In Profile: Walker Percy, Covington’s literary legend soon immortalized in bronze sculpture

The St. Tammany Library Foundation has announced Bill Binnings, of Covington, as the commissioned sculptor for the Walker Percy Serenity Circle to be built next to the new St. Tammany Library in Madisonville.

According to the announcement, the sculpture will depict in bronze, “the St. Tammany icon, Walker Percy, relaxing on one of the Serenity Patio’s benches, accompanied by his little dog, Sweet Thing.”

Binnings was a friend of Percy’s who attended the weekly lunches where the celebrated author and a mix of friends, writers and artists gathered at Bechac’s restaurant on the Mandeville lakefront in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“I feel like I’m doing something good for his memory in the community, and it’s an honor” Binnings said.

“I appreciate Walker as a writer because he was able to incorporate serious issues of reflection within interesting plot and narrative,” without injecting his own sense of importance, he said.

The former director of the St. Tammany Parish library sytem, Jan Butler, hosted a Walker Percy symposium at the Covington Library branch from 1992-2007. The event celebrated Walker Percy and featured several speakers who wrote about him.

“Not many towns in American can claim a world-class famous author,” Butler said. “People would come to the library from as far as Oslow and Belgium asking about Percy.”

At the age of 71, Walker Percy celebrated a milestone; he was the oldest living Percy on Earth.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1916 and descended from a distinguished Mississippi Protestant family, Percy was haunted by a lineage of suicides and questionable accidents.

After the death of both his parents, he and his two brothers were adopted by his father’s brother, Uncle Will, William Alexander Percy.

A bachelor poet and man of strict literary convictions, he provided a solid foundation for the boys with readings of Shakespeare and Keats.

Percy completed a degree in medicine from Columbia University in 1941 but during his internship at Bellevue Hospital, he contracted tuberculosis and never completed his medical training.

In 1946, Percy married his wife, Mary Bernice (Bunt) Townsend, they converted to Catholicism and moved to New Orleans a year later.

Three years later they moved to Covington along the Bogue Falaya River.

A shy man, living an ordinary life unimpressed by the glitter of fame, Percy died in 1990.

He crafted six award-winning novels, his first “The Moviegoer,” won the National Book Award for fiction in 1961.

Rhoda K. Faust, administrative assistant for the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing at Loyola University, and former proprietor of the Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans, enjoyed the company of the Percy family for 35 years.

Faust met Percy at the age of 6 when invited to a family picnic in Covington.

Her father was a doctor and friends with Percy’s brother Phin.

The Faust family opened the book store in 1964, and Percy frequented the shop often.

In an article posted on the Walker Percy Center website, Faust shared a unique friendship as she knew Percy as a family man, a writer, and a philosopher at the Bechac gatherings.

Readers find a caring man, one who insisted Faust sit next to him at book signings to assist him with the correct spelling of names.

He was a man who shied away from the privileges that come with success and cared deeply about people’s feelings.

Most of all he was a caring mentor, and Faust admits he steered her in the right direction when she began to waiver, lending support for moral decisions in life.

Also a patient man, when Faust fancied herself as a photographer, she would take pictures of Percy for the book store.

“He would sit there forever,” she said with a chuckle, remembering an iconic photo of Percy sitting in a porch swing with pen in his hand. “He even asked some of his publishers to use my photos.”

Percy was a former Loyola faculty member and the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing sponsors conferences, reading series, symposia, writing workshops, and a summer institute for young writers, and publishes creative and academic writing.

The center is housed in the Special Collections and Archives on the third floor of the Monroe Library at Loyola University and open to the public.

For information, visit www.loyno.edu/wpc.

The St. Tammany Library Foundation will be selling memorial bricks and has other sponsorship option to help build the Walker Percy Serenity Circle. For information, visit www.sttammanylibraryfoundation.org/.