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March 26, 1996


Requiem for Salvo

If you've turned here to find "Ask Dr. Salvo," the column which has run in this space for over ten years, then it falls to me to bring you sad news. Stonewall Boulet Stickney, a.k.a. "Dr. Salvo," -- that mysterious, blithely erudite, irreverent yet wondering, quirky yet sensible, raconteuring, rambling, sharp-witted, been-around-the-block not only surviving but thriving, seen-it-all yet vividly alive -- Salvo the satyr, satirist, psychiatrist, philosopher of natural theology, walker of shores, contemplator of bays, friend of Tim (indefatigable dog & research assistant), teacher of any and student of all, and the only known member of the rare and arcane school of "Brazilian depth psychiatry," this personage, this epiphany, who humbly held forth here in lower Alabama of all places, in this very paper and on this very back page since October 1, 1986 till March 4, 1996, dashing off on legal pads in unrevised Kerouackian scrawl some 200 wildly inventive columns in circumlocutious response to both real and surreal questioners on any possible subject -- it is my duty to tell you that this same Dr. Salvo has followed his creator into the next world.

This is to say, in plain English, that on Wednesday, March 7, 1996, Stonewall Stickney died at the age of 72 after a brief illness following a stroke, leaving behind his wife Carol, sons Cary, Frank, and Joe, two grand-daughters, one brother, one sister, a vast array of beloved friends, grateful patients, and a considerable following of loyal readers.

Though "Dr. Salvo" never hinted at this, Dr. Stickney was an important presence in health care, not only locally, but also for the entire state and the nation as well. As commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health (no, this is not an oxymoron), Dr. Stickney played a crucial role toward inspiring or instigating the landmark 1971 ruling known as "Wyatt vs. Stickney," which radically changed the way mental patients were treated in this country -- never again would they be housed in huge state institutions for indefinite stretches of time.

But such curriculum vita details, impressive as they are, cannot convey the wisdom and humor of the man, his kindness and humility, or the genuine affection and awe felt by those who knew him well. These things were better conveyed in the stories told by his son Cary, who teaches philosophy at St. John's in Santa Fe, and several of his longtime friends, including Alabama Supreme Court Justice Janey Shores and the author Winston Groom (a cousin of Dr. Stickney) to an SRO crowd jamming the memorial service at Beckwith Lodge chapel.

Almost every one of the stories drew appreciative laughter from the audience. Ms. Shore said that Stone was smarter than most of us, but he never condescended to anyone: "He treated children as intellectual equals, and as far as Stone was concerned, they were." A childhood friend recalled that when they were all reading the "Little Big Book" in the fourth grade, Stone was reading Fortune. "He was the best-looking, the smartest, the most talented of us all, but nobody could hate him for it, because he was just so delightful to be with." Winston Groom observed that his cousin had the most magnificent name he had ever heard - - Stonewall Boulet Stickney -- and reckoned that everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him would agree that the man himself lived up to this splendid given, and even surpassed it.

The stories pieced together a man who absolutely loved life, who regarded nature with wonder and human foibles with a bemused tolerance, a man who could appreciate Plato and Aquinas, Bach, Captain Black tobacco, good conversation, old scotch, bums, and the way the mist could rise from Mobile Bay and turn the Eastern Shore into a Japanese print. Even so, when the minister opened the service by explaining that the word "remember" was a derivation meaning "to recall into presence," Cary Stickney allowed that with a man like his father it was impossible to bring forth the whole man with a few stories.

Cary told about how he had visited Mobile about ten years ago after a particularly rough period in his life. His father, after listening for a while, launched into one of his own stories. He told Carey about a time shortly after his tenure as Mental Health Commissioner. He was practicing in some small, rather run-down clinic, and had to see a patient to determine for the courts if the fellow was just a plotting criminal or was genuinely crazy. The man came in, spotted "S.B. Stickney" on the nameplate of Stone's desk, and lifted his eyebrows.

"You the S.B. Stickney?" the man asked. "The Commissioner?" Stone said that yes, he supposed he was that S.B. Stickney. The fellow looked around the shoddy office, and said, "Man, how'd you get busted down so low?"

Of course, the audience laughed. This was healing laughter; this was pure Stone -- to tell a story at his own expense that is somehow just what the other person needs to hear. Indeed, all the speakers talked about Stone's laughter. Stone had a special, transcendental way of laughing; he gave himself totally to it. It was a laugh that came from somewhere very close to the Center, and other than Stone, I have heard such a laugh from only one or two rare individuals. Stone's laughter contained and consumed deep pain.

I first met Stonewall in 1981, when I returned to Mobile in pretty rough shape after having walked to and fro and up and down upon the world for a few years. My problem had something to do with the disturbing fact that we all have to die, and I was having a serious, no-holds-barred argument with the thing e.e. cummings called Mr. Death. Ever since my father had died in my arms a couple of years earlier, the idea of impermanence and death struck me as a particularly unfair deal, and I was a bit relentless in my quest to resolve the matter, or die trying -- and, in fact, I almost did.

Thus I became a patient of this remarkable doctor. There was no aggressive treatment. I think I may have gone to see Stone a couple of times, but then I stopped. Stone knew I needed to work things out on my own. I spent an entire year in complete reclusion, never seeing anyone or answering the phone or even leaving my mother's house. Gradually, I began to lighten up. When I came back to see Stone, he asked me what I did with myself all day. I told him I mostly watched Loony Tunes on TV. He melted into that famous laughter of his and told me that in his professional opinion, watching Loony Tunes was probably an excellent treatment plan for depression, and in fact, he could think of few better therapies.

Then Stone told me how his first wife and two of his sons had died in a one- car accident. This tragedy came right at the time he was fired as the Commissioner of Mental Health. Next, shortly after the accident, Stone came back to his house one day to find that it had burned to the ground. Everything was lost; everything was gone. Stone stopped to re-light his pipe, shook out the match, and fixed me with a twinkling eye. "You know a funny thing, Clark?" he said. "It was at that moment, looking over those smoldering ashes, that I felt so completely light that I could fly." And with that, he drew me into his own laughter. For the first time, I began to laugh the way Stone laughed. I think it is what the bodhisattvas call "joyful participation in the sorrow and pain of life." Another story: Once, when I was feeling even more guilty and depressed than usual, Stone said, "You know, I had a pretty bad week myself a while back. Didn't feel worth a damn. So I had stopped by my old watering hole at the Causeway on the way back from work, and I was sitting at the bar, minding my own business, feeling glum, wasted, useless, all that -- when suddenly, I feel a tap on my shoulder, and there's this old gal, drunk as a cooter, an ancient crone, you know, a bleached blond barfly. Never seen her before in my life. And she's weaving and blinking at me, and then she makes this solemn announcement: 'You have been forgiven!' Then she breaks into laughter and stumbles out the door. It just made my day. Put everything into order. Out of the blue. You have been forgiven!" But I still had a way to go in my battle with Mr. Death. I spent three years looking after a friend who was slowly paralyzing to death with ALS. It was during this time that Stonewall Stickney became not just a doctor, but a friend. Stone would drop by and chat with my friend and me, but neither of us had the least thought that we were being treated to "therapy." And yet every visit of Stone brought lightness and healing, and he never sent a bill. I used to tell folks that I had the only psychiatrist in America who made house calls.

Stone and I would hold forth about everything under the sun. I loved talking with Stone, and I loved even more listening to him. Conversation with Stone was the best I ever had, period. Sheer joy. He had the effect on me that he did on everyone. I was enchanted, and I loved that old man dearly. What a magnificent head, twinkling eyes, white hair, white beard -- I used to describe Stone for those who didn't know him this way: "Imagine Santa Claus in summertime. That's Stone Stickney."

By this time, I was beginning to write again, working on a book about Magnolia Cemetery, where I walked every afternoon and thought about stuff. I also did a couple of pieces for Southern Living, and was trying my hand at writing a newspaper column for a biweekly called The Harbinger, which was run by another remarkable fellow named Edmund Tsang. It was inevitable, I felt, for me to bring Edmund Tsang and Stonewall Stickney together, since I had been nagging Stone for years and telling him that he ought to be writing down all the good stuff he was spending in conversations. So in the late summer of 1986, and appropriately at a pier over Mobile Bay, I had the honor of introducing Stonewall Stickney to Edmund Tsang, or as Stone called him, E.T. The rest, as fans of Dr. Salvo know, is history.

(The good news is that this history also has a future. The book Ask Dr. Salvo, which was completed before Stone's death, will be published in a couple of months. Stay tuned to The Harbinger for details.)

After I became a public schoolteacher (I taught literature in the "Bright & Gifted" program of a local high school), I used to write columns about the astonishing crap teachers were expected to deal with on a daily basis, and I would get regular phone calls from the principal of my school telling me not to write that stuff in the Press Register because it made the folks at Barton look bad. Stone loved it, of course, though he was himself familiar with the loose-cannon fate I was setting myself up for. He told me, and also wrote as Dr. Salvo, that on the stone lintels over the doors of all the teacher education colleges in the country should be written this inscription: "Don't Get Smart."

Without going into the very juicy details of end of my teaching career, let me jump-cut to the courtroom where Stone testified last year that in his opinion that Clark Powell was a damn fine teacher and wasn't harmful to anyone, at Murphy or anywhere else for that matter. He said his clinical definition of me at that time would be "prankster." Classic Stone. As an expert witness in a somber courtroom, he was the same Stonewall that he was anywhere with anyone -- relaxed, bemused, garrulous, taking no one, and certainly not himself, with any great seriousness.

The last time I saw Stone, appropriately, was at a wedding feast last autumn for a young man named Stone, who bears his cousin's name, and who I am also honored to have as a friend. The elder Stone, in his white hair and beard and a light seersucker suit, lit up the room as usual. Though he seemed a little weary, a little frail, still he was as magnetic and winning as always. I felt a pang of loss, thinking of how little I had seen of Stone in the past three or four years. When he and Carol left, he turned and slapped me on the back. "See you later, possum." Then he was gone. Possum. It was the first time in years Stone had bestowed this affectionate name on me, and it was the last word I heard from his lips.

Stonewall Boulet Stickney was a rare and wonderful treasure. Having him as a doctor was a gift of grace; and having him as a friend was pure delight. Even now, I can hear him chuckling and about to make a joke out of what I am struggling to say. And in our laughter that would follow, what needed to be said would no longer need to be said.

Salve, Salvo!

See you later, possum.


The Harbinger