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For the sake of Haley's legacy, the auction was wrong

Dr. Mary McCauley, an English professor at Dyersburg (Tenn.) State Community College, looked forlorn as she walked across the bridge on Alex Haley's farm.

One more time _ perhaps the last time _ she was walking on the property her good friend loved.

"I wonder where Gertrude and Heathcliff are," she said to no one in particular. Gertrude and Heathcliff are the white swans Haley brought for his paradise on earth.

Within 30 days, the farm would have a new owner. By the end of the week, everything on the farm would be sold to the highest bidder.

But McCauley raised her bid paddle not once. She had come to watch, not buy. "It is an interesting day," she said, "an interesting day."

Nine years ago McCauley completed her dissertation for her doctorate at Vanderbilt University. Her topic was Haley, who _ like her _ was a longtime Henning, Tenn., resident. Despite Haley's hectic speaking and travel schedule, he had sat still for interviews and research and questions and rewrites of rewrites over a four-year stretch.

When she finally finished her 300-plus page work in 1983, Haley autographed it. She treasured it along with the audio tapes, correspondence, articles and other reference material she compiled. It's all in her house, stored away. Don't ever suggest putting a price on it.

"No, no, no," she said when my mouth started to form the word S-E-L-L. "Everything doesn't have a price. . . . I just don't feel that way."

Perhaps, when she is dead, her family can donate all the material to a university or to the state-owned Alex Haley Museum in Henning. But even then she doesn't want it sold. "This is one thing that doesn't have a money tag," she said.

That wasn't so true of Haley's farm, his literary papers, his manuscripts, and even his household items. All _ down to the towels in his guest houses _ went for a price during the three-day auction last week at his farm and at the University of Tennessee. Haley's brother, lawyer George Haley, insisted the auction was necessary to settle Alex Haley's affairs.

Alex Haley was an internationally known author and millionaire, not a pauper, when he died on Feb. 10 in Seattle. But there wasn't much cash to pay out more than $1-million in debts (about half of it owed on the farm). To pay all the bills, George Haley, as the estate's executor, had to raise some quick cash. Thus, the auction.

The auction was criticized by some, including Alex Haley's only son. Friends, relatives, historians, former employees and even casual observers on hand to nab a bargain at the auction piled on the criticism.

But the critics just don't understand, said Paul Simon, a Knoxville, Tenn., lawyer representing George Haley in handling the estate.

While many tsked-tsked the choice, and anxiously expected the offers of celebrities and millionaires to keep the estate intact, no one showed. Speculation was rampant that any number of white or black knights would come galloping in and save the day. One pleading rumor had Haley's friend Oprah Winfrey landing in the middle of the farm in a helicopter waving a clinching bid.

On Friday, hundreds of people milled around the grounds of the 125-acre farm. They checked out the drapes, plinked the china, measured the couches. They fixed their bids in mind. The day before, bidders had picked over every lot, buying nearly everything offered _ from the original manuscript of The Autobiography of Malcolm X ($100,000) to autographed photos of Henry Kissinger with Haley ($250).

Listening to the continuous sing-song chant of the auctioneer echoing off the hills of the Haley farm recalled for me another cry. It was captured in the TV miniseries Roots. Could the auctioneer's call be likened to the mournful wail of Kunta Kinte July 5, 1767, when he was dragged aboard the slaver, the Lord Ligonier from his native Gambia.

What is a person's legacy worth? Should it be offered up to the highest bidder? And does it matter who the man or woman is?

Is that too harsh? Can the modern-day settling of an estate to pay bills really be equated to chattel slavery? Perhaps not. But it was painful for me to watch the pieces of an important life gaveled away. For me, it hit home when auctioneer Kimball M. Sterling began the bidding on Haley's passport. His passport? It brought $2,000.

Imagine how we would react if the estate of John F. Kennedy were auctioned. And what of actor John Wayne? Or Martin Luther King Jr. What would the Elvis watchers do if Presley's heirs began dismantling Graceland?

Haley's estate and legacy fit into the same category. He helped a nation begin dealing with the complex issues of race. He made people of all races and heritages aware of the importance of their past and their lineages. He helped send millions of people scurrying to family Bibles and county courthouses to explore their genealogy.

Dr. Detine Bowers, a history professor at Virginia Polytechnic University in Blacksburg, Va., views Haley as one of the most important historians of the 20th century. "To allow his words and his possessions to be dispersed to the four winds is criminal," she said. "It happened to other notable black figures in the 19th century. Here we are in 1992 and we're still letting it happen. Where are our values? Where is our sense of history?"

For the sake of history, for the sake of Haley's legacy, the auction was all wrong. The papers belong in a research library. The Haley farm should be converted into a museum, a cultural conference retreat. If the many celebrities who knew him wouldn't do it, the state of Tennessee or the federal government should have.

Alex Haley meant so much to so many. His legacy deserves better than this.

Ben Johnson is assistant managing editor for the Times. He was an admirer and friend of Alex Haley.