If you lived in the South in the 1970s, you became accustomed to Bear Bryant asking you to call your mother. These days, without much thought, we quickly pick up our smartphones and call, text or email someone far away. But back then, making a long-distance phone call was an extravagance — something so dear, in fact, that phone companies had to launch advertising campaigns to convince customers to do it.
That’s why South Central Bell hired Bryant, the legendary University of Alabama football coach, as its spokesman for the virtues of, as the phone company so memorably put it, reaching out and touching someone.
In a TV spot that quickly took on a life of its own, Bryant urged viewers to dial their mothers. He began by mentioning that when new players came to UA, he ordered them to start their university careers by writing home first. Bryant ended by telling viewers that phoning home might not be such a bad idea, either.
“Have you called your Mama today?,” he asked in his signature drawl, which was equal parts gravel and hominy. “I sure wish I could call mine.”
That last line, the wistful longing to connect with a mother now gone, was an ad lib, a phone company executive told columnist Lewis Grizzard in 1986. “We never would have asked him to do something like that, but it worked out perfectly,” the executive recalled.
I was a child when Bryant’s call-your-Mama campaign hit the airwaves, and his message struck me as little more than a nice piece of comedy — the musings of a man who, it seemed to me, looked and sounded a lot like Foghorn Leghorn.
From the grayness of the Bear’s hair and the lines on his face, I gathered that he was speaking of a mother who had gone to a place where South Central Bell didn’t offer service. But that kind of loss was an abstraction for me.
My father died a few years later, yielding the lesson that one’s opportunities to talk with a parent are not, alas, infinite. Maybe, I thought to myself, Bryant was onto something.
After college, as a way of taking Bryant’s advice to heart, I phoned my mother each Friday morning. The conversations evolved over the years to embrace new topics — the woman I was dating, my subsequent marriage, the two grandchildren who became, inevitably, my mother’s favorite subject.
Mama died one Wednesday in the spring of 2008 after an operation that didn’t go well. Her absence was still so fresh that two days later, as I had done every Friday, I reflexively picked up the receiver and dialed her number. I quickly corrected myself, returned the handset to its cradle, and thought of Bear Bryant.
I wish that I could call Mama this Mother’s Day. But I’m happy we spent many years’ worth of Fridays on the phone, and I have Bear Bryant to thank for that.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.