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Writing this column has taken me powerful places; I've met presidents and rock stars, visited prisons, protests and places so secret I can't say in print.

But I will never forget standing chest-deep inside a freshly dug North Georgia grave.

Above all, I will never forget the man standing beside me.

It was several years ago; I'd heard rumors of a Summerville, Georgia, man who dug graves by hand. Yes, hand. In this age of air-conditioned backhoes that can dig a grave in minutes, this man was old-school: a pick-axe, a $50 shovel and tape measure strung to his blue-jean belt.

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Johnny "Digger" Tucker with his beloved wife Mary. After decades of hand-digging local graves, Tucker died recently. (Contributed photo/Joseph Swords)

By the time I met him, he'd probably dug some 15,000 graves in his life, all of them church-pew-straight: 3 feet wide, 8 feet long 4 1/2 feet deep.

"One pick wide, two shovels long, one shovel deep," he'd say.

It wasn't just the grave-digging; after all, you could have a grade A dirt-bag digging graves. But this man?

"He's one of the finest men I've ever known," said Joseph Swords, manager of Mason Funeral Home. "He was one of the best friends I ever had."

Funeral directors near and far would call him, even from out of town, to dig graves. Families would schedule burials just so he'd dig the grave.

Folks in North Georgia and North Alabama already know who I'm talking about.

His name?

Johnny "Digger" Tucker.

"Pretty rare," said Wayne Day, who once owned a casket company in Centre, Ala. "He especially loved to laugh. He was always jovial. Had a good personality. Everybody liked him."

That's why this next sentence is so hard to write.

On Thursday, Aug. 22, Johnny "Digger" Tucker died.

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Johnny "Digger" Tucker, who died recently, hand-dug graves for decades in the tri-state region. (Contributed photo/Joseph Swords)

He was 56. It was cancer. He'd fought it for years.

He leaves behind his beloved wife Mary, son, daughters, brothers, sister, grandchildren and more friends than stars in the Southern sky.

"He's done so much good for folks over the years," Swords said.

"Mary and Johnny Tucker are the best people I've ever met in my whole 33 years," one of his crewmen said to me years ago.

When Digger was a boy, he asked his dad, also a gravedigger, for $3 to go rollerskating.

Sure, his dad said. Earn it. Dig a grave.

"Took me seven hours," Tucker told me.

At 16, he dropped out of school and began grave-digging full time.

He never stopped: rain, snow, heat, cold, holidays. Never took a vacation. Never took days off. Once, he got food poisoning. So he put on an adult diaper and kept digging. Once, after a spell in the hospital, he got released when a funeral home called.

"Went out the next day and dug a grave," remembered Day.

He and his crew kept a graveside code of honor: no smoking, no cussing, no radio-playing. Leave the cemetery better than when we found it.

"I treat everybody as if it's my family I'm burying," he said.

They'd gently, lovingly set back graveside flowers. Put back the dirt better than before.

"Be the salt of the earth," Christ said.

That was Digger. Sweating over thousands of graves, his salt literally mixed with Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee soil.

He was a man among men; his devotion to hard labor was only excelled by his kindness. Take him anywhere — the lowliest or the swankiest of places — and Digger stayed true to himself. Kindness, humility, laughter. Those were his measurements, his dimensions.

"I tell you this, he loved helping people," said Day. "He did it seven days a week. He didn't have any life as far as taking vacations. He worked all the time. He enjoyed people. He loved people."

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David Cook

Saturday nights, he and Mary loved the barn dance in Menlo, Georgia. Once, near the end of the night, they were holding each other to a slow Vern Gosdin number when, suddenly, the band quit playing and folks started yelling.

A man had collapsed, his throat closing.

Digger rushed in, began CPR and mouth-to-mouth, ultimately saving the man's life.

The winter before, he'd seen a car crash into a freezing creek. He jumped out and rescued the driver.

"I'm not going to sit and watch somebody leave this world if I know I can keep it from happening," he said days later. (His story got picked up by Reader's Digest, which meant people from coast to coast knew of the life-saving gravedigger.)

When I first met him years ago, in that Summerville cemetery, I asked if I could help dig alongside him, just for a moment.

Of course, he said.

I didn't realize it then, but joining Digger in that grave became an invitation.

By staring at death, you learn how to fully live a good life.

By digging graves, Digger somehow reversed the story: his attention wasn't on death.

But life and how to live it.

"I cherish life," he'd said that day.

Just after he died, his brothers and employees helped dig Johnny "Digger" Tucker's grave.

I can't imagine any plot of ground big enough to hold him.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

 

 

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