December 13, 2023 - The Legend of Senator John Sparkman

In my 2015 book, Of Goats and Governors: Six Decades of Colorful Alabama Political Stories, I have a Chapter entitled “Alabama’s Three Greatest Senators.” I chronicle the lives and accomplishments of Richard Shelby, Lister Hill and John Sparkman. Last week we gave you the history of Lister Hill. This week we will give you a brief story of the legacy of the great John Sparkman.

Hill and Sparkman served as a tandem in Washington for more than 20 years and were respected giants on Capitol Hill.  Our Hill-Sparkman team was unsurpassed in power and prestige from 1946 to 1970.  They were admired, not only in Alabama and the South, but throughout the nation.  They were powerful and extremely effective for our state, but also portrayed a good image as erudite southern gentlemen.

John Sparkman served an amazing 32 years in the United States Senate from 1946 through 1978.  He served 12 years in the U.S. Congress from Huntsville and the Tennessee Valley, prior to being elected to the Senate.  He made his presence known as Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which at the time oversaw housing for America.  Furthermore, he was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1952.

John Sparkman is the Father of the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.  His legacy lives on today with the growth and aerospace prominence of our Rocket City.  Our fastest growing and most economically prosperous metropolitan area began its presence in the 1960s because of John Sparkman.  In fact, the city should probably be referred to as Sparkmanville rather than Huntsville.

Senator Sparkman was not born into privilege like Senator Hill.  Sparkman was born and raised on an unpretentious tenant farm near Hartselle in Morgan County.  He had 10 brothers and sisters.  In 1917, by making a cotton crop and netting $75.00 he was able to enroll in the University of Alabama.  At Alabama he was editor of the “Crimson and White” and like Senator Hill, he was elected President of the Student Body at the Capstone.  At the same time, he worked his way through school shoveling coal and feeding furnaces.

After graduation from the University of Alabama School of Law, he practiced law in Huntsville for 12 years before being elected to Congress in 1936.  Like Hill, he supported President Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority (“TVA”) Act was a tremendous boost for his North Alabama Tennessee Valley district. The TVA Act transformed North Alabama.

In 1946, he had served his North Alabama congressional district well for over a decade and was elected to the U.S. Senate.  Senator John Bankhead had died in office and Sparkman won the seat handily with strong backing of labor unions who were in their heyday in Alabama politics.

Senator Sparkman rose to power and prominence in the Senate.  He made his mark as the father of federal housing for the poor.  He became Chairman of the very powerful Senate Banking Committee, as well as its Housing Subcommittee.  Sparkman was the author of practically every major housing bill since World War II, and is also known as the father of the Small Business Administration.  He was also the ranking majority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

For more than two decades, John Sparkman and Lister Hill served together as a team, the most powerful and respected tandem in Washington.  While some Southern Senators were making racist speeches on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Hill and Sparkman refused to race bait.  They preferred to quietly bring home the bacon to Alabama with dignity.  They had a team approach to helping Alabama and their voting records on major issues, which faced the nation, were identical.

Both men served as president of the student body of the University of Alabama, and both were products of what is known as the political machine at the University of Alabama. 

John Sparkman was a giant in the United States Senate and an icon in Alabama political history.

See you next week.

December 6, 2023 - Lister Hill, One of Alabama Greatest U.S. Senators

We had a very distinguished congressional delegation from Alabama during the 30-year span of 1934-1964.  The congressmen from the Heart of Dixie appeared to be born to serve in Congress.  Their pedigrees were all similar.  They had pretty much been born and raised in the town that they would eventually represent in Congress.  Almost all had gone to the University of Alabama for their education and most had graduated from Alabama’s Law School.  While at the Capstone, most had been members of Greek fraternities.  

In addition to their Greek fraternal affiliation, they were politically active at the Capstone and also belonged to a mystic political fraternity known as “The Machine.”  This group was basically a political party that was made up of the fraternities on campus.  It was well organized with secret endorsements made up of the fraternity candidates and the endorsements were only revealed the day before the election.  The fraternity candidates very rarely lost.  It is a legendary political training ground and almost every member of Congress during this era was a product of “The Machine.”

After college and law school, these men served a stint in the military.  Service in a World War and then membership in the VFW seemed to be a necessity for a political career.  Alabamians have always had an affinity for folks who served their country and came home after the war to begin a perfunctory law practice that occupied them until the congressional seat they had been preparing for came open.

Once they were elected, they planned on staying there.  After all they figured that a congressional career was what they were born for.  They adhered to the adage attributed to many a southern congressman.  It was said many times by the solons from the south as they played poker in the cloakroom of the House or Senate, “I love being in Congress and the only way I will leave will be by the ballot box or in a pine box,” and usually it was the latter.

The person, who most perfectly epitomized this prototypical congressman and senator of this era, was the legendary Lister Hill of Montgomery.  He was both a Congressman and a Senator.  He was elected to Congress at age 28 and served 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He was then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1938, where he served 

Alabama with distinction for 30 years. 

Hill had been born into privilege.  He was the son of Dr. Luther Hill.  His father was one of the first American surgeons to successfully suture the human heart.  Hoping that their son would follow his father into medicine, the parents named Joseph Lister after the famous European physician, who was the first doctor to advocate and practice use of antiseptics.

Young Lister Hill decided one day, after watching his father operate, that he would not be a doctor. He actually fainted from the sight of blood. 

The Hill family was very prominent politically in Montgomery.  In fact, at this time there were two political families who were like political parties.  You had to run in Montgomery as either a candidate of the Hill family or the Gunter family.

Lister set his sights on politics at an early age, probably dreamed of and maybe expected to be a U.S. Senator.  He entered the University of Alabama at age 16 and became the first student government president at the University.  He also was the founder of the aforementioned “Machine.”  He was elected to Congress at 28 and served with distinction.  He served in the U.S. House for 16 years and rose to be Chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee.  He was instrumental in getting the Maxwell-Gunter military complex in Montgomery.

Senator Hill had a hand in most major national legislation from 1938 to 1968.  However, his greatest legacy was in the field of Public Health.  The great medical center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is because of Lister Hill.  Probably the best-known legislation he was known for was the Hill-Burton Act.  Through this 1946 Act, most of the rural hospitals in America and Alabama were built.

Lister Hill is without question one of our state’s greatest U.S. Senators.

See you next week.

November 29, 2023 - Career Politicians, Good or Bad?

In recent years, candidates for political office have lambasted, run against and proclaimed that they were not career politicians.  Every television ad for someone who has never held office has proudly stated that they are not career politicians.

That all sounds good, but is it really good?  In my lifetime, the word politician has become synonymous with someone sinister and untrustworthy.  In fact, politics has become something that the brightest and best people have come to avoid.  

That was not the case when I was a boy growing up in Alabama.  The most outstanding young men in the state chose to go into public service. Having roots in the state was important towards success for the men who rose to public office.  The great Alabama storyteller, Katherine Tucker Windham, would say, “Alabama is a big front porch.”  Boys would grow up with aspirations of being Governor, United States Senators or Congressmen.  People in their hometowns would identify young men who were talented and groom them to be a future governor or congressman.

A study of Alabama political history will reveal that Alabama has done pretty well over the years in the halls of the United States Congress by electing homegrown boys to be their Representatives in Washington.  These gentlemen of bygone years were born, trained and ready to be the most powerful, erudite and respected men in Washington.  Their paths were laid out to be career politicians.

A look back to 60 years ago in Alabama politics reveals that we had the greatest statesmen in our state’s history representing us in Congress.  They all amazingly took the same path.  Their career path to Congress was textbook.  They grew up in their hometown, went to The University of Alabama, further continued and went to The University of Alabama School of Law, came back home and practiced law for a short time.  They then went to Congress and started building seniority and power in Washington.

In 1963, 60 years ago, we had the greatest tandem in history as our two U.S. Senators, Lister Hill and John Sparkman.  Senator Hill grew up in Montgomery, graduated from The University of Alabama and then The University of Alabama School of Law.  He served the old second district in Congress a decade and then was elected to the Senate where he served 30 years.  

Senator John Sparkman was born in rural Morgan County, graduated from The University of Alabama and then The University of Alabama School of Law, practiced law a few years in Huntsville before being elected to the U.S. Senate where he served 32 years.

The man who took Sparkman’s Tennessee Valley Congressional Seat in 1946 was the great Bob Jones.  Congressman Jones was from Scottsboro and was one of the state’s greatest Congressman and a savior for the Tennessee Valley.  He was a graduate of The University of Alabama and The University of Alabama School of Law.

Carl Elliott was in that 1963 class.  He was a giant in Washington.  Congressman Elliott was born in Red Bay, but practiced law in Jasper and called Walker County home.  He was a graduate of The University of Alabama and The University of Alabama School of Law.

George Andrews was a great Congressman for the old third district.  He served a decade with extreme effectiveness and distinction.  Ft. Rucker would not be the mainstay of the Wiregrass if it were not for George Andrews.  He was a graduate of the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama School of Law.  He was born and raised in the third district.  

Congressman George Grant served the old second district with distinction for 28 years.  He followed Lister Hill in this seat.  He was born and raised in the district and practiced law in Troy before going to Congress.  He was a product of The University of Alabama and The University of Alabama School of Law.

Albert Rains represented the Gadsden area for decades in Congress.  He was a power.  He was successful in business and banking concurrently with his Congressional career.  He graduated from The University of Alabama School of Law.

George Huddleston, Jr. represented the Birmingham area with distinction during this era.  He had a law degree from The University of Alabama and was a prominent lawyer before going to Congress.

The great Black Belt Congressman, Armistead Selden, was a freshmen in that 1963 group.  He was a graduate of Sewanee and The University of Alabama School of Law.

These men, who made up the Congressional delegation representing us in Washington in 1963, will be remembered in the annals of Alabama history as some of Alabama’s greatest and most powerful public servants.  Their gameplan was to be a public servant.  Therefore, you might say they were pretty good career politicians.

See you next week.

November 22, 2023 - 60th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s Assassination

The assassination of John F. Kennedy happened 60 years ago this week.  It occurred to me that a good many of you may be too young to remember that horribly sad day of November 22, 1963.

Anyone living on that day can tell you exactly where they were when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin in Dallas, Texas.  It was a perfect fall day in the Lone Star State.  Lyndon Johnson was Vice President and he and Kennedy disliked each other immensely.  The Kennedy’s had put Johnson on the ticket as Vice President in 1960 to assure that the Democrats carried Texas in the General Election, not because they liked him.  It was totally a political marriage.  They not only did not like Johnson, they did not trust him.

It was a Friday afternoon. The last high school games of the year were to be played that night.  High school football was big in Alabama.  By the way, it was also big in Texas, thus the movie “Friday Night Lights.”

I was in the seventh grade.  It was just after lunch.  My homeroom teacher at Troy Junior High School was Mrs. Elaine Dodson.  All of a sudden, the music teacher for our schools, Jerry Spann, came into our room and announced that the President had been shot.  Everyone was traumatized.  The President died about an hour later at a Dallas hospital.

The next three days all of America watched on television the funeral preparations and the Monday funeral.  It was an unbelievably sad event.  The scene of the riderless white horse brought tears to your eyes.  If that did not, the scene where little John John Kennedy, a precious precocious two year old boy who gave a salute to his father was one of the most heart wrenching, tear jerking moments I have ever witnessed in my life.  It still brings tears to my eyes 60 years later as I write this column.

John John grew to be a very handsome young man like his father.  He like his father died an early untimely death in an airplane crash. Even though he did not have political aspirations, I believe that “John John,” John Kennedy, Jr., would have been president.

I am not a conspiracy theorist but allow me to illuminate some facts. Lyndon Johnson was the most ruthless, morally bankrupt, and crudest man to ever sit in the White House.  Johnson was the ultimate political animal. He lived by the rule that whatever it took to win and grab control of power is what you did.  If you doubt that, read Robert Caro’s books on LBJ, or better yet ask any historian about his years as U.S. Senate Majority Leader.

In recent years, the Secret Service has released files that reveal the following facts. First, Johnson insisted that Kennedy go to Dallas, Texas, and campaign.  The Secret Service asked Kennedy not to go because the Civil Rights issue was boiling in Texas.  At Johnson’s urging, Kennedy agreed to go. 

Second, the Secret Service came to Kennedy and said, “Mr. President, if you go you cannot use the main artery boulevard in your entourage.  We cannot protect you.”  Kennedy agreed.  When Johnson heard of this, he told Kennedy he had to go down that boulevard because, “It is a Texas tradition,” said Johnson.  Kennedy agreed at Johnson’s insistence.  

Finally, the Secret Service, in exasperation, told President Kennedy, “Mr. President we asked you not to go to Dallas. We also asked you not to go down that boulevard because we cannot protect you from all the high building windows. To a sharpshooter you will be a sitting duck.  If you go to Dallas and go down that thoroughfare, we must insist, you let us put up a protective bubble to protect you.”  Kennedy agreed.  Johnson heard of the bubble and insisted to President Kennedy that he could not do that because he would appear distant, detached, aloof and arrogant to Texans. President Kennedy, once again, acquiesced to Johnson’s pleas.  The rest is history.

The horrific, tragic scenes of Jackie Kennedy’s blood stained pink dress, a little two year old boy’s goodbye salute to his father, and the riderless white horse are indelibly planted in my memory 60 years later. The 1960’s was a very tumultuous and memorable time to come of age in America and November 22, 1963, is etched in a lot of our generation’s minds.

See you next week.

November 15, 2023 - Negative Ads Work and Always Have

Over the years many of you have lamented to me and said, “I am so tired of seeing all negative ads with candidates lambasting each other in political campaigns. Why don’t candidates say what they are going to do when they are elected, rather than bashing their opponent mercilessly?”    People also suggest that campaigns are more negative today than in bygone years.  Allow me to answer the question in the reverse order.  

Criticizing and slandering your opponent is not new. It was actually more vicious and incendiary in earlier American political life, and much more personal.  First of all, there were no television cameras or hidden studios where third party political ad gurus brewed disingenuous ads.  Folks in the old days would have to meet their opponents face-to-face at political forums, rallies, and debates.  They would trade barbs and insults right in the face of each other.  In early American political history, there were instances of fisticuffs and even a duel where opponents were shot.  Nothing was off limits, not even peoples’ wives and children.  What they did to Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel was so bad that it eventually caused the poor lady to withdraw and die from depression.

At least today, it seems inappropriate and out of bounds to attack peoples’ family members.  Also, in the old days it seemed you could say things about your opponent without there being any semblance of truth to the accusations.  Today there are laws requiring that any attack on the opposition must have a semblance or scintilla of truth.  Therefore, it was worse in past decades than today, if you can believe that.

To the main point asked, why do these campaign media gurus use negative ads.  It is a simple answer, they work.  If they did not work, they would not use them.  Polling reveals that negative ads change the trajectory and standing of candidates dramatically and instantaneously.  There is a direct correlation to a candidate’s polling numbers before and after being hit by a negative ad.  Much more so than a soft, pretty ad advocating that you vote for someone because they are a competent person that would be the ideal elected public servant.  These gurus know this fact because today’s polling is very accurate, and they can read the polls and they react, and design ads based on polling.

In Alabama political history the most brilliant and unquestionably accomplished politician was one, George C. Wallace.  In Wallace’s early years of “politiken” for his first terms as governor, polling was in its infancy and was not as scientifically accurate.  However, George Wallace was born to be a political genius and a political animal.  He had a God given ability to remember names and he knew what people wanted to hear.  He inherently could read the political tea leaves.  He did not need polling.

I would visit often with Wallace in his last term.  I was a freshman legislator and actually represented his home county of Barbour. He would call me down from the House floor to visit with him in the Governor’s office.  He would reminisce about past political forays and governor’s races.  He would tell me a lot of inside stories that I will probably never share.  However, allow me to share this sage political admonition he imparted to me one day.  

He looked me squarely in the eyes and told me that more people vote against someone than for someone.  He further elaborated, “you have got to find a boogeyman to run against.”  He lived and breathed this belief and strategy.  He ran on the race issue and segregation for decades.  He rode that horse as long as he could.  However, when Black Alabamians were given the right to vote in 1965 and soon after constituted 25% of the Democratic Primary electorate, Wallace instantly changed his stripes and went down Dexter Avenue to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church and had a conversion experience and begged forgiveness for exploiting the race issue.  The Black voters forgave Wallace and elected him governor that last term in 1982.  I never said Wallace was a statesman.  He was a true, natural politician, and, yes, a demagogue.  Whatever it took to get elected was Wallace’s modus operandi.

These political gurus of today know the George Wallace adage of finding a boogeyman to run against remains true.  In this upcoming election year, that is why you will see countless negative ads on television, because they work.

See you next week.

November 8, 2023 - 2024 Elections Around the Corner

Folks don’t look now, but our 2024 election year is upon us.  Next year is a major year in politics nationwide.  Not only does the nation elect a president, most states also elect their governors and legislators for four year terms in presidential years.

We, in Alabama, and in most southern states elect our governors and legislators in nonpresidential years.  Those of us who study and talk about Alabama politics refer to these years as gubernatorial years.  We elected our governor and legislature last year in 2022.  Historically, presidential years have been very dull and unexciting years for Alabama politics.  There are very few statewide contests and those that happen will be decided on March 5.  Since we are such an overwhelmingly Republican state, the only way to be elected statewide in the Heart of Dixie is as a Republican.  There are 29 statewide elected offices in Alabama and all 29 are held by a Republican.

There are four seats up for election on our Alabama Supreme Court.  Justices Jay Mitchell, Tommy Bryan and Will Sellers are up for reelection to another six year term on the high tribunal.  Justice Sarah Stewart’s seat is up for reelection.  However, Sarah has opted to move to the open Chief Justice position being vacated by the retirement of Chief Justice Tom Parker.  Justice Sarah Stewart is a good choice for Chief Justice.  She was a Circuit Judge in Mobile County for 14 years before she was elected to the Supreme Court six years ago.  

The Chief Justice is the administrator of the entire state judicial system.  Sarah Stewart’s experience as a circuit judge is invaluable and she also has the respect and support of most of the circuit judges around the state.  Circuit judges are very respected in their counties and communities throughout the state.  Sarah Stewart has been campaigning extensively and effectively all over Alabama during 2023.  She has let no grass grow under her feet.  

Speaking of working hard, the judge who will move up to take Sarah Stewart’s seat on the Supreme Court will be Criminal Court of Appeals Judge Chris McCool. Judge McCool is one of the most proven ardent campaigners I have seen in recent years.  I said when he announced a year ago that he would not be outworked, and he has proven me right.  He has traversed the state from one end to the other putting over 60,000 miles on his vehicle.  

Chris McCool will make a great justice and is the perfect representative on the court from the rural area of the state. He hails from rural Pickens County near Gordo and close to the Tuscaloosa County Line.  His family have very deep roots in that area.  The McCool’s settled there over 180 years ago prior to the Civil War.  They have farmed the land the entire time.  Chris lives in the same place his ancestors lived six generations ago.

Chris McCool borders on folk legend for an Alabama judge.  He has three fulltime professions.  He was a lawyer with impeccable credentials.  He graduated from the University of Alabama, undergraduate and law school.  Practiced law in Gordo before being elected District Attorney of the Pickens, Lamar, and Fayette Circuit at age 30.  He served as DA for 18 years and was elected to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals six years ago.  He is a minister.  He pastors the Zion Primitive Baptist Church near his home.  His family founded the church, and his great, great, great, grandfather was the first pastor.  He is also a farmer.

Judge McCool’s seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals will be filled by one of two assistant attorney generals. Rich Anderson and Thomas Govan both of Montgomery are vying for McCool’s seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals. Both are well qualified and would do a good.

Justices Chad Hansen and Christy Edwards are up for reelection to the Court of Civil Appeals. They are doing a good job. Justices Bill Cole and Richard Minor are up for reelection on the Court of Criminal Appeals. They both are doing an excellent job. This court has a very heavy caseload.

Twinkle Cavanaugh will be elected to her fourth term as President of the Alabama Public Service Commission next year.  Twinkle is becoming legendary as a public servant in our state.  Although still young, she has built a stellar reputation for honesty, integrity and conservatism.  The former Chairman of the Alabama Republican Party is the best retail politician in Alabama today.  She has crisscrossed the state campaigning in 2023 in preparation for 2024.  Even though she will more than likely not have an opponent, she is running scared and not taking anything for granted.

See you next week.

November 1, 2023 - Dr. Furnie Johnston, Pioneer Doctor

In recent years, healthcare has eclipsed agriculture as Dothan’s major industry. Dothan is the medical mecca for the entire Wiregrass, as well as rural northwest Florida and southwest Georgia.  It has premier medical professionals only matched by Birmingham in the state of Alabama.  Dothan doctors dominate the economy in the world’s largest peanut producing locale.

One of the pioneers of this medical revolution was Dothan’s Dr. Furnie Johnston, who passed away a few weeks ago at 94 years old.  Dr. Johnston brought specialized medicine to Dothan.  He had just finished his residency at UAB and was practicing in Birmingham when the legendary Dr. Paul Flowers called Furnie to come home to the Wiregrass and practice with him.  Furnie came home and became the first orthopedic surgeon in Dothan.  

Furnie Johnston was born and raised in Brundidge in Pike County a few miles north of Dothan.  His father was the town pharmacist and a successful businessman. Coincidentally, in the neighboring Wiregrass City of Ozark, the most prominent pharmacist in the city had a beautiful daughter by the name of Jo Kirkland.  Furnie of Brundidge and Jo of Ozark became sweethearts and married.  They married and remained sweethearts for life.  At the time of Furnie’s death on October 9, they had been married for 75 years.

In September, Furnie knew he was close to passing away.  He had gone to the hospital with terminal problems.  He told the attending physician that he wanted to go home to be with his sweetheart.

Furnie and Jo Johnston had five children, two sons and three daughters.  One of their sons, Jim, died in an automobile accident as a college student.  His son, David Johnston, is a prominent attorney in Dothan.  David is generally considered the premier tax attorney in South Alabama.  David and his father, Furnie, were very close.  They each considered the other to be their best friend besides being father and son. David, like his father, married an Ozark girl, Maurine Matthews.

The three daughters, Carole, Linda, and Laura, are all beautiful and successful with children and grandchildren.  All three girls were with Furnie when he passed away peacefully at home.  They all called him “Papa.”  His family affectionally referred to him as “the great white bear.”  He loved his family fiercely and was a devout Christian father, grandfather, and great grandfather.

Little did his family in Brundidge know that when Furnie was born in their small town on June 17, 1929, in the heart of the Depression, that he would help transform medicine in their Wiregrass region.  At that time, southeast Alabama was totally a peanut growing agricultural area.

Dr. Furnie Johnston, being a child of the Depression, was empathetic towards the life of rural Wiregrass folks.  He began his practice before Medicare and Medicaid.  Doctors were often not paid for their care and services.  It was not unusual for Alabama doctors to be paid with vegetables from farmer’s gardens or chickens.  However, the Wiregrass people have always been known as hard working and very honest and believed in paying their debts.  So Furnie might find vegetables left on his doorstep for years on end by a farm family paying off Furnie for fixing their broken arm.

He treated many a Wiregrass family without charge.  He was especially generous and benevolent towards his native Pike County patients.  Everyone from Ozark, Brundidge, and Troy, who had a fractured leg, arm, or hip, would journey down Highway 231 to Dothan to see Dr. Furnie Johnston. They would arrive with their broken limb and say, “I’m here to see Furnie Jr.”  Furnie’s father was also named Furnie. So, the Brundidge patients would simply say, “I’m here to see Furnie Jr.,” while the Dothan patients would say, “I’m here to see Dr. Johnston.”  Therefore, when the office manager heard, “Furnie, Jr.,” they would say, “You are from Pike County, aren’t you?”  The patient would nod and they would go on back to see the regions bone specialist.  Furnie would generally know their family and their roots.  He instinctively knew whether they could pay and he would simply and quietly let his nurse know that they were not to be charged for their treatment.  He treated all of his patients the same.

The passing of Dr. Furnie Johnston at age 94, marks the passing of an era.  The days of two neighboring Wiregrass town pharmacists’ son and daughter marrying and having a large and prosperous family may be of a past era. However, the legacy of Dr. Furnie Johnston, as the first orthopedic surgeon in Dothan, remains. He will be remembered as the pioneer, who transformed Dothan from a peanut city to a medical city.

See you next week.

October 25, 2023 - University Philanthropists

In the past two to three years we have had some very generous benefactors make some very magnanimous contributions to their university alma maters in Alabama.

One of those philanthropist is Alabama businessman Jim Kennemer.  Thanks to a $2 million gift from Kennemer, the University of Alabama funded the James C. Kennemer Center for Innovation and Social Impact.

Jim and I were in school together at the University of Alabama in the 1970s, where we became friends and we have remained friends.  Many of his close friends call him “Robo,” a nickname he picked up while a fraternity pledge at the University.  Why? Because he was so proficient and efficient at washing the older active members cars.

I remember, quite vividly, that Jim was involved in an unheard of secret university endeavor called “computers.”  As students, most of us vaguely knew that these strange new machines existed, but that is about all we knew.

Jim would disappear and show up for breakfast.  When asked about these nocturnal activities, he would curiously respond that he had been at the computer center where he had been “programming.” Now, understand that this was in the early 1970s and these computers were very new.  Little did we know what an impact these machines would ultimately have in our daily lives.

Jim Kennemer is from Tuscumbia.  His wife Nancy Pettus is from Birmingham.  They met and bonded at the University.  They have been married 50 years and have built an empire together and have given back to their alma mater, the University of Alabama.

The University of Alabama recently hosted a reception to announce the gift and the naming of the Kennemer Center.  The Center will be housed within the UA Honors College.

After leaving UA with a BS and MBA degrees, Jim settled into the back of a warehouse in Birmingham and designed the first fully programmable payment processing workstations.  The first customer was the largest bank in the country.  Within a few years, systems were installed at major banks, utilities and other large processors throughout the United States.  At one point roughly 12% of the U.S. GDP flowed through these systems that Jim designed.

When that company was acquired, Jim and a partner pursued an opportunity in England that ultimately grew into a company he took public on the London Stock Exchange.

Back in Alabama, Jim continued with a series of successful companies.  After one of these companies had been acquired, Jim came across a revolutionary NASA developed technology for early detection of eye problems in children.  Thus, Vision Research Corporation was launched.

Vision research became Jim’s real love.  Jim originally had an entrepreneur’s interest and intent with the company.  However, after seeing thousands of children’s lives made so much better after correction of their vision problems, he was hooked for life with his project.  Hundreds of thousands of kids are screened each year and over the years, almost one million children have been helped.

Jim Kennemer grew up about a mile from Helen Keller’s birthplace.  I have always thought that she was an impetus towards Jim Kennemer’s Vision Research Center.

Recently, Crowne Health founder and CEO, Billy Jones, and his wife Frances, gave $2 million to Troy University, his alma mater. Troy University will use the gift for a new building on the Troy campus.  The building will be named in honor of Billy Jones of Monroeville.  It will be a center for research in the area of polymers and polymer recycling.  The building named in Jones’s honor will also primarily and appropriately be a Health Science building.

Dr. Jack Hawkins, Chancellor of Troy University, has been known for his prowess at fundraising during his 35 year reign as Chancellor of Troy University.  He made an elegant presentation in his remarks honoring Jones at the ceremony bestowing the Jones name upon the building. He said succinctly, “Billy Jones is a cornerstone in the quality of healthcare in Alabama.  As President and CEO of Crowne Health Systems, he has been a legend in Alabama, and he is a Troy product. With 18 nursing homes and 2000 employees, he has made a remarkable difference in the quality of care given to many thousands of people.  It is appropriate that his name will be reflected on a building that is dedicated to the development and education of healthcare workers.  He has been a great supporter of this university and we are very proud of the relationship we share with him.”

The saying that Alabama is one big front porch continues.  Dr. Jack Hawkins and Billy Jones grew up together in Mobile.  They have known each other since their days together at Murphy High in Mobile.

See you next week.

October 18, 2023 - The Shorty Price Story

Alabama has had its share of what I call “run for the fun of it” candidates. The most colorful of all these perennial “also ran” candidates was Ralph “Shorty” Price. He ran for governor every time.  His slogan was “Smoke Tampa Nugget cigars, drink Budweiser beer and vote for Shorty Price.”

In one of Shorty’s campaigns for governor his campaign speech contained this line, “If elected governor, I will reduce the governor’s tenure from four to two years. If you can’t steal enough to last you the rest of your life in two years, you ain’t got enough sense to have the office in the first place.”  He would use recycled campaign signs to save money, but he rarely garnered 2% of the votes in any campaign.

Most people remember Shorty as one of the Alabama Crimson Tide’s most ardent cheerleaders. Like a lot of old-time Alabama fans, Shorty hated Tennessee, which is why I am highlighting Shorty this week since Alabama hosts Tennessee in Bryant Denny Stadium this Saturday.

Shorty loved Alabama football. Following the Crimson Tide was Shorty’s prime passion in life. You could spot Shorty, even though he was only 5 ft tall, at every Crimson tide football game always sporting a black suit and a black hat with a round top, plus his Alabama tie and flag.

I do not know if Shorty actually had a seat because he would parade around Denny Stadium or Legion Field posing as Alabama’s head cheerleader. In fact, he would intersperse himself among the real Alabama cheerleaders and help them with their cheers. There was no question that Shorty was totally inebriated. In fact, I never saw Shorty when he was not drunk.

Shorty worshiped Paul “Bear” Bryant. Indeed, Bryant and Shorty were of the same era. Like Bryant, Shorty hated Tennessee.

Speaking of the Tennessee rivalry, I will share with you a personal Shorty story. I had become acquainted with Shorty early in life. Therefore, on a clear, beautiful, third Saturday, fall afternoon in October Alabama was playing Tennessee in Legion Field. As always, Shorty was prancing up and down the field. I was a freshman at the University on that fall Saturday. Shorty, even in his drunken daze, recognized me. I had a beautiful date that I was trying to impress, and meeting Shorty did not impress her. Shorty pranced up the aisle and proceeded to sit by me.  His daily black suit had not been changed in probably over a year. He reeked of alcohol and body odor and my date had to hold her nose.

After about 20 minutes of offending my date, Shorty then proceeded to try to impress the crowd by doing somersaults off the six-foot walls of Legion Field. He did at least three, smashing his head straight down on the pavement on each dive. I thought Shorty had killed himself with his somersaults. His face and his head were bleeding profusely, and he was developing a black eye. Fortunately, Shorty left my domain and proceeded to dance with the Alabama cheerleaders that day as bloody as he may have been.

Shorty was beloved by the fans, and I guess that is why the police in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa seemed to ignore Shorty’s antics. However, that was not the case in a classic Alabama game four years later. By this time, I was a senior at the University, and we were facing Notre Dame in an epic championship battle in the old New Orleans Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Eve. It was for the 1973 national championship. Bear Bryant and Ara Parseghian were pitted against each other. We were ranked #1 and #2.

One of the largest television audiences in history was focused on the 7:30 p.m. kickoff. It was electrifying. Those of us in the stands were awaiting the entrance of the football teams, as were the ABC cameras. Somehow, Shorty had journeyed to New Orleans, had gotten on the field and was poised to lead the Alabama team out on the field.

As was customary, Shorty was drunk as Cooter Brown. He started off by beating an Irish puppet with a club and the next thing I knew two burly New Orleans policemen, two of the biggest I had ever seen, picked up Shorty by his arms and escorted him off the field. They did not know who Shorty was and did not appreciate him. Sadly, Shorty, one of Alabama’s greatest fans, missed one of Alabama’s classic games sitting in a New Orleans jail.

I have always believed that Shorty’s removal from the field was a bad omen for us that night. We lost 24-23 and Notre Dame won the National Championship.

See you next week.

October 11, 2023 - Alabama Community College Marks 60 Years

The year 1963 was an historic and turbulent year for Alabama.  The race issue was the prevalent and commanding issue in southern politics.  White southerners were determined to hold onto segregation and Jim Crow laws as was the entire South.

Black southerners were prohibited from voting by these laws and practices. Therefore, every governor’s race in the Deep South was won by whichever candidate could be the most pro-segregationist, and yes, most rhetorical and vociferous towards blacks and integration. The king of the racist anti-integration governors became our own George C. Wallace, although Georgia’s Lester Maddox and Mississippi’s Ross Barrett ran him a close second.

George Wallace was obsessed with being the Governor of Alabama.  He thought he would be elected in his first bid in 1958.  He lost that race to John Patterson primarily because Patterson was perceived as being the most pronounced racist and segregationist.  Wallace took the defeat hard.  He actually went into a depression mode for about a week.  He hardly got out of his bed in a Montgomery hotel room.  His closest friends and allies consoled him and finally coaxed him out of bed and assured him that he had just run his “Get Acquainted Race,” an historic pattern whereby the man who ran second would run for governor again in four years later and win because the sitting governor could not run again.  The Alabama Constitution prohibited reelection, so one four year term and you were out.  

After a week, Wallace got out of bed, shaved, showered, called his comrades together and declared, “Boys, I am going to be elected governor in 1962, come hell or high water.  I got out-segged and I ain’t going to be out-segged again.”  He grabbed hold of the race issue, and he did not let go.  He worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week for four years, and he rode the race issue like a rented mule and won the 1962 governor’s race.

He became Governor in January of 1963 and made his famous inaugural speech spouting, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”  He and every legislator passed laws and resolutions espousing segregation.

Wallace was sincere in his racist rhetoric.  He believed in segregation, but deep down he was more of a progressive than a racist.  Wallace was born and raised from humble roots in rural Barbour County.  He saw what FDR’s New Deal Democratic Progressive Plan had done for Alabama.  Wallace had put together enough money to journey to Tuscaloosa with a cardboard suitcase and get into the University of Alabama as a boy.  At that time, most promising students could not afford to go to college.  Wallace was determined to provide an opportunity for Alabama students to be able to stay home and get a college education.

In the midst of all the racist discord in 1963, Wallace and the legislature created the Alabama Junior College and Trade School System.  It is his greatest legacy. The system was created 60 years ago in 1963.  This is the systems “Diamond Jubilee.”  The system has long transitioned from the junior college system for providing an easier way to get the first two years of college before transferring to a four year college.

Today, 60 years later, the Alabama Community College System is the most important and significant segment of higher education in Alabama.  The Community College System is made up of Alabama students and they are prepared to take Alabama’s highest paying and most needed jobs. The Alabama Community College System is the new capstone of higher education in Alabama.

The Alabama Community College System is made up of 24 colleges and more than 130 locations.  They are the primary vehicle for providing workers and managers for Alabama businesses large and small.

There are 155,000 students attending Alabama Community Colleges.  Enrollment has been up almost 10% in the last two years.  Ninety-six percent of the systems students live in Alabama and 72% of these students stay in Alabama after completing their studies.  These students and alumni add an amazing $6.6 billion to Alabama economy each year.  Nearly 100,000 jobs in Alabama are generated or supported by Alabama’s Community Colleges, their students and alumni.  This accounts for one of every 27 jobs in our state.  

Wallace could never have dreamed of what he was doing for Alabama’s future 60 years ago.

See you next week.