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 Public Television celebrates 65th year by continuing mission during pandemic

(APT/Contributed)

When schools statewide suddenly shut their doors in March, Alabama Public Television (APT) was the shot in the arm many educators needed to keep students on track.

“We immediately saw that we had the tools to make a difference when schools closed: our broadcasts that could reach students around the state, and particularly those without computer or broadband access, and our already very rich online programs and resources for educators,” said Mike McKenzie, director of Programming and Public Information. “I have never seen a group of people work so hard and so fast as we shifted the schedule, reprogrammed the website and stepped in to help teachers, students and parents.”

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Sixty-five years ago, Alabama was the first state with an educational television network as APT became a model for 26 states and several countries that copied its system. Television and education have dramatically changed since 1955, but McKenzie said recent revisions to meet pandemic demands don’t represent an expansion for APT but rather a realigning of resources. The largest segment of APT staff has always been in its education department.

“With classrooms closed, we became the classroom, and we shifted the daytime schedule to accommodate that,” said McKenzie, a familiar face to viewers during APT televised fundraising drives. “And we will continue to adapt to meet the state’s needs. Right now kids are getting a boost into the next school year with our online Summer Fun activities, and we’re working with the State Department of Education now to decide what resources will be needed to help students the most, however schools decide to move forward.”

Curriculum-based television has been proven to increase student literacy and social skills, as well as understanding of math and science, McKenzie said. APT has broadcast “Sesame Street” and similar shows for decades and now has a 24-hour children’s channel. Free livestreaming begins this fall for most APT channels.

When broadcasts began on Jan. 7, 1955, from the tower atop Mt. Cheaha, the objective was a statewide distribution system that could share instructional programs taught by master teachers. Eight other transmitters were soon added across Alabama to provide equal access to quality education for every child with access to a television set.

As viewership grew, so did the offerings of APT, which became a frequent award-winner for its original documentaries and programs. Honors have included many regional and national Emmys and Telly awards. In 2005, “Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend” was broadcast nationwide by the Public Broadcasting Service. “Mr. Dial Has Something to Say” was featured at the 2008 International Public Television Conference in South Africa. “Jeremiah,” about former Vietnam War hero and U.S. Sen. Jeremiah Denton, was the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Documentary in 2016.

“Stations like APT are what make PBS one of the most trusted institutions in America,” said Jim Dunford, PBS senior vice president, Station Services. “Our member stations not only provide entertaining and thought-provoking content, but they also provide essential services to their communities in the areas of education, public safety and civic leadership. We are proud of the work APT has done over the past 65 years, and we know it will continue to uphold its impactful legacy for years to come.”

The mission of APT is to enrich the lives of Alabamians by broadcasting not only the state’s superlative stories but the world’s best music, theater, dance and arts, said McKenzie. It is a statewide network to disseminate information in times of disaster but also to promote Alabama to the world as a unique community postured for business and growth.

It makes sense that APT’s longest-running homegrown feature is the award-winning educational series “Discovering Alabama,” hosted by Doug Phillips since the 1980s. The show captured a national Emmy in 2010, 2011 and 2019.

“No other state has a program quite like this – or one that appeals to so many people,” McKenzie said. “Of course, there aren’t many states than can boast the incredible natural diversity we have here in Alabama, and Phillips delights in sharing it. ‘Discovering Alabama’ is also extremely popular among Alabama educators, and some schools have even adopted a curriculum developed by Dr. Phillips to bring nature into the classroom.”

While economic hard times, shifting priorities and the expense of news reporting have led many newspapers and television stations to reduce staff or cancel productions, APT remains a leader in reporting statewide news. “Capitol Journal” anchored by veteran journalist Don Dailey, with reporters Randy Scott and Karen Goldsmith, continues as a key element of Alabama’s public television stations.

“I talk with legislators all the time and all of them tell me how much they like and watch the show – and of course I hear that from regular viewers as well,” McKenzie said. “We think it’s important to have a venue where citizens can hear their representatives talk about what’s going on in Montgomery and why. And during recent months, it’s also been important to provide weekly updates from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris about the pandemic in Alabama.”

APT had revenue and expenses of about $14.8 million in 2019. The income was from many sources, including state and federal grants, as well as from “a tremendous base” of viewers who donate small amounts each month, year or when the spirit hits them. McKenzie said the staff at the Birmingham headquarters years ago realized that as long as donations continue to come in, they will never run out of great stories to tell about Alabama.

“We definitely see that people are watching more television since the coronavirus hit, both our broadcasts and online, so people are thinking about us more,” he said. “People especially value the news programming as they try to keep track of the pandemic, and they see the importance of what we’re doing for students. We’re extremely grateful for the support, because it really makes a difference in the programs and the services we can provide.”

APT and public media partners make their educational content available free on PBS Learning Media. Educational resources are available through the APT app and on the website, as well as on the PBS KIDS app.

Students, families and educators may follow APT Education on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, as well as visit aptv.org/education for the latest on educational resources that support distance learning.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Salvation Army facilities in Dothan, Gadsden, Mobile have new leaders

(Salvation Army Coastal Alabama Area Command/Contributed)

The Salvation Army on June 29 announced that three Alabama locations have new leadership as part of the routine appointment changes made every few years throughout the international philanthropic organization.

The new appointees will lead the Salvation Army Coastal Alabama Area Command, the Salvation Army of Dothan and the Salvation Army of Gadsden, said Media Relations Specialist Karyn Lewis of the Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi Division.

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Former Lynchburg, Virginia, officers Captains Trey and Sheri Jones will head the Coastal Area with facilities in Mobile and Foley. Former commanders Majors Thomas and Jennifer Richmond have begun new roles in the Kentucky and Tennessee Division as secretary for Personnel and Social Services and as secretary for Women’s Ministries.

The Joneses grew up in the Salvation Army as fifth- and sixth-generation Salvationists. They have been commissioned as officers for nine years through appointments in Alexandria, Fredericksburg and Lynchburg, Virginia. He has served in many disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of tornadoes, wildfires and hurricanes, including Lily, Ivan, Dennis, Katrina and Harvey.

“We are excited about the new ministry opportunities and challenges that God has for us,” he said. “We are eager to join the work that the Army is doing in coastal Alabama.”

The Salvation Army of Dothan is now led by Captains Nathan and Deanne Jones, who are former officers of the Chattanooga Area Command. They have served with the Army for 12 years in Owensboro, Kentucky, and Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee. He assisted in every recent major disaster recovery in the Southern Territory, and both captains served during Hurricane Katrina.

“We are excited to become a part of Dothan and make it our home,” he said. “We look forward to getting to know the community and continuing the mission of the Salvation Army.”

The Salvation Army of Gadsden is now under the leadership of Majors Jim and Amy Edmonds, who came from the Louisville Sanders Mission Corps in Kentucky. Former Gadsden Captains Dennis and Armandina Hayes have entered early retirement and remain in Gadsden.

The Edmonds have served throughout Texas, Virginia, Maryland, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky. Both have worked in disaster relief efforts, including after hurricanes Fredrick, Harvey and Katrina and following floods in West Virginia. He was part of the disaster relief team deployed in New York after 9/11.

“It is such an honor to have the opportunity to serve in Gadsden, Alabama,” he said. “We know the Lord will lead us as we share God’s love and strive to impact the men, women and children that we are fortunate to meet here in Gadsden.”

The Salvation Army annually helps more than 23 million Americans overcome poverty, addiction and economic hardships through a range of social services, Lewis said. It provides food for the hungry, emergency relief for disaster survivors, rehabilitation for those suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, and clothing and shelter for people in need at 7,600 centers of operation around the country.

For more information or to give to the Salvation Army, go to https://salvationarmyalm.org/.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Anniston’s 44-year-old Book Rack saved from closing by new owners

(Jo's Book Rack/Contributed)

The Book Rack, an Anniston institution that was set to close after almost 45 years, opened a new chapter July 1 as “Jo’s Book Rack.”

Patricia Hancock bought the store five years ago as part of a lifelong dream she finally fulfilled in retirement. Now that Hancock is retiring again, she is “jumping for joy” that she didn’t have to close the Quintard Avenue store that has more than 70,000 books.

The Book Rack grew popular selling used paperbacks at half-price, while giving 25% of the cover price back in credit to people who brought in good-condition books.

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Brittany Boozer shopped at The Book Rack as a teenager but thought it went out of business years ago. Then her husband, Jonathan, emailed her a notice that the store was for sale.

“I thought it was a joke because I love books so much,” she said. “When I realized it was true, I said, ‘Hey, can we do this?’”

Married 10 years and having never owned a business, the Boozers decided to give it a shot. They are renaming the store “Jo’s Book Rack,” in part after her grandfather who died in 2016, and for their daughters, Jorden, 5, and Journey, 18 months. Jonathan already works full-time but will help his wife at the bookstore when he’s able.

“My grandfather was an avid reader and instilled it in me as a child,” she said. “I wanted to honor him and our girls, who I hope will love books as much as I do.”

Hancock posted on The Book Rack website “It’s time to celebrate!” as she turned the keys over to the Boozers. She said that when she was in her early 30s she wanted to own a bookstore, but it didn’t happen for 40 years. Hancock thanked her loyal customers and said she is excited “business will be conducted as usual” through the new owners.

Boozer admitted being “a little nervous” becoming a store owner in the midst of a pandemic that until recently had forced the closure of all “nonessential” businesses in Alabama and across most of the U.S. She is concerned by some print publications going out of business and that many young people read only online books.

“But I prefer to feel a book in my hands,” she said. “I know other people feel the same way.”

Boozer said there are “very busy” days ahead as she conducts a full inventory of the sales racks and books in storage. She hopes to soon begin online sales, will open a children’s section and will offer more hardbacks. Boozer may initiate sales of used hardbacks by sacrificing some of her huge collection from home.

“I want to make changes, but I want to keep some things the same to give old customers what they’ve come to expect the past almost 45 years,” she said. “At the same time, I want to offer things that will appeal to the younger generation.”

Boozer wants to sell books to parents who are homeschooling their children. She hopes to promote Jo’s Book Rack through sales of T-shirts, keychains and logo items. A new store sign will be installed atop the building, and there will be a new front window logo. Boozer intends to highlight new books and local authors.

“I am very excited for this opportunity to continue a landmark business in Calhoun County,” Boozer said. “I hope to keep the old customers and attract new ones.”

Contact Boozer at josbookrack@gmail.com or https://www.facebook.com/JosBookRack/.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Significant boating traffic, trooper presence expected on Alabama waterways July 3-5

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) Marine Patrol anticipates heavy boating traffic July 3-5 and troopers will be out in force on state waterways to maintain safety during the holiday weekend.

“Marine Patrol troopers will be working shifts to coincide with traffic patterns and will be targeting areas where we’ve received complaints or experienced issues,” said Deputy Chief Matt Brooks. “We will be conducting a number of enforcement details around the state to coincide with the national Operation Dry Water campaign, which specifically targets operators impaired by alcohol or drugs.”

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Brooks said troopers are reporting higher-than-normal weekday boating traffic for this time of the year. He said recent weekend and holiday traffic has been heavy, noting that nice weather contributes to the waterway influx.

ALEA officers have used and encouraged social distancing guidelines the past three months and will continue to promote “personal responsibility” and hygiene protocols, said Brooks. Health guidelines recommended by state and federal experts are effective in protecting boaters and the Marine Patrol Division, which has had no officers test positive for COVID-19, he said.

Despite the pandemic, many boaters went onto Alabama’s 1,600 miles of rivers and 53 miles of Gulf coastline during the May 23-25 Memorial Day holiday. The 2020 red snapper fishing season has been closed early because so many private anglers and charter vessels went after the prized fish. Brooks doesn’t expect a boating slowdown this weekend and urged taking steps to ensure proper boat maintenance and sobriety for pilots.

“Most of our crashes that occur during the 4th of July holiday period occur at night, and many of those involve alcohol,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical that each vessel have a sober operator – and no one unfamiliar with night-time operation should pick this particular weekend to be on the water after dark. Operators who do choose to boat at night should check, double-check and re-check their navigation lights to make sure they’re within code and in good working order. Navigation light requirements will be strictly enforced.”

Boaters should ensure that they have required safety equipment on board before leaving a dock or shore, Brooks said. While one safety vest for each passenger is required, children younger than 8 must at all times wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD).

Exceptions that require boaters age 8 and older to wear a life vest:

  • Any person being towed on water skis, tubes, etc.
  • Any person operating or riding on a personal watercraft.
  • Any occupant of a boat within 800 feet below a hydroelectric or navigational lock and dam.

Every operator should check boat safety equipment to make sure it is serviceable and easily located, Brooks said. A list of required equipment is at www.alea.gov under the Marine Patrol section.

Brooks urged boaters to take their time on the waters and keep their wits in dealing with others in what will surely be crowded and hot holiday conditions.

“Be courteous,” he said. “Even when you feel like you have the right of way or the other operator has made a mistake – be courteous. Slow down, avoid heavily congested areas and pay attention. Always maintain a proper lookout. Know and follow the rules of the road.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 months ago

Alabama’s old bookstores holding on with new strategies, online events

Alabama bookstores have used online and, in some cases, curbside sales to continue selling to customers during the COVID-19 shutdown. (contributed)

While bookstores in Alabama were considered nonessential and mandated closed to the public for nearly a month, many owners turned to online sales and curbside deliveries to keep revenues streaming amid what had been more than a decade of steady book business nationwide.

Publishers Weekly said Americans paid more than $5 billion to buy nearly 700 million books last year, with little drop-off in sales expected in this year of the pandemic. Pew Research found that although about a quarter of all Americans have not read a book in a year or more, 65% said they’ve recently read a printed publication.

Mike Breen, manager of Read Herring in Montgomery, said “The Slave Who Went to Congress” and “All of the Belles” have sold “quite well” during the quarantine. Both are published by NewSouth Books, which shares its headquarters location with the bookstore (pronounced “red”) that reopened at 10 a.m. today.

“We actually don’t have an online storefront, so technically all of our sales during the quarantine came from call-ins and custom orders,” Breen said of the 20-year-old store. “With that in mind, sales were a fraction of what they normally are. This quarantine hit us pretty hard, but I think we are going to be OK.”

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Breen looks forward to renewed walk-in traffic from the Civil Rights Trail, which brings frequent out-of-town customers inside the South Court Street storefront looking for titles about the 1950s-1960s struggles in which Montgomery residents played a prominent role. However, he said it’s been the familiar customers who have helped Read Herring survive during the state-mandated closure.

“We are fortunate to have a group of customers in the local area who kept supporting us, since they kept buying books and using our curbside service and delivery offers,” Breen said, noting there has been no staff reduction. “We would like to thank them from the bottom of our hearts.”

Read Herring was able to livestream NewSouth’s release of the collection of stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the children’s book about U.S. Sen. Benjamin Sterling Turner (1825-1894) of Selma. Authors Frye Gaillard and Marti Rosner told about writing “The Slave Who Went to Congress” and Kirk Curnutt talked for an hour online about “All of the Belles: The Montgomery Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Those videos are available on the Read Herring Facebook page.

Breen said because of the large size of his bookstore, the temporary 50% occupancy and social distancing requirements “shouldn’t affect” customers or staff.

Pew Research found that the largest reader group in the U.S. is ages 18-29, with 80% reading physical books. Another 80% of Americans who are college-educated read frequently.

Book sales didn’t fall for the Alabama Booksmith in Homewood during Alabama’s retail quarantine. Owner Jake Reiss will continue to keep the doors of his 25-year-old store closed for the time being “in consideration of the health of our staff and customers.” Birmingham customers can order online or by phone and Reiss will bring books to their vehicles outside his store.

“Our business has remained pretty much the same, and with the release of certain new books, actually spiked,” Reiss said. “We are the only shop on the planet that sells exclusively signed books. Every book in the store is signed and sells for regular publisher’s price, the same as unsigned copies. Our online sales dominate our business, before and after the quarantine. Our entire staff is intact and will stay so.”

Reiss said he sold out of all John Grisham books during the coronavirus quarantine, as well as Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile” and a new book about the Masters golf tournament. He said other steady sellers include a couple by Alabama authors: Winston Groom’s “Forrest Gump” and Rick Bragg’s “All Over but the Shoutin’.”

Alabama Booksmith frequently hosts book signings by popular authors, but the events were canceled during the quarantine. Reiss said those will resume soon.

Page & Palette in Fairhope was founded in 1968 but didn’t have online sales until the quarantine. It has been an event-driven shop that attracted authors from across the country for in-house book signings and readings, which has resulted in “very slow” business the past month. Phone orders were taken for curbside pickup since April 4.

“With so many customers remaining at home who still wanted to support their local bookstore, we became an affiliate bookstore of Bookshop,” said Anderson McKean of Page & Palette. “This has enabled customers to search and purchase books online and have them shipped to their home.”

Page & Palette during the quarantine continued promoting books on social media, highlighting what furloughed staff members were reading at home. Titles that sold “particularly well” included “The End of October” by Lawrence Wright, “The Giver of Stars” by Jojo Moyes, “Walk the Wire” by David Balducci and “Where the Crawdad Sings” by Delia Owens, which is No. 1 nationally and sold more than 1 million copies last year. Children’s books that have been big sellers for Page & Palette during the pandemic include Max Brallier’s “Last Kids on Earth” series and the “Percy Jackson” series by Rick Riordan.

Page & Palette hosted a Facebook Live event with local author Watt Key as he answered questions from a virtual audience about his new book, “Beast.” An online storytime May 5 will highlight children’s authors Jonathan Stutzman and Heather Fox with their new picture book, “Llama Unleashes the Alpacalypse.”

Page & Palette’s building includes the full-service coffee shop Latte Da and Book Cellar bar with live music nightly, so it is a hub of activity in Fairhope’s old downtown district. McKean said large events will be postponed until the state’s 50% occupancy rule is lifted, but the store reopened today.

“Since many families are looking for things to keep children engaged, we also offer links to author- and publisher-hosted virtual events on our social media pages, such as the ‘Read Together, Be Together’ storytimes and ‘Magic Tree House Home Adventures’,” McKean said. “We plan to host our quarterly Book Club Night virtually later this month and will continue to evaluate other virtual author events.”

Online sales increased 300% for Ernest & Hadley Booksellers in Tuscaloosa during the coronavirus quarantine, said store manager Avery Leopard. Customers bought “a little bit of everything,” but the majority were on The New York Times bestsellers list for fiction and young adult books.

“We are a small, family owned and operated business and have managed to keep our head above water,” Leopard said. “Our staff continues to work remotely or with reduced hours, but we are still on board. Our customers are amazing and have continued to shop with us, despite the limitations.”

Ernest & Hadley will remain closed the next three weeks. Bookstore employees will still be taking online and phone orders, and curbside pickup is available 1-3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and by appointment. Leopard said the store will continue the online book club and “Reader Meet Writer” series on Zoom, and offer a 15% online discount on authors’ books around the time of the virtual events.

“Out of concern and respect for our customers, staff and all of the front-line workers and medical personnel keeping us going, our plan is to reopen to the public on Monday, May 25, provided the curve is on the decline,” Leopard said.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 months ago

Alabama restaurants struggling to stay open behind closed doors

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed, YHN)

Soon after establishing the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in Washington, D.C., stopped accepting applications. More than 60,000 people had applied for the one-time aid of $500.

The Alabama Restaurant & Hospitality Association (ARHA) offered a similar $300 grant to workers who have lost their jobs, but closed applications “due to overwhelming response.”

Likewise, the James Beard Foundation’s Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund quickly handed out $15,000 grants in 12 national regions to 36 small, independent restaurants, before halting the application process intended to keep eateries from closing.

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“We recognize the tremendous need from independent restaurants across the country and will continue to work to support you however we best can,” the Beard Foundation website announced.

The 101-year-old NRA, which represents half of the 1 million American restaurants, said prior to coronavirus epidemic quarantines that restaurants, bars and independent food and beverage operations were generating more than $1 trillion annually in the U.S., employing more than 15% of the national workforce. Those businesses pump as much as 60% of revenues back into their communities.

The U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index estimates that as many as 9 million restaurant jobs are at risk of at least short-term loss. When bars are added, the industry could lose more than 1 million more jobs.

Some Alabama restaurants are already out of business. National chains have temporarily closed select restaurants, like Red Lobster in Vestavia Hills, rather than offer takeout or curb service.

“As the COVID-19 crisis continues, we made the incredibly difficult decision to temporarily close some of our restaurants,” said Kim Lopdrup, CEO of the 600 Red Lobster restaurants in the U.S. and Canada. “We understand the impact this situation has on our guests as well as our employees’ ability to work and our ability to be a great employer. These decisions have not been taken lightly and are extremely painful, but they are necessary to ensure we survive this crisis and are around to re-open our doors once it passes.”

Well-known Alabama chains, like Wintzell’s, with seven restaurants statewide, have shut down for the duration of the quarantine. Wintzell’s President Bob Omainsky of Mobile is chairman of the ARHA board, which includes many owners of facilities facing financial difficulties.

While sales are down substantially at almost every restaurant in Alabama, many small independent businesses are surviving. Smokin’ S BBQ in Wetumpka has seen average weekly sales drop by 20% but owner Tom Haynes said he’s not had to lay off any of his six employees.

“We have kept them all and, to be quite honest, we could use another person, as takeout and curbside service is more labor-intensive and, at times, we’re stretched thin,” he said.

Longtime customers are continuing to either pick up or order meals delivered from the tiny barbecue joint that has been open more than 30 years. One customer asked Haynes to deliver meals to first responders, setting a $1,000 limit before extending the donation amount so that Smokin’ S could feed local hospital employees.

“We are overwhelmed with the generosity of folks like this,” Haynes said. “In addition, we are getting orders from businesses who are feeding their employees, which we haven’t had before the crisis, and we think they are doing it just to help support local businesses.”

Roebuck Landing Grill & Grocery just outside Eutaw had a thriving business prior to closing its doors to the public four weeks ago. Owner Melanie Moss said she continues to keep similar hours while maintaining their full menu, and selling live bait, groceries and other goods.

“We are continuing to pay our staff at this time,” Moss said. “We are a small hole-in-the-wall with a big fan base. We are missing our regulars and they are missing us.”

Coaches Corner in Wetumpka had 38 employees prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Owner Heather Norton said the staff is down to 29 because nine workers chose to stay home until the threat has passed. Business has decreased by two-thirds over the past month.

“Thankfully we have not had to lay off any of our staff,” she said. “We’ve just transitioned them into other roles for now.”

The “great group of regulars” at Coaches Corner took it hard at first when they were unable to keep meeting friends at the restaurant on the banks of the Coosa River, Norton said, but they are adapting to the current way of life. Longtime customers are buying meals through to-go orders. Others are supporting the restaurant on social media, commenting on Norton’s daily posts.

“We are blessed to be in such an amazing community,” Norton said. “With their help, we will make it through this and come out stronger on the other side.”

Southern Grounds Coffee Shoppe in Thomasville is not as busy as before and has laid off one worker while owners Bailey and Enrique Aguilar try keep their seven-year business stable. They said loyal customers tell them they miss eating inside the historic 104-year-old Champion House.

Jake’s on Broad in Alexander City is operating with a skeleton crew of two cooks and a couple of waitresses after owner Jake Mixon was forced to let several staff members go because of the coronavirus quarantine. The waitresses now box to-go orders, handle curbside deliveries and take customers’ orders and payments.

“Business is slower and I miss the personal interaction with the customers,” said Mixon, who opened his restaurant 10 years ago. “However, the community response has been phenomenal. The regulars, as well as others, are keeping the local restaurants afloat with their support.”

Mixon was forced to cancel the restaurant’s Thursday Night Charity Bingo, a tradition that raises money for many community needs. He said it will resume when health restrictions are lifted.

“I looked forward to the customers returning, the noise, the laughter, the hustle and bustle again,” Mixon said. “I think we will never again take simple things, like seeing one another, for granted.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 months ago

Alabama children’s homes coping with school closures

(Pixabay)

While schools across the nation have sent students home for the rest of the school year, it’s a more difficult equation in homes that are essentially part of a campus.

Many facilities nationwide care for children who have lost parents or have troubled family situations, providing youths a stable home environment headed by foster parents in houses grouped together on large properties. In Alabama, churches often have led these efforts, in some cases for more than a century.

Hundreds of students who live on Alabama children’s home campuses came home last month to find themselves not only isolated from schoolmates but quarantined from the family-like neighbors they’ve been growing up with in places similar to a college dorm quad.

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“We can’t simply ‘send people home,’” said Doug Marshall, president and CEO of the Presbyterian Home for Children in Talladega. “This is their home and one we’ve worked to make secure. This is a balancing act between being realistic about the threats and reassuring the children and families in our care that they are safe.”

Presbyterian Home for Children (PHC) was ready for the coronavirus, implementing its existing pandemic and influenza plan at the outset of the outbreak in America. A month ago, the more than 20 staff members began extensive training specifically to deal with COVID-19, Marshall said, setting aside one large apartment to quarantine any family at the children’s home that was diagnosed with the disease.

PHC has 32 youths in homes on the 20-building campus but can take in up to 13 new residents after a 14-day isolation period. In partnership with the state, the PHC Family Bridges program aids 10 families, totaling another 42 children and parents in seven counties.

The Talladega home differs from many children’s facilities in that it has an off-campus private school, the Ascension Leadership Academy for K-12 students. Daily classes continue from 9 a.m. to noon online between teachers and students who are all separately sheltering in place.

Marshall said PHC children have always received three daily meals and two snacks, so there has been no new need for food purchases. The pandemic, however, has brought an unexpected purchasing financial burden not seen since the home opened in 1868: He said they have never needed mass sanitary supplies in the amounts now required.

“We will continue to do the work that God has called us to do,” Marshall said. “That work is to provide a path of hope and a place of healing to at-risk teenagers, young female adults and homeless children along with their families who have come to us for help.”

A decade ago, the United Methodist Children’s Home in Selma closed its doors as its parent organization moved to supporting foster and group homes, as well as at-risk families, through in-home counseling. It is a transition being undertaken by many traditional children’s home organizations nationwide.

Today the 130-year-old United Methodist Children’s Home (UMCH) headquartered in Montgomery has 90 employees serving five group homes in Alabama, caring for six to 10 youths at each. UMCH supports 40 foster families, provides transitional living apartments and serves 20-30 women and children at Mary Ellen’s Hearth in the Capital City.

“Our group homes and foster homes are managing shelter in place like many families,” said Kristin Alberda, senior VP of programs. “We are focusing on health and safety first.”

Alberda said children’s daily schedules have been revamped to accommodate home education, mental health, fun in the sun, art, music, dance and daily household chores. She said they are learning to cope with social distancing and home quarantines.

“Our kids are not able to see their siblings or parents during this time,” she said. “This is especially hard for our younger kids who are not able to understand shelter in place. We have purchased additional play equipment for the youths for extra downtime in our homes.”

UMCH homes are facing higher food bills and, among other pandemic expenses, the cost of “ordering gallons of hand sanitizer” and other cleaning and safety goods. Staff are wearing personal protective equipment to venture into the community. After a potential coronavirus exposure, two sites underwent medical-grade cleaning.

“Just as many homes are experiencing new and unexpected expenses due to kids being home from school, we are making adjustments,” Alberda said. “Thankfully, all of our kids have healthy snacks and meals each day.”

Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes and Family Ministries (ABCHFM) has 37 children in eight homes across the state, with another 202 in its network of foster homes. Seven college students who grew up in the homes remain under ABCHFM guidance and aid. Thirteen formerly homeless mothers and their children live in three family care homes.

“Our houses are in lockdown mode,” said Rod Marshall, president and CEO of the Baptist homes headquartered in Birmingham. “Our house parents are experienced in handling communicable diseases like flu, strep throat and chicken pox, so this is not a new experience for them.”

The children in ABCHFM’s traditional family-style cottages live with a married couple who are full-time house parents. Counselors, social workers, and support and administrative staff are working remotely during the coronavirus crisis. The early school shutdowns, multiplied by church closings when normal Sunday contributors are not being passed an offering plate, could create a brief financial challenge, Marshall said.

“We feed the kids all of their meals during the summer, so it is like our summer season is lengthened this year,” he said. “Our house parents are very skilled at managing their food budget and keeping the children well-fed and well-cared-for. … Several churches are stepping up to provide extra care for the children in our homes.”

No staff members or children under the care of any of the homes contacted by Alabama NewsCenter have contracted coronavirus. Each of the facilities has undertaken all of the steps recommended by state and federal health organizations to combat COVID-19. All of the administrators are anticipating exiting the crisis without harm to their children, staff or mission.

“I do not know of a time in our history where we have had as many employees working from home,” Marshall said. “Our employees are doing an excellent job of continuing to provide excellent care for the many children we are serving and are admitting new children into care, though at a slower pace.”

As Easter approaches, children’s homes are preparing for separate celebrations outside their familiar church sanctuaries, without traditional large-scale egg hunts and public parades decked out in holiday attire. The disruption in plans this week has been surmounted for some by a surreptitious visit from the Easter Bunny in the guise of UMCH employees.

“Foster care staff have been ‘egging’ locations and foster homes with Easter eggs filled with candy, and then letting the staff and families know they have eggs to find,” said Alberda, noting that all the colorful eggs were disinfected prior to delivery. “The kids are delighted to have eggs to find and the families don’t have to do anything but supervise the hunt.”

Felcia Storey, PHC vice president of program operations and services, said it seems like just yesterday their students were excitedly planning for spring break, school open house, graduation and summer vacation. Today, students are uncertain about what will come next, but Storey is certain of what the children’s home staff can provide.

“People need a sense of belonging and love,” she said. “We are working against allowing this crisis to be one which fosters loneliness, social anxiety and clinical depression.”

That sentiment is echoed by UMCH CEO and President K. Blake Horne, who sees the pandemic as necessary practice for the future.

“Our biggest concern is the safety and welfare of our families, children and employees,” he said. “We are a ministry that never closes its doors. We care for children 24/7, 365 days a year. We’ve gone through a lot of ‘what-if’ scenarios regarding an outbreak of COVID-19 among our children and/or staff. We gather no great pleasure from doing so, but planning for such circumstances will be a significant part of our risk management exercises from this point on.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 months ago

Alabama trucking industry keeps on truckin’ in tough times

(Alabama Trucking Association/Contributed)

Truckin’ is an American tradition, the subject of Eddie Kendricks and Grateful Dead tunes, a Robert Crump cartoon character strutting confidently across the continent, and today an industry needed more than ever.

Truckers transport a high percentage of almost every American product, a much larger amount than by any other means of pickup and delivery. Truck drivers work long hours in a perilous profession, where the danger level has ramped up because they must continue going on the road and into harm’s way at hospitals and other coronavirus hotspots.

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The trucking industry adage “If you bought it, a truck brought it” is especially meaningful when much of America is sheltered in homes. While FedEx and UPS hold the largest share of giant company business nationwide, small companies and independent drivers are the heart of trucking. There are more than 9,000 locally owned and operated trucking businesses in Alabama.

“Thank you for continuing to Keep America Moving during this unprecedented time in our Nation,” Daniel Wright wrote to his 220 employees. “You are an essential part of the supply chain, and without you our stores would be empty, our medical supplies wouldn’t get delivered and our farmers would not have feed.”

The president of Wright Transportation in Mobile said the company founded by his father in 1999 has 350 trailers and 190 trucks traveling across the continental U.S. delivering crucial goods around the clock. Wright said it is now “very important” that all of his company drivers have quick access to their company president.

“I personally called each employee to make sure they have an understanding of our role in this pandemic and how important their job is,” Wright said. “I also made sure that they have my personal cellphone number and for them to call me at any time with concerns and questions.”

One in 15 jobs in Alabama is in the trucking industry, which delivers more than 80% of everything rolling into and out of the state, said Mark Colson, president and CEO of the Alabama Trucking Association (ATA). The organization has represented truckers for 82 years, but Colson said those 170,000 workers in Alabama include diesel techs, fleet managers, software engineers and others who are more driven than ever to help America.

“First and foremost, we want everyone to know trucking is open for business and an essential business,” Colson said. “Through good times and bad, on an average day or when a crisis occurs, we’re moving America efficiently and safely.”

The trucking industry pays about 40% of all taxes owed by Alabama motorists: a typical five-axle tractor-semitrailer owner pays about $15,000 annually in state and federal highway user fees and taxes. Alabama has about 100,000 miles of public roads, with all motorists traveling about 65 billion miles, 10% of which is by truckers.

Wright said Alabama truckers are proud to be essential providers “to support the people of this wonderful nation.” He said most of their customers are essential providers working outside the national quarantines. His priority beyond on-time deliveries is ensuring Wright Transportation employees stay safe and healthy.

“It’s not time to panic, it’s time to prepare and make healthy decisions,” he said. “We have a job to do and our nation is depending on us to do our job.”

Colson, who took the wheel at ATA last year after leadership roles with the Business Council of Alabama, said his organization has been working with Gov. Kay Ivey as well as state and federal agencies to address issues affecting truckers during the pandemic. He said emergency orders have made allowances in special situations for larger truck weights and longer driver hours to ensure that emergency relief goods are promptly delivered. Extensions have been granted for expiring commercial driver’s licenses and medical certifications.

Should the shutdowns continue longer than expected, Colson said commercial driver’s license testing sites will become an issue, since all are closed in Alabama and more than 20 other states at present. There is already a truck driver shortage, so state and federal officials are exploring options to certify new drivers. Colson said people who have lost jobs nationwide should consider the trucking industry for employment.

“A young woman in our industry told me, ‘Look at me. I’m not driving a truck but I’m a trucker,” Colson said, referring to the many positions available outside of driving a tractor-trailer rig. He noted that ATA board chairman Tom McLeod’s Birmingham business McLeod Software has about 600 employees developing trucking industry software.

But most truckers don’t have the option to telecommute.

“We were built for this,” said American Trucking Associations CEO Chris Spear in a post this week. “Let’s keep rolling.” He said resourcefulness, sacrifice and resilience “are deeply rooted in the trucking industry” and that truckers “have an enormous role” in the fight against COVID-19.

Truckers have been urged by state and national organizations to go beyond the health recommendations for average Americans who are sheltering in place. In an industry driven by handshakes, truckers are finding other ways to make a deal and get back on the road while keeping their customers safe.

More than 90% of trucking companies nationwide have fewer than six trucks. Lakeview Transportation in Selma fits the bill, with five trailers, four trucks and four drivers. Opened three years ago, Lakeview delivers within a 300-mile radius and has found some customers are taking no chances with coronavirus. Where drivers previously went inside destination offices to have paperwork signed, Lakeview owner Renee Craig said since the pandemic began everything is handled by email from start to finish.

“Our customers have changed their procedures as far as accepting deliveries,” Craig said. “They don’t want drivers getting out of their trucks. It’s been a big adjustment as far as that goes.”

Two huge banners on the side of the ATA headquarters alongside Interstate 85 in Montgomery show a photo of Birmingham’s J & M Tank Lines driver Darrien Henderson noting the hashtag #ThankATrucker and the motto Keep Calm and Keep Trucking. Eddie Kendricks would approve.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 months ago

Power Moves: Taffye Benson Clayton leads Auburn’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity

(Auburn University/Contributed)

It seems perfectly logical that the child of a Green Beret and an educator would grow up to have a career fighting discrimination in education.

That couple’s daughter, Taffye Benson Clayton, was hired in 2016 by Auburn University as the first leader of its Office of Inclusion and Diversity, based on her successes at the University of North Carolina and East Carolina University.

Clayton earned a bachelor’s degree from UNC, a master’s from American University, a doctorate from ECU and holds a certificate from the management development program at Harvard. At Auburn, she and her team have been tasked with expanding the diversity and inclusion footprint within the institution and nationally.

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The North Carolina native said that while she “never set out” to have a career involving diversity and inclusion in higher education, she developed an interest in policy while working on Capitol Hill and the work “found” her. At Auburn she established the “Critical Conversations” public forum series that brings scholars and national personalities on campus to explore viewpoint diversity, free speech and inclusion issues.

“We’ve made some gains in workforce diversity at Auburn, but there’s more work to be done,” said Clayton, associate provost and vice president. “Our numbers for women and African Americans in executive leadership on the President’s Cabinet have increased. However, just as other major research universities across the country, we are challenged with recruiting and retaining historically underrepresented faculty at Auburn. We are on a continuous improvement model to both increase the presence of more diverse faculty and to cultivate a supportive and inclusive climate where faculty, students, staff and administrators can thrive.”

Clayton said the goal is to attract more students who have been historically underrepresented at Auburn, including African American, Native American, Latino, first generation and lower socioeconomic income students.

“Through our Provost’s Undergraduate Leadership Scholarship (PLUS) program at Auburn we have developed practices that position our scholars for success,” she said. “We have engaged a comprehensive scholar support program that emphasizes student engagement and maximizes student outcomes. Scholars in the PLUS program have GPAs that are higher than the average GPA of Auburn students.”

Clayton said the Auburn strategy goes beyond enrollment to ensure that as students enter the campus, they feel like they belong and are supported. She said they are equipped with tools and “habits of mind and practice” to be successful students.

Approaches to diversity-related changes in corporate and academic contexts can differ, Clayton said. Traditional corporate culture is characterized by hierarchy, while traditional academic culture is characterized by shared governance. Academic environments and the work of diversity and inclusion within them are “necessarily collaborative,” she said.

“So, while corporate leaders can make immediate decisions resulting in direct action and results, academic environments require buy-in, discussion and debate, input and feedback and broader socialization,” Clayton said. “The academic environment often has a more protracted process for decision-making and realization of results.”

Clayton complimented Alabama Power for its longstanding relationship with Auburn through initiatives like the Academic Excellence Program (AEP) of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. AEP was established in 1996 to enhance the recruitment and retention of minorities and now serves more than 300 underrepresented engineering students annually.

“This collaboration is an indication of Alabama Power’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and more specifically, to cultivating diverse STEM talent,” she said. “AEP is an exemplar model of how partnerships between corporations and universities can be impactful for students and communities as well as state, regional and national economies.”

One hundred fifty-seven years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a century after the 19th Amendment, 56 years after Harold Franklin became the first of his race to enroll at AU, African Americans, minorities and women still fight for equality on many fronts in America. Clayton said all Americans should have the same opportunities and access.

“We have this matter of unfinished business in this country,” she said. “We still need transparent conversations in society. The good news is that we have some indication of strategies that are actually working. While there is plenty of headroom for growth on matters of diversity, equity and inclusion, we should acknowledge our successes and build on them.”

Power Moves, an ongoing series by Alabama NewsCenter, celebrates the contributions of multicultural leaders in Alabama. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the year for inspiring stories of those working to elevate the state.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

10 months ago

Quentin Riggins wins Auburn’s Walter Gilbert Award

Quentin Riggins, former Auburn linebacker, was presented the Walter Gilbert Award for his achievements after graduation. (contributed)

Quentin Riggins was presented the Walter Gilbert Award Nov. 23 during the Auburn football game against Samford in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Riggins, senior vice president of Governmental and Corporate Affairs at Alabama Power, is a former linebacker for the Tigers football team and a former member of the radio broadcast team.

The Gilbert Award is presented annually to a former Auburn student-athlete who has distinguished himself through achievements after graduation. The award is in memory of Auburn’s three-time All-American center, who later became vice president of Texaco’s European Oil Operations.

“It just confirms some of the hard work that you’ve done along the way. When coach Dye came and recruited me out of Montgomery, he saw something more than a football player,” Riggins said, recalling a recruiting trip when he left an Auburn game at halftime because he had to return home for his shift at McDonald’s.

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Riggins was an all-state player for the Robert E. Lee Generals before playing for Auburn from 1986 to 1989, where he was an All-American and All-SEC performer at linebacker. He was named to the SEC Football Legends Class of 2009. Riggins was the radio football sideline reporter for Auburn from 1991 to 2015.

Riggins played professionally for the Canadian Football League Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1990, as they won the 78th Grey Cup that season.

Riggins earned his bachelor’s degree at Auburn University in marketing and distributive education. As a current member of Auburn’s Board of Trustees, Riggins provides leadership and governance to the university’s academic, administrative and athletic enterprises.

Prior to joining Alabama Power in 2011, Riggins served in Alabama state government. He was in the administration of one governor, in the cabinet of another governor and was a senior staff member for a long-serving speaker of the House of Representatives.

As the former senior vice president of the Business Council of Alabama, Riggins led governmental affairs efforts for the organization’s 5,000 corporate members before the Legislature and Congress. After six successful years, Riggins began his own governmental affairs firm in Montgomery.

Riggins currently serves on the boards of Grandview Medical Center, the Business Council of Alabama’s ProgressPAC, the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center Authority, the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham and the Frank M. Johnson Jr. Institute. He previously served on the boards of Leadership Alabama and the Baptist Foundation.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Catch Yellowleaf fever in the heart of Alabama

(Meg McKinney/Powergrams)

In his infrequent role as parking lot shuttle driver, Todd Flowers knows what’s coming.

“When we hit the gap in the trees, where they first see the mill, you ought to hear the gasps,” he says, saying it’s one of the favorite parts of his job managing Yellowleaf Creek Mill with his wife, Danyula.

It’s a similar experience at Christmastime, as people will line the little one-lane wooden bridge spanning the creek just below the 150-foot-long dam as they photograph the winter scene when the red wood building is covered in holiday white icicle lights.

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The grist mill is at least 164 years old (some records indicate it may go back as far as 1841), having once processed up to 4,500 pounds of cornmeal, flour and grits each day. At the height of business, the Clanton mill was selling its products in more than 200 stores in Chilton and surrounding counties. It was the last water-powered mill in the state when its doors closed in 1990.

The former Shannon’s or Miller’s mill fell into disrepair, sitting shuttered for decades until a Birmingham businessman found out about it and considered moving it to Shelby County. He instead bought Yellowleaf Creek Mill in 2014 and restored it in place.

“It was in awful shape,” Flowers says. “What we have now was David Brogdon’s vision.”

Local craftsmen spent months bringing the mill back to life, retaining most of the original equipment and restoring it to working order. To make it an event venue, a covered wood deck was built around two sides of the mill, a covered stone patio was erected alongside the dam (totaling 2,000 square feet beneath the awnings) and a curved covered pier was built on the edge of the lake above the dam. The old blacksmith shed where buggy repairs were done while farmers’ corn was milled has become a storage area and bar.

“A guy came in one day and said, ‘Is the hole still in the wall?’” says Flowers. “The blacksmith kept the hot coals inside that hole to be ready to shoe horses and do other work for the mill customers. We left it intact during restoration. Man, if these walls could talk.”

Inside, the room next to the primary production areas of the mill was converted into a commercial kitchen. A large polished marble slab was placed on top of the original flour sifter to become the kitchen island. Much of the ground floor was left intact, with huge belts, wheels, pullies and gears running throughout the buildings. The vintage equipment stands ready to roll again: a machine that removed corn from the cob; a roller that converted grain into flour; a grist grinder; a storage bin and bagging scales. Hanging on the wall is an original bag used to fill the white corn meal. Original grinding stones, weighing several thousand pounds each, are scattered on the grounds.

“It really wouldn’t take that much to get it all running again,” Flowers says, looking through a window at the 16-foot-tall steel water wheel recently fitted with new bearings. “They say that when it was engaged, this whole mill would shake. I would give anything to have seen it in operation.”

Just outside the production room is the new Groom’s Room featuring a 120-inch video screen and surround sound. The spacious room with a high wood-beam ceiling and belt-driven fans has sofas and chairs in the center and a woodstove on one wall. The roar of the nearby waterfall is ever-present. An old wall telephone’s number is BR-549.

Up the stairs is the Bridal Suite, with beds on both sides of the uppermost mill belt-drive mechanisms. There’s a widescreen TV and clawfoot tub in an open area, and an adjoining large bathroom and shower. A stained-glass artwork depicting the mill is on the ceiling. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Yellowleaf Creek and the dam, which is illuminated at night.

“It’s really beautiful when the sun starts shining through in the morning,” Flowers says.

A large-stone walkway with a wooden handrail was built from one deck to the creek as another perk for the weddings, reunions, proms, corporate meetings, parties, fundraisers and similar events hosted by the Flowers over the past five years. Since Jan. 1, Transformation Ministries has owned the facilities.

Yellowleaf Creek Mill can accommodate up to 225 people and has nearly 3 acres of parking space. The managers anticipate having concerts and dinner theater in the summer and fall.

An open house last year brought a huge crowd of people wanting to get a look at a place many residents recall from childhood. After website The Knot named Yellowleaf Creek Mill the nation’s No. 1 wedding venue for 2019, the phone began “ringing off the hook,” with many of the calls from outside Alabama.

“It just amazes me that a little grist mill in central Alabama could interest people around the world,” Flowers says. “We’re so thankful Mr. Brogdon decided to preserve this historic, picturesque place.”

This story originally appeared in Alabama Power’s Powergrams.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Bearing fruit: Clanton blossoms amid reign as Alabama peach capital

(Jay Parker/Powergrams)

It’s not fuzzy logic to guess that life could be peachy 120 feet below Clanton’s iconic fruit-shaped water tower.

Goats, geese and cows graze in the pasture beneath the creviced steel, red and yellow painted structure built for $1.2 million in 1993 at Exit 212 along Interstate 65. The road through town winds past Peachy Clean Car Wash, Peach City Pawn, Peach Auto Sales and many other businesses taking a peach stand.

At 7:45 a.m., people are waving across the street at each other, exchanging shouted greetings in the heart of the old downtown. Some sit on benches, others cross midblock between passing cars to hug old friends. There are smiles and kind words even for folks who don’t look familiar.

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Main Street Café has already been open more than two hours. Inside is loud with conversation, most seats filled by customers ordering the $5.29 special: two eggs, two meats, grits, huge biscuit and drink.

A millennial sitting in the corner with an open laptop stands out like a sore thumb, but his head nods as one of the Greatest Generation walks from table to table saying, “Good morning. Good morning.”

Just down the street, Chilton County Feed & Seed on one side faces Jones Seed and Feed on the other, the two businesses having served gardeners and farmers going back nine decades. Around the corner is E.L. Klinner Furniture, a family-owned business that began here in 1925 and is selling sofas to a fifth generation of loyal customers.

The Chilton County Courthouse and more than a dozen court, government and sheriff’s offices are spread throughout downtown, surrounded by law offices of local attorneys. First Baptist Church’s campus crosses two blocks. Clanton First United Methodist Church still meets in its 1923 sanctuary and has Hispanic and addiction recovery missions nearby.

At lunch, a youthful crowd fills the Neighborhood Grill downtown, while older diners are loyal to Clara’s Café on Logan Road. On the other side of town at Kountry Kitchen, cars line the far side of the road after the large parking lot has filled. Customers stream in for the buffet served by waitresses who seem to know everyone by first name.

Yet for every old-fashioned aspect of Clanton, there seems to be a new-fangled version.

St. Vincent’s Chilton opened its 30-bed hospital in 2016, offering 20 specialties from cardiology to general surgery to family medicine. Next door is the Chilton-Clanton Campus of Jefferson State Community College in a 30,000-square-foot building providing nursing courses and core classes, in addition to a Conference & Performing Arts Center that seats 608.

On the east side of town is the bunkered State Emergency Operations Center of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, where about 90 employees monitor state-of-the-art equipment to prepare for hazards that threaten life and property across the state.

“It’s one of our best-kept secrets,” says Billy Singleton, who wrote the history book published in conjunction with Chilton County’s 150th anniversary in 2018. “It is one of the most important facilities for Alabama and the entire region.”

The $100 million Alabama Farm Center being built near Peach Tower is expected to create up to 400 jobs and have an annual economic impact of $55 million. The 12-building complex on 500 acres is slated to include a 5,000-seat arena, 150,000-square-foot exhibition building and 400-stall barn.

Beyond the extensive medical and educational facilities, Clanton’s 8,600 residents have access to recreational fields, parks and pools unsurpassed for towns of a similar size. Alabama Power’s Lay and Mitchell dams are nearby, supplying emission-free electricity in the region and forming the major reservoirs opened by the company a century ago.

And while Heaton Pecan Farm’s barn-shaped home off Exit 208 is headquarters for gift boxes and tins ordered by customers nationwide, the community’s passion always seems to point back to Prunus persica.

“I’ve been here from the start, seen it grow up from nothing to all of this,” says Mae West Zeigler as she rearranges a rocking chair on the porch of Peach Park, which opened in 1984 and has a giant peach replica out front that is popular for summer selfies. “I meet so many people, and enjoy every minute of it.”

Zeigler says her favorite time of year is when the crowds heading to and from the Gulf Coast stop in for homemade peach ice cream churned each Wednesday by Peach Park founder Frances Gray. Her frozen dessert was named the best in the state by Alabama Living magazine in 2017.

Some Peach Park customers prefer the air-conditioned restaurant seating, but most with children head to the patio, where squirrels boldly roam the railing seeking handouts. Parents follow kids downhill to picnic tables and porch swings. A hill overlooking the farmers market has a playground, barn and 15-foot-high lighthouse centering a pool that beckons old and young alike. Even the restrooms are peach-colored.

Farms in Clanton and Chilton County account for 80 percent of Alabama’s peaches. The annual festival begun in 1947 affords growers a chance for bragging rights, with the basket judged best each year auctioned off for charity. World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker flew the first prize-winning basket to Washington, D.C., where U.S. Sens. Lister Hill and John Sparkman presented it to President Harry Truman at the White House. This year’s festival begins June 22, culminating with the Peach Jam Jubilee June 29.

Durbin Farms popular stopover

Roadside vegetable stands could learn a thing or two from Durbin Farms Market. Rising from the same humble roots as the open wooden shelters found on roadsides across the nation, the business started nearly nine decades ago is now a Southern showcase.

“Marvin and Mary started peddling peaches here in ’33,” says Colby Jones, manager of the modern market his father, Danny, bought from the Durbins. “They grew apples, tomatoes and other vegetables, but peaches were their staple crop. They were open during peach season and closed the rest of the year.”

The Durbins’ destiny was set when they learned Interstate 65 would be built through local pastures and they purchased land on the east side of the proposed major highway. Durbin Farms Fruit Basket opened in 1961 but was destroyed by a tornado on Nov. 17, 1968, so they rebuilt and opened the following year on the west side of the big road.

Local farmer Steve Wilson partnered with the Durbins, growing peaches to help supply their store, beginning to sell peach ice cream in the late 1980s, and continuing to expand their business, which Wilson managed until 2005 when Jones bought the store. Jones added a boutique inside where they continue offering 24 flavors of homemade ice cream, a deli with sandwiches, pies and baked goods while expanding and diversifying other elements of the operation.

“We shuffle people in and out; they might be here 20-30 minutes at most,” says Jones, whose father-in-law, Rick Jackson, is an Alabama Power Company retiree, and brother-in-law, Travis Burnett, is a Transmission lineman. “It’s not unusual to have 200 cars stop through our parking lot in one hour.”

The Joneses grew up on farms in north Alabama where the family had a pumpkin patch open to the public in the fall. Today they offer more than 75 varieties of fruit, selling fresh apples, blueberries, nectarines, plums, strawberries and more than 30 kinds of peaches, starting around mid-May and going through mid-September. Durbin Farms is a major supplier for Sysco, as well as to wholesalers across the Southeast. James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Hastings had Durbin ship peaches to him when he was in a televised cooking competition.

“A couple from New York came in last year and bought more than 10 of our 25-pound boxes of peaches,” Jones says. “They just turned around and went back home, said it was cheaper and higher-quality to buy them down here.”

It’s not unusual to see celebrities like Tommy Tuberville searching through the slanted counters of Durbin Farms’ open market. They join the crowds curious about peach cider, pickled peaches, peach preserves and other peach products in glass jars lining the back walls beside butter and cheese from Amish Country.

“We’ve had families coming here for generations; great-grandparents bring in their great-grandkids,” says Jones. “College students come in to show their out-of-state friends what they grew up with. We put our heart and soul into giving people the best, freshest peaches and produce. That’s what we’re known for and makes us happy.”

Longtime Guardsman, lifetime teacher

Ivan Smith spent five years as brigadier general of the Alabama National Guard, followed by five years as adjutant general of the state’s 26,000 Army and Air Force troops, which at the time was the nation’s largest guard force. He was honored to be selected for those leadership roles but it’s the introduction to his adopted home in 1946 that still really moves the 85-year-old.

“When I got off the train from Nebraska, I fell in love with Alabama,” he says. “They had to use snowplows to get out of the station in Lincoln, so my mother and I were very overdressed when we arrived in Clanton. There’s nothing wrong with Nebraska; I’ve just never had the urge to go back there to live.”

The Smiths had ventured 1,000 miles after the death of his father. She’d met a soldier from Alabama and Smith had to refer to a U.S. map to find the state where his mother would be married. The 12-year-old soon moved into his new home on a farm outside Clanton. He still lives on the land willed to him by his stepfather; he still goes to the same country church he joined 73 years ago.

“Moving to Chilton County was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” says Smith. “I felt like I’d stepped into paradise.”

Idolizing a cousin who was a World War II paratrooper, Smith’s “goal in life” was to fill those Army sergeant boots upon graduation from Chilton County High in 1951. But another man stepped up and again altered Smith’s path. Vocational agriculture teacher W.A. “Bing” LeCroy gave him a $250 scholarship to Jacksonville State University, bought Smith clothing, a suitcase and drove him to the campus.

“That one thing redefined my life,” Smith says of the kind gesture by the man who influenced so many people that he became the namesake of the LeCroy Career & Technology Center in Clanton.

Smith joined the Army ROTC at Jax State and began taking classes but was soon broke. He was planning to leave college when a financial officer encouraged Smith to join the local Guard unit he commanded. Smith earned 25 cents an hour in the Guard, allowing him to complete his classes, earn a bachelor’s degree in education and a military commission in 1954, and immediately leave for Basic Officer Training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Thirty-three years later, he was named the JSU Military Alumnus of the Year.

Smith’s boyhood dreams were realized when he became a paratrooper – eventually jumping nearly 200 times – and a sergeant. While serving in Germany during the Cold War, another door opened: education. The University of Maryland sought soldiers who could teach math in Europe; Smith volunteered and “fell in love with teaching.”

When he returned stateside, Smith left the Army after then-State Superintendent of Education LeCroy offered him a vocational teaching post. Smith also joined the local National Guard unit, staying on for the next 30 years as he rose from 1st lieutenant to colonel, and the Clanton fort was named in his honor.

Smith had to leave the Special Forces when he became brigadier general, a position that has mandatory retirement after five years. Six months after he retired, Gov. Guy Hunt asked him to be adjutant general.

Other than his time as Alabama’s top soldier, Smith continued teaching math at the high school, junior college and college levels. He spent 40 years in the military and 60 in education while maintaining the family farm with his wife of 61 years, Sue, who also was a career teacher and counselor. They and their three grown children all have houses on the Smiths’ 60-acre farm.

“I kept remembering how much those teachers meant to me, what they did for me, and I wanted to pay it back,” says Smith. “I tried.”

Adient builds car seats

Every day, from sea to shining sea, Americans drive to work and back home, take children to practices and get fidgety in traffic jams, seldom giving a second thought to the car part closest to their body.

Every second, millions of people driving Nissan Pathfinders, Honda Pilots, Lincoln Navigators, Chevy Corvettes and other popular vehicles rest their backsides on steel framework stamped, welded and assembled at the Adient plant in Clanton. That job is always on the mind of some 900 employees at the 360,000-square-foot facility.

For nearly 20 years, Clanton workers have built seat frames and the tracks on which they move for nearly every major automaker. The success has prompted expansions on the 26-acre site, and the quality of the products led Adient to purchase the operations in 2016.

In his 17 years at the plant, Production Superintendent Justin Wilson has watched it grow from the original 50,000 square feet to 240,000 in 2002 and to the current size in 2012. He helped build BMW X5 seats for one of the first plant customers and continues today supervising seat production for a dozen different automakers. Many of the employees work on the new Ford Expedition seating line, but Adient is producing seats for 23 other cars and trucks.

Wilson watches as a large coil of tightly wound thin steel rolls into 100-ton to 150-ton pressure stamping machines, which every second push out a piece cut into patterns specific to each vehicle. Workers transfer the pieces to other machines that further fold the steel into upper and lower rails. Some of the heavy work is done by robots behind clear, locked partitions. Robots weld, apply special rust-preventive coatings and paint, and move parts along conveyor lines.

The detailed work is done by people using their hands and pneumatic screwdrivers, sanders and other specialized equipment. They merge inner and outer railings, add ball bearings and meld segments until each closely inspected frame is packaged for shipping. Fabric is added at other plants. The Clanton facility ships up to 30 million rails and more than 2 million seat frames each year.

“We’re dealing with very tight safety tolerances. In the automotive world, safety is a major concern,” Wilson says. “And we have to ensure that the creature comforts are met, that the seats are quiet and smooth operating.”

Human Resources Manager Judy Benson has been at the plant since its first day, remaining through ownership changes from CRH, to Johnson Controls to Adient. She notes there are many other longtime employees, such as Operations Manager Jimmy Simpler, while Plant Manager Danny Aaron relocated to Alabama from Philadelphia last year.

“Fifty-four percent of our employees live in Chilton County and 48 percent are female,” says Benson, whose husband, Neil, works for Alabama Power. “We have a very diverse workforce, which makes Adient a great place for anyone to work.”

The original day the music died

Ken Gilliland taxis a crop duster along the Chilton County Airport runway, gunning the engine as he checks to ensure the craft has been properly serviced. He’s gained an international reputation the past 20 years working on airplanes and helicopters.

Flying machines from across the country line the floor of the former Tuskegee Airmen metal hangar that was moved to Clanton in 1948. The massive, historic structure dwarfs the brick-walled hangar next door built through the Works Progress Administration in 1937, but the smaller hangar holds haunting memories of a tragedy 65 years ago on Gragg Field.

On June 30, 1954, the WPA hangar was packed for a Peach Festival concert by the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. Because the runway was unlighted, minutes before he would take the stage, R.W. Blackwood decided to fly the group’s Beechwood Model 18 around the airport. He took bass singer/copilot Bill Lyles up to “get the lay of the field.” They were joined on the spur of the moment by Airman 2nd Class Johnny Ogburn Jr., 20, the son of the festival founder.

Most of the huge crowd watched the plane take off as darkness fell on the field. Blackwood circled overhead several times, then missed his first attempt at landing. On the second attempt, his twin-engine plane bounced off the runway, went into a vertical climb, hung momentarily high in the air and flipped, diving into the runway and bursting into flames. Rescue attempts were futile.

“At first, I thought it was some kind of prank, but all of a sudden people were running out of the hangar onto the landing field,” says Billy Joe Driver, Clanton’s nine-term mayor who witnessed the crash. “We just couldn’t believe what had happened. It didn’t seem real.”

The Blackwood Brothers would soon reorganize with new members, earn the admiration of Elvis Presley (singing at Blackwood’s funeral) and become synonymous with gospel music, continuing today performing with new members. Blackwood family members often visit the granite monument alongside the runway that honors the trio killed in the crash.

For Chilton Countians who were alive in 1954, the catastrophe brings a reaction similar to what later Americans would feel about the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, recalling exactly where they were when they heard the bad news.

“It’s one of those things you try to forget but can’t,” says Driver, who went to the crash site after the wreckage cooled and picked up a couple of melted Blackwood Brothers records he has at home. “It’s still hard to believe. It was beyond imagination.”

The airport has survived the tragedy and thrives as never before in its 82-year history.

“For many years the airport was not only for transportation but was the social center of Clanton, the site of county fairs and the Peach Festival,” says Billy Singleton, a commercial pilot who is president of the Chilton County Chamber of Commerce and secretary of the Airport Authority. “The airport has essentially evolved into something that provides benefits for all the citizens of the county. We are now generating revenue for operations that we don’t have to ask taxpayers to support.”

Rent comes from airport hangars that store 30 airplanes, as well as from Gilliland’s B&G Flying Service, which employs seven mechanics. Airport facilities have been modernized, but Singleton is setting his sights on runway lighting improvements and a 1,000-foot-long extension that would allow corporate jets to land in Clanton. He expects the safety upgrades to be made within two years.

Alabama Power office

Business Office Manager Van Forrester at the sprawling Clanton Operating Center is responsible for smooth customer service operations in parts of Autauga, Chilton and Coosa counties. He’s held his current post for more than five years of his 38 with Alabama Power. Forrester is married to Diane, a Clanton native, and they have two grown children, Tara and Casey, and five grandchildren: Maddi, Lauren, Adam, David and Chandler.

Active in the community, Forrester is chairman of the Chilton County Industrial Development Board, on the Education Workforce Development Council, and the Jefferson State Community College Community and Corporate Advisory Board. In 2015, he was president and in 2016 chairman of the board of the Chilton County Chamber of Commerce.

Forrester started with Alabama Power in the Southern Division Call Center, moved to the Montgomery District Office, then to the Alabama Science Center, returned to the Montgomery District, and before his current job was a technical representative in the Southern Division Marketing & Major Accounts Automotive Segment.

Forrester first came to Chilton County as a 10th-grader, when his father, the late Bill Forrester, transferred to Lay Dam as an electrician, later becoming superintendent there and at Mitchell Dam during a major renovation.

Customer Service Representative Rosemary Johnson has been with the company for 40 years – mostly in Fossil Generation at Gaston Steam Plant. She’s been in Southern Division 13 years, the past eight years at the Clanton Office.

“Clanton is home and I am very blessed to be at the Clanton Office working with our customers every day to help them with any concerns or problems they may have,” Johnson says. “Sometimes they just need someone to talk to.”

Alabama Power has always been a part of Johnson’s life. Her 91-year-old father, Robert E. Lee, is a company retiree and she was born in the Jordan Dam village.

Johnson met her future husband, Lighting Services Sales Representative Terry Johnson, when he was hired at Gaston and they have been married for 33 years this August.

Field Service Representative Kyle Lawrence has been with the company for 28 years, the past two in Clanton. He and his wife, Missy, have two grown children, Lee and Dalton, and two grandchildren: Brycen, 5, and Korie Elizabeth, 2.

Customer Service Representative Shannen Porter has worked for Alabama Power for 20 years after starting in the Montevallo Business Office. She moved to the Calera Business Office and the past eight years has been in the Clanton Business Office.

She lives in Clanton with husband, Brandon, who is an E&I journeyman at Gaston Steam Plant.

Customer Service Rep Tanner Horton has been with the company 13 years and in Clanton six years. She is married to Dustin and they have two sons: Wyatt, 11, and Landon, 8.

Customer Service Representative Annette Rowe has been with the company for 17 years, working her entire career in the Clanton Office. Her primary job has always been as coordinator for the Conference Center.

Rowe is an active member of APSO, serving as the Clanton Chapter chair for several years. She presents Safe-T-Opolis programs at schools across Southern Division.

She’s been married to Barry Rowe for 27 years. They were “recently blessed” with the birth of their first grandson, Bohannon. Their son, Shea, serves in the Navy and their daughter, Catherine, is in college pursuing a registered nurse degree.

Rowe is a member of Thorsby Baptist Church, sings on the Praise Team and in the adult choir, and teaches children’s choir and Mission Friends (preschool).

“I enjoy working for a company that promotes the importance of family and being involved with your community,” Rowe says.

Famous sons

Clanton has had its fair share of famous folks in film, music and sports. Many have moved on to bigger places but most still check in on their hometown from time to time. Among the most well-known:

    • Clay Carroll. A member of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, Carroll grew up the son of a local mill worker and learned to play baseball in pickup games and school. The 78-year-old is a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame based on his 15 years as a relief pitcher for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago White Sox and Reds. Carroll was a two-time All-Star and National League saves leader before becoming a World Series champion with Cincinnati in 1975. He had a starring role pitching in five of the six games of the 1970 World Series.
    • Wesley Dennis. Singing in bars at night, installing windshields by day, Dennis worked his way up to a contract with Mercury Nashville Records in 1995, releasing a self-titled album that produced three chart singles: “I Don’t Know (But I’ve Been Told),” “Don’t Make Me Feel at Home” and “Who’s Counting.” Off the success of his debut record, Dennis toured with country star Alan Jackson. His second album was less successful and Dennis was inactive for about a decade until 2012, when he released “Country Enough.” The 57-year-old continues recording and performing around the Southeast.
    • Mac Powell. Powell sang in his church choir, listened to his dad’s vinyl record collection and went to Chilton County High School before his family moved to Atlanta. Merging music and faith, Powell started Third Day, a Christian rock band that over 25 years sold 10 million albums and earned 24 Dove Awards, four Grammy Awards and other accolades. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame before forming in 2018 Mac Powell and the Family Reunion, which performed in May at the Lyric Theatre in Birmingham.
    • Andrew Roy. Raised in Clanton, 23-year-old Roy is pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles. He has appeared in the films “Curse of Pirate Death” and “Blink,” but is best known for TV roles. His debut was in “Greek,” followed by portraying Griffin in the series “iCarly” beginning in 2009. Roy guest-starred as Jesse, the love interest of Miley Cyrus on “Hannah Montana.” He had a role on “Lincoln Heights” before being cast in the film “Secretariat” and in 2011 landing the lead in Steven Spielberg’s “Falling Skies.” Roy in 2017 starred as Joel in the TV show “Timeless” and on TNT’s “The Last Ship.”
    • Grayson Russell. The film and television actor has turned his sights toward a music career, but the 21-year-old is widely known for roles in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. While Russell resides in Nashville, his mother, Crystal, continues working at an auditing firm in Clanton. Russell began acting at age 6 in local TV commercials, advanced to regional ads and then won an open casting call for his memorable role as Texas Ranger Bobby in “Talladega Nights.” He graduated from Chilton County High before appearing in Disney and independent films.

This story originally appeared in Alabama Power’s Powergrams.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Blind ambition: Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind has untapped limitless potential of thousands

(Meg McKinney/Powergrams)

Had William Seaborn Johnson been like his nine siblings, countless people in the past 160 years might have led diminished lives.

Seaborn was deaf, which inspired his older brother, Joseph, to start a school in 1858 that years later became the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind (AIDB). Today, the wide-ranging programs on the huge campus in Talladega are renowned worldwide as the staff continues to break ground training disabled children and adults in 90 different buildings. AIDB’s motto is “Deaf. Blind. Limitless.”

When the school began teaching 21 deaf children sign language, reading and writing at Manning Hall, it was taking the first small steps toward a statewide educational network that today serves about 25,000 people annually. The building on the National Register of Historic Places was constructed in 1850 but no longer has classrooms. It is the managerial epicenter of Alabama’s largest employer of blind, deaf and deaf-blind adults.

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About 25 percent of AIDB’s 1,300 employees are disabled in some fashion. AIDB has five Talladega campuses, eight regional centers across Alabama and welcomes students from all 67 counties. Tuition, room and board are free for Alabama residents. Some 10,000 elderly people in the state receive assistance for hearing and sight problems.

“Through federal partnerships, we’re actually serving deaf and blind children around the country,” says Lynne Hanner, director of Institutional Advancement and an AIDB employee for 38 years. “We’re the biggest in the U.S. and probably in the world.”

AIDB’s presence in Talladega includes:

  • Alabama School for the Deaf, serving 195 students from preschool to 12th grade. About 70 percent of the students live on campus during the week and are transported home every third weekend. The Silent Warriors athletic program includes football, baseball, volleyball and track, and has won championships at every level including national.
  • Alabama School for the Blind has 115 students from preschool to 12th grade with the same academic standards as the deaf school. A quarter of the students are totally blind, many of them involved in music classes. The Silent Warriors teams include wrestling, track and goal ball.
  • Helen Keller School of Alabama since 1980 has provided instruction – currently to 85 students with multiple disabilities and deaf-blindness.
  • E.H. Gentry Technical Facility for 50 years has provided unique vocational and educational rehabilitation for disabled adults, with the goal of attaining skills that lead to employment and independence. It is considered one of the nation’s top vocational programs.
  • Alabama Industries for the Blind was founded in 1932 and is the state’s largest employer of legally blind and disabled adults. They no longer make brooms but put together products that include Navy flight deck vests and biodegradable mops, as well as all neckties worn by the U.S. armed forces.

A major addition under construction is the Joe Tom Armbrester Agricultural Center, built in part with an anonymous $1 million donation to honor the namesake. The institute has acquired many acres of adjacent farmland through the years, which at one time helped feed students, but is now used primarily to teach agriscience courses and house farm animals. There are 30 acres of fruit orchards and a fishing pond.

Six months ago, the $2 million Alabama Power Foundation Nursing Clinic opened behind Manning Hall to provide healthcare and medications to AIDB students, faculty and staff.

“You look across AIDB and there are so many heroes,” says Hanner, who co-authored the 150-year history book “The Ties that Bind” about the institute. “These folks are overcoming significant challenges, and excelling.”

Among AIDB’s leadership, 25 administrators are deaf or blind, many of them, like CFO Jonathan Sherbert, being graduates of the system they now watch over. Hanner keeps a second-grade photo of Sherbert,who oversees an $80 million annual budget, of which $54 million comes from the state and the rest from grants and donations.

“When I came here, I didn’t want to leave,” says Hanner, a Talladega native who worked one year at WBHM in Birmingham before coming home.

“It’s a calling,” she says. “Lots of employees stay 30 or 40 years. The president’s secretary, Amanda Fuller, has been on staff 58 years. We just wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

A relative newcomer to the team is President John Mascia, whose business cards are printed in Braille and regular type. He joined AIDB six years ago but has been involved with the institute for longer. Although he is from New York, his grandmother was a Selma native and his late aunt taught school there.

“I just couldn’t believe in this sweet little town of Talladega there was the most comprehensive program in the country,” Mascia says of the first time he visited AIDB. “I knew this immediately because I’ve been to every program nationally. It wasn’t the size of the campus or the buildings, but the people here who impressed me with their skills and their compassion.”

Mascia says fulfilling the mission of the institute is “not just a job” for him or other employees. He admits to being inspired and often surprised by the accomplishments of students and teachers alike. And he credits the partnership between the institute, townspeople and businesses with allowing AIDB to succeed and prosper into a third century.

“Alabama should be so proud as a state that very early on it became a civil rights advocate for people with sensory disabilities,” Mascia says. “Our students’ future is absolutely limitless.”

This story originally appeared in Alabama Power’s Powergrams.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 year ago

Talladega is known for speed, but slow down and take in what the Alabama city offers

(Jay Parker/Powergrams)

To most of the world, Talladega is the big racetrack that opened half a century ago.

The 2.66-mile NASCAR tri-oval 14 miles from downtown Talladega is familiar even to people who care nothing about vehicles racing 200 mph as 175,000 fans scream while nursing their favorite beverages in the bleachers and infield.

Talladega Superspeedway is quickly becoming the “world’s most sophisticated fan experience” as its $50 million redevelopment will be partially complete by the running of the Geico 500 April 28 and fully finished by the big races in October. Billed as the “Transformation,” the rebirth of the famous facility has nothing on its namesake town founded 135 years earlier.

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Talladega the city is super in ways millions of followers of Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon and the “Alabama Gang” might never imagine if they haven’t traveled south along Highway 77. The town of about 15,000 residents easily qualifies for the Transformation label, perhaps outdoing the track efforts through reviving the old Courthouse Square, restoring stately mansions and attracting impressive new industries and distinctive  businesses.

Talladega’s blend of building new and improving old may be unsurpassed among small towns in Alabama. The manifold instances are too many to mention, but the downtown is a good starting point. The oldest courthouse in continuous use in the state is surrounded by buildings either restored to their glory of the 1800s or under renovations moving in that direction. Even businesses that have failed have fresh facades awaiting new investment.

On one corner is Boswell’s Wings, named after a local doctor who patented airplane components and some claim flew a plane off a barn in 1902, prompting the legend Boswell beat the Wright Brothers in flight by a year. The restaurant was opened last year by local boy-done-good Kevin Smith, who is founder and owner of several companies and lives in Fort Myers, Florida, but frequently visits Talladega. His Artisan’s Alley awaits occupants on another corner downtown. The Purefoy Hotel just behind Courthouse Square is being prepped for a new life. It seems like every direction is undergoing major reconstruction, renovations or set to open doors on new businesses.

Across the street from Boswell’s is the opulent former Talladega Post Office, built in 1913 for $63,395.34 and used for mail until the local Water & Sewer Board moved in 16 years ago. People paying their bill in person today enjoy entering through the six-columned front, walking across the marble floors cut from the Sylacauga quarry, beneath the original brass lighting fixtures and handing their credit card to employees behind old-fashioned barred cashier windows. There are still horse hitching posts in back of the building.

A monument on the courthouse lawn recognizes “The Tremblin’ T,” another unique aspect of the town, dedicated to the USS Talladega that earned seven battle stars in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The ship is noted for transporting Marines to Iwo Jima, where they raised the flag for perhaps the most famous WWII photograph. The ship was featured in the classic war movie “Battle Cry.”

A block south of the square stands the 1906 L&N Railroad Station that was restored to house the Chamber of Commerce. Visitors traverse the floors of tile imported from Italy, along 8-inch-tall white marble baseboards, lighted by brass fixtures converted from gas to electricity. Beneath the original red tile roof, guests are often alerted to “April in Talladega,” the 45th annual pilgrimage – April 12-13 this year – showing off antebellum homes, churches and Oak Hill Cemetery. The tour changes each year but frequently features Boxwood (1854) and the Plowman-Heacock Home, generally regarded as the town’s most beautiful tall-columned home.

Not far east of the square is Heritage Hall, built in 1906 by Andrew Carnegie on land given by Louisa Jemison for the local library, which in 1979 moved to a bigger building behind the original. Designed by Frank Lockwood, as are many of Talladega’s most admired homes and structures, the old library with 18-foot-tall ceilings is now the city’s art center. Director Valarie White hosts about 10 exhibits annually, with the state bicentennial celebration of quilts set for April 11-May 31.

Just behind the square next to city hall is the Talladega Walk of Fame and Davey Allison Memorial Park, a full city block with more than 50 bronze plaques describing and dedicated to the greatest NASCAR drivers.

Across the street in front of Piggly Wiggly is the Talladega Battle Monument built in 1968 over the town’s still-bubbling spring. Beneath the four-winged concrete dome are bronze maps and plaques commemorating the players in the 1813 fight led by future President Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett and U.S. military forces against the local Creek Indians, who were vastly outnumbered and quickly defeated.

Talladega’s Veterans Park – the city’s biggest of nine recreational areas – has a long walking track with bridges that twice traverse a creek. The park has bathrooms, benches, playgrounds, two pavilions with picnic tables, a Little Free Library and WWII tank for visitors to admire. Not far away is the city’s nine-hole public golf course, which is near the Talladega Bowling Center, where children and adults are entertained at night and on weekends. Spring Street Community Center has a 25-meter indoor heated pool and swimming programs for all ages.

Today, Talladega natives often head to Tina’s Home Cookin’ for breakfast, to Café Royale or Custom Pizza for lunch and to the Stampede Steakhouse or Matehuala Mexican for supper. Every day around noon, the parking lot of Fincher’s Delite is packed at the longtime little roadside eatery. Guys go to Michael’s Men’s Wear for clothing and shoes, in big or small sizes. Visitors often opt to spend the night at the pristine Somerset Bed & Breakfast, which Bon Voyage magazine named “Best in the South.” And there’s nearly every fast-food place or national chain retail store and hotel outside the old business area and historic Silk Stocking District.

Shocco Springs on the northwest edge of town has welcomed Baptists and others from around the world since 1910. The current 40-acre conference and recreation center has a lake and more than two dozen housing, service and presentation facilities. Alabama Power linemen often use Shocco Springs as a staging area during major storm restoration efforts.

Talladega has standout medical facilities, including Talladega Health and Rehab and Citizens Baptist Medical Center, which employ nearly 700 combined.

Years ago, Georgia-Pacific pulled up roots, dropping Talladega’s economic and employment numbers. That changed early this year when the company opened a $100 million, 300,000-square-foot lumber production plant employing 130 people. That total is but a tenth of the local employment by the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind (AIDB), but it marks the latest transformation in Talladega. The Presbyterian Home for Children next to AIDB is not a major employer but is a primary influence on youths coming there from difficult circumstances.

“Talladega is probably one of the most diverse communities in the nation, because of its acceptance of people with sensory deprivation,” says AIDB President John Mascia. “They’re just regular people here. This city and county is very special and different.”

Talladega College

Straight out of bondage, two freedmen sought to educate theirs and the children of other former slaves “as vital to the preservation of our liberties.” The efforts of William Savery and Thomas Tarrant remain vital 150 years after they founded Talladega College.

The two Talladega African-Americans started with a one-room schoolhouse built with scraps from an abandoned carpenter’s shop. When that structure overflowed with students, Savery and Tarrant bought a recently bankrupt Baptist Academy headquarters and 20 adjoining acres, naming the building after a Freemen’s Bureau official who helped negotiate the deal.

“I could go on and on about our wonderful history,” says Director of Public Relations Mary Sood, standing in front of slave-built, three-story brick Swayne Hall, which is on the National Register of Historic Placesand noted for its four huge white columns and classic architecture. Classes still meet in the 1867 structure.

Across scattered and soaring oaks on the main campus concourse stands Savery Library, with its 40-foot-tall marble chiming clock tower. Students have gathered in the 120-foot-wide first-floor reading room for 80 years, but many failed to appreciate the national treasures hanging in the entrance lobby. A decade ago, college President Billy Hawkins learned that the Amistad Murals by Hale Woodruff were worth $40 million but in danger of disintegrating. With the help of the High Museum of Art, the six huge panels were restored and placed in climate-controlled storage in Atlanta.

The William R. Harvey Museum of Art will open in October behind Savery Library as the permanent home of the murals, now valued at more than $50 million. Harvey, president of Hampton University and a Tuskegee alumnus, contributed $1 million and the state another $1.5 million for the world-class museum that will house the historic art by former Talladega College teacher Woodruff.

“I think the state, nation, really the world, should be excited about this museum,” Sood says. “The Amistad Murals are a huge part of Alabama history, of African-American history, that can literally be a boon to tourism in Alabama.”

The Harvey Museum is one of three major new buildings at Talladega College. In January, a three-story, 45,000-square-foot residence hall opened with 103 rooms, each with LED lighting, low-flow toilets, keyless entry and other energy-efficient features. It joins eight other student residence halls, dating to 1869.

Across from DeForest Chapel, with its 65 stained-glass windows by former art teacher David Driskell, the college’s first-ever student center is rising. The 47,000-square-foot, two-story building will open in August with a 2,000-seat gymnasium, dining hall, kitchen, concessions stand, coffee lounge, convenience store, fitness area, health clinic and convocation hall.

The first in Alabama to offer higher education to blacks, Talladega College has launched its inaugural graduate program, a Master of Science in Computer Information Systems. The private school has record-breaking enrollment this year and is listed by the Princeton Review and U.S. News and World Report among the best colleges in the Southeast.

“We are thrilled about all of the growth on campus and the positive impact Talladega College has in our local community and throughout our state and our nation,” Hawkins says.

Red Door Kitchen

To the passerby, it might appear the Smokehouse Barbecue Restaurant never went out of business 25 years ago, as cars and trucks still fill the parking lot, and the dining room doors constantly open and close with local folks dropping in for lunch.

But the restaurant management today isn’t out to make a buck: The Red Door Kitchen is open for shut-ins and the down on their luck. What began in 1985 as a soup kitchen at the old bus depot has become a full-service café providing free meals Monday through Friday to walk-in customers and for more than 100 daily deliveries.

Early each weekday morning the past 16 years, Willie Pearl Cochran has arrived at Red Door Kitchen to direct activities, from selecting the meal components to cooking, packaging and storing lunches in big coolers for delivery. The past five years she’s been assisted by her daughter, Gloria Ford. They try to choose a different daily meat, vegetables and other sides to cook for their customers. On this day the individual Styrofoam containers include roast beef, mixed vegetables, pinto beans and graham crackers.

“We serve anyone who walks in, no questions asked. No one’s complaining,” Cochran says, smiling.

The Red Door Kitchen crew and volunteer drivers distribute 30,000 or more meals annually to homebound seniors, blind, deaf and disabled residents, as well as to sick people who request help and are approved by an independent organization. Forty-five drivers use their own vehicles and time, though businesses like First Bank of Alabama let employees deliver while on the company clock.

“The fun thing is our drivers get attached to the folks on their routes,” says Billy Sparkman, chairman of the board of the nonprofit. “The drivers may be the only person that the people getting that meal talk to that whole day.”

Working with a $60,000 annual budget, Red Door Kitchen is a United Way agency that depends on donations of food and money. The Community Food Bank of Central Alabama and canned food drives by schools provide much of the food. The city contributes funding, as do many businesses, churches and individuals. The annual “Afternoon of Praise” bringing together about 100 singers and a 20-piece orchestra at the Ritz is “a huge fundraiser for us,” Sparkman says.

Recent renovations have produced a 95 health rating in the kitchen, which sports freshly painted floors and walls, and a new industrial stove, commercial venting and walk-in cooler. The storage area where bulk food was previously stacked on wood pallets now has stainless steel sorting tables and racks lining the walls. Sparkman says the next targets are replacing the sliding glass customer-service windows and the buildings’ exterior siding.

And while finding more funding and quality, inexpensive food is always the priority, Sparkman says the impending crisis is getting younger volunteers to deliver the meals on routes currently manned mostly by retirees.

“It could be as big a threat to our program as anything else,” says Sparkman, who is an AIDB retiree. “The mission of Red Door Kitchen is a great one: You don’t think about people in America being hungry in this day and time, but there are a lot of them out there.”

Hall of Heroes

Curator Jimmy Williams walks through the Hall of Heroes intent on quickly sharing the museum’s highlights, as just one veteran spotlighting many others’ achievements. He moves from one section to the next sandwiched between more than 1,000 shots of soldiers’ faces. Williams stands beneath overhanging uniforms of every branch of the military spanning every conflict since World War I.

“There’s a lot of things here – not bragging – that you can’t find in a bigger museum anywhere,” Williams says.

The year-old museum inside a longtime shoe store building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places is stocked again to the rafters, only now with rare military memorabilia rather than Red Goose footwear. The red neon shoe logo in the front display windows is all that remains from the store that former owner Robert Weaver’s family gave to the city four years ago. Weaver was a key supporter and fundraiser for veterans and AIDB.

Manager Amie Gable says the free museum has had more than 900 visitors from 25 states, thanks “almost completely” to the unpaid efforts of area veterans. Mayor Jimmy Cooper helped restore the heart pine flooring, while other local vets made electric and plumbing improvements for the 1870 building that is now all-electric, with a heat pump, high-efficiency water heater and LED lighting. An 800-square-foot deck and stage was added to the back of the building for special events.

James Wellman is working on wiring along the baseboards as Williams talks. Wellman is a South Africa native who worked for the U.S. Department of State, among others, before settling down in Talladega and joining the museum board of directors. He, too, wants to ensure that U.S. veterans are not forgotten, noting that at least 300 men from Talladega County have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country since World War I began.

The museum’s origin goes back 15 years to when the local library collection of veterans’ photos outgrew the hallway where they hung. Fundraising started for something bigger, and after a concerted community effort, the Hall of Heroes opened April 13, 2018. Veterans and their families continue donating items such as vintage flags, photos, medals, newspapers and more uniforms.

“We have quite a collection, one of the most extensive anywhere,” Williams, who was an Army medic, says of the uniforms.

Framed discharge papers signed on Sept. 12, 1945, show that Marine Private 1st Class Jesse Brown Jr. somehow survived two years of battle at Wake Island, Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, Truk, Saipan, Tinian, Marianas Islands, Palau, Yap, Caroline Islands, New Guinea, Guam, Angaur, Ngesebus, Peleliu, Palau Islands, Leyte Island, Luzon, Southwest Mindoro, Corregidor, the Philippines, Okinawa and Ryukyu islands. His monthly pay was $54. He was paid $58.44 to travel by bus from Key West, Florida, to Birmingham in returning to civilian life.

“There are some unique things in here,” Williams says. “For a little town to have this, we’re really proud.”

The Hall of Heroes already has been honored in the Congressional Record, by the Alabama House of Representatives and Gov. Kay Ivey, and named the Nonprofit of the Year by the local Chamber of Commerce before the doors first opened.

“We think we’re kind of a special surprise,” Williams says as he shows off an Army field telephone from WWII. “It’s Veterans Day here every day.”

Puttin’ on the Ritz

Still flush from the Black Jacket Symphony’s sold-out two-night performance of Queen’s “A Night at the Opera,” George Culver notes that the rock performance is another impressive highlight for the Ritz Theatre since it was saved from demolition two decades ago.

The restored and recently renovated Ritz includes the adjacent revived Otts building, where the long hallway outside the green room and management offices is lined with signed photos and posters from prestigious productions and famous singers. There’s Diahann Carroll, Don McLean, Martha Reeves, Judy Collins, Mickey Rooney, Ricky Skaggs, Ronnie Millsap, Hal Holbrook and scores of other artists amidst 14 posters from prior Black Jacket concerts.

“We’ve pulled some coups over the years,” says Culver, the executive director since 1996, except three years when he directed the Birmingham Children’s Theatre.

The 1936 Ritz is considered one of the nation’s best examples of art deco theaters, with its façade of opaque structural glass of the kind in New York’s Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall. The building front had fallen into ruin in the 1990s, with a third of the panels missing, but those were matched perfectly with antique vitrolite glass collected by a St. Louis artisan. The huge marquee was brought back to life with red and green neon lighting crafted by a Birmingham specialist.

Culver presided over the fundraising campaign that led to the Feb. 16, 1998, reopening concert by the National Symphony String Quintet. “They said the acoustics were as good as anywhere they’d ever played,” he says.

A renovation last year replaced the cushions in all 550 seats and removed six coats of paint from the steel frames, as the side designs were repainted by hand. The tall walls were sanded and given a fresh coat of paint with an art deco-inspired design. Eight large lamp sconces were placed along the walls, based on the design of the lone original light. Houselights, surround sound and other modern infrastructure was added.

“The Black Panther” was on the big screen the weekend of Jan. 11-13. Some performances make big money, some don’t bring in a dime and others lose money. But the shows for all third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in Talladega County presented without charge since 1998 may provide the biggest benefit of anything ever shown at the Ritz.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is our arts education,” says Culver, who recalls coming to the standalone cinema as a child growing up in nearby Munford. “This year we will pass 100,000 students in this theater the past 20 years to see professional arts entertainment. Very few towns, not only in Alabama but across America, can say that.”

Dega Brewhouse surprise

On Talladega nights, Lindsey Moses welcomes a diverse crowd to Dega Brewhouse, where the music swings from hip-hop to country to heavy metal, and none of the old, young, black, white, blind or deaf patrons blink an eye. In the mornings, Moses teaches classes at Lmo & Co., the art studio she opened in 2011; at night she serves beer and banter at her bar; when she’s not eating or sleeping, she paints.

Moses goes down the smooth curving concrete bar she built four years ago, reciting the name of each person who slides up on the black wood stools. Local hero Lt. Tommy Perry is welcomed this night with hugs and kisses from many in the crowd, just two months after being shot in the face by a killer’s .357 Magnum while on patrol. “I’m just proud to be here,” the 32-year Talladega Police veteran says.

One of those shaking Perry’s hand is Johnny Williams, who decades ago was among the world’s elite athletes. An introduction to an out-of-towner leads to small talk, which turns to amazement at the bits and pieces of Williams’ life he reveals. Could this mild-mannered man have beaten an Olympic gold medalist in a footrace, played professional baseball, spent time with the Dallas Cowboys and set Ohio Valley Conference records that still stand?

“He was Bo Jackson before Bo Jackson,” says Talladega High School Assistant Principal Chuckie Miller, whose father coached Williams as an All-State basketball player. “He was a world-class sprinter, and Talladega High School didn’t even have a track.”

“He was the real deal,” says Wayne Williams, who was head track and field coach at Austin Peay Universitybefore becoming the University of Alabama’s top track assistant from 1978 until 1997 and then taking the top track job at Southern Miss until 2007. His star at Austin Peay performed so well that, in recent years, Johnny became the second AP athlete ever selected for the OVC Hall of Fame, but he declined the honor offered by the 13-member, 71-year-old conference.

“He’s as low-key a guy as you’ll ever meet,” Miller says. “He’s just never been interested in tooting his own horn.”

Williams still holds the OVC indoor track and field 60-yard dash record at 6 seconds flat, set in 1976. He was the 60-yard conference champion in 1976 and 1977. He anchored the OVC record-setting 440-yard relay champions (40.44 seconds) those same years. Williams was OVC outdoor champ in 1976 in the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds) and 200-yard dash (21 seconds) and in 1978 in the 100 meters (10.4). In 1976, Williams helped Austin Peay break Western Kentucky’s 12-year streak as outdoor champions, as he won Athlete of the Year and Wayne Williams Coach of the Year honors.

Muhammad Ali got wind of Williams, who had outrun Auburn University’s champion sprinter Harvey Glance in the Senior Bowl Classic, and invited Williams to the celebrated boxer’s track meet in California, where the athlete and coach met “The Greatest of All Time.”

Williams would go on to be drafted by the Cowboys, despite playing football only in his sophomore year of high school. He played professional baseball in the Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals organizations. Today he smiles and backs away when a reporter pulls out a notebook and pen. “No, no, that’s all in the past,” Williams says, shaking his head.

Moses says special people are common customers at Dega Brewhouse, Talladega’s only public bar setting. Hers and nearby businesses complement Courthouse Square.

“This is why I love to live in Talladega,” she says. “There’s more than the racetrack, though we appreciate the racetrack, there’s just so much more.”

Alabama Power office

Customer Service Representative Sue Patterson has been with Alabama Power for 29 years, previously working in the old Childersburg Office, Goodwater Office, Gardendale Office, Birmingham Call Center and Pelham Office. A graduate of Winterboro High School and Central Alabama Community College, she has two grown daughters, Lindsey and Kristy, and three grandchildren: Ethan (16), Hadyn (14) and Harper (3).

Customer Service Representative Linda Sims has worked at the Talladega Office since 2003 and been with the company for 20 years. The Talladega High and Alabama Community College graduate has lived in Talladega all her life. She has two grown children, two stepchildren, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Customer Service Representative Sharlea Taylor has been with Alabama Power for 3½ years, starting out at the Metro Central Office before moving to the Talladega Office to be closer to her 19-year-old son, Travon McClellan, who attends AIDB and makes wood stakes for Alabama Power at the E.H. Gentry Center wood shop. She and her 10-year-old daughter, Aleah, live in Odenville.

“Talladega is small but it has big things,” Taylor says. “I am very grateful for AIDB developing programs for all impaired people. It was a blessing for me to get transferred to this location.”

This story originally appeared in Alabama Power’s Powergrams.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)