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.

1 week 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.

300

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)

6 months 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.

730

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)

6 months 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.

4047

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)

7 months 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.

740

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)

7 months 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.

3857

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)