I'm thinking of the note Fred Bonnie, our associate editor, included with his last Christmas card.

Fred had just moved from North Carolina to Columbiana, AL, and being the fine writer and astute observer that he was, he offered slices of life in that Southern town.

His holiday note told how he and his wife, Rhonda Carter, a doctor at a local medical facility, enjoyed sitting on their porch, soaking in the charming world before them.

They'd listen to gospel singing pulsating from a black church nearby. They lived across from the local high school, and Fred got a hoot out of seeing students at night in their pickup trucks circling the school, a place they undoubtedly found less alluring during school hours.

Meanwhile, Fred wrote for Ward's Dealer Business. He was gifted at coming up with new ideas and fresh story angles. He continued his beloved fiction writing (he just finished a novel and he had critically acclaimed books of short stories to his credit). He taught creative writing at a local college.

He loved the South. Ironically, he was a native of Maine. You wouldn't have known that from the soft Southern accent he acquired over time.

"There are such colorful people down here," he told me in one of our last conversations. "They make for interesting characters to write about. William Faulkner was right about that."

Life was going great for Fred. He was doing what he enjoyed, and doing it well. It doesn't get better than that.

Then it ended, suddenly so, as these things often do.

On May 10, Fred was driving home to Alabama after delivering a lecture on creative writing to students at a North Carolina college. He suffered a heart attack behind the wheel. He died three days later. He was 54.

Fred liked all sorts of people, particularly the auto dealers he covered. "With few exceptions, dealers are genuinely nice people," he told me.

Dealers' contributions to various community projects impressed him. A cynic once suggested dealers support such local causes to get business back. Fred replied, "Sure...but it's also one of those happy confluences of good business and doing the right thing."

Fittingly, memorial contributions are going to a cause Fred, a lover of writing and reading, believed in: the Literacy Council of Central Alabama, 714 37th St. South, Birmingham, AL 35222.

He was unflaggingly pleasant to work with. He was a down-home intellectual, a great conversationalist and a Southern gentleman in the truest sense and in a most unpretentious way.

- Steve Finlay Editor Ward's Dealer Business