FROM THIS PLACE TO THAT
If you were listening hard on Sunday, you heard the sound of a thousand hearts breaking. Appalachia lost a good friend and native son that night. Hindman Settlement School lost its guiding light. Writers lost their patron saint.
And of course, his family lost so much more.
Mike Mullins, executive director of the Hindman Settlement School, died suddenly at the age of 63. He had been director of the school since 1977 and he directed the ship with a keen eye and a kind hand ever since.
I have written in the space about my experiences at the Hindman Writers Workshop. I am not sure I have written specifically about Mike. What you need to know is this. It was Mike who gave the workshop breath, he had the vision for how the week should go, and he was the gruff but lovable camp director that made sure his vision was fulfilled.
Everyone washed dishes.
He said it was to help keep costs down, and I don’t doubt that. But it also ensured that no one got too big for their britches. Not the participants, not the important writers who served as faculty for the week.
At least twice during the week everyone donned their flimsy plastic aprons, bused the tables, manned the sprayer and put away hundreds of plates, glasses and flatware.
We took almost as much pride in being the best dishwashing crew as we did being the best writers in class. Thank you for that, Mike.
He insisted that the faculty, established and famous writers all, sit with the participants at meals. There was no staff table. This meant that we each had a chance to eat cobbler with Lee Smith, or soup beans with Robert Morgan, Silas House, or Gurney Norman.
Mike insisted the faculty mingle informally with the participants. If he heard that wasn’t happening, he got busy fixing it.
He insisted that returning participants befriend and make welcome all the first-timers. At orientation he told us plainly that he expected that, and he meant it. It was summer camp all over again, and we loved this little ritual, smiling while he spoke to us sternly.
Then he warned us about the snakes.
He recounted the places on campus he had seen them, right where we would be stepping, right about this time of night, and we had better be on the lookout. We loved this little ritual, too. We waited for it, laughed when he brought it up, but we couldn’t begin a week at Hindman without hearing it.
One orientation he forgot to mention the snakes and all the old-timers’ heads snapped up, looked around, blinking and disoriented. We teased him about the snake story and he was good-natured about it. It was one more way in which he took care of his children at the forks of Troublesome Creek for one week every summer.
We aren’t the only ones who feel his loss. The Daughters of the American Revolution have long supported Hindman Settlement School, and members of almost all chapters know him. When I shared the news of his passing with friends who are in the DAR, they were as shocked and upset as we were. He worked with DAR chapters all over the country, and they came to know and love Mike, too.
I thought he belonged to us alone.
Because he was ours, at least for a little bit, in the ways that mattered most.
We speak of our Hindman family, openly and unashamedly. We call ourselves kin, and so we are. We are the kin our hearts have chosen. Mike created the space for that to happen. We have gathered in. Wept. We have loved each other through his passing as only family can.
Friends have posted so many pictures of Mike these past few days. Mike, always smiling, his arm around his sweet wife, Frieda, Mike with his children, grand babies in his lap. A smiling Mike pushed back in his office chair, ready to chat about a new book or just any old thing.
And that was our Mike. Constant and steady, a happy warrior, a man with a heart big enough for all his family. A man who stood at the Forks of Troublesome and welcomed his children home.