Out & About

A legend turns 75: Celebrating Zelma Redding

Leila Regan Porter
Leila Regan Porter

The beginning of October heralded the 75th birthday of Zelma Redding. As we held a week's worth of events to “Celebrate 75 Years of Otis Redding” last September, it was wonderful to see his widow celebrated with her own gathering this year on Oct. 7.

I was lucky and privileged to be in town, visiting Georgia that week from our sabbatical in California, and was able to attend the gorgeous soirée in downtown Macon on a hot and humid (no surprises there) Saturday evening.

It was a blessing and a curse: Being welcomed home with hugs and cheer, and then having to leave my “fam” again, hurt more than I had expected. But the ouchy heart was worth it to experience such a joyful occasion with so many people I love.

Many of Macon's residents know (or think they know) the story of Ms. Zelma. Widowed from Otis Redding Jr. at the young age of 25, left with three children and not even a high school diploma to her name, she fought to raise her kids while fending off the vultures of the business in order to protect her husband’s legacy.

She went back to school to get her high school equivalency diploma and went on to form her own businesses, including a record store, night club and artist management company. It's an incredible amount to accomplish, especially for one faced with so much adversity and who previously had no interest in business, only with keeping things right at home.

From her family, friends, colleagues and business associates, I'll frequently hear a statement along the lines of, “I want to be just like Ms. Zelma when I grow up,” regardless of age, background or race. I often thought the same sentiment while spending most of my days in the same room with her at the Otis Redding Foundation offices. Her quick mind, sharp wit, acute observations and forthright questions keep us on a clear path and never allow us to waver from our mission.

I have learned from her honesty, style, determination and strong will and, I hope, incorporate those qualities into my professional and personal lives. A strong sense of self and belief in who you are, plus the unwavering ability not to change for anyone, are all philosophies that have made me a better person, and I have learned it all from the incomparable Ms. Z.