The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

2 months ago

Alabama’s Holocaust Day of Remembrance observance to be April 11

(Alabama NewCenter/Contributed)

American prisoner of war Roddie Edmonds stood in front of more than 1,200 fellow POWs, the commandant of a German Stalag holding a Luger to Edmonds’ head.

The day before, the commandant had demanded that all Jewish POWs among the 1,200-plus noncommissioned officers captured during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 present themselves outside their barracks the next morning. Edmonds, a master sergeant from Knoxville, Tennessee, was the group’s ranking officer. He ordered all the American POWs to stand in formation, like they did every morning.

The commandant was furious. “You can’t all be Jews!” he said. Edmonds replied, “We are all Jews here.”

That’s when the German drew his pistol and threatened to kill Edmonds. “You will order the Jews to step forward, or I will shoot you right now.”

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Edmonds told the commandant he would have to shoot all the prisoners and that after the war, which was nearing its end with Germany losing, he would be prosecuted for war crimes. The commandant about-faced and walked away. Among the POWs were 200 Jewish GIs. Edmonds’ remarkable bravery while staring down death saved their lives.

Edmonds’ son, Chris, senior pastor of Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tennessee, will be the featured speaker Sunday, April 11, at 2 p.m. at Alabama’s Holocaust Day of Remembrance. The annual observance of Yom HaShoah honors the memory of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, and Alabama’s survivors and their families. The event will be livestreamed. Click here to register.

Chris Edmonds recently received the Righteous Among the Nations award from Israel and Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, on behalf of his father, who died in 1985. This story’s account of Roddie Edmonds’ heroism came from the classroom version of the award-winning documentary “Footsteps of My Father,” made by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in 2018.

Alabama’s Holocaust event is organized by the Alabama Holocaust Commission, the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Birmingham Jewish Federation. The observance will include a rededication of the Anne Frank Tree in Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham.

In 2010, a group of Birmingham organizations planted a horse chestnut tree in the park to memorialize Frank, the young Jewish Holocaust victim who kept a diary of her experiences and could look out at a large horse chestnut tree in the garden as she and her family hid from the Nazis. The tree planted in Birmingham did not survive the Alabama climate. On April 11, the groups will rededicate an American beech that has replaced the horse chestnut tree.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey will make a proclamation at the event and Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, will speak. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin is part of the program, which includes music by violinist Niv Ashkenazi as part of the Violins of Hope, an artistic project of the restored instruments played by Jewish musicians in Holocaust camps. A candle-lighting ceremony will recognize Holocaust survivors and their families.

One of those survivors is Birmingham’s Dr. Robert May, who celebrated his 95th birthday in February. The retired OB-GYN counts himself extremely fortunate that he and his immediate family survived the Holocaust, although an aunt and uncle who helped them perished in Auschwitz.

“I have lived a long life. I’m 95 years old. It has been a fortuitous life. I have survived a disaster that happened to some of my family,” he said.

May was born in 1926 in Camberg, Germany, a small town about 50 miles from Frankfurt. He remembers playing soccer and marbles with other children in the park and living an “essentially normal” life – until Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933 when May was 7.

“I was totally isolated after Hitler came to power,” he said. “Everyone knew everyone else, and knew we were Jewish. I was an outcast. By age 9, it became impossible for a kid to have a normal life because of isolation more than any physical harm.”

May remembers the indoctrination of his classmates into the Hitler Youth and being jealous of the fancy uniforms they wore.

“One of the episodes I remember vividly, I was chased by a couple of Nazi-uniformed kids in my class. They called me a dirty Jew. I escaped by way of a little entrance into our house in the back,” he said. “I told my father about it and that I called them a dirty Nazi back. My father said, ‘Don’t do that. There’s no need to aggravate them. Just run home and get away from them but don’t call them names.’

“That was the basic attitude of the Jews at the time,” May said. “’This will pass, we’ve been through worse.’ The attitude was, people will come to their senses.”

But they didn’t.

As things got worse for May, his Aunt Emma moved with him to Frankfurt in 1936, leaving behind his parents in Camberg. They lived in an apartment owned by his wealthy Uncle Siegmund, who had escaped Germany and lived in Holland. May’s uncle paid for him to attend the Philanthropin, a Jewish school that gave him an “extraordinary” education, until Kristallnacht in November 1938.

During Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” German mobs of paramilitary forces and civilians attacked and damaged or destroyed thousands of businesses and synagogues, killing at least 91 Jews, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Many others died after being arrested. Some 30,000 Jewish males from 16 to 60 were sent to concentration camps.

A neighbor had warned May and his Aunt Emma to leave their apartment, which rioters ransacked. The school and synagogue he attended were torched. Soon after, May, who was 12, traveled alone to Brighton, England, under the Kindertransport program. The rescue effort by the British government fed, educated and housed thousands of refugee children, most of them Jewish. Uncle Siegmund paid for May to attend a Jewish boarding school.

May’s parents, with only two suitcases, escaped to London two days before the war started in summer 1939, awaiting a visa to travel to the United States. May, his parents and his two older brothers, who had left Germany years earlier, ended up in New Orleans in 1940, where relatives lived. Meanwhile, Germany conquered much of Europe, including Holland, where May’s Aunt Emma had joined Uncle Siegmund.

“In 1940, when Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland and defeated France, they were overrun by the Germans in Amsterdam, deported in 1942 or 1943 and were killed in Auschwitz,” May said.

Fast-forward through May’s life to now: medical school in New Orleans, two years in the Air Force, marriage, moving to Birmingham in 1953 to start a medical practice, three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren over the course of almost a half-century as a doctor and finally, retirement. His life, he said, could have happened “only in America.”

“I’m married to a young lady that I’ve been married to 67 or 68 years. We’re still living in the same house we’ve lived in for 55 years. I have no complaints,” May said.

He paused.

“I do remember my aunt and uncle and what happened to them. Without them, I would not be here.”

Holocaust education

One of May’s children is Ann Mollengarden, education director of the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center. Stories like her father’s help people understand the impact the Holocaust had at a personal level.

“The difficulty with this subject is the magnitude,” she said. “Because of the magnitude, it often becomes something that is unrelatable. So it needs to be drawn down to the individuals and to their experiences, which are really diverse.

“Instead of making it about 6 million (deaths), it’s putting a face to the events,” Mollengarden said.

With hate speech and the number of hate crimes growing and Holocaust deniers spewing their lies on the internet and social media, educating people about the Holocaust remains a critical mission of BHEC, with the goal of creating a “more just, humane and tolerant future.”

“This was a time when humanity really went awry, and it is a representative time for all groups of people as to what can go wrong when we don’t follow the norms of humanity,” Mollengarden said. “We should be studying about this and learning about this because it shows how we can go wrong, how democracy can fail, how human beings can fail, and what we are capable of doing.”

Zoe Weil, BHEC’s director of programs and outreach, notes that hate speech can lead to hate crimes and to something far worse, as events in Germany under the Third Reich proved.

“It didn’t start with the camps. It was an incremental, slow process,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why a large population accepted it, or didn’t do as much as they should have because of those incremental laws of, oh, Jews can’t go to the park anymore. Jews can’t stay out past 7 anymore. No more Jewish businesses. Jews have to wear stars. Jews have to live in one area.”

Each of those steps, one after another, led to violence, to widespread killings and, ultimately, to state-sponsored, mass murder in concentration camps – not just 6 million Jews, but millions more people in other, targeted groups.

“That’s part of Holocaust education, learning the dangers of letting those ideas and thoughts and actions continue,” Weil said.

Not every Holocaust survivor endured the horrors of a concentration camp. Some fled, others went into hiding during the war.

“We define a survivor as anyone whose lives came under the Third Reich,” Mollengarden said.

BHEC continues working to document the stories of survivors who live or have lived in Alabama. With a founding board of directors that included Holocaust survivors, that’s one of the reasons for BHEC’s existence. “It was their hope that really spurred all of this because they want their stories to be told, and they wanted to assure that their stories would continue to be told,” Mollengarden said.

BHEC’s survivors’ archive includes more than 170 names, and Mollengarden invited the public to let BHEC know of survivors it has not documented or to provide additional information about the survivors listed. As the number of living survivors dwindles, the BHEC wants to do all it can to preserve and tell their stories – through the archive, through children of survivors telling their family’s stories, through others telling stories of survivors who have died.

“That is our goal, to continue to tell these stories because they won’t be around forever,” Mollengarden said. “These stories are so important.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Alabama’s Jesse Lewis Sr. has seen and made nearly a century of history

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

Jesse J. Lewis Sr. has lived almost a century of history and, along the way, made some of his own.

Born Jan. 3, 1925, Lewis last month celebrated his 96th birthday. He grew up in the Great Depression, dropped out of high school, served under Gen. George Patton in World War II, suffered through the racial hatred of Jim Crow and the civil rights era, became a serial entrepreneur, earned five academic degrees, served in the cabinet of one of Alabama’s most controversial politicians, spent a decade as a college president and this past year witnessed a deadly pandemic unlike anything he has seen while watching the social justice movement unfold.

Across 11 decades, Lewis has learned many life lessons, which he shared in his book “One Man’s Opinion: Together We Can Do This,” published in 2020. Lewis sat down recently with Alabama Power CEO Mark Crosswhite for a conversation on legacy, lessons learned, the events of 2020 and how people can work together toward a brighter future.

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Alabama Power CEO Mark Crosswhite chats with Birmingham business and community legend Jesse Lewis Sr. from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Lewis said he wrote the book “primarily for young Blacks” to help them understand how to succeed in life. The book emphasizes education, entrepreneurship and the power – and necessity – of voting as Lewis shares his life story and what he has learned along the way.

As Crosswhite said of the book, “Your intended audience may have been young Black people, but I will tell you there are lessons in the book for people of every color. … It is a book of optimism and hope, and some tough talk and straight talk, and I know that’s what you intended it to be.”

Lewis’ story begins in Northport, Alabama, where his grandmother Sarah Davis raised him and four of his younger cousins in a small shotgun house.

“I was the oldest, and the bad thing about being the oldest, you’re the one who has to bring some money home to feed the other children,” Lewis said. “All these kids didn’t have no father. We learned how to make a living. It was the responsibility of everybody to bring home a little piece of money every day. That’s one of my great assets.”

He developed that asset cutting grass, selling pies his grandmother made and helping run a laundry business. Lewis honed his entrepreneurial skills in the Army, which he joined during World War II. He was a high school dropout and just 16 years old. “If you were a person of color and you walked up … they didn’t ask you nothing,” he said.

Lewis sent “every penny” of his pay to his grandmother. He did laundry for other soldiers and sold them candy and other items so he’d have some spending money.

His commanding officer was from Auburn and appointed Lewis battalion supply sergeant. The battalion built bridges and it was Lewis’ job to make sure the soldiers had the supplies they needed.

“They didn’t know I didn’t have any education. I had just finished the 10th grade,” he said.

What Lewis figured out is that when given the opportunity to hire a dozen soldiers from the battalion to keep the supplies going, “I picked out the smartest ones in the group. I was the dumbest in the group.” Lewis said the battalion “won every award for two years on having the best run battalion in the 183rd Engineers.”

After the war, Lewis used the GI Bill to get an education. In 1954, after he graduated from Booker T. Washington Business College in Birmingham, he created Jesse J. Lewis & Associates. The company was one of the nation’s first Black-owned PR firms and now operates as Agency54, a full-service marketing and advertising agency.

When Lewis was a student at Miles College in Birmingham and working at the school newspaper, he called Alabama Gov. George Wallace and asked him for an interview. Wallace, a staunch segregationist, agreed.

“I was the head of the publication and my dream was to interview George Wallace,” Lewis told Crosswhite. “I asked him, I said, ‘Governor, are you a racist?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ That shocked me. … He said, ‘Yes, I am. I wasn’t born one, nobody is born one, but I was trained by my grandfather and my father. They trained me to be a racist, but I’m not training my children to be racists. And in addition to that, I’m not going to die a racist.’”

In 1964, just after the height of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Lewis founded The Birmingham Times, as he put it in his book, “because there was no voice within the Black community to speak for it.” While Lewis no longer owns the newspaper, it continues to publish weekly. He is its publisher emeritus and still contributes an occasional column.

After Lewis’ interview with Wallace, the pair forged an unlikely friendship that led to Lewis working on Wallace’s 1968 independent campaign for president. Lewis says of Wallace being paralyzed from shots fired by Arthur Bremer during Wallace’s 1972 campaign for president: “My guess would be if he had not gotten shot he would be president.

“Gov. Wallace was one of the best politicians I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” Lewis said. “He just had the knack of saying the right thing at the right time. He was one of my favorite persons out of all the people I know.”

Lewis said he was asked once about running for public office and he strongly considered doing it – until his wife, Helen, “told me she wouldn’t vote for me. I said if your wife is telling you she won’t vote for you, you’re not a politician.”

In 1975, Wallace appointed Lewis to be the state’s director of Traffic Safety, becoming the first Black since Reconstruction to serve in an Alabama governor’s cabinet. Lewis drew criticism from many Blacks at the time for going to work for Wallace.

In 1978, the state Board of Education appointed Lewis president of Lawson State Technical College, a position he held until 1987.

Through the decades, Lewis continued to create businesses. He established the Lewis Group, a public policy consulting firm, in 1995 while Jesse J. Lewis & Associates continued operations as Elements Communications. Lewis merged Elements with the Lewis Group in 2013. The firm rebranded as Agency54 in 2016, and Lewis continues as its chairman.

This past year, more than six decades after Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus sparked the modern civil rights era, a series of deaths of unarmed Blacks – several at the hands of police – triggered a social justice movement across the United States. Crosswhite asked Lewis to compare the two movements.

“The only comparison you could make, once upon a time Alabama was classified as one of the worst states in the world as it relates to treatment of Blacks,” Lewis said. “That’s not true today. … I can see the progress. I can feel the progress.

“It’s not where it should be, but as my grandmother said, ‘Be going in the right direction.’ We’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

Even before the social justice movement swept across America this past summer, the country had confronted, and continues to confront, COVID-19. More than 441,000 Americans (including about 7,700 Alabamians) have died as of Feb. 1, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resources Center tracking.

Lewis, ever the optimist, believes the pandemic will make Americans a stronger people.

“You’re going to come out with some better people. You’re going to come out with people having more sensitivity to one another. They’re helping one another more and more and more,” he said. “It’s not going to end today, but I’m going to guarantee when this thing is over … you’re going to have people pulling together more than they ever have before.”

During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 months ago

Firehouse Community Arts Center launching in Avondale

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

Thirteen-year-old Eric Wallace knew, as surely as he needed to breathe, that he needed to make music. He knew that he had to make music.

“For me, that was always, how can I get to my friend’s house who has a drum set? How can I play guitar? How can I get that sound with him playing drums and me playing guitar?” says Wallace, a native of Homewood, a suburb south of Birmingham. “From there, it just grew into how can I get into a van and go on tour? How can I play a show in my city in front of my friends and family?”

What Wallace didn’t know until years later was that music would become much more than just “a fun thing to do on the weekends. … Maybe it was after my life was all about music that I realized my life was all about music,” he says.

For Wallace, now 35, that has meant playing “in 15 bands before I was 20 years old.” National tours with the hardcore band Wildcat Revival. A stint in the rock band the Monitors. Playing lead guitar with his singer/songwriter friend Will Stewart. And now playing in the Blips, a rock ‘n’ roll collective of Birmingham music scene veterans Wallace, Stewart, Wes McDonald, Taylor Hollingsworth and Chris McCauley.

Wallace’s life of music also led him in 2009 to buy the historic Spring Street Firehouse in Avondale, built in 1890, to live in, host do-it-yourself music shows and other events, and teach guitar lessons.

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Wallace still revels in the joy music brought to his 13-year-old self and wants to share that feeling with children who live in and around Avondale, a Birmingham community east of downtown. Today, Wallace is launching the Firehouse Community Arts Center, a nonprofit he founded and is executive director of that is the next verse of his musical life.

Wallace is planning music lessons for children from 9 to 18 years old who live in city of Birmingham neighborhoods around the firehouse: South Avondale/Forest Park, North Avondale and East Avondale. With a personal loan, grants and donations, Wallace is renovating the firehouse space and hiring local musicians to teach the children, who will receive scholarship based on family income for lessons.

“We’ve got this great community of musicians here in Birmingham. Most of them are working in restaurants when they’re not on tour or making records,” he says. “Meanwhile, music education programs are often expensive and inaccessible to the people of my community. How can we, through a nonprofit, build up those two aspects of our community and do it at the same time? I think that’s where we’ve landed.”

Wallace hopes to partner with city schools in the three neighborhoods.

“We’ve got a great idea to go into some of those schools with a guitar. We’ll call it Firehouse Firsts. Learn your first chord. Learn how to play your first drumbeat. I’ll be there to show kids the first things about how to play an instrument,” he said.

The nonprofit has a $70,000 goal for its initial fundraising campaign that Wallace says will be used to fund students’ scholarships, pay for an intern from one of the neighborhoods and start paying back on the build-out of the firehouse. Click here to donate.

‘Make all the noise you want to’

A building next door will be converted into a recording studio and a hallway will connect it to the firehouse. The firehouse will have three small lesson rooms for one-on-one sessions and two fully equipped rooms with drums, amplifiers for guitars and bass, keyboards and a PA system and soundproof walls “where you can go and make all the noise you want to,” Wallace says. “We’re really excited about it.”

And, of course, there is the downstairs venue that Wallace and friends in the music community created after he bought the firehouse. Wallace bought it at a time Avondale, founded in 1887 as a company town built around Avondale Mills, had suffered decades of decline.

The building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built as a firehouse for the Avondale Fire Department but did not serve that purpose for very long, says Wallace, who has researched its history. He learned the firehouse was a garment warehouse in the 1940s and home to Genry’s Barber Shop not long before he bought the building. Wallace heard from the locals other lore that may or may not be true about the building.

“I had an old fellow from the neighborhood who said he lived there,” he says. “Another one said he thought it was a brothel at some point, but none of that has been corroborated.”

What can be corroborated is the building’s history that Wallace created.

Having grown up playing in places like the beloved Cave 9, a volunteer-run venue that hosted all-ages shows but closed in 2009, Wallace thought he could do something similar at the firehouse.

“Cave 9 was so inspiring, to see other people expressing themselves, to see a real outlet for yourself as a young aspiring musician or artist,” he says. “That was the time that void, with Cave 9 closing, was created. I owned the building, there was no landlord to get mad. At that time there were no neighbors.”

So began all-ages music shows, standup comedy, art shows and other community events that continued until March, when COVID-19 forced the venue to shut down.

During the decade-plus since Wallace bought the firehouse, the surrounding area has blossomed with the addition of a brewery, restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, driving up the value of his property. A business district that was a ghost town transformed into one of Birmingham’s hottest areas.

“A lot of people think I’m some kind of real estate genius,” he says. “I’m not. But also implying that I’m lucky would also imply that the goal was to make a million dollars. I would love to make a million dollars, but that’s never been the goal here.”

Wallace figured out the goal as he grew more settled in his new community.

“Having this space, really to me at that time, was all about me and all about consolidating my life and the things that I love and the things that I wanted to work with,” Wallace says.

Fitting into the area

As he got to know the community, Wallace began thinking less about himself and more about how he and his building fit into the area.

“That’s been the driving force behind starting the nonprofit, making this space a safe place where we can move forward as a member of the community with the community’s voices behind us and do what I think is the really, really important job servicing the kids of these three neighborhoods who haven’t had that opportunity that I did when I was 13, the ‘endless possibility’ feeling of playing music with your friend,” he says. “That’s what this space is for.”

Wallace wants neighborhood students to experience that feeling of endless possibility, not just with music, but with life. He says one of the program’s goals is to help students build empathy toward others in the community.

“When you live in such a diverse neighborhood and such a diverse community, having a space where you can meet your neighbors and understand what their daily life is like is such a valuable experience for our city and our neighborhood and our community as a whole.”

Wallace also believes music can instill children with self-confidence. “Not everybody is great at sports. When you learn music, you can often find some things inside yourself that you might not have known were there,” he says. “Picking up the guitar and being able to be good at it is a whole different set of skills than you learned joining the basketball team or the baseball team, and that can be a really valuable experience for young people.”

Wallace himself hopes for something beyond the endless possibility he felt as a 13-year-old chasing that magic sound.

“To me, the feeling that you’ve created something that you’re proud of is the ultimate success. I hope to have 60 students in here within a year’s time that are all defining success in different ways and are all experiencing success,” he says.

“That’ll feel like success.”

To learn more about the Firehouse Community Arts Center or how to donate a gently used musical instrument, click here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Alabama chefs and bar named James Beard semifinalists for 2019

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

Some familiar names in Alabama’s culinary world are semifinalists for the 2019 James Beard Awards, announced Wednesday morning by the James Beard Foundation.

Birmingham’s The Atomic Lounge for the second year in a row is a semifinalist for Outstanding Bar Program, one of 20 across the country to make the cut. The Outstanding Bar Program award is for “a restaurant or bar that demonstrates exceptional care and skill in the selection, preparation and serving of cocktails, spirits and/or beer,” the foundation said in a news release.

David Bancroft of Acre in Auburn, Bill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs in Orange Beach and Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood again are semifinalists this year for Best Chef: South. The South region includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Puerto Rico. Bancroft and Briand are semifinalists for the fourth year in a row, while Hontzas was chosen for the third straight year.

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A James Beard Award for a culinary professional is akin to those in the movie industry earning an Academy Award or journalists winning a Pulitzer Prize. Being a Beard semifinalist often will propel a chef, restaurant or bar to regional fame and beyond, while capturing the prestigious award can bring national fame.

That was certainly the case for Highlands Bar & Grill pastry chef Dolester Miles, who won a Beard Award last year for Outstanding Pastry Chef and soon after was profiled in The New York Times. Highlands, which had been a finalist for a decade and already was well known on the national restaurant scene, also won a Beard Award in 2018 for Outstanding Restaurant.

The awards, established by the James Beard Foundation in 1990, “recognize culinary professionals for excellence and achievement in their fields and furthers the foundation’s mission to celebrate, nurture and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable for everyone,” the foundation said in a news release.

Nominees for the awards will be announced March 27, with winners honored at the James Beard Foundation Awards gala on Monday, May 6, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

Dolester Miles enjoys sweet success after James Beard Award

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

The second morning after Dolester Miles won the 2018 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in America, her Instagram account lit up with its first posts.

Miles, who has worked for Frank Stitt at Birmingham’s Highlands Bar & Grill since he opened in 1982, posted photo after photo of her, of her desserts, of her with her desserts, of her with Stitt, of the James Beard Award medal. Eighteen photos in all in the account’s first nine posts, all on May 9, 2018.

The publicity-shy Miles was ready to share with the world, not that she needed any validation from the Beard Award as a top pastry chef. Anyone who has eaten her beloved coconut pecan cake, peach cobbler, lemon meringue tart, or any of her desserts, had validated those skills with thousands of empty plates over more than three decades.

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Miles begins her workday before sunup, baking in the kitchen at Stitt’s Bottega restaurant. She takes great joy in knowing that diners in all of Stitt’s restaurants ­– Highlands, Chez Fonfon, Bottega and Bottega Café – relish her desserts.

“Sometimes, I go in the café during lunch and I can see people eating desserts and you can see how they really enjoy it, like they almost lick the plate like ‘that’s the best thing I ever ate,’” Miles said in the 2018 short documentary film “Dol” by Ava Lowrey, filmmaker for the Southern Foodways Alliance.

For many diners, it just may be the best thing they ever ate.

Bill Addison is the national restaurant critic for the website Eater and chairman of the Beard Foundation’s restaurant-award committee. Last May after Miles’ Beard win, he raved about her peach cobbler to The New York Times.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “It’s the best peach cobbler I’ve ever had. All of her cobblers are great, but the peach is the one that makes my soul burst into four-part harmony.”

The sweet harmonies Miles’ pastries invoke have their beginnings in Bessemer, where she was raised. When she was growing up, she and her mother and aunt would gather on Sundays to bake cakes.

“And I used to get in the kitchen with them, like, ‘hey, let me get in on this, let me lick the spatula,’” Miles said in “Dol” and laughed.

She joined Stitt even before Highlands – itself a Beard Award winner in 2018 for Outstanding Restaurant in America – opened its doors. Miles and her sister Diane helped clean the restaurant and pitched in on sewing the first set of curtains in Highlands’ front windows all those years ago. Miles’ first job had nothing to do with pastries. She made salads and hors d’oeuvres.

Because of her interest in baking, though, she talked Stitt into letting her prepare a dessert for Highlands. Thus began her career as Stitt’s pastry chef.

“Dol combines traditional Southern ingredients with the professionalism of a French pastry chef, and she does all of that with a big pinch of love,” Stitt told Alabama NewsCenter in 2016.

That big pinch of love, along with her considerable skills, has Miles at the top of her profession.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Alabama’s Hope Institute cultivates a culture of character

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

Seeds of hope planted in some Alabama schools are sprouting into tiny yet vigorous sprigs that signal a bumper crop. The shoots will grow over the next few years as those schools work to reap the harvest of a Hope Institute program that cultivates character in students.

Housed at Samford University, the nonprofit is the brainchild of Drayton Nabers, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, and Liz Huntley, a lawyer and child advocate whose memoir, “More than a Bird,” recounts overcoming a harrowing childhood to become a successful attorney and a member of Auburn University’s board of trustees. The two bonded over “education with values,” as Huntley put it, as board members of Cornerstone Schools of Alabama.

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In November 2016, Nabers and Huntley birthed what became the Hope Institute in Samford’s Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership, which Nabers directs. Eight K-12 public and private schools took part in a pilot program for professional development in character education.

Buoyed by the pilot’s promise, they created the Hope Institute and then the Hope Academy. This past year, the academy recruited education leaders from 20 K-12 schools in north and central Alabama to study character development through education. Six daylong workshops for about 100 teachers, administrators and counselors featured national leaders in character education, designing a character development plan for schools, visiting schools with existing character education programs and networking with other school leaders.

“It is really exciting to go into those schools and see how they are developing a culture in the schools such that good character can be generated and formed in the students,” Nabers said. “Once you do that, everything else will fall into place. Grades will go up, problems with discipline will go down, and the spirit and joy and energy of the school will be elevated.”

Early signs of progress are unmistakable to the school leaders who gathered at Samford earlier this month to kick off the second year of the program.

At University Charter School in Sumter County, counselor Meghan Dunn spoke of place-based projects that have brought together black and white students for the first time. Students take walking field trips, and last month visited a graveyard.

“They found a headstone of a baby that had passed away. You see several students, obviously all different colors, which is a big deal for our community, holding hands and praying over that headstone,” Dunn said. “That was really huge to us.”

Students also noticed a fence in the graveyard that separates the gravestones of white people and of black people, Dunn said. Their new place-based project is to get the fence removed.

Ben White, assistant principal at Walker Elementary School, recently heard a student say the word “initiative,” which is used in character education lessons.

“I heard a student the other day say, ‘Hey, don’t throw that away. I’m going to clean up this area. I’m going to take some initiative,’” White said. “And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a word we would not have used before this point,’ but they want to do things.”

Debra Harvel, assistant principal at Hartselle Intermediate School, loves seeing the terminology of character education infiltrating student conversations but also watching students model that terminology. The sixth-graders, in particular, have taken to service learning projects.

“They’ve come to us with more ideas,” she said, citing projects such as being pen pals and raising money for an orphanage. “They just keep coming with ‘let’s do this, let’s do that.’ It’s exciting to see that.”

A thirst for character education

Longtime educator Jodi Newton, superintendent of Homewood City Schools for more than a decade and now the Hope Institute’s executive director, leads Hope Academy’s introductory first-year course, which this year includes 25 new schools. Newton is thrilled to see school officials thirst for character education.

“We do know that schools in this country were developed for literacy, and for virtue. That’s what they did,” said Newton, former associate dean of Samford’s School of Education. “Our Founding Fathers told us you cannot have a democracy without literate people of character. They had it right.”

Kara Chism, the Hope Institute’s director of programs and curriculum, is leading the first 20 schools in their second year of the program, which includes book study, workshops on Samford’s campus, site visits to other schools, focus groups and on-site consulting at the participating schools. While schools spent the first year building a culture of character by adopting core values, putting them on posters and T-shirts and holding character education classes, the next step is to infuse the curriculum with character content, she said.

“Right now, a lot of them are having a time where they teach character, but we want to see that integrated into their classrooms, in all their subjects and instruction,” Chism said.

The case for character

Why does character matter? Huntley offered the case for character driven by today’s divided society.

“We can’t think of a time it is more needed in our society than today, regardless of what aisle you sit on,” she says. “It’s a very polarizing, negative environment and our kids are watching grown folks – adults who are supposed to be their examples – how they’re behaving.”

Newton says schools will have better attendance, fewer disciplinary problems and improved academics. Character education can play a huge role in a successful workforce development program for the state, she said.

“If we have people graduating from our K-12 schools who are people of character and they have learned performance character, things like resilience, and responsibility, and work ethic, then they are going to be better workers,” Newton said.

Ultimately, the Hope Institute is built on the idea that developing people of good character can cure, or at least lessen, a litany of ills in society. As the institute’s website puts it:

“Without good character in its citizens, our country will not succeed with its democratic institutions or free market economy. Nor without such character can our families flourish, nor can anyone obtain happiness. Virtually everyone acknowledges that the nation’s most pressing social problems such as crime, school dropouts, poor work ethic, incivility and broken families have at their core the absence of good character.”

To learn more about the Hope Institute, visit here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

World Cup 2026 may yet have Birmingham presence

(Pixabay, D. Brossard/Flickr)

Timing is everything.

And Birmingham’s timing for becoming a host city in the North American effort to secure the 2026 World Cup was awful. Wednesday, a combined bid from the United States, Mexico and Canada won the hosting rights. Sixty of the 80 matches, including the final, will be in the U.S.

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Last August, Birmingham was one of about 50 cities that received a bid package to become one of at least 11 U.S. venues, said Gene Hallman, president and CEO of the Bruno Event Team.

“It was the worst timing,” said Hallman, who was a key player in bringing Olympic soccer to Birmingham in 1996. “Our challenge was, we had to bid Legion Field. Legion Field was not competitive.”

Hallman said he called U.S. soccer officials about bidding the new stadium at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC) as the city’s venue for games. At that time, though, funding for the stadium was not in place.

“You can’t bid a hypothetical,” Hallman said.

Still, Hallman said Birmingham may benefit from the winning North American bid. Atlanta “most certainly” will be one of the 11 U.S. venues, he said, and because Birmingham is close to Atlanta, the Magic City stands to gain. It helps, he said, that Birmingham has an “outstanding” relationship with U.S. Soccer.

“We have a very strong possibility of being a host for a team, a country, to do all their training prior to the World Cup in Birmingham,” Hallman said.

Also, Birmingham could become a medical hub for soccer players training and competing in the region to receive treatment, he said, as well as hosting large viewing parties of games that in previous cup competitions have been attended by thousands.

Once the stadium at the BJCC is finished, Birmingham “will definitely be in the mix” for “friendlies,” Hallman said.

“We’ll have a good five years of run-up where we can host a lot of competition prior to the World Cup,” he said.

Hallman said it’s premature to talk about the potential economic impact the World Cup could have on Birmingham if the city ends up playing a prominent role.

“But I can sit here and look into a crystal ball and tell you it’s going to be tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Because if you look at five years of potential activity at the new stadium, and given the fact that so many of the tickets that we sell to soccer events are to people who do not reside in this community, that’s a big economic impact,” he said. “That’s heads in beds and a very positive impact on the retail sector. So it will be a big economic impact and it will boost our image and reinforce our image as a very good host of international sporting competitions.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

Oprah chooses Alabamian’s ‘The Sun Does Shine’ as latest book club selection

(OWN/YouTube)

The Alabama Legislature for three years running has refused to approve reparations to Anthony Ray Hinton, the Jefferson County man who spent almost 30 years on death row before prosecutors dropped all charges against him. Tuesday, Oprah Winfrey announced a decision that could help Hinton financially.

Winfrey Tuesday morning revealed that Hinton’s memoir “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row,” is her latest Oprah’s Book Club selection. Oprah’s Book Club’s popularity is credited with increasing sales of the books she selects, often driving obscure titles to best-seller status.

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“Over the years, I’ve chosen many great novels – very few memoirs for my book club,” Winfrey said in a video posted on www.oprah.com. “But this story reads like an epic novel, and it is all true.”

Hinton was convicted of two counts of murder in the shooting deaths of two Birmingham-area fast-food restaurant managers. A restaurant manager in Bessemer who later survived a similar attack identified Hinton from a photo lineup, even though Hinton was working in a secured warehouse 15 miles away on the night of the crime. Hinton passed a lie detector test before the trial and maintained his innocence – something on which he never wavered.

Hinton was convicted based largely on state forensics experts’ testimony that a rusty .38-caliber pistol recovered from Hinton’s mother’s home had fired the bullets that killed the two men. Hinton’s “expert,” a civil engineer by training, was such a disaster on the stand that Hinton said he knew he was doomed.

For almost 30 years, Hinton tried to survive Alabama’s death row while a series of lawyers handled his appeals. His break came after a dozen years on death row when acclaimed lawyer Bryan Stevenson took Hinton’s case. “Today is the day that God opened up my case,” Hinton wrote of that moment.

Even with Stevenson’s expertise – he had won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant for freeing an innocent man from Alabama’s death row – Hinton remained on death row for more than 15 more years and suffered through crushing legal defeats. In 2014, though, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Hinton had not received a fair trial and vacated the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals’ ruling upholding the state court verdict. The appeals court sent the case back to Jefferson County, where prosecutors dropped all charges against Hinton rather than trying a case with new testing on Hinton’s gun that couldn’t prove it fired the crime scene bullets.

“Mr. Hinton was falsely convicted of murder and spent 30 years on death row before he was finally released,” Winfrey said. “It’s unimaginable. And you will throughout the book try to imagine yourself falsely accused and in a 5-by-7 (-foot) cell for 30 years. He is a remarkable storyteller and when you read it, you will be swept away into this unbelievable, dramatic true story.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)