recalling how he used to cut grass in his youth for others. 

"I was excited when I got the call to come and give her an 'estimate' for cutting her grass. I had to grab the dictionary and look up the word estimate," he said. One home was small but the front yard was slopped. "There was no way I could have pushed the mower up and down that bank. I had to use a rope," he said. 

His wife suggested recently he go outside and mow.

"Once outside, I got lost in the engine's drone and the smell of freshly cut grass. Kodak, the wonder dog, trotted alongside me as I mowed," he said. He then noticed orange and yellow daylilies blooming.

"At the back, I saw a pink cloud of blossoms. The mimosa trees back there are in full bloom. Cutting the engine, I sat there a moment in the shade. Up in the branches, honeybees and a butterfly sipped nectar from the tiny pink hairs of the blossom. I bet mimosa honey tastes good," he wrote.

Sometimes the topic turned to music, which was close to him. A guitar picker and sometimes song writer, Watson was known to enjoy get-togethers where he would play his guitar, sometimes joined by his wife.

She was Watson's date on graduation night in 1968, he recalled in his blog biography, calling her "his high school sweetheart."  When they met, they realized music was something they had in common, and would play and write music together. They also entertained people at various functions, festivals and coffee houses in the county. 

His interests seemed unlimited. He was a passionate beekeeper, and enjoyed working and talking with other beekeepers. He kept chickens and was known to bring eggs to the staff - and request the cartons be returned for reuse. He was interested in photography.

Watson wrote a book in 2008, "Remembering Big: Ponderings and Reflections of a Sloss Hollar Scholar," which was a compilation of some of his early columns for the Eagle. He  came out with a second book, "Life Happens," published through Homefolk Media in 2012. 

His columns also ran in 280 Living, the Tannehill Traders in Birmingham and 79 Magazine. He wrote freelance for Village Living in Mountain Brook, the Hoover Sun and the Homewood Star. His work also appeared in the Birmingham News, the Birmingham Post-Herald, Senior Living, the Atmore Advance and the Birmingham Arts Journal. 

For a number of years, he worked with Bevill State Community College at its campuses in promoting a program to help seniors to find work by helping their job seeking skills. 

Watson worked for years at "the phone company" before his retirement in 2010 as a data center manager for AT&T, after 33 years of service. 

Watson was from Dora and attended Dora High High School, and lived in Empire. He launched an alumni website for Dora High in 2001 and began to blog in December 2005. 

He studied business at Birmingham-Southern College and went back there for a master's degree of public and private management. He would wind up becoming an adjunct profession at Bevill State Community College, teaching computer and business courses. 

His columns and stories are archived and can be searched at mountaineagle.com. His blog is at https://www.rickwatson-writer.com.