Friday, December 31, 2010

John Sparkman Day - Part 1 - By Lee Y. Greene, Jr.

An installment story about my hometown in North Alabama.

Hartselle, Alabama is like most other places of 12,000 or fewer souls in the South. Most everyone is moderate to middle class, as the area prospered only when the Tennessee Valley Authority came in the 1930’s to change our area from an agrarian economy to a service economy. With the advent of the aerospace and defense industries in a nearby county, our hometown evolved into a bedroom community.

Folks live here, but work and spend their day elsewhere. Because of this suburban evolution, we have lost the days of porch sitting and story telling, now that we commute and no longer really know our next door neighbor. That doesn’t mean that funny things don’t happen here, but that fewer connections are available to tell them. This is a story from my hometown:

In the Sparkman Civic Center on Nance Ford Road, in Hartselle, AL, near the trophies of softball, baseball, and city league basketball teams of dynasties long ago, there is bronze bust of Senator John Sparkman. Senator Sparkman was from Hartselle and served in Congress from 1937 to 1979. Senator Sparkman had a mixed legacy, as he was influential in bringing the U.S. Army Missile Command to Huntsville, but he opposed racial integration in the 1950’s.
He was probably the most famous person, besides William Bradford Huie, to come from our humble town, and his retirement announcement in 1978 brought much discussion in Hartselle about how to honor our native son. My parents were in the Hartselle Jaycees at that time. The Jaycees agreed to ask the City Council for $500.00 for a bronze bust of the Senator for display in the Civic Center for which he had acquired the funds. The Council decided to name the Center for him while they were at it.
The City decided to hold John Sparkman Day and honor him with the naming ceremony and unveiling of a bust. That was it. The event was over a year away, so everyone had plenty of time for adequate preparation.

Few in Hartselle realized that 1979 was a major Presidential election year and the Carter Administration was getting weaker by the day. Not only the Republicans smelled “chum in the water”, but the Democrats, which Alabama and the rest of the south were identified with, had an open field of candidates, since the incumbent President was not polling well. One of these was Ted Kennedy. The South was a solid voting bloc, and the Kennedy’s were not very strong in Dixie. Ted Kennedy was allied with Senator Sparkman on many issues in Washington and had served in the Senate with him for many years. The Kennedy campaign saw an opportunity in Hartselle, to show solidarity with Sparkman, and gain Southern support at the same time. So it was now on. Ted Kennedy was coming to Hartselle on John Sparkman Day. Not only was he coming, he would announce his 1980 Presidential bid in Hartselle.

In response, the White House, not wanting to be slighted in Carter’s backyard, decided to send an emissary of their own. The President, being occupied with matters concerning the hostages in Iran and the fallout from the oil embargo from OPEC, could not attend, so he sent the only person that could identify with voters in Alabama, his mom. Lillian Carter was coming to Hartselle, Alabama.

The event spun wildly out of control at this point. As the big day came, no one noticed the new faces that were milling around Hartselle a few weeks prior to Sparkman Day. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Secret Service was in Hartselle at least three weeks prior to Sparkman Day that I personally know of. My parents were involved with other Jaycees and the City to plan and organize the now overwhelming maelstrom that was headed toward Morgan County. My Dad and Joe Berry worked for the government in the Department of Agriculture, and was told by their agency to work only on this Sparkman Day project on request of the White House. My Mom ran an office supply company in town and was deluged by Kennedy campaign folks. The Kennedy campaign staffers ran copies of the press releases and set up shop so late that Mom gave them a key and told them to lock up when they left at night.

Her vendors and salesmen that were coming to Hartselle off I-65 were stopped by the Secret Service up to two weeks prior to Sparkman Day and asked if they would be returning, what their business was in Hartselle, etc. I had to give up my bedroom and sleep in my brother’s room because the Secret Service kept someone at our house to work. A parade was organized, a presentation and speech at the Civic Center, and a special invitation only dinner, were planned for the day.

A friend of my parents, Larry Orr, worked at South Central Bell and was given covert orders by the Secret Service to run special telephone lines for the event, so that constant communication with Washington could be maintained. Larry’s supervisors didn’t even know what he was doing. Others were coordinated secretly in the same way for other special purposes.

Prior to the big day, my Mom got a call from an operative from the White House, asking for four Hartselle Police cars to meet Mrs. Carter’s motorcade at I-65 and escort her into town. Mom replied, “We only have three working police cars and they are all in the parade…” To which the caller responded, “where the hell is this place?.. Don’t’ worry, I’ll take care of it.” The Governor of Alabama was then contacted, and twenty Alabama Bureau of Investigation agents were dispatched immediately to Hartselle for Mrs. Carter’s escort.