by Steve Flowers
As is the custom with my year end column, we will take note of the passing away of notable Alabama political personalities during the year. Some legendary Alabama political icons passed away in 2014.
Former U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton died in March at age 89. Denton was born in Mobile. He served one six-year term in the Senate from 1981-1987. He was elected with Ronald Reagan in 1980. He was one of Reagan’s most loyal and staunchest supporters in the Senate.
However, Denton was not a politician but a career soldier and war hero. He spent over seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. During a television interview arranged by the North Vietnamese, Denton blinked his eyes in Morse code repeatedly spelling the word T-O-R-T-U-R-E. He came home to a hero’s welcome as one of America’s most famous patriots. When he was elected in 1980, he became Alabama’s first Republican Senator since Reconstruction.
Former Alabama Agriculture Commissioner and State Senator Albert McDonald died on his farm in Limestone County in July at age 83. McDonald was a successful cotton farmer. His farm in the Greenbrier Community near Huntsville was his paradise. He was elected to the State Senate in 1974 and served eight years. He was elected Agriculture Commissioner in 1982. He served in the post, which was a perfect fit for him for eight years. McDonald’s daughter, Caroline, is married to Veteran Congressman Robert Aderholt. McDonald was a true statesman, but a farmer first.
Former University of Alabama President, Joab Thomas, passed away in March at age 81. Thomas was born and raised in Russellville. He was a world renowned botanist and three time graduate of Harvard. He rose through the ranks of the University beginning as an assistant professor in the biology department and serving as Dean of Students. He was also President of North Carolina State University for six years. He died in Tuscaloosa.
Another famous educator passed away this year. Dr. Paul Hubbert was probably the most famous educator in Alabama history. Indeed, he was one of the most powerful men in Alabama history. He was head of the Alabama Education Association for over four decades. When Hubbert took over the AEA in 1969, it was little more than a social club with 30,000 members. He built it into a 100,000 member organization with the most political clout on Goat Hill for close to three decades. He will go down as one of the most powerful and effective lobbyists in Alabama political lore. Dr. Hubbert died at age 78 in October in Montgomery.
J. Richmond Pearson died at 82 in October in Jefferson County. Pearson was one of the first Black members of the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction. He followed that up by being elected the first Black Circuit Court Judge in Jefferson County. He served with distinction as a State Senator and Circuit Judge.
The legendary McDowell Lee passed away in April at age 89. Mr. Lee was known affectionately as Mr. Mac by folks who frequented Goat Hill. He was Secretary of the State Senate for 50 years. During those five decades he taught hundreds of state senators the intricate senate rules. He also held the hand of at least a dozen lieutenant governors and guided them through the senate parliamentary procedure.
Mr. Mac grew up in the same era as George Wallace. They grew up together in the small Barbour County hamlet of Clio. Although Wallace and Lee had been natural allies in their early years, Lee backed Wallace’s rival Albert Brewer in the epic 1970 Governor’s Race.
After Wallace eked out a victory over Brewer, he tried to oust Lee as Secretary of the Senate. However, Lee had made too many allies in the Senate and prevailed.
McDowell Lee built a reputation for fairness with both Democrats and Republicans. Lee’s half century tenure as Secretary of the Senate will never be matched. When he retired in 2011, he was the nation’s longest serving legislative secretary.
Happy New Year.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column on Alabama politics appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.