| Two years ago Mike D'Orso, a staff writer for The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, got a phone call from Doubleday editor Jacqueline Onassis.
Former Alabama congressman Carl Elliott had just received the first John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his lifelong contributions to education and his politically sacrificial support of civil rights issues in the '60s. Over the quarter-century since, he had lived in debt-ridden obscurity. Would D'Orso be interested in collaborating with Elliott on the congressman's life story?
He would and did. The result just out, The Cost of Courage: The Journey of an American Congressman, is not only a powerful first-person statement of ethical conviction but also an inspiring portrait of an individual determined to surpass his log-cabin, tenant-farmer origins within the alabaster halls of public service. Elliott, the father of the National Defense Education Act, opened college doors to millions in 1958. His political bete noir, George Wallace, physically blocked those doors at the Univeristy of Alabama in 1964, when two black students attempted to enroll there. Elliott's staunch opposition to Wallace and segregation cost him re-election in 1964, after eight consecutive terms in the House of Representatives.
"Carl lived, drank, ate and slept the business of Congress," says D'Orso. "Like [Speaker of the House] Sam Rayburn, he was married to his work, which had some effects on his family. He wasn't able to spend a lot of time with his kids, and that kind of bill comes due late in your life.
"When we started our journey into the past, Carl Elliott was living in the shambles of the present."
An award-winning journalist and collaborator with Dorothy Spruill Redford on Somerset Homecoming, another strong personal statement on racial issues, D'Orso was the right person to help Elliott tell his story. At 38, he had extensive practice at climbing inside the skins of a wide variety of complex subjects. D'Orso spent four months living with Elliott at the former congressman's crumbling home in Jasper, Ala.
"He came to the door in a wheelchair, a very imposing figure," D'Orso recalls. "Carl Elliott was 6-foot-6, 260-some pounds when he was in Congress; he still has a bearing even in pajamas, white hair combed straight back, a row of pens in his pocket. What I saw was a man with great pride and great strength who basically had nothing left - the award was the only light that had shone in his life for 25 years.
D'Orso slept upstairs in the master bedroom, where Elliott's late wife's jewelry still rolled around in the bureau drawers and four holes in the ceiling required pots on the floor to catch runoff from the rain. He ate with Elliott, even cooked for him on occasion, but D'Orso, an athlete, recoiled at the Southern fried catfish diet.
"What Carl always eats with every meal," he reports, "is a pan-fried johnnycake about the size of small pizza. Carl takes this cornbread and crumbles it up in a glass of buttermilk. I tried that one sip - forget it."
They talked. The result has the authentic sound of overheard conversation in Carl Elliott's kitchen. Here's the congressman's garrulous assessment of his grandmother:
She was a tough woman; my God, she was tough. She buckled up to this wilderness just like she was made for it. Helped her husband conquer their little piece of it and in doing that raised a dozen children as well. As I was growing up, she was still making those four-mile walks to see her boys. She hiked the same distance to and from church every Sunday. I've got a photo of her fresh from one of those Sunday strolls, and she looks like she could kill the Devil himself, if he was foolish enough to get in her way.
D'Orso researched his subject in a number of libraries, notably at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where Elliott's papers, from congressional documents to Christmas cards, pile up unorganized in 100 cardboard boxes. By the time he left Elliott at Easter a year ago, parting was difficult for both of them. The collaboration complete, they remain friends.
"Nobody's 100 percent," says D'Orso after the long, clinical work of examining a life. "Everybody's got their shadows and dark spots. But I do believe in this man? Yes."
"I admire him."