Book Cover

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Dickerson Family Remembered

Mr. Dent's Boyhood Home in Douglas, Georgia

Dear Mr. Goodwin,
I am retired, 72 years old and living in Florida. I would like to get a copy of your book. I also would appreciate anything you might suggest for my research into the Dickerson family. Here is my story.

My family goes back to the 1700's in Douglas, Georgia. Orphaned in 1934 when my two brothers and I were babies, we were raised by our paternal grandmother and her next door neighbors, Judge and Mrs. Ethel Dickerson, plus several nannies, aunts and uncles and a very small Episcopal parish. It was a wonderful childhood filled with many warm memories of those dear people.

There is one tragic event, however, that has haunted me for over 60 years, since I was a boy of 12. That event was the Winecoff Hotel fire on December 7, 1946.

Our next-door neighbors, the Dickersons, and our family, the Dents, shared holidays and family gatherings through the war years. One, in particular comes to mind, Thanksgiving of 1946! That was so very, very special for all of us! The war was over and our "hero" had returned! Will Dickerson, the oldest son and a decorated veteran was home!

To my brothers and I, Will Dickerson was everything! He had been a high school and college athlete, tall and handsome! He had also grown up with and been a close friend of our late father, Tom Dent, who we never knew. We identified strongly with him as a "father figure".

He brought his beautiful young wife, Mary, and their two small children, Mary Melinda (about 8?) and little Will (about 4?) for a long visit of over a month before they moved to Mary's hometown of Cartersville, Georgia, just above Atlanta. Will planned to begin his law practice there.

The Thanksgiving visit had been so much fun and my brothers and I had grown very close to Mary Melinda and Little Will. Much was being said about Cartersville and we had been assured that we would be invited up as soon as everything was settled in their new home.

We were tearful as we helped them load the car for the trip. The children were sobbing as we waved goodbye, their little hands waving from the windows of the car and little Will looking so sadly out the back window as they drove away.

"Mother Dick", as we called her, and Judge Dickerson called us over later that day to tell us that they had received a call from Will and they had decided to stop over in Atlanta for the observance of the Pearl Harbor 5 year anniversary. And, also, with the thrill of getting a room in the big beautiful Winecoff Hotel! They had really been fortunate to get a reservation on (I think?) the tenth floor.

Our aunt, who was Mary's age had been staying with us for a few days. We first heard her screams the next morning as we were awakened to the horror of the news coming out of Atlanta! All we knew was that there had been a terrible fire at the Winecoff. We rushed over to "Mother Dick" and the Judge to wait for more news, frightened and tearful. The rest of the events of that day are blurred and seem unreal still. I cannot remember exactly when we first knew the worst had happened! The Dickersons, all four, were victims.

Our little parish at St Andrews Church in Douglas had a memorial service. There were plans to have the family buried in Cartersville and there would be two caskets, one with Will and Mary Melinda and the other with Mary and Little Will. I am not sure about that nor any of the other details, and that sounds unlikely, but it gave me some small comfort so I held it as true.

I would go on to tell people later in my life that the Dickersons were the only entire family who perished and that they were written up in Readers Digest for doing the right thing; they were found in the bathroom with wet towels and sheets place around the door openings, Mary and little Will in the bathtub and Will sitting on the commode with Mary. I am not sure about any of this, only using what I thought I heard to somehow honor their bravery and give me some explanation for how they died. I can't really explain anything I have said about it.

I wrote a short story in college at the University of Florida based on this tragedy and I called it "The Thirteenth Floor". I have since lost the story but I did get an "A' in creative writing for it.

When I read your account on the internet, late one night, of a military policeman who saw a family of four on the tenth floor, a man and woman and their teen-age children, a boy and girl as if in prayer, I cried and cried, alone, where no one could see me. That was last week.

James McBride (Mack). Dent

Dear Mr. Dent,
Thank you for your heartfelt e-mail. Over the years my co-author Sam Heys and I have received many letters. Only a few have been as touching as yours. At a tender age you lost what God had denied you once already, a father figure. To me, that doesn't seem fair.

I commend our book to you with a word of caution. Our book has been difficult for some of our readers to read, though some have called it "cathartic".

You may discover in yourself what I have come to call, "A Certain Vacancy-A Hidden Grief". In fact, it sounds like you have discovered some of it already and sense the time has come to deal with the rest of it.

I suspect that that day's events are blurry to you for a reason. Children instinctively know when to shut down their senses. This may well have happened to you.

As you read our book some unpleasant memories may begin to flow back to you, from deep within. Your own sorrow may suddenly seem small compared to what you may have seen of a parent's grief and then repressed. You may fully relive the "one tragic event" of your childhood, the one that has "haunted" you for sixty years.

You will not be alone in this. You are welcome to write me again at any time. We can even put you in touch with people who were there, those who survived.

The Winecoff fire affected everyone it touched for the rest of their lives. That won't change. But after you've read our book and had time to think about it, you won't be haunted any more. You will see that the Winecoff fire had a beginning and an end and that it ultimately had a far reaching positive effect on fire safety worldwide that honors the memory of the Dickerson family.

After you have read our book I would like to speak with you. I look forward to it.

Best wishes and be safe,
Allen B. Goodwin

Dear Mr. Goodwin,
I received your book. Thank you - it is a well-written, thoroughly documented narrative of this tragic disaster! Your stories of the victims and how they came to be staying at the hotel that night was so moving. I felt that I knew these people. The horror, the fear, the absolute terror they experienced was real and difficult to read at times.

As you may have assumed by my "long and rambling" (forgive me) story about my family and the family who died in Room 1630, the "unimportant" details of the "Dickerson story" were not quite right. They were moving to Jonesboro, not Cartersville. They were on the 16th floor, not the 10th. With my search for more information all but abandoned, your narrative gave me a long awaited sense of "closure". Thank you!

Whereas the photo of the woman leaping from the Winecoff won the Pulitzer for Arnold Hardy, your book should have won that award for this compelling story!

With my very regards and gratitude,
J. Mack Dent
PS: .. I have a web page .. http://www.mackdent.com/ .. it was created to provide information to some people who requested that .. some years back. It has some of my art that depicts life in Douglas many years ago. My home was next door to the Dickersons.

Mr. Dent,
Thank you for your kind words about our book. I will share your note with my co-author Sam Heys. Thanks also for the link to your website. Nice House! Terrific drawings!

Stay safe,

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