Alex Haley Would Not Have Remembered Me

But I met Haley before his name was widely famous

By Jeff Salter

Having been in the library profession for some 30 years, I’ve had occasion to see, hear, or meet quite a few authors. I’ve written about several of them previously.

Walker Percy, who lived in my hometown of Covington LA, certainly qualifies as a substantially famous author — both in terms of popular and critical acclaim. Here’s what I had to say about Percy:

Alex Haley

But today, I’ve decided to focus on an author who, at the time I met him (in the spring of 1969), had achieved modest acclaim mostly for his magazine interviews of important people and for his work as the actual writer of the Malcolm X “autobiography”. His mega-hit, Roots, would not see the public until it was serialized in Readers Digest in 1974 and later published in book form in 1976.

Haley as he looked during the general time period I met him:

At that point (1969) Haley had already done most of his research and travel for the saga that would later become Roots, but if he had a title for it then, he never mentioned it to us. He did, however, tell our small Mercer University [Macon GA] audience a lot about growing up with “grandma’s noises” [bits of her African dialect], killing time between magazine assignments at the National Archives, and some of his research (and travel) to try to trace his ancestry back to its origins.

Haley also described how he’d begun his writing career, while still in the Coast Guard, by composing love letters which his shipmates would purchase and re-copy to send to their sweethearts. But the parts of Haley’s speech which truly inspired me were his discussions of the travels and research for his ancestry story. When he climaxed that part of his presentation by telling us he’d actually visited the village of his ancestors and met tribe members who (likely) were distant relatives, I was truly inspired.

After Haley’s talk had ended, I rushed down to the front to say hello. Since he wasn’t yet “famous,” there were not many others from that small audience hovering around. I would’ve had enough time to tell him how inspired I was by his presentation, but suddenly words failed me. All I could do was to grab his hand and say, “Mr. Haley, I just want to shake your hand.” I meant so much more than that, but the moment was gone.

It was some seven years later that the book Roots hit all the bestseller lists and began its way toward the TV screens as a miniseries (1977). When Alex Haley “suddenly” became a household name, I told a few people, “I met that guy when he was just a magazine writer. He also wrote the Autobiography of Malcolm X.” When I’d say that, several people basically called me a liar, insisting that an autobiography was always written by the person the book was about. “True,” I’d reply, “but Malcolm X was not a writer, so Haley interviewed him and wrote the book from Malcolm’s point of view.” I might as well have been talking about green cheese on the moon.

Well, anyway, I met the late Alex Haley. And, at least at that point, he seemed like a down-to-earth guy. He’d overcome lots of obstacles and demonstrated a considerable amount of faith along with his decades of hard work. He was truly an inspiration.

Haley died on 2-10-1992 — may he rest in peace.

– – –

I also wrote about Walker Percy in one of the three sections of this post:

There are several famous authors included in this list of famous individuals whom I’ve met or seen:


Have YOU ever encountered a famous author? Were you awe-struck… or able to sit down and chat?

[JLS # 287]


About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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16 Responses to Alex Haley Would Not Have Remembered Me

  1. Patricia Kiyono says:

    What a remarkable story! I remember the hoopla when Roots was published – all the speculation about how much of it was true and how much was manufactured – and thinking that even if some details were fabricated, Alex Haley took on a monumental task. How fortunate you were to shake his hand.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jeff7salter says:

      In his later life, Haley evidently admitted that he’d had to stretch a couple of points in order for everything to line up. As I understood it, they were the kinds of things that a true genealogists would not have accepted as establishing legitimate connections … but Haley’s search went where paperwork scarcely existed. So I think that was his rationale at making those awkward leaps of connectivity.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How lucky you were to get to listen to him speak and then meet him! I’m kinda jealous. 🙂
    I’ve met a few famous authors through RWA and I love chatting them up and finding out about their writing. (Although, Nora Roberts was miffed when I didn’t know who I was talking to!)

    Great article!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      uh oh — insulting Nora Roberts (even inadvertently) is about like that TV commercial about margarine: “It’s not nice to fool mother nature.”


  3. Oh, what a great meeting!I heard him speak many times on TV and found him not only intelligent, but warm and charming…which leads me to NOT laugh about the love letters for sale…although my husband is still laughing as I type this!
    Since he works for American Greetings, Joe seems to equate the letters to buying a card with sentiments that match a person’s feeling.I,on the other hand, think it is beyond ‘false advertising’! The poor girls who will give their lives over to the men who may actually feel what what Alex put in the letters, but are not as erudite as they were led to believe! Those fellows should have no complaints when the make-up and special undergarments come off, based on those letters!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      As I’ve further reflected on what Haley said that evening — some 47 years ago — Perhaps he didn’t specify “love” letters… as much as he meant letters from the sailors to their wives and sweethearts. So perhaps Haley composed letters about shipboard life or other events… and his fellow sailors would recopy those and sign their own names.
      Of course, some of the letters MIGHT have also been “steamy”. Who knows? I’m betting Haley charged more for those!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. jbrayweber says:

    What a great story, Jeff. How awesome to be able to meet and speak with him. And I bet he knew exactly what you meant to say.

    Like Stacey, I’ve met some famous authors at RWA functions or at book signings, my favorite being Janet Evanovich. One author in particular had me giggly and fan-girling – Sherrilyn Kenyon, before she was uber famous. I even named my first born the same name as her pen name, Kinley.

    But there is this one author I met in New Orleans that transcends the others and had me in awe – Anne Rice. I never dreamed I’d have the chance to meet her in person.


    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      wow, Jenn. — You’ve certainly tallied some of the biggest names in fiction. Too bad you were a couple of generations too late to hoist champagne with Barbara Cartland!


  5. jbrayweber says:

    Sounds like a great plan!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: My Questions for Famous Authors | Four Foxes, One Hound

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