Robby Griffith, and the people you almost know

I can’t claim to have known Robby Griffith. In my many encounters with him at Lawson McGhee Library, where he worked for a quarter century, he was always cordial and quietly efficient. I don’t think I ever said, “Hey, Robby,” and I’m not sure he ever said “Hey, Jack.” There are people like that in your life, people you almost know. You know who they are, you’re too familiar with them to introduce yourself, you’re pretty sure that next time you’ll have a discussion about something interesting. But for some reason you never say howdy, how are you doing. I didn’t know anything about his life, that he had a twin brother, or that he was from Texas, that he was sometimes an English teacher.

I also didn’t know until last week that, for the last few years, Robby had cancer. He died last week, at age 58.

He was the lankiest of all librarians, a shambling fellow who seemed taller than he was, with a long-legged gait you don’t expect to encounter in the library. He propelled a book cart up and down the aisles more swiftly than any other librarian, his longish hair never quite keeping up with the rest of him.

Something about him, the way he talked or the offbeat way he carried himself, reminded me of another Texan, thoughtful musician and actor Michael Nesmith. Anybody who knew him would probably say that was silly, but in my mind they were neighbors.

He was quiet in the library, but not onstage, in his other life, he sometimes bellowed. I watched him perform in several small productions, especially by the Tennessee Stage Company and by Theatre Knoxville and its predecessors, often in a comic role as a befuddled uncle or a philosophical old soldier. Occasionally he interpreted Knoxville history, as when he recently portrayed accidental industrialist/civic godfather Peter Kern, at one of Old Gray’s Lantern & Carriage Tours, or a few years ago, when, for a library podcast project, he brought to life one of the best pieces of journalism ever written about urban Knoxville, “A Night on the Bowery.”

He did a very good job with it, and with other roles I saw him play. Still, somehow, we never spoke. Encountering each other on Market Square at lunchtime, we’d nod, and that was it.

Even if we never had a conversation, we were once rivals. About 20 years ago, a historical organization sponsored a competition to write a play about the unusual life of John Sevier. I don’t enter contests very often, but I entered that one, with a proposal for a play about our first governor’s death in the wilderness, the day after he turned 70, of a pestilence in the uncharted woods of a region not yet known as Alabama. It was a peculiar and maybe unique death for a hero, neither a violent death on the battlefield, nor a well-attended death in bed. It was just John Sevier and one other guy in the woods, a guy who apparently didn’t come down with the fever, because he was healthy enough to bury him.

The playwriting committee interviewed the finalists, and finally it was between me and Robby Griffith. I never heard very much about Robby’s play, but maybe his experience with drama gave him an edge. He won the competition, as I recall, but then the whole thing fizzled out, and I don’t know that it got produced.

I heard it was very good. I hope someone has it somewhere, and that we get to witness it someday. If you run across it, let me know. Maybe it’s not too late to make his acquaintance.

Leave a Reply