Jon Reed

Journalist in Birmingham, Ala.

Category: Writing

‘My instincts just kicked in': Pinson man recounts how he, neighbors helped catch burglary suspects

by admin

This article appeared on on Feb. 1, 2014.


PINSON, Alabama — Paul Trammell says he always keeps a firearm ready, even if he’s just around the house. He feels he always needs to be prepared.

Thursday afternoon, he was ready.

He had gotten back to his home on Mountain Laurel Drive in Pinson just hours before from being snowed in at his office on U.S. Highway 280. He was barely in the door from having lunch with his family when he heard two loud bangs across the street.

He walked out on his porch and saw three young men running from the home across the cul-de-sac. His neighbor was coming from her front door on the phone with authorities. He heard shouts coming from inside her house.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, my neighbor’s been shot,'” he said. “My instincts just kicked in. I can’t let these guys get away.”

It was about 3:30 p.m., and the three young men, one 19, one 16 and one 17, had tried to break into Trammell’s neighbor’s home.

Trammell, who’s 52 and has asthma, chased after them up a dirt hill and toward the woods behind the house.

He got about 20 or 30 yards into the woods, he said, and he saw them. They apparently stopped to catch their breath, not knowing they were being followed.

“I pulled out my firearm and aimed at them and told him to hit the ground,” he said.

Trammell said he didn’t plan on firing unless someone pulled a gun on him.

One of the suspects hit the ground. The other two kept running.

He walked up to the one who got down on the ground and told him to lay flat on his stomach and cross his legs — Trammell said he’d seen that in a safety video somewhere. At this point Blake Wood, his neighbor’s son who he had heard yelling earlier and was afraid had been shot, came up with a shotgun in his hands. The two shots Trammell heard were Wood firing into the ground to scare the suspects away.

Trammell asked the suspect for his name and his age. He was 17 years old. Wood asked him if he had a weapon on him. He said he did.

Trammell fished the revolver out of the suspect’s front pocket and found that it only had two rounds in it, and they were at the bottom of the cylinder. If he had pulled the trigger, Trammell said, it would’ve just clicked.

Then, Trammell said, the suspect told them he had to urinate. Trammell told him he could, if he did it from his knees. The suspect was facing uphill.

“I said ‘son, you might want to turn around and pee downhill,'” he said

After that, Trammell and Wood walked the suspect down and sat him down on a stump.

“I warned him ‘if you make any sudden moves, I’m going to take it as a threat against my life and I’m going to fire,'” he said. “He was scared to death. He knew he had just made the biggest mistake of his life. I knew he wasn’t going to try anything. ”

A Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy arrived and cuffed him, and then three more deputies arrived and started into the woods to find the other two suspects. One deputy turned to Trammell and said “let’s go get ‘em,” Trammell said. So he followed.

They tracked the suspects into another neighborhood, but couldn’t find them. Another patrol car found the suspects in a vehicle on Highway 75, and they went there so Trammell could identify them. Even though he hadn’t seen their faces, he recognized their clothing.

They went back to the cul-de-sac so the other witnesses could identify them.

The two juvenile suspects face charges of second-degree burglary and criminal mischief and were taken to the Jefferson County Youth Detention Facility, according to the sheriff’s office. The 19-year-old suspect, Contrell Dreonte Heard, was held in the Jefferson County Jail on charges of second-degree burglary and second-degree marijuana possession.

“This is a great example of neighbors looking out for each other,” sheriff’s Chief Deputy Randy Christian told “Because of that, three criminals were caught. We love it when the good guys beat the bad guys.”

Trammell said he and Wood talked about it and neither wanted to have to shoot anyone.

“[Wood] said he didn’t want to shoot anybody,” he said. “I said I didn’t either. Never want to do that. I hope that never happens. But you do what you have to do to protect your family.”

Trammell said he trains with firearm safety so he knows how to do the right thing and is able to keep his family and his neighbors safe. That’s why he always stays ready.

“If I’m awake, I’m packing heat,” he said.

It was the first time he’s ever had to put that preparation to the test.

“It was just a thing where instincts took over,” he said. “It’s something I had prayed about before. If I ever get in this situation, Lord, let me be focused. Don’t let me make a mistake.”

Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson: Families want history to remember teen boys, too

by Jon Reed

From and The Birmingham News, Sept. 14, 2013.


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Johnny Robinson Jr. was waiting for his sister to bring him a plate of Sunday dinner. Virgil Ware was riding on the handlebars of his older brother’s bike.

While the names of the four little girls killed at church the morning of Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, are etched in the nation’s memory, the names of two boys from the area killed that day in racial violence are often absent from history books. On that bloody day the death toll included two black teen boys who were nowhere near the church.

Robinson, 16, was killed by a police officer’s shotgun in North Birmingham that afternoon. An hour or so later, Ware, 13, was gunned down by a white teenager on a road in Jefferson County.

“They was always talking about the four little girls,” said Leon Robinson, Johnny Robinson’s younger brother, “but they never talked about the two little boys.”

Johnny Robinson

If Leon Robinson had been with his older brother on 26th Street North that Sunday afternoon in 1963, he doesn’t think he’d be alive today.

Leon, now 63, looked up to his brother, and his brother looked out for him. So Leon believes he would’ve been at his brother’s side when a Birmingham police officer sitting in a police cruiser fired at a crowd of young black boys and killed Johnny Robinson.

“When they had shot him,” Leon Robinson said, “they would have had to shoot me too.”

Johnny was with a group of boys near a gas station in the 800 block of 26th Street that afternoon around 3 p.m., and everyone on the street was on edge after the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Carloads of young white people were driving by, taunting the young black people on the street with chants like “two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate,” said James Jemison, 65, a friend of Johnny’s who was playing football nearby.

Some boys in the group started throwing rocks at the white teenagers, police told The Birmingham News at the time, and when a police car arrived, the black boys started running down 8th Alley North. The car blocked the alley and Jack Parker, the officer in the backseat, pointed a shotgun from the window.

Police told The News that day that Parker fired a warning shot at the boys who were running away. Later, officers who were with Parker in the car said the driver had slammed on the brakes or the car had hit a bump, causing the gun to fire.

Johnny Robinson was hit, with buckshot in his back and wrists. When he got to University Hospital, he was dead.

Diane Robinson Samuels, now 65, was taking Johnny, her brother, some dinner. He had called earlier and asked her to bring some of their usual Sunday dinner to him, so she walked over with a plate. When she got to the scene, she was told her mother had gone to the hospital. Samuels dropped the plate and ran to the hospital.

Her mother was coming out of the hospital, she said, beating on the police officers there with her fists. When Samuels arrived, her mother told her the news: “She was saying ‘Your brother dead. Your brother dead.'”

Johnny’s death would hit the Robinson family hard. The Robinsons had lost their father just a few years before after Johnny Robinson Sr. told a neighborhood man to stay away from his sister and the man came back with a gun and shot him. Johnny’s death and the silence they got from police about what actually happened troubled their mother, and she spent time in a mental hospital.

As for Leon and Diane Robinson, they said they had to keep all of their pain inside. They went to live with relatives in Rochester, N.Y., during the summers in an effort to keep them out of trouble.

“It was devastating,” Leon Robinson said. “It really was devastating because we had to get up the next morning to go to school.”

The Robinson family would know little about what happened to their brother until 2009, when the FBI reopened the investigation into the shooting.

Dana Gillis, who was responsible for the bureau’s civil rights program in Birmingham at the time, delivered the letter to the Robinson family telling them that the bureau could not indict anyone in the case. Jack Parker had died in 1977.

“This was the first time that either of them had received any information concerning specifically what happened and who was responsible for their brother’s death,” Gillis said.

Gillis, who retired from the FBI in 2011 and now serves as the director of athletic compliance at Alabama A&M University, said part of the purpose of the program, which looked into more than 100 cold cases from the civil rights era, was to help families find closure.

But while the Robinsons now know more about what happened to their brother, they still aren’t satisfied.

“We didn’t get no closure,” Samuels said. “We ain’t got nothing but heartaches.”

Virgil Ware

Mourners packed St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church Wednesday to remember James Ware Sr., 90, who lived across the street from the church on a little hill in Pratt City. In his eulogy for the man known as “Daddy Ware,” the Rev. Guyrinthian Harris talked about how Ware found peace with God and learned to forgive others.

Ware, who died Sept. 5, had a very difficult thing to forgive. For nearly fifty years, he had mourned the death of his 13-year-old son, Virgil, at the hands of two white boys on Sandusky-Docena Road.

Jefferson County sheriff’s Detective Dan Jordan, now 84, was planning on visiting his two daughters on Sept. 15, 1963, but those plans changed when the dynamite exploded at the church.

Jordan, who retired as a captain in the sheriff’s office, drove past the church and saw people searching for evidence. He saw people throwing rocks and a downtown building that had been set on fire.

“I thought, ‘My God, what’s happened here?'” he said.

Around 10:30 p.m., he got a call from a dispatcher telling him about a homicide he was to investigate. Virgil Lamar Ware, 13, had been shot and killed around 5:05 p.m. while riding on the handlebars of a bike while his 16-year-old brother, James Jr., pedaled.

The next morning, Jordan and his partner, Detective J.A. McAlpine, set out to track down the two white boys who had been riding on a red motor bike who shot Virgil.

A Mountain Brook police officer told the detectives that next morning that he had seen two white teenagers on a red motor bike in Fultondale and noticed a pistol bulging in the pocket of one of the boys. The Mountain Brook officer noted the tag — M-5403 — and that led the detectives to the home of 16-year-old Michael Farley, who said he wasn’t out riding the motor bike on Sandusky-Docena Road that Sunday and knew nothing about what had happened.

Later that day, a tip from a man they met at a local grocery store led them to another boy who was out on the road that afternoon. The boy told them he and a friend had seen the two Ware boys on the road. When they ran into Farley and another boy, Larry Joe Sims, 16, they said the black boys had thrown rocks at them. The boy told detectives Farley pulled a pistol out of his pocket and handed it to Sims, saying, “We’ll see about that.”

When they talked to Sims, he confessed in tears, Jordan said, saying he had his eyes closed when he fired the shots that killed Virgil and hadn’t intended to kill him.

That night, Sept. 16, 1963, Jordan and McAlpine arrested both Farley and Sims, and the boys were charged with first-degree murder. Months later, Sims was convicted by a jury of second-degree manslaughter, and Farley pleaded guilty to the same charge. Both were given a suspended sentence of seven months, but served probation. They were released from supervision in June 1965, Jordan said.

“They got off light,” Jordan said.

Eventually the Ware family was able to accept the boys’ apologies, but Virgil’s death was always overshadowed by the deaths of the four little girls. At James Ware Sr.’s funeral, the Rev. Harris talked about how, after being able to see his son remembered by the city when he was inducted into Birmingham’s Gallery of Distinguished Citizens in August, perhaps he was able to finally have peace.

“I’m not saying we should take the focus off the little girls,” Harris said. “But if we’re going to tell it, let’s tell it all.”

Birmingham City Council President Roderick Royal presented a resolution from the council at James Ware Sr.’s funeral, and said he was glad Virgil’s father was able to see his son remembered.

“I’m so happy that Daddy Ware was still alive when we were able to honor his son,” he said.

While Wednesday’s service was for the father, a devoted churchgoer and loved member of the community, what happened to Virgil Ware should also be noted, Royal said.

“We must also remember,” he said, “the sacrifice of an innocent child shot from the handlebars of a bicycle.”

Trussville native, Blue Angels pilot enjoys being able to give back, represent armed forces

by Jon Reed

This article first appeared on on Aug. 28, 2013.


PENSACOLA, Florida — Chances are, you won’t see Lt. Cmdr. David Tickle in the cockpit of an F-18 Hornet this year. But that doesn’t mean the Trussville native isn’t working hard at his mission as an ambassador for the U.S. armed forces.

“We’re focusing on community outreach,” said Tickle, who serves as the lead solo pilot and operations officer for the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels. “We’re still flying; we’re just not doing public demonstrations.”

The squadron, known for its demonstrations of aerial acrobatics in blue fighter jets and other aircraft, announced earlier this year that it would not be doing any shows because of budget cuts caused by sequestration.

Tickle said that hasn’t stopped the group from trying to as much good as possible on the ground, though. He said they’ve kept up the usual slate of visits to hospitals, Boy Scout troops, libraries and anywhere else a positive influence is needed.

“We get to travel the country and represent all our fellow service members and be the ambassadors to the American public,” he said.

Tickle always had an interest in aviation and remembers seeing the Blue Angels perform when he was younger, but he was thinking of becoming a doctor — not a fighter pilot — until a Navy recruiter came to Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School and told him about the Naval Academy.

The fact that he could get a great education in Annapolis was a good start, and Tickle said being able to serve his country and give back sealed the deal. Even then, though, he didn’t picture himself in a blue F-18.

“I never thought that that was going to be me one day,” he said.

Tickle settled on a major in aerospace engineering and graduated from the Naval Academy in 2002. He was commissioned as an ensign and spent the next few years training on a variety of aircraft.

He served two tours of duty aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, supporting ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan both times.

He said he remembered being able to talk to troops on the ground when he was flying support missions.

“You check in on the radio with an element on the ground, and you can hear the concern in their voice,” he said. Then, whether he’d dropped a bomb or done a show of force, he heard the distinct sound of relief in the voices of those on the ground.

Tickle met the requirements — he had more than 1,250 tactical flight hours and was qualified to operate from an aircraft carrier — and after applying and meeting with members of the squadron, he became a Blue Angel in September 2010.

The training is intense, Tickle said, with the unit spending mid-November through mid-March every year in El Centro, Calif., flying six days a week in order to perfect maneuvers.

In his first year with the Blue Angels, Tickle was the narrator, talking the crowd through the tricks and maneuvers of the show. A year later he became the opposing solo pilot, one of two F-18 pilots who flew separately from the main formation. As the opposing solo pilot, his job was to react to the actions of the lead solo pilot.

This year, Tickle is the lead solo. That means he’s responsible for the timing and controlling the show as far as the two solo pilots are concerned.

But he’s also the group’s operations officer, meaning he does a lot more than fly a plane.

“Whether that be getting the squadron to the show site, making sure we have all the funding, airspace, all of that, I’m sort of the guy that brings it all together,” he said.

When Tickle is in the air — or just visiting a school or a hospital — he said he’s most proud that he gets to represent his country and the armed forces, especially when he’s close to home. Lasts year, Tickle and the rest of the squadron performed at the Tuscaloosa Regional Air Show, the closest to home he’s gotten with the Blue Angels.

“There’s not a large military presence in Birmingham, so being able to know what I know now and take my experiences across the country and inspire others to serve is a great opportunity that a lot of people across the country don’t get,” he said.

But the most important thing to Tickle is that he gets to make a difference in the lives of the people who see him do what he does. Whether that means they decide to join the Navy or not, he just likes to see the faces in the crowd.

“People ask me what’s the best part,” he said. “They want me to say the flying, and, don’t get me wrong, the flying is great. But getting to go after the show up to the crowd line and getting to see an 8-year-old kid smiling up at you and telling you that’s what he wants to do when he grows up, that’s the best part.”

AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, others rally in Birmingham against Montgomery speech by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

by Jon Reed

This story originally appeared on on Aug. 23, 2013.


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — With Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a possible Republican hopeful for president in 2016, set to speak in Montgomery Friday night, those who disagree with him and his party took to Birmingham’s Linn Park to talk about what they feel are the failures of the GOP and “red state” policies.

“We just wanted him to know how awful his decision is to balance his state’s budget on the backs of his state’s working families,” Alabama AFL-CIO President Al Henley said, referring to a law Walker signed in 2011 reducing collective bargaining rights for state employees.

The event was also to promote a radio town hall meeting Friday night to be hosted by MSNBC television host Ed Schultz and focusing on education, jobs and health care in the “red state” of Alabama. The event, at the Sheraton Birmingham, is set to start at 7 p.m.

Richard Franklin, the president of the Birmingham chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, focused on education policies passed by the Republican-controlled Alabama legislature, including the Alabama Accountability Act. He also questioned recent cuts to Birmingham City Schools, including changes that affected nurses and paraprofessionals.

“How did you do it for the children when you hurt the children?” he said.

The group gathered at Linn Park included people who came out in support of local labor unions, including the United Mine Workers of America, and those who backed Planned Parenthood.

The CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Southeast, Staci Cox, targeted attacks against the Affordable Care Act, which she said would expand the access women have to things like birth control.

“Obamacare works,” she said.

UMWA District 20 Vice President Daryl Dewberry went after Gov. Robert Bentley in particular, saying Bentley’s administration doesn’t care about keeping well-paying jobs in Alabama.

“He could care less about working people,” Dewberry said. “He wants to see us working for fish heads and rice.”

Bubba Englebert, a coal miner from Tuscaloosa, said he made the trip with other miners but that the crowd wasn’t as big as he hoped, though he acknowledged how hard it was to show up for people who work 60 hours a week.

“We need to put our American people back to work,” he said.

Police chase through Birmingham, Homewood ends in wrecks, 2 arrests

by Jon Reed

This article first appeared on on July 30, 2013.


HOMEWOOD, Alabama — A police chase that started in Birmingham ended with a pair of wrecks and two arrests in downtown Homewood Tuesday evening.

Birmingham police officers saw a man wanted on attempted murder and robbery warrants in a car before 6 p.m. and pursued him and another man in their vehicle through Birmingham’s Southside and down Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard into Homewood, Birmingham Police Department Sgt. Chris Anderson said.

In Homewood, the suspects’ vehicle hit two other cars along 18th Street South and crashed into another car on Roxbury Road on the other side of Oxmoor Road.

The man wanted on attempted murder and robbery warrants was the passenger in the car, and the driver was also wanted on a drug warrant, Anderson said.

One suspect was arrested at the scene of the crash and the other was apprehended after a short chase, he said.

Both suspects and another driver who was involved in the crash were taken to the hospital, Anderson said. He did not know what condition they were in.

June Fountain, who lives in the area where the chase ended, said she heard the crash and saw officers running and shouting after the suspect. She said she was surprised more innocent bystanders weren’t hurt, given how busy downtown Homewood was.

“He could’ve really hurt these people,” she said.

Several Birmingham and Homewood police officers were interviewing witnesses, working together to clear the scenes and directing traffic around shut down lanes and roads.

Anderson said no officers were hurt and no shots were fired.

At St. Paul’s in Birmingham, ‘change ringers’ carry on centuries-old musical tradition

by Jon Reed

This article first appeared on on July 23, 2013.


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Anyone who has stayed around in downtown Birmingham too long after work on a Monday has probably heard it. It’s the sound of church bells ringing, but not to the tune of any hymn or song. There doesn’t seem at first to be a rhyme or reason to it; no pattern, just clanging.

The sound, coming from the tower of the Cathedral of St. Paul on 3rd Avenue North near 22nd Street, isn’t a malfunction. It’s called English change ringing.

“The point of change ringing is to ring different combinations of the bells,” said Ted Clark, who was leading a group of five people ringing the bells Monday evening. “We don’t usually ring tunes.”

Clark and a group of several other people ring the bells a few times a week: practices on Mondays and Saturdays, performances on Sundays for the church service at St. Paul’s and for special events, including weddings. Monday practices usually run from about 6:30 to 8 p.m., and Saturday practices run from about 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Those moments are the only times change ringing can be heard in the state of Alabama. The tower at St. Paul’s is the only one like it in the state, Clark said. The North American Guild of Change Ringers has a map of all tower and handbell groups in the country.

The practice dates back to the 1600s in England, when the use of wheels in bell construction allowed ringers to very precisely control when and how the bells sounded. That also allowed the ringing of the bells to be structured in a less random way, but traditional music was difficult to do because every bell — every note — had to be rung by a different person. So changes, simple patterns and combinations of rings, were developed.

The church acquired the bells in 2006 and brought a trained change ringer down to teach a group here how to do it. Learning to ring the bells takes time because of how fragile the bells are and the fact that the same actions are repeated for long stretches of time. Clark said it takes about a year to learn how to control the ropes of the bells, and he was training someone Monday before practice.

Joe Roberts learned about it not long after the bells were installed.

“I said ‘that sounds really interesting, I’ll have to check that out,’ and I’ve been ringing here ever since,” he said.

While each bell rings a different note, and the church’s eight bells form a full octave, the ringers don’t follow traditional sheet music. They follow patterns and try to complete a certain number of combinations of rings — changes — in a row without stopping. Running through all of the possible changes — a “full peal” — means more than 5,000 combinations and takes about three hours, Clark said. A more common performance is the quarter peal, which means more than 1,200 combinations and runs about 45 minutes.

The group is always looking for people who want to help out. Contact information is available on the North American Guild of Change Ringers’ website.

Clark said you don’t have to be Catholic to be a part of the group. In fact, of the five people there Monday, only two were Catholic.

It also isn’t terribly difficult — it just takes practice and timing.

“You don’t have to be musically inclined,” Roberts said. “You just have to be able to count.”

White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko begins 4-game rehab stint with Birmingham Barons

by Jon Reed

This article first appeared on on July 18, 2013.



BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Chicago White Sox first baseman started a four-day rehab assignment with the Birmingham Barons Thursday night, and said he’s excited to get back into a baseball game and face live pitching after battling a back injury.

Konerko has been on the disabled list since July 3 with back soreness. Konerko said this week’s assignment is only the second time in his 17-year career he’s had to rehab an injury at a minor-league park and the first since 2008.

The slugger said he’s been taking batting practice and working out, but he’s ready to see some live pitching again. Konerko, a six-time MLB All-Star, is expected to play designated hitter most of his four-game stint, but may play first base one game, he said.

“It’s been a month since I’ve been consistently playing every day, now, but it seems like a year,” he said. “I’m a baseball player, so I’m looking forward to being back out here and being in a game.”

The White Sox captain has been fighting back soreness since late June, and took several days off before going 0-for-4 in a game against Baltimore on July 2. The White Sox, who were in last place in the American League Central Division Thursday, 14 games behind Detroit, didn’t want to rush him back into the lineup, especially after he struggled in that game.

“After that episode I think for sure that the last thing I want to do is make it through these four games and then show back up in Chicago and not be ready to play every day,” he said.

Konerko, who’s a career .284 hitter, hit .249 with seven home runs and 30 RBI before going on the disabled list.

Batting fourth in the Barons’ game against Chattanooga Thursday, Konerko flied out to right field in his first at-bat and got an RBI single in his second appearance. He’s expected to play through Sunday. Friday’s game starts at 7:05 p.m., Saturday’s game starts at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday’s game is slated for a 3 p.m. start.

Harrisons, Tuscaloosa work on moving on after last year’s storm

by Jon Reed

When tornadoes ripped through Dallas, Texas, on April 3, Darlene Harrison and her husband David knew they needed to find shelter. Their home didn’t have a basement, so they raced with their dog through the wind, rain and hail to a neighbor’s house.

Darlene Harrison could only think of one thing as they bolted for safety: This is what Ashley must have gone through.

Ashley Harrison, their only daughter, was killed on April 27, 2011, when an EF4 tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa. Ashley had been at the apartment of her boyfriend, Crimson Tide football player Carson Tinker, when the tornado flattened the building. Both of them were thrown into a field. Tinker survived and was quickly taken to DCH Regional Medical Center.

An hour after the storm hit, Ashley Harrison’s body was found. A neighbor’s German shepherd ran into the field of debris. The dog, named Saban, jumped in and out of the rubble, looking for the 23-year-old who always played with him. He finally crawled into a pile of debris and stayed there, even as his owner called for him. When the neighbor finally found Saban, the German shepherd was curled up next to Ashley’s body. She lay unidentified in the morgue until early the next morning, after her parents had arrived from Dallas.

In the year since then, the Harrisons have stayed in close contact with Ashley’s friends and the parents of other students who were killed in the storm. Those relationships, as well as the support of friends and family, have helped the Harrisons cope with the hole the storm ripped in their hearts, Darlene Harrison said.

“That hole is so big that we say those people sit around the edge of the hole and keep us from falling in,” she said.

The Harrisons were not alone in their shock and grief. Ashley was one of 53 people killed when the storm ripped through Tuscaloosa. Six UA students, as well as two from Shelton State Community College and one from Stillman College, would never get a chance to graduate.

The storm leveled homes and businesses with no regard for race, class or creed. It cut a swath half a mile wide and six miles long through Tuscaloosa. Even a year later, there are few places along the tornado’s path where the land does not look much the way it did the morning of April 28. At 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard, the CVS Pharmacy that once served as a quick convenience store for students and residents still stands, albeit empty and boarded up. In Holt, homes are still crumbling, their owners waiting for the insurance money needed to rebuild.

For a month, Rosedale resident Michael Moore continued to sit on his porch, even though much of the housing project had long been swept away by the wind.

Residents of the Forest Lake neighborhood are still asking themselves whether or not to stay in the devastated community.

In Alberta, many stretches of land are still empty fields where apartment buildings and businesses once sprawled. The congregation of College Hill Baptist Church plans a rebuilding effort for their church on University Boulevard, where the only thing the storm spared was the sanctuary.

There are a few places amid the desolation where the first signs of Tuscaloosa’s future can be seen. A week ago, Krispy Kreme broke ground at its former site on McFarland Boulevard, hoping to turn the “Hot Now” sign on again by the fall. Of the 116 businesses destroyed in Tuscaloosa, only 20 have reopened or have permits to reopen in their same locations, according to the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. Another 44 businesses are planning to move elsewhere in the area or already have. Some, like Full Moon BBQ, will open their doors soon in other locations. Others, like Hobby Lobby, already have.

While the physical recovery of Tuscaloosa continues at a varied pace across the city, the people affected by the storm know they will never be the same.


‘Back to our roots’


Matt Calderone was just an intern at Tuscaloosa City Hall, but his day started at 5 a.m. on April 28. City Clerk Tracy Croom had called him into the office, handed him a computer and told him to go to St. Matthias Church on Skyland Boulevard. The church was packed with volunteers looking to help in the massive cleanup and recovery effort that could begin at first light. A man stood up on the church’s stage and asked where the guy from the mayor’s office was.

“I’m looking around thinking, ‘Where is that guy? He has to be here somewhere,’” Calderone said. “Then I realized I was that guy.”

Calderone’s task, which he wasn’t aware of when he left City Hall, was to organize volunteers and coordinate the six points of distribution for food, water and other essentials Mayor Walt Maddox had set up in the affected areas. Calderone, who was a UA sophomore at the time and had only recently started his internship, coordinated a crowd of volunteers that was so large there wasn’t enough work for all of them. For the next few days, Calderone would serve as the city’s lead official for coordinating the volunteer effort. He carried two phones and a walkie talkie, answering calls at every hour of the day and night.

“Everyone wanted to help and people didn’t know how,” he said. “I was in a position to help.”

When the winds died down, UA students were some of the first on the scene. Students banded together to form UA Greek Relief, which raised more than $200,000 and cooked thousands of meals in the days after the tornado for residents and volunteers. Though they often earn reputations as bad neighbors because they’re only temporary residents, students in the tornado’s path were at times the first on the scene to help their fellow residents. In the last year, the campus has played a key role in lifting the city to its feet, with students building homes through Habitat for Humanity and clearing debris through the SGA’s Sunday Service initiative.

Now the president of the UA Student Government Association, Calderone continues to see the way Tuscaloosa is coming together after the disaster. He has worked with everyone from Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofits to NBA star Dwight Howard in helping pick the city up piece by piece. Calderone said the most important thing, though, is not picking up. It’s how you rebuild.

“When something like that happens, you have to deal with the issue, but you have to look to the future,” he said.

Tuscaloosa Forward, which was originally presented to citizens in July, is the city’s proposed plan to rebuild the areas destroyed by the storm in a different and more modern way. The plan includes a pedestrian path with green space and village centers in each neighborhood affected by the storm. On May 15, City Council will vote to approve or reject the residential zoning part of the plan.

Calderone said the most important aspect of the city’s long-term recovery, though, is something he saw a lot of in the days after the storm – the city’s spirit when faced with adversity.

“It’s things like this that happen to a community that bring us back to our roots and remind us of what our purpose is,” he said.


‘Nothing to be taken lightly’


Before April 27, Bragan Jackson didn’t take the sirens seriously. Coming from south Alabama, Jackson was used to hurricanes and the four days’ warning they come with. In April, he only had about a minute of warning.

Jackson and his roommates were at their home in Cedar Crest when the storm came through. They weren’t watching the weather – Jackson was watching a movie, one roommate was playing video games and another was asleep. A friend sent one of his roommates a text message, saying the tornado was coming toward them. They switched on the news and saw it coming right for their neighborhood. All three of them threw on their shoes and got under a mattress.

When the storm hit, their house was not damaged as much as their neighbors’ homes. The storm broke their windows, the air pressure in the house dropped and the wind rushed through the building with the sound of a jet engine, he said, but the walls stayed and only limbs and branches – not whole trees – hit the roof. Once it was over, they got out from under the mattress and walked around Cedar Crest.

“We just walked around in disbelief,” he said. “You couldn’t walk down the street without walking over trees and power lines.”

Gas leaks and other safety hazards kept Jackson, who graduated from the University in December, from staying in his house after the storm, so he stayed at a friend’s house in Northport. When he returned to Cedar Crest a few days later, he said at least 30 of his friends were standing in his front yard, helping clean up.

“That was one thing that changed immediately,” he said. “It brought us all together.”

Though Jackson is in Mobile now and seldom has to deal with a tornado warning, he said he learned one important lesson that day. He’ll never again think a tornado isn’t a big deal.

“Before this, I’d always joked that tornadoes didn’t exist,” he said. “They’re certainly nothing to be taken lightly anymore.”

A year later, the University, the city of Tuscaloosa and students are constantly working to make sure a tornado is never taken lightly. The University implemented a new storm warning system this year that includes calling students in the event of an emergency. Every Wednesday at noon, students receive a test call. On Thursday, April 19, students saw the system in practice for something completely unrelated – when shots were fired on the Strip.

Students have also shown an increased interest in keeping an eye on the weather. When tornadoes moved through West Alabama the night of Jan. 22, many students still had their TVs and computers tuned to James Spann’s live broadcast of storm coverage, discussing their anxiety, sleeplessness and memories on Twitter and Facebook.

They knew what it was like to be caught unprepared and they didn’t want it to happen again.


‘We live through her legacy’


In Dallas, Darlene Harrison doesn’t need to be reminded about the importance of storm protection. As a realtor, she knows about houses and what it takes to be safe from a tornado. She knows it was an unsafe building that led to Ashley’s death.

“The house is what killed her,” she said. “All the houses around her were still standing but that house.”

Part of her fight to keep Ashley’s legacy alive is to make sure her clients know just how safe they need to be.

“You realize that you help out other people and help them know where they’re safest,” she said.

She said she and her husband also stay in close touch with Ashley’s friends, including keeping tabs on the weather in Tuscaloosa in case another dangerous storm approaches. The Harrisons both have apps on their phones and get warnings when bad weather comes near Dallas or Tuscaloosa. They didn’t have those apps in April, when Ashley called each time there was a tornado warning and her father would talk her through the weather conditions.

“I wish we could have a do-over, because we’re so much more prepared now,” Darlene Harrison said.

In the last year, the Harrisons have created scholarships and funds in Ashley’s name as a way to help others and find some good in the bad. They even created a memorial pet fund in honor of Ashley’s dog and Tinker’s dog, who were both killed in the storm. The fund recently helped a former Marine and his wife in Dallas whose dog was hit by a car.

Giving back is how the Harrisons cope with the loss they suffered a year ago, how they fill the void left when the tornado took their only daughter.

“You don’t think you’ll outlive your children,” Darlene Harrison said. “Now, we live through her legacy.”


This article first appeared in the April 27, 2012, edition of The Crimson White. You can see it here.

Songwriter looks back at career as local frontman

by Jon Reed

The Dexateens were effectively banned from the bar for it, but that didn’t matter. Blaine Duncan and his band, the Lookers, played their set, drank their fill and were ready to leave the makeshift stage on the floor of Egan’s Bar and rejoin the crowd. Ashley Hill, then the manager of Egan’s, wanted just one more song.

Duncan gave it to him. Then, he took the guitar from his shoulder and drove the neck of it through the bar’s low ceiling tiles, destroying three of them.

Duncan feared he wouldn’t get paid. He feared he wouldn’t be invited back, just like the Dexateens weren’t when they took their instruments to the ceiling. Instead, Hill gave the band more money than he had ever given them before, as extra thanks for a great show.

Egan’s only admits those 21 and older, so no high school students were in the crowd that night. If they had been, though, there’s a chance they would have seen Duncan a few days later, teaching their English class.

Duncan, 35, had already become a fixture on the Tuscaloosa music scene when he started teaching at Tuscaloosa County High School in 2008. At first, he didn’t tell anyone. His students didn’t know for sure, though some would ask him about it. When he told his fellow teachers after a few months, they were excited about it. They asked him what it was like to be in a band. They told him to tell his students, but he didn’t want it to become a distraction. To this day, he still brushes off questions about it in class, thinking students are just asking him in order to get him off task. This year, though, Duncan is more willing to talk about his guitar-slinging, folk-country singing side job with some students.

“It’s the good students who seem to ask me more about it, who I wouldn’t mind seeing [at a show],” he said. “They’re mature enough to have a discussion about a song like ‘I Don’t Smoke Dope with Satan.’”

Duncan will play what may be his last show with the Lookers Saturday night at 9 p.m. at Green Bar. The show will be open to anyone 21 and older, and there will be a $5 cover at the door. The Bear and Doc Dailey & Magnolia Devil, both bands from Muscle Shoals, will open for the Lookers.

Playing guitar backwards

Born in Sulligent, Ala., Duncan got into music for a simple reason: He wanted to impress girls. At age 16, he started playing drums with a band of his high school friends.

“I was a bad drummer,” he said. “I got to where I could keep a beat, but that was about it.”

They only played four shows, mostly high school get-togethers. When the band would practice, Duncan started playing around with his bandmate’s guitar, and the lefty took some abuse for the way he played.

“I picked up his guitar and turned it the wrong way,” he said. “I remember everyone saying, ‘You’re playing that backwards, you’re playing that wrong,’ but it felt right, it felt great.”

When Duncan arrived at the University of Alabama in 1997, he started playing guitar regularly. He and a friend would play together two or three times a week, and Duncan learned how to play guitar, continuing to play a right-handed guitar left-handed, the strings upside down.

Duncan didn’t start writing songs until he was in his twenties. While he was in high school, he drew inspiration for his drumming from contemporary bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Once he started writing his own songs, though, his tastes shifted to folk music and old country music. His songs draw from talents as diverse as folk singer John Prine and Tuscaloosa music staples the Dexateens. In his song “I Don’t Smoke Dope with Satan (Since He Left Me at the Mall),” Duncan bemoans contemporary country music, singing, “I don’t listen to country music radio anymore. They don’t play Merle Haggard like they once did before.”

Duncan said he’s always agonizing over his songs and feels like they’re never finished.

“It creates a lot of stress for me because I’m never satisfied with a song, with its lyrics,” he said. “I’m not very productive. It takes me months to write a song.”

The rise of the Lookers

Duncan’s songwriting ability and belief in original music gave birth to the Lookers during his second time around at UA, when he was studying to become a teacher.

Duncan was playing an open mic night in 2006 and performed a song he wrote as a tribute to local, original music. Mikey Oswalt, now 37, was in the crowd and liked what he heard.

“I thought, ‘I want to be in a band with this guy,’” Oswalt said.

The two met that night, and Oswalt began playing drums for what became the Lookers. After going through a few bass players, they settled on Ryan Akers. David Phillips joined on guitar.

The Lookers started out playing the two bars in Tuscaloosa that would take a chance on original music: Egan’s and Little Willies, which is now called Green Bar. The band toured across Alabama and Mississippi, all while Duncan continued teaching at County High. His full-time job limited practice time and show opportunities to days he doesn’t have to give quizzes or grade papers.

“We’re weekend warriors,” he said.

The Lookers and other local musicians form a tight-knit community in Tuscaloosa. Since the Lookers came on the scene, they’ve shared the stage with major acts from around central Alabama, including the Dexateens and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. The camaraderie in the scene is apparent on and off stage. Sweet Dog, the drummer for the Dexateens, was in the studio when the Lookers recorded their self-titled album in 2009. Ham Bagby, who now takes the stage in Tuscaloosa with his own band, the Siege, played bass for the Lookers for a while. These musicians pursue the same goal Duncan is so passionate about: They focus on their own original music.

“He’s really big on the original music scene,” Oswalt said. “He doesn’t like playing covers. If he plays a cover, it’s usually from a local band or something really obscure.”

Duncan’s attitude toward cover songs limits the places he can play in Tuscaloosa, but he still does his best to draw crowds by playing as passionately as he can.

“Bars are going to book what brings money,” he said. “If people aren’t coming to see Blaine Duncan and the Lookers, that’s not the bar’s fault. That’s not students’ fault. That’s Blaine Duncan’s fault.”

Duncan said he likes playing venues where the crowd is close. The band’s CD release party at Little Willies was one of his favorite shows because the fans were excited and involved in the performance.

“He always struck me as someone who’s easy to approach after a show,” fan Wes Webber said. “He’s very easy to have a conversation about music with.”

One last look

Oswalt will step back behind the drum kit for the Lookers Saturday for the first time since tennis elbow and his job forced him to leave the band in 2010. Oswalt has always remained close to Duncan and the Tuscaloosa scene, even playing on a bowling team with Duncan’s wife.

Though Saturday’s show will be a reunion of sorts, the Lookers have not been able to maintain steady growth in the past few years. Duncan routinely drives to McCalla to practice with his bandmates, who live across the Birmingham area. The drive has put a strain on the band’s progress.

“That’s part of our hiatus, which very well could lead to our demise,” he said. “Once we got to practice, we would just be sort of tired and watching the clock and not progressing.”

Duncan said, despite the lack of growth in the band’s music the past few years, he still wants to keep playing, regardless of who shares the stage with him. He also said he’s always up to play an acoustic solo show.

“It’ll probably be more sporadic, not as regular,” he said, “but as long as I’m healthy, I’ll probably keep playing, even if it’s by myself.”


This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2012, edition of The Crimson White.

Diversity increasing in black greek organizations

by Jon Reed

Eve Dempsey doesn’t look like her sisters.

When she joined the Zeta Phi Beta sorority in the spring of 2007, she joined because she believed it was an organization with the same values she had, the same dedication to community service and sisterhood.

She didn’t care about the fact that she would become the sorority’s only white member.

Zeta Phi Beta is a historically black sorority in the National Pan-Hellenic Council. When Dempsey joined, she did something rare, but not something entirely unprecedented. Her sorority had integrated before – in the 1980s – but integration hadn’t become a trend.

After Dempsey “crossed” – the term for joining – she saw she wasn’t alone.

“There was another Caucasian girl who crossed the year after I did,” she said. “She joined, as I did, because of her own personal reasons. It didn’t have anything to do with race. It wasn’t to put a spotlight on the organization.”

Having a white member did make Dempsey’s sorority stand out from the others, she said.

“I’m sure at some point somebody was like ‘Oh, that’s the Zeta chapter, they have a white girl,’” she said.

White students join black fraternities and sororities on a somewhat regular basis, said NPHC President Xavier Burgin.

“It’s actually a lot more common for a person of a different background that’s not an African-American to join a black fraternity or sorority than it is for a white fraternity or sorority,” he said.

Burgin estimated that NPHC organizations have accepted about five or seven white members in the last ten years, but that their diversity efforts do not just involve white students. Alpha Phi Alpha has a member who is Filipino, and people of every race are welcome in the organizations.

“What I’ve come to find is that, for someone who’s not an African-American to join a sorority or fraternity, we pretty much welcome it with open arms,” he said.

Burgin said most NPHC organizations were founded in the early 20th century, when black students were kept from joining white fraternities around the country.

“The reason why a lot of people were brought into that is because a lot of white fraternities and sororities did not want us in their system, but we wanted to have a greek system as well,” he said. “We started this because we were discriminated against by the white fraternities or sororities, so it would be hypocritical for us to discriminate against anyone of any race.”Dempsey said the racial divide was not something she was used to after growing up in Tallahassee, Fla.

“The way a lot of people in Alabama are brought up, in the school cafeteria, the white children sit with the white children and the black children sit with the black children,” she said. “Where I was brought up, everybody sat with everybody.

“Because of that, I’ve always befriended everybody, and I’ve sometimes had people who are white discriminate against me because I associated with people who weren’t white,” she added.

Dempsey also came into contact with a lot of people she may not have met if she hadn’t joined the sorority, she said.

“Me and four other girls all came in at the same time, so I was really close with the girls who joined when I did,” she said. “One of the girls, her father was a Black Panther, so that was an experience, growing close to her and her growing close to me. We had to overcome not only stereotypical differences, but things that are instilled deep down in our childhood.”

Burgin said the opportunity to join a traditionally black fraternity or sorority is available to everyone, regardless of race.

“With us, it’s open to anyone and everyone,” he said.


This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21, 2011, edition of The Crimson White.