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The singing was always there
October 10, 2006

A little boy was born singing. He can't remember when he wasn't singing, sometimes accompanying himself on the piano. The singing was always there, right through elementary school, right through high school, right through Morehouse College and Georgia Tech, right through today.

Russell McGriff can't remember when he wasn't singing.

You don't have to live in Decatur County or the near vicinity long before you meet McGriff. Go on down to the U.S. Post Office. McGriff is one of those smiling helpful folks behind the counter. That's the Russell most of us know.

Some lucky people (more and more as time goes by) know the singing McGriff. One day, when I was in line at the Post Office, I overheard someone asking McGriff about his concert. (I love line listening!) I'm not shy, so when I walked up to the counter, I asked, "What concert?"

McGriff told me about the upcoming mass choir concert at the Union Missionary Baptist Church in West Bainbridge.

"You are in the choir?" I asked him.

"I direct the choir—and I sing," he told me. I wanted to know more, but there were other people in line and...I told him I'd call.

And I did. Not long ago we sat together not in the Post Office but in his home, and I found out lots more about McGriff and about his musical career.

My first question was about school.

"Start at the beginning."

"Nelson Chapel Day Care. Then John Johnson, Hutto Junior High and finally Bainbridge High School."

I learned a little more about McGriff's charm and friendly ways. He was class president in the ninth, 10th and 11th grades, but not the 12th—that year he headed up the Student Council. He did it all while making straight A's, and singing both at church and with "The Young Crusaders," a community group.

"When did the singing start?" I asked.

He shook his head. He can't remember. The earliest picture of a singing McGriff is Easter 1978 when the young, very young, man (maybe 6 years old) stood tall to sing the solo at the Union M.B. Church.

He credits the late Ida Pearl Johnson, a soloist at the church, for inspiring him, and the late Bessie Butts, his first choir director.

"Her encouraging words and support through the years I sang with the Union Missionary Baptist Junior choir will always hold a lasting impression in my heart and mind," McGriff wrote in the program of a concert commemorating his 20th year of gospel singing held at the church on Jan. 31, 1999.

Not only from the church
Encouragement didn't come to McGriff only at church. There was plenty at home from Mom and Dad. Lots of folks know McGriff's folks. Mom Myrtis McGriff retired from the Decatur County Schools in 1996 after 38 years of teaching both elementary and middle school. She completed her career teaching Social Sciences at West Bainbridge Middle School. No wonder McGriff was a straight-A student. Dad Clyde McGriff worked at the State Hospital for 30 years, but for longer than that he has operated Union Taxi—getting Bainbridge folks where they want to go. He's still doing it. No wonder McGriff finds it easy to make friends.

Singing and studies didn't end when McGriff graduated in 1990. He was off to Atlanta where he attended both (yes, both) Morehouse College and Georgia Tech. He graduated in 1996 with a degree in math from Morehouse and a degree in civil engineering from Tech. He sang the whole time. In that entire difficult college career he missed only 10 weekends coming home to sing in or direct a choir.

After graduation McGriff was right back where he belonged in Bainbridge. He worked for a couple of years for a local engineering company. Then Clyde had two hip replacements, and needed his son's help. McGriff was there and helped with Union Taxi while Clyde recuperated. McGriff thought about his future and deciding that it lay in Bainbridge, he took the Postal Examination in July 1998.

Remember that concert on Jan. 31, 1999?

The very next morning, Feb. 1, 1999, McGriff went to work at his new job at the Bainbridge U.S. Post Office, where you'll find that smiling face most any day.

The singing continues, and McGriff has managed to combine it with another great enjoyment in his life—travel. For the last five years, he's attended the Gospel Music Workshop of America.

It's a large international music convention that counts most of the leading gospel singers among its members. This past August, McGriff sang in Mass Choir and the Male Chorus at the annual meeting in Dallas, a real honor.

I, naturally, asked McGriff about food and cooking. He loves to eat, but it's his mom's cooking he loves. He's too busy to cook himself. Fortunately Myrtis was nearby. McGriff loves her good cooking, she told me. Most of all he loves her mac and cheese. I'm glad she was willing to share.

Like many good cooks, Myrtis doesn't write down her recipes and she doesn't measure. She cooks by feel. The next time you feel like a kitchen experiment, give this a try.

Myrtis McGriff's Mac and Cheese
Melt butter in a saucepan. When it's melted, add a small amount of flour—just enough to thicken, and then pour in a large can of evaporated milk. Myrtis prefers Pet Milk. When the sauce begins to thicken, stir in some cheese cut in to small pieces and let it melt into the sauce. Salt and pepper to taste.

Cook the macaroni in a large pot. Myrtis adds a little oil to keep it from getting gummy. When the macaroni is done, drain into a sieve or colander and rinse with hot water. Put about half the macaroni in a casserole add half the sauce and top with half the cheese, cut up. Repeat. Sprinkle a little paprika on the top. Bake until it is hot through and the cheese is completely melted. Myrtis uses yellow hoop cheese.

Since it's a favorite of McGriff's, Myrtis serves this often, but always at Thanksgiving. I think this year that I'll be serving it as well.

Want to hear McGriff sing? I do too, and we'll all get a chance this December when the Union M.B. Church presents its winter concert. It's tentatively scheduled for Dec. 30. What a great way that will be to see out the year. I'll be sure and share more details as soon as they are available.


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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network