Category Archives: Alabama

Luster of Pearls

The Luster of Pearls: Alabama Writers Hall of Fame inducts twelve

By Edward Reynolds
July 15, 2015

I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.
—Helen Keller


On the evening of July 8, 2015, a dozen literary notables with ties to Alabama received long overdue official recognition when the first class of the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame was inducted. Major sponsors of the Hall of Fame include the Alabama Center for the Book, the University of Alabama Library Leadership Board, and the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a partnership program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The Gala was held in the Bryant Conference Center at the University of Alabama, with close to 300 in attendance.

Table Setting From Writers Hall of Fame Dinner

Table Setting From Writers Hall of Fame Dinner. Photo by Elizabeth Limbaugh

Julie Friedman is a Hall of Fame Committee member, vice-president of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a member of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and currently on the Library Leadership Board at the University of Alabama. Friedman said the notion of establishing an Alabama Writers Hall of Fame began in conversations with Alabama Writers’ Forum Executive Director Jeanie Thompson “dreaming about something that we could do to honor writers who either have been born in the state or have done most of their work in Alabama.”

Friedman elaborated, “We have a vehicle in place to honor living writers either through the Harper Lee Award or through the State Arts Council and through the Governor’s Arts Awards. But we didn’t have anything in place that would recognize writers who were deceased in addition to living writers.” Friedman added that a second class will be inducted around the fall of 2016.

Regarding the criteria for choosing the inaugural class, she explained, “A lot of what we looked at were awards—had they won a Pulitzer Prize—or do they have a national reputation. Did their work have an impact on literature? Johnson Jones Hooper was a tremendous influence on Mark Twain, and Twain even borrowed characters from Johnson Jones Hooper. Augusta Jane Evans Wilson was one of the first published authors from the state of Alabama. When she wrote in the 1850s and 1860s, she sold thousands of books at a time when the Internet didn’t exist and there were no public relations campaigns.

Virtually unknown today, Augusta Evans Wilson was one of the most well-known writers of the 19th century and certainly the most successful Alabama writer of her time. Wilson’s great popularity is evidenced by the number of towns and young girls named for her characters.
The Green Room

In the media “green room,” poet, playwright, and Hall of Fame inductee Sonia Sanchez was absolutely charming. Sanchez, a distinguished member of the Black Arts Movement, addresses everyone as “my sister” or “my brother.” Her warm personality, gray dreadlocks, and sparkling black jacket were mesmerizing. Sanchez, a Birmingham native, moved out of state at age six.
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The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon

Originally published in WELD on October 24, 2015

The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon




Those who have followed city politics in the past decade or spent evenings as bar flies at any time between the 1960s to the ‘90s in local drinking establishments perhaps know of Terry “T.C.” Cannon. In 1962, Cannon and his older brother Joe opened the Plaza bar (better known as the “Upside Down” Plaza) on 11th Court South behind Western Supermarket on Highland Avenue (currently the long time home of Hot and Hot Fish Club).

Cannon recalls with a grin that his brother Joe had been ‘captured’ (involved with) then gambling kingpin of Birmingham, Little Man Popwell. “So everything (at the Plaza) was in my name,” T.C. says.

The Plaza drew a nightly cast of characters, creating an oddball clientele mix; Lawyers, doctors, students, businessmen, musicians, librarians, and schoolteachers made it the most eclectic bar in town. Bohemians drank with professionals. “It’s a wonder that the magnolia tree outside the Plaza survived because almost every lawyer in Birmingham has pissed on it,” an attorney friend and long ago Plaza patron told me.

The lounge was a Southside landmark. The Upside Down Plaza is currently still in business in the Five Points South area beneath Pickwick Plaza, where it relocated when the lease was not renewed in the mid-‘80s. In 1987, the nightclub began operation under new ownership.

Cannon claims the Plaza was forced out of its original locale because the landlord discovered religion. “A local preacher instructed them that they had to get rid of this horrible beer joint,” says T.C. “We still had three years on the lease and when we went to court, we won and got to stay three more years. And that was a lot of fun.” Continue reading

Abandoned in the Flood

October 06, 2005

Timmy DeRusha is Loretta Lynn’s tour manager. With a week off the road from a current performance trek, DeRusha didn’t lounge around his Tennessee home resting up for the next round of concerts. Instead, he spent the time in flood-ravaged New Orleans rescuing dogs and cats left behind when their owners fled the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Katrina.

Along with his father-in-law and brother-in-law, DeRusha loaded a pickup truck and cargo van with medical supplies and food donated by Nashville-area veterinarians, then headed to New Orleans. “The smell of that city . . . You could smell it from miles away, driving in over the bridge,” DeRusha recalled in a recent telephone conversation. With signs reading “Disaster Response Animal Rescue” posted on their vehicles, DeRusha’s group was escorted by a local fisherman who had previously supplied boats to various animal rescuers as needed. Guards posted outside the city allowed the group in after recognizing the fisherman. “We were armed, because [the guards] said that we might run across someone who wasn’t supposed to be in [New Orleans],” said DeRusha.

At some homes, DeRusha’s crew brought out dogs and cats while National Guard troops removed dead humans from the house next door. “People that left had spray-painted ‘PETS INSIDE’ or ‘DOG NEEDS RESCUED’ on plywood-covered windows in hopes that somebody would be coming along to get them,” said DeRusha. “But some of the animals had gotten stuck on balconies or rooftops and weren’t able to get down.” He said most of the animals were not vicious. “Most were traumatized, because they hadn’t had food or fresh water for two weeks,” DeRusha explained. “After we gave them dog treats and water and they realized that we were there to help them, then it was no problem at all. A lot of them were just really, really scared because all of a sudden the person that had been there taking care of them, in their mind, had deserted them. Then all this stuff happened that they had never seen happen before, with all the water coming in. The animals were survivors. Unfortunately, there were a lot of animals that we were too late for.”

An animal rescue volunteer coaxes a dog to safety. (click for larger version)


DeRusha and his crew used poles with nooses to catch dogs. “If they were too vicious, we just left fresh food and water. I’d say that nearly half the animals that we rescued were pit bulls. We were working in the inner-city area, mostly. That’s obviously what they do there, they raise dogs to fight. Some of the dogs needed rescuing whether there was a hurricane or not. They weren’t being taken care of . . . One was a three-month old pit bull pup. He tried to act like the most vicious of all, but when we gave him some food he began acting like a typical puppy.” 

Other scenarios were simply horrifying. A pair of pit bulls were discovered in one abandoned home. The female was emaciated, though it was obvious she had delivered a litter days earlier. DeRusha could not locate the litter and surmised that the male, who appeared well-fed, had cannibalized it.

Rescued animals were crated, with the address of recovery marked on the crate so pets could possibly be reunited with owners. For five days straight, DeRusha hauled approximately 30 dogs and cats each day to Tylertown, Mississippi, where a temporary animal sanctuary had been erected on five acres of farmland. 

The Greater Birmingham Humane Society (GBHS) brought more than 300 rescued animals back to Birmingham from Tylertown, Hattiesburg, and Jackson, Mississippi, where animals had been sheltered prior to rescue groups such as GBHS arriving. GBHS director Jacque Meyer was impressed by the number of people who came from across the country to help in the animal rescue effort. “It’s been very, very sad, but I am amazed at the number of people in the United States that have made an effort, using vacation time and their own money, to rescue these animals.” Meyer said that an abandoned warehouse in the Gonzalez area of New Orleans sat on higher ground that had stayed relatively dry. Abandoned animals migrated to the warehouse area, though some people were observed dumping off animals at the site. Food and water were supplied to the homeless animals at the site by the few officials allowed into New Orleans until the animals could be taken away.

Approximately 75 percent of the animals that Jacque Meyer brought to Birmingham were dogs, the rest being cats, along with an occasional goat or pig. They were medically treated at GBHS until the North Shore Animal League, an organization that finds homes for more than 30,000 animals yearly, took them to its New York state headquarters where they will be housed until either the owners find their animals through the web site, or until the animals can be adopted.

“People that left had spray-painted ‘PETS INSIDE’ or ‘DOG NEEDS RESCUED’ on plywood-covered windows in hopes that somebody would be coming along to get them.” Meyer said the trauma endured by abandoned animals continued to affect many even weeks after being rescued. “Some wouldn’t sleep lying down because they were so used to standing up so they could survive,” she explained, adding that some rescued dogs kept trying to swim each time they were lifted up into the arms of shelter workers, even though they had been away from flood waters for days. &

About Ed Reynolds

For more than 20 years, Ed Reynolds has written features, profiles, news articles, and book reviews, as well as conducting interviews with the likes of Lily Tomlin,  Al Franken, and a host of other celebrities. After developing his writing chops at a monthly publication called Fun & Stuff beginning in 1992 (where Reynolds eventually became editor), he was hired as a staff writer in 1997 at Black & White, Birmingham’s primary alternative paper for news and in-depth stories on southern culture. By 2013, Black & White had shut down — as did so many print outlets around the country. In his 16 years as a writer for the publication, he traveled the southeast covering everything from space shuttle launches to NASCAR races to funerals for American icons including soul brother number one brother, James Brown, and the great short-story writer Eudora Welty. In 2010, the nationally-acclaimed magazine The Oxford American hired Reynolds to reflect on the arrival of punk rock in the state in the publication’s only issue ever devoted to Alabama music. He continues to pen book reviews for Alabama literary arts publication First Draft. His work can be browsed by category via the links above or a selection of them can be read by scrolling down.

Out of Time

A photo exhibit details the unusual history of a black family in early 20th-century rural Alabama.
By Ed Reynolds

Geneva and Mitch Shackelford with unidentified child. (click for larger version)



August 09, 2012Through September 14, the downtown Birmingham Public Library is currently showcasing Both Sides of the Lens: Photographs by the Shackelford Family, Fayette County, Alabama (1900-1935). Featured on the library’s fourth floor gallery are 40 prints selected from 850 photos in the library’s Shackelford archives. Also on hand—and well worth taking time to peruse—are two thick notebooks that include dozens of archived Shackelford images not on display in the gallery. 

Mitch Shackelford was born during the Civil War. Adopted by a white family that he reportedly stayed in touch with for many years, Shackelford left home at age 21, eventually going to work for Southern Railroad. He and his wife Geneva moved to Covin, Alabama, in rural Fayette County, where they built a home that housed a couple of generations of Shackelfords. The residence became a boarding house and overnight rest stop for white and black travelers.

The Shackelfords were an oddity in the South in the early 20th century: an affluent black family with voting rights that owned vast quantities of land. Mitch and Geneva’s children found wealth by owning and operating syrup mills and sawmills as well as by farming and continuing to purchase land. As an entrepreneurial sideline, they maintained a commercial photography business, primarily making portraits. Clients included black and white area residents. Portraits were taken by two generations of Shackelfords in an era when stereotypical, racist images of blacks were prevalent in society. As noted in the exhibit: “The Shackelford photographs offer a dynamic and rarely seen depiction of the African-American experience in rural Alabama and show black people living full and vibrant lives in the face of the racial and socioeconomic oppression of the Jim Crow era.”

Birmingham native Andrew Nelson, currently at the University of Maryland, College Park, is largely responsible for the show. “This is the picture that started the journey that ended up being this exhibition,” Nelson explains, gesturing towards a photo of a nine-piece brass band that included three of Mitch Shackelford’s children. “A little over a year ago I started work on my Ph.D. dissertation and I had a conversation with a man named Joey Brackner, who is the director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture. Joey knew I was looking for pictures of old musicians. He told me about a collection that he had bought at the Bessemer Flea market over 20 years ago and donated to the Birmingham Public Library.” Nelson’s dissertation will be published as a book. A significant portion details the history of the brass band pictured in the collection.

The only thing known about the pictures was that they were taken in Fayette County sometime early in the 20th century. Nelson became fascinated with the images and began noticing the same house in many of the shots—the Shackelford home. He was determined to discover who had taken the photos. He went in search of the house, recognizing that his chances of finding it were slim due to the wooden structure having been built in 1900. He found a photograph of the house in the library in Fayette County as well as a map of the road where the house once stood. Eventually, he met Mitch and Geneva Shackelford’s great granddaughter, Annie Shackelford, who lives in the area. A friendship was forged. The Shackelford photo collection provided Annie with her first look at her great-grandparents. Annie Shackelford’s parents lived in the house until the early 1960s, before it began to deteriorate.

(click for larger version)








The Shackelford family developed their photos in an attic darkroom. Great-grandson Marvin Shackelford, of Alabaster, recalls playing there as a child. “We did not really know what it was all about,” he says. “We weren’t allowed up there. My boy cousins and my brothers and I would sneak up there and kind of snoop around a little bit. And I remember those glass plates [negatives] and everything, just like it was yesterday. But we didn’t have a clue what it was, really!”

Marvin explains that his grandfather was always helping the children with their cameras. “He would always be the one that would give us pointers when we had our little Polaroid-type cameras,” he recalls. “Like if we were facing the sun or whatever with the lens, he’d say, ‘No, no, no. You need to get the sun at your back,’ and that kind of thing.”

The photographs the Shackelfords made of neighbors wearing their Sunday finest contradicted the often demeaning stereotypical images of black Americans in the first half of the 20th century. “What a profound service it is that the Shackelfords provided the people in their community and beyond, to be able to represent themselves,” Andrew Nelson explains, calling the family “renaissance men.”

The brass band photo that first attracted Nelson to the collection indeed speaks volumes about the Shackelfords and other black residents socializing with whites in Fayette County in the early 1900s. The sign on the bass drum in the picture reads: “Big concert tonight at the Covin School-House given by the brass band beginning at 7:30. Seats for our white friends. Admission only 10 cents.”

This brass band, of which three Shackelford children were members, poses in front of the Shackelford house. (click for larger version)








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Fruitcakes in Monroeville


Fruitcakes in Monroeville

November 24, 2011

Truman Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory,” the timeless tear-jerker that first appeared in Mademoiselle magazine in December 1956, will be staged in Monroeville for the fourth consecutive year on Thursday evening, December 1. Capote spent much of his early childhood in Monroeville, raised by relatives after his parents divorced.The drama is the highlight of the town’s annual Fruitcake Festival, staged in the second floor courtroom of the town’s fabled courthouse which is the setting for much of resident Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The courthouse is now the Old Courthouse Museum, which includes Capote memorabilia donated by a cousin of the famed author. Locally-made fruitcakes in decorated tins (many with Capote-related themes) will be for sale during the festival, according to Nathan Carter of the Monroe County Heritage Museum.

Monroeville Fruitcake

Monroeville Fruitcake

Carter’s grandmother was Capote’s mother’s sister, and he remembers one of the last visits the author made to Monroeville in the mid-1960s. “I was maybe five or six. Harper Lee was there. It was during the time he was working on In Cold Blood,” Carter says. He and other young relatives were brought into a room to be introduced: “This is your cousin Truman.” Carter recalls that the children were then “asked to make ourselves scarce and not to bother the world traveler.”

Fruitcake in round or loaf shapes — all prepared from local family recipes”—will be for sale all day at the museum. Delicacies known as “fruitcake rocks” will also be available. When asked to define a “fruitcake rock,” Nathan Carter charmingly explains, “It’s like drop biscuits—they’re irregular in shape. Each is like two or three bites and then you’re done with it.”

Admission to “A Christmas Memory” is $25, with show time at 7 p.m. A reception with more fruitcake follows. Call 251-575-7433 or go to for details.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Memories


Rick Nelson was declared a teen idol at age 16, and continued his singing career as an adult.

Room 106 of the Guntersville Holiday Inn is a hallowed shrine along rock ’n’ roll’s sacred trail. It’s where one-time teen idol Ricky Nelson spent the last two days of his life before his untimely death on January 31, 1985. Nelson and his Stone Canyon Band were killed during the emergency landing of his blazing DC-3 (at one time owned by Jerry Lee Lewis) in a Texas cow pasture.

The International Rick Nelson Fan Club will celebrate the life and final days of the acclaimed singer October 19 and 20 at the Guntersville Holiday Inn.

Nelson had stopped in Guntersville for impromptu shows at PJ’s Alley, co-owned by his former guitarist Pat Upton. The Stone Canyon Band had just finished a Citrus Bowl appearance in Orlando, and decided to stop in Alabama for a couple of nights before a scheduled New Year’s Eve appearance in Dallas. That final show in Guntersville was eventually immortalized as the “Rave On” show by fanatical Ricky Nelson devotees, as Nelson closed the night with Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.”

America grew up with Ricky Nelson in the 1950s through television’s “Ozzie and Harriet Show.” By age 16, Nelson had scored a Top Ten hit with “A Teenager’s Romance.” A performance of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” on the show yielded a million records sold in the week following the broadcast. Life magazine put him on the cover in 1958, coining the phrase “teen idol” for Nelson. By age 21, he had sold 35 million records, with nine gold singles.

Hailed by many as the only teen idol with any lasting influence on rock ’n’ roll, Ricky Nelson eventually dropped the “y” from his name in the 1970s and began recording country songs. He’s credited as a country rock pioneer, launching the careers of Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, and Poco. After a round of booing at a 1972 Madison Square Garden show while trying to perform new songs, Nelson wrote the timeless classic “Garden Party.”

The International Rick Nelson Fan Club will celebrate the life and final days of the acclaimed singer October 19 and 20 at the Guntersville Holiday Inn. Events include a Rick Nelson look-alike contest and plenty of Nelson music. A permanent wall shrine entitled “The Last Two Days” has been erected in the hotel lobby, complete with photos and memories of Nelson’s final show. And most sacred of all, Room 106 has been christened the Rick Nelson Room and will be available for viewing. Call 256-582-2220 for details.

A Pair of Kings


A Pair of Kings

Sure, national championships are great, but we all know that bragging rights live and die at the Iron Bowl. In advance of this epic contest, Ed Reynolds remembers some of the greats from both teams.


November 10, 2011

Paul Bryant and Ralph Jordan personified football royalty in my world. For two decades, Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan were the icons producing weekly football melodramas that starred an All-American lineup featuring Joe Namath, Pat Sullivan, Tucker Frederickson, Major Ogilvie, Snake Stabler, and Terry Henley, to name a mere handful.

When I was a kid in the 1960s, everybody had a television, but football-viewing choices were severely limited. For those games we couldn’t watch, men with unforgettable voices (Buddy Rutledge and John Forney, representing Auburn and Alabama, respectively) were the wizards broadcasting play-by-play action, casting a mesmerizing spell over autumn Saturday afternoons.


“Bear” Bryant (Photo: Paul W. Bryant Museum/The University of Alabama) (click for larger version)





In the Beginning
Ralph Jordan became Auburn’s head football coach in 1951, winning the school’s first national championship in 1957. Dr. Lloyd Nix, a retired dentist in Decatur, Alabama, had a 19-0-1 record as the Tigers’ starting quarterback those two seasons. “I played quarterback in high school. When I got to Auburn, they told me they were going to put me at halfback,” Dr. Nix recalls on a recent afternoon. In the summer of 1957, Coach Jordan switched him to quarterback, where Nix mostly handed off or tossed the ball to his running backs. He always took the snap directly from behind the center instead of standing back several yards as today’s quarterbacks often do playing out of a typical shotgun formation. “I would have loved to run the shotgun. I would have loved to have the snap back there instead of running backwards and turning around and seeing what was going on,” he admits, laughing. “But we didn’t throw the ball much. We’d throw it maybe 15 times a game if we had to. Our defense was so good, we never did feel like we had to throw it.”

Larry Ellis was a blue-chip running back out of Murphy High in Mobile, recruited by Alabama, Florida, and Auburn, as well as approved for appointments to the Air Force Academy and West Point to play football. Ellis decided on Auburn his junior year. “Well, I was coming out of an era of impressionable football in the Southeastern Conference, very impressionable,” he says of his decision to stay close to home. The SEC’s current domination of college ball is nothing new to Ellis who played fullback from 1966 to 1968. “When I was 10 years old, Auburn had won the national championship in 1957; in 1958, LSU won the national championship; in 1960, Ole Miss and Johnny Vaught won the national championship. Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant won it in 1961 at Alabama. You think the SEC’s just now dominating? Wrong. So, as a kid, I said, ‘I’d love to be a part of that.”‘

Nobody above anybody that I met at my young, tender age compared to Ralph ‘Shug’ Jordan because, very simply, he was what we might call a ‘man’s man.’ An all-around person. His military background was unbelievable. And once you met the man, it was just infectious. He was a role model and a guy that nobody else that I had ever been around would compare to. He hooked me.”

While Jordan was generally viewed as a gentleman, Ellis saw the coach’s temper on display a few times. The 1968 Sun Bowl against Arizona was Larry Ellis’s last game. At halftime, the score was 10-10. Jordan was not happy, uncharacteristically flinging his clipboard as he ordered the team’s seniors front and center. Ellis recalls: “Shug threw his clipboard across the locker room and shouted, ‘If you sons of bitches don’t go out in the second half and exert some leadership, I’ll have every one of you in spring training!’ He told us we’d be the blocking dummies for next year’s team during the upcoming spring practice since our scholarships lasted until the end of the school year.” Auburn went on to win 34-10. One of Coach Jordan’s comments regarding leadership still moves Ellis 43 years later: “Leadership is like a cooked piece of spaghetti. You put it on a plate. If you get behind it and push it, it has no direction. But if you get in front of it and pull it, it’ll follow you anywhere.”

Birmingham attorney Gusty Yearout was a walk-on at Auburn. “I tried out as a freshman, I didn’t have a scholarship. I made the team and they gave me a scholarship,” Yearout says. “I came back in 1964 and got hurt. There was one coach there who didn’t like me and he was on my ass. So I finally said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I was young and kind of immature, so I quit. But before the end of that fall season, I went to Coach Jordan and said, ‘Look, I made a mistake and had some personal issues. I just want to know if you’ll let me come back on the team.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you can come back but you don’t have a scholarship any more. You’ve got to try out again.’” During his final two years at Auburn, Yearout was elected captain of the team.

Going to law school had long been a goal for Yearout, but he was also attracted to coaching. Jordan gave him some invaluable advice. “Coach Jordan knew from the time I entered Auburn that I wanted to go to law school. When I finished in ’67, I had been accepted to law school but I had that football stuff down in my blood and in my throat,” he says. “I told Coach Jordan, ‘What I’d like to do, if you’ll hire me, is to coach for a while to see if I like it, and then go to law school if I don’t.’ Coach Jordan said, ‘Coaching is not as glamorous as you think it is. You have proven yourself as a leader and as a smart guy of football. But you have to go to law school first and then if you don’t like law school you can come back down here and I’ll hire you.’ And obviously it worked out a lot better for me to go to law school than it did to become a football coach,” he says, laughing.


Pat Sullivan (1969), current head coach at Samford. (Photo: Auburn University) (click for larger version)





Yearout credits players and staff more than head coaches for victories, however. “Coach Saban is a great coach and I think Chizik is a great coach. But basically, what wins football games is the quality of the football players and the quality of the staffs,” he says. “Head coaches have to have great talents to put all that together and motivate and all that stuff. But they don’t win games on Saturday. People get all this bulletin board stuff to motivate the team—but when you get hit the first time square in the mouth, that [motivational message] won’t work any more. You’ve just got to be ready to play. You can forget being pissed off.”

Innovation on the Field
In 1969, Auburn beat Alabama for the first time in five years using a weapon that Shug Jordan had rarely deployed—the forward pass. A sophomore quarterback named Pat Sullivan gave Auburn football a makeover by lobbing long throws downfield to split end Terry Beasley, who was legendary for running blindly at full speed with his head toward the sky looking for Sullivan’s passes.

“Coach Jordan and I were very close. He was known around the athletic department as ‘the man.’ He commanded that kind of respect,” Pat Sullivan says during a phone call on an October afternoon. “He was a Southern gentleman, but he was also a very disciplined person. He was a strict disciplinarian. We played Houston in the Bluebonnet Bowl my sophomore year. Back then, the quarterbacks called a lot of the plays. We were at their 35-yard line and it was fourth down. Coach Jordan sent the punter in. And I sent him back out and called a pass play. We didn’t complete it. I went to the sideline and Coach Jordan met me, put his arm around my neck. People in the stands may have thought he was consoling me. But he actually said, ‘You didn’t understand that I wanted to punt.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, but I felt we ought to go for it.’ Well, he told me in no uncertain terms to go sit my rear end on the bench, to not get up until the game was over. Which I did. And I certainly never crossed him again. That was something that he and I laughed about as time went on.”

Sullivan was the first of three Heisman Trophy winners at Auburn. He recalls an intoxicated John Wayne at the Heisman banquet at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club in 1971. “When we were at the Heisman Banquet, John Wayne was the guest speaker,” Sullivan remembers. “John Wayne was well into a fifth of Scotch, and Coach Jordan got up and made a nice talk. As he was sitting back down, John Wayne reached over and put his arm around Coach Jordan and said, ‘Coach, you made a hell of a talk there. I may have a part in my next movie for you.’ And Coach Jordan never batted an eye; he looked at him and said, ‘Well, John, I come high.’ That cracked John Wayne up and he said, ‘Well, I think I can afford you.’”

By 1972, Pat Sullivan had graduated to the NFL and Auburn’s immediate future looked rather dismal. Losing the forward pass forced Jordan to return to his traditional “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of football. The shining star of this dull offense was a running back named Terry Henley, who was anything but dull—on and off the field. He was named second-team All-American and led the SEC in rushing, averaging 93.7 yards a game. Henley also loved to run his mouth, endearing himself to the media with hilarious, brash quotes. His rapport with Jordan was unique.


Alabama’s Bob Baumhower (Photo: Paul W. Bryant Museum/The University of Alabama) (click for larger version)





“Well, Coach Jordan and I had kind of a different relationship. I mean, he was the coach and I was a player. But he was my buddy, he was my friend,” Henley explains. “I’d go by his house all the time and visit with him and sit down there in the den and talk about things. He was the daddy that I never had. Now, he was tough, too, like a dad is supposed to be. But he was a wonderful, wonderful person. Coach Jordan used to tell me that he never liked to see me before one o’clock because he said it always upset his lunch if he did.”

We went to Georgia Tech my junior year. In the first half, I fumbled at the one-yard line coming out of the end zone; I fumbled at the one-yard line going in; I fumbled at midfield; and I batted a pass up in the air for the other team to intercept—all in the first half. Now, a normal coach would have set you on the bench after the second fumble . . . So we go in 7-0 at halftime.” Coach Jordan tells the team how well they’re playing despite Henley’s poor performance. He said, ‘I want Terry to apologize to y’all.’ I just sat there and I thought he was kinda joking about me apologizing. He let out some vulgarity like you’ve never heard in your life . . . and, buddy, I jumped out of that seat and I told them, ‘I apologize to all of y’all for the way I’m playing. I’ll play better in the second half.’ Well, of course, the second half I go out and rush for a hundred and something yards; caught three or four passes; I caught about a 30-yard touchdown pass that broke their backs, helped put the nail in the coffin. And I ended up as SEC Player of the Week. After I caught the pass and ran it in for the touchdown, I came to the sideline. Coach Jordan wore an old rain hat . . . He put that hat on me and he said, ‘You the damnedest player I’ve ever had. You should be the coach. Here, you wear the hat.”

Being the team’s star, Henley felt he could park wherever he desired on campus, prompting a confrontation with Jordan. “Parking tickets!” exclaims Henley, howling. “Coach Jordan called me in and he was just eating me out. He said, ‘Are you a member of the faculty? Do you work in the janitorial department here at the university?’ I said, ‘Well, no, sir.’ I didn’t know where he was going. He said, ‘Why the hell are you parking in their parking spots? I’ve got $325 worth of tickets for you. I’m not going to stand for it. You’re going to have to walk to class like the rest of them. And I mean it!’ He was getting loud with me. So I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and I stood up and he said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not finished.’ I sat back down and he said, ‘You’ve got a parking ticket for parking in [Auburn University] President Philpott’s space!’ I said, ‘Well, I knew he wasn’t going to be there that day, so I parked in his spot.’ And he said, ‘How did you know he wasn’t going to be there that day?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been going out with his daughter and she told me that he was going to Tallahassee that day, so I decided to park in his spot.’”

The Man with the Voice of God
My father and grandfather went to Auburn, so the rivalry’s dynamic was established for me at an early age. The Auburn-Alabama game was the most exciting, intense day of the year. It was the only time I ever heard my mother and father discuss divorce. Despite being an Auburn fan, my mom would annually scold my father for acting like a fool when he banged his head against the wall in frustration yearly as Alabama dominated Auburn in predictable fashion. My father was a deeply religious man, so notions of Bear Bryant walking on water created a conflict. There were weekends that I was convinced my dad really thought God was a Bama fan. He would glare at the sky whenever the Tide got “a lucky break,” shaking his head while muttering, “Somebody up there sure likes the Bear.”

The Crimson Tide was going through a drought in the late ’60s when Sullivan to Beasley was the rage at Auburn. Even Vanderbilt beat the Tide. “The ‘Bear’ Bryant Show” always preceded the “The Shug Jordan Show” on television each Sunday afternoon. Both were replays of the previous day’s game, featuring each coach’s observations and analysis. At one point during Bryant’s brief “down” years, alumni became so disgruntled that Bear told them to “go to hell” during the broadcast. A few days later, Bryant apologized. Newspaper headlines around the state proclaimed: “Alumni: Bear Says You Don’t Have to Go.” He really was like God.


Shug Jordan’s hat was never as stylish as the Bear’s (Photo: Auburn University) (click for larger version)





Wide receiver Joey Jones, current head football coach at South Alabama who played for Bryant from 1979 until the coach’s retirement in 1983, is quite familiar with Bear’s intimidating presence. Jones remembers the first time he came face to face with the coach. “I saw him right before the first practice, we’d had a big dinner the night before,” he says. “He was sitting at the table and I walked over to him and he shook my hand and I said, ‘I’m Joey Jones from Mobile, Alabama.’ He looked at me like, ‘What in the world are we doing spending a scholarship on somebody this size?’ He looked at the coach that recruited me and kind of gave him a bad look.”

The receiver learned the value of earning one’s own way. “The number one thing I learned from Coach Bryant was to make young men earn what they get. He did that with me, made me earn a starting position,” says Jones. “He didn’t give me anything, made me fight for it, and I’ll always appreciate that about him, not just rolling out the red carpet for anybody. Because when you do that, I think you get a much better, tougher football player who really had to fight for their job.”

Bryant didn’t do too much motivational talking on game day. “He did more during the week. His big speech came on Wednesday nights when we would have a big team meeting. He’d give a motivational-type talk then. It wasn’t so much during the games because they mainly worked at halftime, talking X’s and O’s and trying to make adjustments,” recalls Jones. “And even before games he wasn’t a big ‘let’s tear the door down’-kind of coach because I think he did so much of that during the week that he didn’t need that. That’s the way he operated.”

Two-time All-American running back Major Ogilvie agrees that Bryant wasn’t overly emotional. “We were really not a rah-rah kind of team. We didn’t play on emotion,” Ogilvie says. “I mean, there’s a certain amount of emotion that goes with adrenalin but we had so much poise and confidence, and we were so well prepared..” Ogilvie was on the team when Alabama won national championships in 1978 and 1979. “I was there when we won 44 games and lost four, so we had an awful lot of fun.” He recalls his introduction to Bryant well. “It was that day that I signed. I can remember going back in [his office]. I saw all the rings on his fingers,” says Ogilvie. “‘Cause keep in mind, I played on two state championships in high school and knew how much fun it was to play and be on successful teams. So, I walked back in there and asked him if I could see his rings. We chit-chatted for a minute.”


Alabama’s Major Ogilvie. (Photo: Paul W. Bryant Museum/The University of Alabama) (click for larger version)





Nose tackle Bob Baumhower, who played for the Bear in the mid-1970s before starring for the NFL Miami Dolphins, came very close to chucking it all away.” He turned on a light for me, that’s for sure,” Baumhower admits with a quiet laugh. The player hadn’t had his heart in the game until that fateful meeting with Coach Bryant. “I played football for all the wrong reasons. I got talked into playing football in high school,” says Baumhower. “I enjoyed the game atmosphere and I enjoyed the camaraderie. But as far as thinking about the best I can be, I never had that mentality. I was fortunate enough to be offered a scholarship only after the signing day.”

Baumhower didn’t enjoy playing offense his freshman year, so asked to be switched to defense. The coaches agreed, but Baumhower failed to pay much attention to conditioning during the off-season. “I don’t think Coach Bryant was real impressed with my conditioning. Instead of first string I was last string. I caught an attitude and said, ‘I don’t need this.’ I left football practice,” he says. “Coach Bryant got word to me that he wanted to talk to me and my dad that afternoon. The first thing he did—after he greeted my dad really warmly—was he looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘Well, I heard you wanted to talk to me.’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t talk to quitters but since you’re here, come on in.’ And he started working me right off the bat in that meeting. He made me start thinking about myself as a quitter. He asked me a question: ‘What did you do between spring practice and now to get better as a ball player and a person?’ And I couldn’t give him an answer. He went down a long list of players that had done things that he was aware of, whether it was a particularly player losing ‘x’ amount of weight, getting in better shape or a player getting stronger since the spring . . . He was real engaged at what everybody was doing to improve themselves for the betterment of the team. I couldn’t answer the question. He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think you’re a quitter, Bob. I think you’re frustrated. But I don’t think you know what it takes to be a winner. You’ve got to change the way you think. And if you want to play for me, you’ve got to be the best that you can be and you’ve got to show me that you’re committed to give a hundred and ten percent and you want to be special.’ And I never thought in those terms before that meeting. And that’s what I mean by ‘turning my light on.’ My dad still talks about it. It changed my life.”

Baumhower and his old coach grew quite close after he left to play professional football. “The longer I got to know Coach Bryant, the better our relationship was. When I went to Miami, I would get phone calls from him, letting me know he was coming down,” Baumhower recalls. So my relationship with Coach Bryant, I still consider it a gift. And that gift, I keep getting benefits of it throughout life because he taught me so many things that have been good for me in a positive way through the years.” &

A Facelift for Woodlawn

A Facelift for Woodlawn

Once a bustling Birmingham neighborhood, Woodlawn seeks a return to its former status.



August 04, 2011

Vincent Oliver has been cutting hair in downtown Woodlawn for 44 years. Oliver attended kindergarten, elementary, and high school in Woodlawn but left after graduation to attend barber college in Jacksonville, Florida.

“There was no barber college in Alabama when I got out of high school,” he explains. Degree in hand, he eventually returned to his childhood neighborhood and in 1966 opened Vincent Oliver’s Hippodrome Barber Shop. Oliver is one of the few white residents to have resisted relocating due to the urban blight that has gripped Woodlawn for nearly three decades beginning in the late 1970s.

Woodrow Hall, a renovated event facility in Woodlawn available for parties and other events. (click for larger version)



Running a one-barber operation, Vincent Oliver admits that Woodlawn has seen better days. “It was a real busy downtown district in the ’50s and ’60s. It had a Morgan Brothers Department Store. It had about four barber shops, had a Woodlawn bakery, had a shoe-repair shop, had restaurants, a hardware store,” he reminisces, perched in a barber chair after finishing with a customer. “It was a real, real busy hub right here.”

When asked if he has encountered any criminal element in the neighborhood, Oliver replies, “I’ve had no problems, it’s been real safe. People sometimes get the mis-idea about Woodlawn. When I tell people I work in Woodlawn, they say, ‘Oh ain’t you scared to go to Woodlawn?’ But it’s nice, it’s really nice.”

“People from Birmingham fail to see some of the potential that’s right before them.” —Andrew Morrow

Not long ago Woodlawn was not “really nice” or “real safe.” Many will argue that it still isn’t. But thanks to an influx of private and public funding, a revitalization effort that began several years ago has pulled the community together, and Woodlawn appears to be gradually on the rebound.

In 2004 Main Street Birmingham (MSB), a nonprofit organization that contracts with the city of Birmingham to foster public-private partnerships designed to revitalize neighborhood commercial districts, moved to the area. Two years later, the Central YWCA established a presence in Woodlawn when it came to the financial rescue of the Interfaith Hospitality House—a shelter for homeless families. Other nonprofit organizations followed: The Church of the Highlands partnered with Christ Health Center to open a medical clinic; Desert Island Supply Company has established itself as a writing lab for children living in Woodlawn; Cornerstone School is a charter school that has contributed to Woodlawn’s rebirth.

At the center of this revitalization is YWCA Central’s $11 million project to build state-of-the-art shelters for homeless families. Funded by a partnership between the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city of Birmingham’s Community Development Department, and private donors, the complex includes four apartment buildings with 58 units of affordable housing (both transitional and permanent), as well as a new facility for an Interfaith Hospitality House that can shelter six homeless families. The house allows intact families to remain together.

“We started out with a small vision just to build a replacement shelter and opportunities and funding kept coming our way,” explains YWCA Central Alabama CEO Suzanne Durham. “We’ve run housing for over a hundred years, we are not new to housing . . . We’re the only shelter in the state that takes homeless dads with kids. We’re one of very few that takes women with teenaged boys in the state, and we’re one of very few in the state that takes two-parent families.”

To take advantage of the Y’s transitional and permanent housing opportunities, occupants must be employed or on retirement or social security income. Criminal background checks are also required.

The YWCA’s project also includes a Family Resource Center. Purchasing the property, which was formerly a convenience store where illegal activities were allegedly taking place, was the catalyst in helping change Woodlawn’s shoddy reputation, Durham says.

“What was once a former convenience store—and I mean ‘convenience’ where a lot of unhealthy activities took place, activities that made folks often afraid to stop at the traffic light—has been transformed into a wonderful activities center for the residents of our apartment complexes, as well as community residents,” Durham said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in May christening the completion of the current phase of the YWCA complex. “We knew if we didn’t acquire the property, our work for transforming the neighborhood would be for naught.”

Main Street Birmingham, meanwhile, is close to opening an arts incubator in Woodlawn. In March, the Birmingham City Council voted to give $50,000 to 55th Place Arts, a $250,000 project located next door to Main Street Birmingham, which will lease the space to tenants.

Vincent Oliver’s Hippodrome barber shop has operated—largely unchanged—in Woodlawn since 1966. (Photo: Ginger Ann Brook, (click for larger version)



“We’ve occupied this building since 2005, [it] has our office, as well as some space in it that we maintain and is basically to incubate small business or nonprofits at an affordable rate,” says David Fleming, executive director of Main Street Birmingham. “A year ago we acquired the properties next door to us going to the end of the block, which is a total of six different storefronts that were all about only 40 percent occupied. Construction is under way now on renovating those buildings and filling up the vacant spaces with arts business incubation, or what we call ‘creative professionals.’ So it could be somebody involved in some sort of artistic endeavor as their business; it could be a dance studio or maybe a graphic design person.” Fleming said the arts incubator is likely to open in September.

Main Street Birmingham is also partnering with City Meats, located directly across the street from the Hippodrome barber shop. Samuel Crawford, director of business growth for MSB, explains: “The City Meats effort is just one of the overall initiatives. We’re working with individuals, community organizations, and neighborhoods to establish a series of public markets, the target being those communities that are considered by the United States Department of Agriculture, and our study that we had done of Birmingham, that are considered ‘food deserts.’ Those are communities that either lack access to healthy food sources, or access is limited. The overall effort is, how do you get more fresh produce offerings in these communities?”

MSB was also instrumental in the opening of Woodrow Hall, a top-tier events venue, in Woodlawn. “We were involved with Woodrow Hall in that when the new owners came around looking for opportunities, we encouraged them and helped them with the transaction for them to purchase that,” says Fleming. “That’s one of the things we do; If we find people that we can encourage to buy and invest in the area, we will do that and try to help provide incentives for them to do it. They didn’t need any financial incentive; they just needed to see the opportunity and we directed them to that. They’ve done a great job with that building.”

The three-story Woodrow Hall, at 5500 First Avenue North, is a former Masonic Lodge that was built in 1914. Andrew Morrow and his business partners purchased the building, which is currently used as a venue for weddings, parties, and other special events. Morrow has a landscaping and construction business, and has been involved in building lofts in downtown Birmingham.

“People from Birmingham fail to see some of the potential that’s right before them,” Morrow explains, “So I learned how to renovate stuff and I saw the value in taking something that’s old and how you can change it and make it new.” Morrow says that the adage that stipulates “build it and they will come” applies to his reason for opening Woodrow Hall. “You’ve got Crestwood right there [near Woodlawn] with houses that sell for maybe $200,000. But on the other side of this building [Woodrow Hall] a stone’s throw away [from Crestwood], you can buy a lot for 2,000 bucks or a house that needs a ton of work for $15,000. That’s a huge disparity.” Morrow adds that, because of the location, hosting an event at Woodrow Hall is much cheaper than at similar event facilities in the Birmingham area.

Travis Morgan, president of local record label Skybucket Records, says he was not aware that Woodrow Hall existed until he attended a yoga class there recently with his wife. He decided that the facility would be the ideal setting for local band Delicate Cutters to hold their record-release party.

“It wasn’t just another show, so we wanted to kind of up the ante a little bit,” Morgan says. “It’s real elegant; they dress [Woodrow Hall] up.” Morgan admits that it was somewhat risky to have a show in Woodlawn. “I grew up in the suburbs, and Woodlawn, to me, was an area of town that I didn’t go in very often,” he says. “It really is a beautiful area of town. As it slowly becomes revitalized, I’m sure there are some other jewels in Woodlawn that I’m completely unaware of. [So] if I didn’t know about Woodrow Hall, I’m sure there are other buildings and other sights to see.”

One of the YWCA’s recently renovated family residences in the area. (click for larger version)



Smiles for Keeps is a dental practice next to Vincent Oliver’s barber shop opened by Mountain Brook dentist Roger Smith and business partner Mary McSpadden in 2006. Their clientele is primarily children on Medicaid, though other insurance is also accepted.

“We did a demographic study of where the greatest need was, and we found that the Woodlawn area had a huge number of children that were having to travel some distance to get dental care,” explains McSpadden.

McSpadden says the clinic also offers care at reduced rates for those without Medicaid. “Even if somebody doesn’t have insurance or if they have insurance and maybe their copays are higher or whatever, our rates are such that it is much more affordable because of the area that we’re in,” she says. McSpadden admits that she and Dr. Smith took a gamble on opening the operation where they did.

“When we came, it was before Woodlawn was cool. Main Street Birmingham was here but really there wasn’t a lot going on,” she says. “Thirty percent of our children are non-Medicaid, 70 percent are Medicaid. And we find that they come from all different zip codes throughout this city.”

The clinic also treats adults whose children are serviced at Smiles for Keeps. McSpadden points out that the clinic is a for-profit venture.

“A lot of businesses that you see that have come into Woodlawn have been not-for-profits. We do believe that it’s helping the city to a large degree by us paying taxes, whereas your not-for-profits don’t.”

Nancy Tran, a real estate broker for Beautiful South Real Estate, says she is excited about what’s happening in the area. “Things are progressing. There’s a lot of activity going on with new businesses and the non-profit groups,” Tran says. She says she believes that the affordable prices for houses in the adjacent Crestwood neighborhood will be a catalyst prompting others to invest in Woodlawn. “As Crestwood continues to grow, that will pull Woodlawn up, too.” &

Camp Heaven


Camp Heaven

A wilderness oasis, Camp McDowell offers environmental education, folk arts, and tranquility.


May 26, 2011

For years I’ve seen bumper stickers reading I’d rather be at Camp McDowell on vehicles in the Birmingham area. What is this mysterious place that multitudes apparently prefer, I wondered? Have they been brainwashed? Is it some secret indoctrination facility?

Nah—so much for conspiracy theories—actually, Camp McDowell is a tranquil, lush oasis 15 miles north of Jasper, Alabama, that offers summer camps for youth in addition to an environmental studies program and a folk school that includes instruction in music and folk art crafts. The facility is named after Bishop William G. McDowell, who began early versions of Episcopal retreats at several sites across the state. It’s the official camp and conference center for the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, spanning more than 1,100 acres of woods and creeks.In 1945, the Reverend Scott Eppes was appointed by Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter to build a permanent home for the Episcopal camp that was being held at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham. [The bishop, who was prominent in Birmingham during the city's civil rights struggles, was one of the pastors Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail."] Bishop Carpenter’s son, the Reverend Doug Carpenter, fondly recalls his teenage years helping Eppes build the facility that would become Camp McDowell in 1948 after 160 acres were secured in Winston County for $600.

“I’d spend the whole summer out there, building the camp or taking care of the cattle, pitching hay, putting fences in,” Carpenter says. “Slave labor pretty much built that camp, because they didn’t pay us anything. The Diocese was pretty poor after the Second World War. Scott Eppes, who built the camp, really knew how to make money go a long way. He found out we could buy barracks from Fort McClellan [in Anniston], which was downsizing. The smaller barracks cost $15 apiece. They came apart in eight-foot sections.”


A taste of the natural beauty on display at Camp McDowell. (Photo: Beth Maynor Young.) (click for larger version)


Eppes also purchased longer barracks for $100 each, Carpenter explains. The first camps were fairly primitive, with no running water. The boys would bathe first in the creek, followed by the girls. Barrels of drinking water were brought in from Jasper.

Doug Carpenter, who retired from Saint Stephens Episcopal Church in Cahaba Heights six years ago, recalls a penny campaign his father waged to raise funds for the camp.

“My dad wanted everybody to have some part in it,” Carpenter explains. “He would visit every Episcopal congregation in the state at least once a year. And two weeks before he went, he’d send everybody these paper peanut bags. They were supposed to save all their pennies for two weeks. And he’d come back from his trips with maybe 50 or 60 pounds of pennies. It’s amazing how far that money went in those days but when you’re buying cabins for $15 apiece and land for around three dollars an acre . . . ”


(click for larger version)


Carpenter also recalls the thrill of using explosives to clear the land for the camp. “I don’t know why a lot of us didn’t get hurt up there—but nobody ever did—because Scott Eppes loved to use dynamite. You could get it for ten cents a stick in those days. You just go into Jasper and get a big ol’ box of dynamite,” Carpenter says, laughing. “We used probably more than we should have. There was one place where the dynamite hadn’t gone off and somebody had forgotten it. And Mr. Eppes was in town one day at the Army surplus store and found out that he could get flamethrowers. We were clearing a lot of brambles out of the fields. So he thought, ‘Oh, that would be a good idea.’ So he got a couple of flamethrowers. We were using those things and blew up a piece of dynamite. Fortunately, nobody got hurt.”

The dynamite is long gone. These days the serenity of Camp McDowell has made it more than a place to hike, swim, and canoe. The camp has become popular with corporations and groups seeking facilities for meeting retreats. Rev. Mark Johnston has been the camp’s executive director for two decades—only the third director in the camp’s 63-year history.

“I went to Camp McDowell when I was in high school. Then I worked at the camp when I was in college,” Johnston says. “The camp is the spiritual center of our church.” Johnston has seen the camp grow into more than a summer retreat during his tenure. “We teach kids how to live their faith in their everyday life. It’s a real powerful place. We’ve had over 100,000 children come to our residential environmental education program. We’re one of the best in the country. We also have over 300 groups come every year to use our conference center. And we started the Alabama Folk School about three years ago.”

Down-home Curriculum
The folk school has become quite a magnet, attracting participants from across the country. Held throughout the year, it offers courses in such traditional folk arts as playing acoustic instruments, Sacred Harp singing, chair caning, quilting, watercolor, and pottery. A visit to the school this April made this writer realize why the facility is so revered. Local stringed-instrument virtuoso Herb Trotman was one of the instructors that day.

“I’ve been trying to learn how to play the banjo for about 50 years,” says Trotman, laughing. “This is the third session that I’ve done at Camp McDowell teaching banjo and fiddle.” When asked to compare the difficulty in learning banjo as opposed to other instruments, he explains: “Well, here’s the thing about banjo. If you take up the guitar and mandolin, you feel this immediate sense of gratification. But when people say they want to play the banjo, they say they want to do this: [Herb plays a simple but familiar banjo lick]. Well, you don’t get there in a week. So it’s hard to get to that level which you think you’re playing. So I’m always working with people trying to get them to realize they’re playing music; they’re just not playing what they hear the banjo do.”

Roland White is the folk school’s most famous music instructor. White played guitar with the late Bill Monroe. (His brother was the late Clarence White, who played with The Byrds.) Having someone of White’s skills teaching mandolin has been an asset to Camp McDowell. The musician participates in similar musical retreats around the country with his wife. “Camp McDowell is a very nice setting,” says White, resting in a rocking chair on a cabin porch, waiting to teach another class. “I have an advanced class this year, which is unusual. Usually I have beginner and intermediate, which is kind of my favorite thing to do because I like to get beginners who are starting but who are doing it wrong. I like to correct that and they become better players. We have a lot of fun.” Asked if he teaches his students any Bill Monroe songs, White quips, “Yeah, I always include one or two, he’s my favorite. Bill Monroe is our father who art in heaven—I hope.”

Danielle Dunbar, director of the folk school, explains that the Alabama State Council on the Arts maintains a list of master artists in Alabama, which is where the Folk School finds many of its instructors. Prices for the school range from $255 to $515, depending on occupancy preferences and length of stay. The music classes are the most popular, Dunbar says.

“Music is just one of those types of activities where it draws community and it builds community, because people are really drawn to coming together and playing music together, whether it’s fiddle or jazz or mandolin.”

The real attraction at this year’s folk school, however, are women representing the famous Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective. Among the dozen or so women attending a recent class were several Californians lured by the opportunity to learn to sew quilts under the tutelage of the Gee’s Bend quilters. A Wall Street Journal reporter who lives in Los Angeles saw the Folk School featured on

“My mother always wanted to quilt,” says Alexandra Berzon, who decided to bring her mother Marsha to Alabama for a “quilting” vacation. “My mother had gone to a Gee’s Bend exhibit, and later I learned about them,” she explains. “I’ve never sewn before, let alone quilted. I’m still kind of messy.” Her mother Marsha adds: “The challenging and interesting part is visualizing how the pieces [of the quilt] fit together. They said we didn’t need to bring anything, so we didn’t bring any fabrics like some did. The Gee’s Bend women and others brought some fabrics so we just kind of scrounged those, but I think that made it better in a way because we didn’t have any visual when we started. We just had to deal with whatever was available.”

Dara McLaughlin, also from Los Angeles, has been quilting for six years. She has wanted to study under the Gee’s Bend women for years. “The Gee’s Bend quilters have a very different style from traditional quilting,” she says. “Their approach is ‘Don’t measure so much. Just kind of do something!’ Normally I do a lot more measuring and trying to line it all up perfect, but not this time.”

Mary Ann and China Pettway of the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective are instructing at the camp for a second year. “My mother taught me how to quilt when I was 11 years old,” says China, who says she’s related to Mary Ann but she is not sure how. “The quilts when I learned wasn’t made from new material, they was made from old clothes that me and my sister and brother had worn out,” she explains. “We didn’t have no money to go to the store to buy material. If we was walking along the road and seen a piece of scrap, we picked it up and took it home and washed it just to get a quilt going.”


Quilting is one of the more popular crafts that can be learned at Camp McDowell’s Folk School. (Photo: Rachel Dobson.) (click for larger version)


Mary Ann Pettway also recalls the poverty in which she was raised. “Back then we didn’t have tile or rugs, it was just the naked floor. So we had to make quilts to lay on the floor,” Mary Ann explains of her introduction to quilting as a child. She grew up in a house with 11 brothers and sisters. “We still do all our quilting by hand. There are a lot of people who do them by sewing machines but I always like to do mine by hand because it’s very relaxing and it takes your mind off a lot of stuff. You got to have patience, and if you don’t have patience to do it I wouldn’t suggest that anybody start on a quilt.”

The Environmental Center at Camp McDowell has been there for 18 years. Held during the school year, the environmental program allows teachers from around the country to bring their classes and choose from a list of studies. Maggie Johnston, wife of Camp McDowell director Mark Johnston, formerly taught at the Alabama School for the Deaf in Talladega. She brought her students to the environmental program for years before becoming director of the Environmental Center seven years go. It was her husband’s idea to start the program; Mark Johnston had not only observed cabins being unused nine months out of the year when Summer Camp was not in session, he also saw the opportunity to educate local kids in environmentalism.

“The folk school and the adult groups stay in hotel-style lodging. But there are 14 summer camp cabins down the hill where the school groups stay when they come here,” explains Maggie Johnston. “From Monday to Friday we have school groups here all through the year. Most of them stay three days—Monday to Wednesday or Wednesday to Friday. A few stay the whole week. It depends on the school. We have around 7,000 participants who come through the program [annually].” The kids who attend range from grades four through eight. There are 20 instructors on staff. Among the most popular classes are pond and stream, Native American studies, and geology classes.

Spiritual Nourishment
Doug Carpenter says his favorite thing about going to Camp McDowell as a camper each summer was the opportunity to meet other teens from across the state. The retired priest has a deep love of the uniqueness of the Episcopal Church.

“I’ve always loved the Episcopal Church, and partly because we’ve got such a freedom to question things,” he says. “And that was always true at Camp McDowell, too. It’s not who’s got the right or wrong belief—let’s talk about it and explore it, because if you have all the answers about God, it’s probably not God. He’s too mysterious.”

Some camp alumni say they found a spirituality there that they weren’t able to find in church. Wendy Riggs is a 51-year old Tuscaloosa resident who went to Camp McDowell from age six to 19.

“My mom went to Camp McDowell before I went to Camp McDowell, so part of the reason I always went was tradition. But ever since I was little, we were friends with the Eppes, who used to run the camp. So we kind of went there before I was supposed to go, to be honest,” she says, laughing. “My grandmother used to tell me she was going to hide up in a tree and figure out why I like it so much because she always said, ‘There’s no horses there, there’s nothing there, it’s in the middle of nowhere.’ But I think the biggest thing was that it gave me real positive experiences, religiously, because I could not figure out how to connect with the Episcopal Church. What I’m looking for in church is what I found at camp.”

For Doug Carpenter, Camp McDowell is no doubt the closest thing on earth bearing any resemblance to the Heaven that he believes awaits him when he passes away. He admits he has to temper his enthusiasm for the camp from time to time. “I see stickers all over Birmingham that say I’d Rather Be at Camp McDowell,” he says. “I never put one on my car because I didn’t want people in my parish to think I’d [rather] be at Camp McDowell than in church.” &

Camp McDowell is located at 105 DeLong Road near Nauvoo, Alabama. For information on upcoming programs and lodging availabilities, go to or call 387-1806.