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Opinion | Special Alabamians: Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is one of the five most read and purchased books in history.

President George W. Bush shares a moment with author Harper Lee Monday, Nov. 5, 2007, prior to presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during ceremonies in the East Room of the White House. Eric Draper/George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Under the title “Alabama is a Big Front Porch,” made famous by the legendary Alabama storyteller, Kathryn Tucker Wyndham, I will continue to share some personal political stories with you this week.

As many of you know, I have been friends with our iconic, senior U.S. Senator, Richard Shelby, for close to four decades. History will reveal Senator Shelby as Alabama’s greatest U.S. Senator and folks, that is saying a mouth full because we have had some great ones. We have had a cadre of great Senators including Lister Hill, John Sparkman, John Bankhead, and Howell Heflin along with Shelby. As Chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Shelby has brought untold hundreds of millions of dollars home to Alabama. It would take a book or volumes of books to tell the story of Shelby’s prowess at bringing home the bacon to his beloved state. He is completing 36 years in the Senate this year.

Two of my favorite Alabamians and loyal friends are former Congressman and now University of South Alabama President, Jo Bonner and one of the finest ladies in the state, Dora James of Opelika. I visit with each of these two friends almost weekly. They graciously read the column and give me feedback.

Jo Bonner epitomizes the adage of being a true southern gentleman. He is admired and beloved all over the state, more than he can imagine.  

Dora James epitomizes a true southern lady.  She is admired and revered in Lee County.  She is a true philanthropist and modest, kind and genuinely sweet person. About seven years ago, she hosted book signings for me at Auburn University and in Opelika that attracted several hundred folks at each, not because of me but because of her.

Speaking of memorable book signing events, the people of Jasper and Walker County hosted a large event at which Congressman Robert Aderholt was gracious enough to travel down from Washington to introduce me. Over the years, I have enjoyed a special closeness and connection to the folks in Jasper/Walker County, who read my column in The Daily Mountain Eagle. They have a rich political heritage with the Bankheads, Carl Elliott, Tom Bevill, and others.  

To show how old I am getting and how long I have been writing this column, it seems that every state senator I know says, “Please do not write something bad about me because my mama reads your column religiously every week and has for decades.”

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Speaking of books, I had the opportunity to meet and visit with the legendary author of To Kill A Mockingbird, Nelle Harper Lee. Folks in Monroeville, who knew her well from their generation, called her “Nelle.” Even though she had an apartment in New York that she purchased when her book came out in the 1960’s, Nelle Harper Lee lived her entire life in Monroeville. She lived with her sister, Alice, who was a good bit older than Nelle. I am told that Alice was the first female lawyer in Alabama. She was one of the most prominent lawyers in Monroeville and lived to be over 100. Alice and Nelle were neither married.

Nelle Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is one of the five most read and purchased books in history. I am told by Monroeville old timers that it is a total allegory. It is simply a story of Harper Lee growing up in Monroeville. All the characters are real, even Boo Radley.

One day a few years ago, Harper Lee sent word to me that she enjoyed and read my column, weekly, in the Monroe Journaland would like to meet me. I journeyed to Monroeville, and we exchanged greetings and she gave me a signed copy of her book. I thanked her and told her that it was bought and read by quite a few more people than mine. She was a person of very few words and renowned for her privacy and reclusiveness. The only thing she said to me, substantively, was, “You are taller than you look like in your picture.”

I thanked her for her time and the visit and book. When I got back into my car, I called my older daughter, who is a lawyer in Birmingham, and said, “I know when I die you are going to just pile up my books and throw them away, but there is one you might want to save.”

We will continue with more stories next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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