Today’s guest columnist is Dr. Robert Glaze.
My first awareness of George Wallace was an admiring one, as he and one other member of the Alabama delegation to the 1948 Democratic convention did not walk out to become Dixiecrats.
I was fifteen at the time and just becoming aware of politics, nationally and in Alabama and I felt ashamed of the racial demagoguery of the Dixiecrats, who later that summer nominated Strom Thurmond for president.
I soon forgot the name of the man who bravely stayed in the Democratic party and was only reminded some fourteen years later that it was indeed George Wallace who did not bow to the racial demagogues in 1948.
I left Alabama in 1955 after graduation from college. In the early 1960’s I was working as a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I had married and become a father. I was not in close contact with the politics and other life in my native Birmingham but I was distressed and angry at the majority of Southern politicians because of their hypocritical pandering to radical racists.
I knew enough of George Wallace to know that he was a populist admirer of Jim Folsom, a friend of Alabama’s poor regardless of race. I followed Wallace’s 1962 racially demagogic campaign for Governor and I was modestly involved in opposing Wallace’s candidacy in the Democratic presidential primary in Maryland. Most people were astounded that Wallace got 42% of the vote in Maryland that year.
Jump ahead to 1971. George Wallace again was governor and I was living in Alabama, having accepted a faculty position at the then University of Alabama Medical Center. In 1967 Joe Volker, UAB’s first president, asked me to assume some administrative duties associated with research grants and the development of new programs.
As part of those duties, early in 1971, I went to Montgomery with Dr. Volker to a meeting in the governor’s office. All the university presidents in the state, public and private, black and white, were to ask the governor to support the establishment of a marine sciences program for all Alabama universities on Dauphin Island.
I was both curious and nervous at the prospect of being in the same room with a man whose political behavior I despised, but whose position I knew I must respect because of the power he held over the university.
As the thirty or so people filed in the office, Wallace jumped up from behind his desk and worked the room as the expert politician he was. He knew almost everyone there, addressing them by name, spending maybe twenty seconds with each saying something personal. He was relaxed, smiling , gracious and clearly in his element. The contrast to the snarling race-baiting, personally vicious orator of the recent campaign against Albert Brewer couldn’t have been greater.
When he got to me he broke his rhythm saying, “ I don’t know you, do I?” I said, “No sir. I am Bob Glaze. I’m at UAB and I am here with Dr. Volker.” He leaned over and whispered, “Joe is one of the great ones, isn’t he?”
Then in a more conversational voice, he said, “You sound like you may be from Alabama. Are you married? Do you have any children?” I told him, yes, I was a native Alabamian, my wife Bobbie was from New York City, we had a son and daughter. In response to a question I replied, “I don’t know if our son wants to be a scientist like me. He is already showing considerable artistic talent.”
The entire encounter took maybe a minute.
The next time I saw Wallace was about a year later. It was before he was shot and that occurred in the Spring of 1972. Again, I was with a large group of university people seeking support in the upcoming legislative session.
This time, he walked up to me and said, “Hello Bob. How are you and that wife from New York? Does your son still want to be an artist?” and he was gone to the next person.
In the year or so since we last met, in addition to the usual ceremonial occasions a governor attends, he was already campaigning nationally for president. He must have had brief encounters with tens of thousands of strangers in that time, but he was able to come up with all that information about me on cue.
I was in awe, particularly, since in public situations like that I can forget even my wife and children’s names. I was in awe of his abilities while I detested all the things he had done with them to degrade the African-American people of Alabama and to thwart progress and development in our state.
Although George Wallace wanted to be a friend of education and the poor people of the state, his support for them was not focused, organized, or particularly effective. He sought to improve educational opportunity for poor people like creating the junior, community and trade college system, but it was poorly organized, mostly led by political allies, of questionable quality academically and funded principally by income and sales tax, which came disproportionally out of the hide of the poor.
After the assassination attempt, I saw him a number of times as he came to UAB for treatment or I was in Montgomery. As the constant pain, increasing deafness, and age, closed in on him he understandably became a very different person.
One of my more memorable meetings with Governor Wallace was in late 1985 or early 1986. A group of university administrators was seeking an appropriation for $ 2 million to match a much larger grant being sought from the National Science Foundation to initiate a state wide program in Alabama universities. The goal was to encourage faculty members to compete for the research money available from the federal government. UAB would administer the program, and I was chairman of the committee overseeing this project.
There was a short presentation conducted at the governor’s side. I was just short of shouting because of his deafness. Wallace asked a few questions, was clearly delighted to see the institutions cooperating, and pledged his support. This was not altogether reassuring, since George Wallace was legendary for saying yes, even to writing a letter and presenting it to you, signed with a flourish in your presence, but unfortunately not following through on what had been promised.
He then did something quite unusual, indeed extraordinary. He turned to Henry Steagall, the state finance director, who was leaving as the meeting had ended and, as I recall it, said in a strong clear voice, unusual at that time, “Henry. I like this program, Be sure it gets funded”. Steagall turned, swallowed hard, and said, “Governor, we don’t have the money. It can’t be done”. Wallace, with a look, I had never seen, raised his voice and barked, “Henry, you don’t understand. I said to fund it. Do it.”
The last time I talked to him was on a Saturday night later in September, 1986, close to the end of his last term. We were having a small party at our house and were just sitting down to eat about 9:30.
The phone rang, I answered it and to my astonishment it was George Wallace. I later learned that as his deafness became profound, he took to doing a lot of business late at night using an amplified telephone.
My wife told me to call whoever it was back as I mouthed “It’s the
“Who?,” she said.
“George Wallace” I responded in a stage whisper that froze all at the table.
The purported purpose of the call was to discuss the $2 million appropriation, which had been made, conditionally by the legislature and which had to be released by the Governor before October 1 or it would be lost. He asked a number of questions, said, OK, we will do it.” and then started talking about his pain and his deafness, asking about my family, and in general demonstrating how lonely and miserable he really was.
Here I was, looking at my wife and a table full of puzzled guests, while a very deaf, lonely old man who held the key to millions of dollars for our state was on the phone. This went on for forty minutes before I finally could gracefully end the conversation, eat my dinner and share what was going on with our guests. As it turned out, it was time well spent.
Dr. Robert Glaze is a native of Birmingham, graduate of Ramsay High School, a biochemist, and a retired Vice President of Research and Institutional Advancement of UAB.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. email@example.com.