By David Sher
I write this column on Tuesday, September 19th.
Tomorrow I will attend a Celebration of Life service for Albert Fox deFuniak, III, a man you may never have met, but who’s had a major impact on your life in Birmingham.
Fox deFuniak answered a question for me that I’ve always struggled with.
Can one man make a difference?
Fox proved, without question, that one man can make a difference.
I met Fox when I was a young businessman.
In the early 1980’s, I was Chairman of the Small Business Council of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. I was invited by a staff person to speak before the Board of Directors to promote Small Business Week and ask for a sponsor. I was a bit nervous presenting before such an imposing group, but I made my pitch.
Without hesitation, Bill Powell, the Chairman of AmSouth Bank, and one of the most influential corporate leaders in Birmingham, instructed me to call Fox deFuniak, the Birmingham Bank President, and request that AmSouth be the primary sponsor.
I did not know Fox and I was a bit intimidated about approaching him. I really didn’t want to call a perfect stranger, particularly a bank president, and tell him I had been told by his boss to ask him to do a task.
I took a big gulp, dialed his number and his secretary answered. I explained the purpose of my call and she rang his extension. He took my call, made me feel welcome, and committed AmSouth to sponsor Small Business Week.
And from that time forward, Fox and I were good friends.
I have to admit at first, it seemed a bit odd to call someone ‘Fox’, compounded by the knowledge that I had been told that deFuniak Springs, Florida, was named after Fox’s great grandfather, Frederick deFuniak. I concluded Fox must come from a really important family.
But Fox was one of the warmest, most decent people I ever met. To know Fox was to love him—and he was one of the wittiest people I have ever known.
Fox and I served together on many community boards.
I asked him to serve as Chairman of Operation New Birmingham (ONB) after my term concluded and he followed me as Chairman of the City Action Partnership (CAP).
David Fleming, the President and CEO of REV Birmingham (previously ONB), reminds folks that, “Fox was the driving force behind the creation of the CAP program, the business improvement district that supports downtown’s clean and safe program. In the 1990’s, a business improvement district was a new idea.
“City government had to be sold on the idea to let property owners organize and create a district management corporation as a means to supplement the city’s public works and public safety teams. Then, property and business owners downtown had to be convinced to assess themselves to support financing the new organization. It was a tall order, but Fox worked hard to make it happen. He served on the CAP board from its founding for over twenty-five years.”
And when I was Chairman of the Board of the Chamber, Fox literally saved my proverbial ‘butt.’ Jim Rotch, the head of the Chamber search committee and I were having difficulty locating a top candidate for CEO. Fox recommended Russell Cunningham, a recently retired corporate leader. Russell was the perfect hire and he aptly managed the Chamber for several years afterwards.
Fox and I met downtown often to walk around and discuss current and future projects. He would get so excited and animated—the man exuded enthusiasm.
Fox was also a really good sport.
For many years, when Michael Calvert was President of Operation New Birmingham, ONB celebrated annually at the Alabama Theatre. One year the officers of ONB put on a full production of Broadway’s Music Man. There was singing and dancing and the song ‘Birmingham, Alabama’–which was a Birmingham version of ‘Muncie, Indiana’ in the original production.
Unfortunately while preparing for the show, Fox, while walking around behind the darkly lit stage at the Alabama, tripped and fell. He hurt his shoulder which temporarily messed up his golf game. (Golf was pretty darn important to Fox)
Fox was indefatigable.
Not only was he Chairman of ONB and CAP, he was also Chairman of the Metropolitan Development Board, President of the Birmingham Kiwanis Club, President of the Festival of Arts, and President of the Birmingham Jaycees. He was on numerous boards and chaired many fundraising efforts in addition to being active in his beloved Canterbury United Methodist Church.
David Fleming of Rev Birmingham said of Fox, “I benefited often from his wisdom, his sense of humor, his supportive nature and firm hand. It was a powerful combination of skills embedded within a charming persona.”
In the last few months, Fox because of his failing health, was unable to participate in his beloved community. I called him regularly to see how he was doing and keep him informed—which he really seemed to enjoy.
On one call, he told me that he had been put on dialysis, but he was in good spirits because he could do dialysis at home at night.
On a later call, he told me that he was unable to do dialysis at home, but that he was doing well.
But that was Fox. It was never about him. It was only about his family, his church, his community, and making a better world.
If it turns out that heaven is not perfect as advertised and needs improvements, I can assure you that Fox with a smile on his face will be there to make it better.
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).
Click here to sign up for our newsletter. (Opt out at any time)
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.