I'd met the man, but stories about the late Sheriff Willis McCall were just that: stories.
His personal appearance, when he came into the Sentinel office in the 1980s, only fed the fiction of the quintessential Southern sheriff determined to keep both Jim Crow laws and blacks in their place. By then, however, McCall was an old man, stooped but still wearing his trademark light felt Stetson hat and string tie.
He would come through the door, start at the front of a line of desks and shake the hand of each staffer as he moved toward his destination, Bill Bond, who was the columnist at the time.
This 23-year-old reporter, raised in the North, had no glimmer that a vital slice of civil-rights history lay behind those cool fingers and courtly words.
Of course not. It was too soon. Civil rights for blacks were newly won, and McCall seemed just a caricature of an old square overtaken by history in a time of whirlwind change.
But he was so much more.
Too bad it took another 30 years and a profoundly disturbing book called "Devil in the Grove" to reveal the fascinating part that Lake County and McCall played in the nation's civil-rights movement.
Historian and author Gilbert King penned the tale of what happened after a 17-year-old white Groveland wife told authorities she was raped by four black men.
The author, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, takes the reader on a journey for "justice" in a county run by the notorious sheriff and his cronies. They go up against a young Thurgood Marshall, the civil-rights crusader who later would become the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice.
The "Groveland Four" were defended by Marshall and the NAACP in 1949, just as the civil-rights movement was beginning.
The outcome was not pleasant. One of the four men was fatally shot by a posse before he could be tried. The youngest took a plea bargain and went to prison.
McCall shot two of them — one died — on a remote road in north Lake while bringing them from state prison to the county jail after learning that their convictions had been overturned by the Supreme Court. Supposedly the two prisoners attacked him after they got out of the car to examine a tire problem, and the cover of the book features an iconic picture of a disheveled McCall standing alone in front of an old car, illuminated by the flash of a bulb.
Although these events happened 64 years ago, the stories are still a raw spot with those who have lived some years in Lake.
And bringing it up again doesn't make some folks happy. King told The New York Times that he left the library in Groveland to hunt down some of the participants in the tale, and by the time he returned, the librarian informed him that two threats had been phoned in.
For this reader, all the McCall stories were almost cartoonish accounts of events that hardly seemed possible. This book makes them real.
The reason is that it was painstakingly researched — King obtained files from the FBI and the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which rarely opens its records. He was able to piece together an almost daily diary of the case.
Most important, his deep knowledge of Marshall allowed him to place Lake's events in the context of the national civil-rights struggle at the time.
The result is a stunning, unsettling read that answers more than one silent question about how Lake operates today.
But here's the challenge:
Lake students never have been taught about these events. And no wonder: They're embarrassing. Family members of McCall, a seven-term sheriff who died in 1994, still live here, and it is awkward and sometimes painful for them to have their flamboyant grandfather and great-grandfather held up again and again as a racial bigot and killer. One grandson said last week that there was "never any hatred" in the house he remembers as a child.
This book is different. It doesn't condemn or exalt. It meticulously searches out detail and records history — a history that Lake schools have the responsibility to teach to every student. By a simple vote, the School Board could make it happen.
And the time is right to openly examine Lake's role in the fight for civil rights. A new curriculum being taught in the coming year emphasizes students reading an increased number of nonfiction books. This one should be at the top of the list.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Lauren invites you to send her a friend request on Facebook at facebook.com/laurenonlake.