It was a gorgeous spring-like day on the Athens State University Campus, and the Chamber of Commerce sponsored luncheon and speech was sold out. Mayor Ronnie Marks opened by saying that he was going to make us uncomfortable by talking about love, and he quipped that he had instructed Security to not allow anyone to leave out the back. Clearly it was a bit early to be talking about Valentine’s Day, so what was the reference? Peter Kageyama’s book, For The Love Of Cities, which we have been talking about in the last two Ronnies. I could hear people around me murmur just a touch when he quoted the following from the book, and that was that according to Kageyama, in most cities, 40% of the residents feel unattached to their city, (In other words, it’s just a place to sleep, work, and eat), 36% are neutral, and 24% feel attached and are involved. I think it’s safe to say that in Athens the percentage of those who feel attached is higher than 24%, but as the Mayor told the crowd, “Seven out of ten feeling unattached is unacceptable, and we’ve got to do better.”

He gave examples of loving the city, and people who do just that. As many tributes as there have been to the late Jimmy Gill, I heard a catch in the Mayor’s voice that moved me as he said that he regretted not bringing Jimmy by ambulance to see the new City Hall before Jimmy passed. The Mayor told us that Jimmy wouldn’t hear of it, and kept saying, “I am going to get better, and I’m on the ballot.” Mayor Ronnie added that Frank Travis had done a splendid job of stepping into Jimmy’s place, and chuckled as he said the city’s Facebook site had gotten thousands of hits when Frank and the cast of “Arise And Build” had invaded City Hall with their a cappella version of “Sunday Mornin’.”

He also spoke about the Mayor’s Youth Commission’s response to the $18,000 worth of broken windows at Trinity, perpetrated by three young kids. The MYC students invested some of their surplus Dekko funds to help repair the windows, and the community at large raised more than enough to do the repairs. It was noteworthy that he read Raven Warner’s letter written to the perpetrators decrying their actions, demonstrating that sometimes kids can be the most effective of all in remonstrating other kids. “It takes lots of little things to make the big effort,” he said. It was “For The Love Of Cities” in action.

So, what about the pie charts, the graphs, and the line item components of our fiscal health? Once again, we have a million dollar surplus, we were able to put $1.7 million toward road repair, and in 2017 Washington Street is going to be repaired all the way from Hwy 72 to Hwy 31. $817K will go toward badly needed neighborhood road repair. We are going to take possession of a new fire truck this spring, (replacing the one that was purchased in 1987). We have found funding for the new high school. Progress is being made regarding the abandoned Pilgrim’s Pride plant, and the hope is to make the whole area into a park, with a place for dogs and their owners to enjoy the beauty of Athens.

“There is still much work to be done,” he said, and illustrated his point by saying, “If you are emotionally involved in a relationship, you put a lot in it.” I think it’s safe to say, judging by the smiles that I saw, folks left feeling more attached to each other and our city, and then it was time for Ronnie and the rest of us to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

For the past 20 years, Sweet Home Baptist Church has hosted a service to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, and per usual, there was standing room only. Mayor Ronnie was there, as was Athens City Councilman Frank Travis, Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson, Limestone County Commissioner Ben Harrison, and others. The Round Island Male Chorus “raised the roof,” as they always do, as did the Athens High School Choir.

And, as much as remembering the legacy of Dr. King was the focus, it became far more about the future of Athens as proven by what’s going on with our kids. The annual MLK Essay contest has gone from having 50 contestants last year, to more than 400 entries this year. The theme was “Advancing the Dream: A Nation of Freedom and Justice,” and the 1st Prize winner for the high school division was Raven Warner.

An excerpt from her essay is being featured in her mother Jackie’s column, “The View From The Bridge”. Tanner High School student Chadarius Townsend was the recipient of the 1st Annual Jimmy W. Gill Youth Leadership Award, and the whole day, including the earlier gathering at the Event Center, and the parade around the Square illustrated the truth of the following quote made by Paul Kageyama, author of “For The Love Of Cities”:

“When we have an emotional connection to our place, we are less likely to leave it, and far more likely to champion and defend it in the face of criticism.”

As we met for our time together on Tuesday, we talked about the importance of loving Athens for the special place that it is, as well as our concern for our nation. “We need to focus on healing our nation, and that starts in our city,” said Mayor Ronnie. “And, if we don’t get our kids involved, we won’t grow,” he added.

The building of the future of Athens, and the healing of our nation depends on leadership. One of the things being done is to give kids a chance to become true leaders. “The Chamber Youth Leadership Program has the kids developing business plans,” said the Mayor. He was also happy to add, “And, three of the kids who participated in the essay contest are in the Mayor’s Youth Commission.” He also talked about the role that Spark Academy and the Renaissance School play, and how they are meeting the needs of kids in a different way.

As always, he encouraged people to talk about what needs to be fixed, “in a respectful way, of course,” he said with a chuckle, and said, “We will get the potholes fixed.” We talked about Kageyama’s book, and how it was affecting us, and he made me laugh out loud when he said, “If I don’t invest in this community, I am an idiot!”

It was time to pray and thank God for all the good in the town we love, which we did, and then, Ronnie rolled on out of the office to his next labor of love.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Our first meeting of 2017 began by Mayor Ronnie showing me the book he had received for Christmas from some of the City Hall staff, and it’s a sure bet that it will be the topic of several “Ronnies.” It’s written by Peter Kageyama, and I read eagerly while he made his morning rounds. The book is called For The Love Of Cities, and the subtitle is “The love affair between people and their places.” It was voted one of the Top Ten books on urban development and city planning in 2012, and a good read for anyone who loves our amazing Athens. Mr. Kageyama presents some statistics with regard to being genuinely attached to one’s town, as opposed to being neutral or unattached, and he makes a compelling case for the goal of leadership to be one that brings energy to a city, and I don’t mean oil. I think it’s safe to say that the City of Athens experiences an unusually high level of attachment on the part of its citizens, and I know for a fact that the Mayor only wants to see that increase.

We have just finished up what was a wonderful year, with much being accomplished, and much to look forward to. “For the first time in the history of Athens, we have been able to spend a million dollars on improving our streets,” said the Mayor. That has been in part because several years ago the City Council had the foresight to set aside three million dollars as matching funds for improving streets, just waiting for ATRIPP money to be released. And, there are still several ATRIPP projects that are in the offing. The hope is that the next major project will be improving Washington Street, which goes all the way from Hwy 72 to Highway 31.

He talked about his vision for 2017, and said that recently he “had sent a note to the City Council. I said, ‘We have 46 months left in this term, and we need to build Athens into a place people love.’” I then asked him, “What does that look like, building a town that people actually love, without it being “squishy?”’ He showed me some charts of Kageyama’s, definitely not squishy in nature, but will have to be addressed in a future column. What he did say though, to illustrate his point was, “Have you ever been in a room that felt dead, or a church, or a meeting…..or a city?” Without naming names, we both have a town that comes to mind with this kind of discussion, a city we don’t like to go to and that has such amazing, yet squandered potential. He wants the people of Athens to honestly be able to answer the question in the affirmative: Is Athens convivial? That is, is it a friendly, enjoyable place, one that feels alive?

Here’s the vision:

  • Keep the momentum going with economic development
  • Successfully negotiate the landfill contract
  • Work to convert the eyesore that is Pilgrim’s Pride into a central park, a dog park, and a place that all Athenians in the downtown core can enjoy, as well as visitors
  • Continue to tear down unsafe structures
  • Continue to work on ATRIPP projects

If you are interested in hearing more about our city’s plans, projects, and dreams for the future, Mayor Marks will be giving the State of the City address on Tuesday, January 31, 2017 at the Athens State University ballroom. We talked about the amazing times in which we live, we prayed, and then it was time for Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Mayor Ronnie Marks, Limestone County Commissioner Mark Yarborough, and I met at the “not new, but definitely improved” Limestone County Courthouse, which is due to open back up for business by the first of the year. Having grown up in a remodel that lasted more than 20 years, I can appreciate what it means to have “wrangled this thing to the ground and tied up all four of its legs.” I can say with a full heart it is going to have been worth the wait. The Courthouse is the embodiment of understated elegance, within and without.

Any remodel is going to have its own set of nightmares, and the Courthouse is no exception. There were structural deficiencies that didn’t show up in the old blueprints, 18 inch thick walls to deal with, antiquated wiring and plumbing, marble topped steps that could no longer be used but were ultimately rescued, and the need to increase the building’s structural soundness and resistance to natural disasters. There was also the need to get the IT capabilities of the Courthouse up to speed for all the technological needs of the 21st century.

Commissioner Yarborough sat on the afore-mentioned marble topped steps and said, “It’s been a labor of frustration, love, and aggravation. Some people love it, some hate it. They’ve worked on it for 20 years,” he said with a relieved sigh, and added, “we’ve had it for two, and the only thing left is to put up the blinds, put all the furniture in place, and hang up the art.” He laughed when he talked about his own sense of color and decoration, and wanted to make sure that people knew that the reason the interior is going to look so good is because of the hard work of Judge Jimmy Woodruff, Trish Black, and Liz Anderson.

There are several things I learned as a result of this tour. Did you know that the original base for the Confederate statue sank with the Titanic on its way over here to Athens? Did you know that the Courthouse has gone through several remodels, including in 1939 during FDR’s administration? Did you know that the Courthouse also used to house the jail? I looked at the spot that used to keep all of Limestone’s miscreants behind bars as well as what used to be the sheriff’s office and thought, “My, how times have changed.” A decision has been made to hang the brass plate that commemorates Judge Horton’s landmark decision regarding the Scottsboro Boys case on the outside of that courtroom, rather than where it was on the interior north wall. The reason is that more people will be able to see it, irrespective of what is going on inside the courtroom.

Mark told us more. “We are now connected to the Blue Line,” he said, which is the software system that is linked to Montgomery that gives instant access to all the records that pertain to any judicial case. Also, the outside street lights have outlets in them now, which will make our many outdoor festivals and events that much easier to power up.

On a decorative note, there are some high-tech additions that blend in well with the goal of maintaining the building’s historical significance. The Rotary Club, Spirit of Athens, and Tourism went together and chipped in money for an outdoor lighting system which subtly lights up the columns at night time. While it has the ability to show all kinds of colors, it will largely be used to commemorate holidays as well as the colors of local schools who may have just won a championship. There is also an art display system that will make it possible to change out art seasonally with very little labor. Security throughout the building has been increased, and at some point, Mark hopes that eventually there will be funds to open the original west side staircase access with all the necessary upgraded security measures, but that’s not in the budget yet.

I watched as the Mayor and the Commissioner talked about bringing this project to a close. It has not been easy for either of them. “We have restored and preserved our Courthouse, and not everyone has been able to do that, including Huntsville. We’ve not always agreed on everything,” said Mayor Ronnie, and Mark nodded when he finished our time by saying, “but working together just makes sense.”

And then it was time for Ronnie and Mark to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

12-2-2016-8-58-02-amFor this edition of Athens Now, Mayor Ronnie wanted to use his space to re-introduce the people of Athens to an old friend, Melanie Barksdale Newton. Melanie hit the ground running about a month ago as the new director of Spirit of Athens, and is overflowing with experience, ideas, and a love for the job as well as our town.

Melanie was born and raised here, and graduated from East Limestone High School. Her husband’s careers took their family to Orlando and Virginia, and they came back home to be near family. Her husband Tom is a technology project manager, who is also a dramatic playwright and theatre actor. Melanie is a Certified Master Gardener, and her career has included coordinating the volunteers at the Huntsville Botanical Garden and business development for a Google partner company. While at the Garden, she was also involved in the opening of the Purdy Butterfly House, as well as the Children’s Garden. The Newtons have a son, Hunter, who lives in Florence, is a chef, and also has an exotic plant and animal aquarium business. Tom and Melanie are the proud “parents” of three shelter furr babies: Max, Boo and Sallie. Melanie is no stranger to public service, as she is the daughter of Gerald Barksdale, who served as Limestone County Commissioner, and she grew up around people who were passionate about making Athens and Limestone County the absolute best.

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Mayor Ronnie had hoped to be able to join us for the interview, which was over a delicious omelette at LuVici’s, but couldn’t get away; so he called in his enthusiasm and said, “We’re thrilled to have Melanie back here. She brings a lot to Athens, and we want her to know we support her. The Spirit of Athens does so much for the community, and we couldn’t be happier.”
Melanie “schooled” me as to the scope and function of Spirit of Athens. “There are four points,” she said. “They are: organization, promotion, design, and economic vitality.” As part of the Alabama Main Street and Main Street USA organizations, the purpose of SOA is to preserve our historical town, while making it culturally and economically vibrant.

“You can revitalize a downtown core, but you also have to find ways to make it sustainable. We can do that best by taking what’s already here, and finding ways to make it better,” Melanie told me. One of the things she would like to see is more support of the Athens Saturday Market, which would allow the market to be open more months of the year rather than just during the peak summer months. As a Master Gardener, she knows there are cold-frame veggies such as kale and beets that could be sold, and of course the wares of the various artisans are never out of season.
We talked at length about the role of gardening in the community, and what some other cities and corporations are doing to use gardens to teach entrepreneurial skills and especially reach out to kids. We agreed we would need to get together again to brainstorm.

Melanie also would like to see more “lofting,” that is, people renovating the lofts above the old commercial buildings on the Square for residential purposes. Loft living requires a sizeable investment, at least at first while getting things up to code, but people who live in a downtown core tend to make 40% of their everyday purchases locally, which is a boom to the economy of Athens. They also do a lot of walking, which is the lifeblood of any downtown core, historical or otherwise. “We also want to see every storefront filled with niche business and have Athens become a shopping and dining day trip destination for cities within about a 100 mile radius,” she said.

Melanie is currently working on the Sippin’ Cider Festival to be held in Downtown Athens on December 10th from 5pm to 8pm. Visit Athens’ downtown merchants and restaurants to taste and vote for your favorite cider; do a bit of shopping; and enjoy roasting marshmallows, live music and children’s activities.

Our time ended all too quickly, but not without an adventure. I dragged her with me to WKAC for her first ever radio appearance on the Tennessee Valley Spotlight, and she was a natural. Both Rex Davis and I asked her a lot of questions for which she had not had the chance to prepare, and you would have thought she had been doing it for years. Rex told her to be sure to come back anytime, and then, it was time for Melanie to roll. Welcome back, girl!
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

11-18-2016-2-35-19-pm“Hey, Ali Ali,” Mayor Ronnie called out as he rolled in for our usual appointment, moving a mile a minute. We compared notes with regard to our respective weekends, and as is often the case, he whipped out his sermon notes from church. “Oh, we talked about the seven deadly sins in church,” he said, “and you and I need to talk about sloth.” I nearly laughed out loud, as the man who could easily be crowned as Athens’ version of the Energizer Bunny is not the first person I would think of when it comes to the term “sloth.” He said, “Actually, I think everyone struggles with sloth,” and I had to agree, albeit reluctantly, and we determined to “squash sloth.”

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We celebrated the fact that over 150 Athens citizens showed up for the first annual “Let’s Move Athens,” which was a 1.5 mile walk held at the Athens High School track. Its purpose was to empower people to raise funds and awareness for various organizations, and get some exercise while they were at it. We also talked about various projects that were being sponsored by local churches, and the need to reach out beyond our church walls into the community all year long.

We moved to the topic of the city’s role in supporting NGOs (non-government organizations) and the process involved in approving and auditing the funds designated for the outfits that range from making our town look beautiful to providing much needed resources for various projects. As always, I was both fascinated by what I was learning, as well as thankful that our City Council calls for an uncommonly high level of accountability when it comes to dispensing funds to NGOs.

“When we do the annual budget, we take care of the departments first,” he said, and added, “Usually we have around $500K left over for other agencies and projects.” He showed me the budget print-out carefully prepared by Annette Barnes that shows the agency, the amount, whether or not they would receive funds in this cycle, and more.

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If you are seeking financial support from the city for your organization, you submit a proposal. If approved, you must submit a quarterly audit, and if you don’t submit the audit, you are not approved for the next quarter. “There is no such thing as just throwing money at an organization,” he said, and told me that one of the requirements for each NGO is that they must recycle.
Some of the agencies included in this year’s budget are the Alabama Veterans’ Museum and Archives, Learn to Read, Birdie Thornton, the Mental Health Center, Tourism, the Beautification Board, the Family Resource Center, and more.

“We believe that supporting these organizations is important and speaks to one of the most important aspects of a good city, and that’s quality of life,” he said. “But people need to understand that everything about it is going to be done with transparency and accountability.” Those two words are not just “buzz words” to him, and he also let me know that each organization needs to state its purpose and mission with each proposal, no matter how many times they have been previously approved. The long-term effect is something that is a network of support, almost like an entity that has tentacles, except they are positive and life-giving.

We prayed for our city and our country, and then it was time once again for Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

11-4-2016-10-11-58-amMayor Ronnie was covered up far beyond his usual M.O. of runnin’ and gunnin’ from dawn til dark, and so he asked me to give his slot to the most recent addition to the Athens City Council, Frank Travis. Frank and I met for our interview at the KALB Gulf Station, and I asked him to tell me about his first 100 days in office.

For those of you who may not know, Frank was appointed to replace City Councilman and former Council President Jimmy Gill, who passed away earlier this year. Frank then was planning on running for the office this summer, along with other council members who had opponents, except that no one opposed Frank. He will have to run for re-election in four years, providing he is opposed. He was glad that he got to spend the summer learning the ropes rather than campaigning, and I asked him to tell me about it.

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“Well,” he said, “I have enjoyed how much the Mayor truly loves our city and all the people in it. He really does care about everyone. I always knew it, but it’s something to see it in action.” I nodded in agreement. “We have a truly diverse set of people on the council,” he said, and added, “They think differently about certain things, but in the end they come together to make decisions that are the best for the city.” I was glad to hear that, too. “What I have been touched by is the outpouring of support that has come from everyone in the community. White, black, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter. They have made it very clear that they are behind me.” Then he laughed and said, “I haven’t gotten any calls from upset folks yet, but I’m sure that’s coming.”

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I asked him, “What has surprised you the most?” He said, “I think it’s how much you are on duty all the time when you are in public office. I had someone come up to me at a funeral to discuss city stuff, and that was new. I didn’t mind, and I was glad they felt free to do it; it was just different.” We laughed about how careful you have to be all the time because people are watching you, and “someone is kin to someone everywhere you go. You never know who you are talking to.” He also said that a big surprise is that while actual council meetings oftentimes don’t last all that long, the real work is on the outside of the boardroom. “I have several breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings each week,” and patting his tummy, he added, “I gotta watch it.” I teased back by saying, “Yep, that kind of work will get you every time.”

Frank continued with, “A lot of people are not aware that we are not allowed, by state law, to talk with more than one fellow council member at a time about city business outside of the meeting room. The law was put into place to prevent back room deals being made,” and I added, “with a bunch of cigar smoke hanging in the air.” Frank is famous for his laugh and said, “Believe me, there are no back room deals being made.” He said that when several of them are in the same place at the same time for civic events, they are careful to avoid “talking shop,” which would be so easy to do.

We finished up our time talking about strategies to strengthen relations between the African-American and Hispanic communities in Athens, and he has been talking with Maria Taylor about ways to accomplish that. We then prayed for Athens, and we most definitely “had church” while we were at it. Then, it was time for Frank to roll right on to his next 100 days.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

10-21-2016-2-22-22-pmThe mayor had emerged refreshed and inspired from the weekend, and heard a message at church given by a man by the name of Craig Jutila. Craig has a website and “brand” that caught my eye, and it is www.whowillyouempower.com. The theme of “empowering” is something that is certainly near and dear to the mayor’s heart, as is evidenced in the Youth Commission. Craig’s message on Sunday morning had to do with what he called the “time-starved family,” and posed the question, “What should I feed my time-starved kids?” Craig asked the question: “Is it easier to raise kids now, or 25 years ago?” I would have to say 25 years ago because social media had not yet become a set point for cultural definition.

Mayor Ronnie laughed as he told me one of Craig’s tales about the combination of having too many choices and too many “devices.” Craig, who is from California, had taken his family out for what he thought would be a fairly straightforward family outing, going to a movie. He was standing in line to buy tickets, while the family was off to the side, out of earshot, all absorbed in keeping up with what was on their phones. The viewing choices had to do with IMAX, Surround Sound, or just regular, and because Craig couldn’t get the attention of his family, even by texting, he chose IMAX. The four tickets cost him $98.00!

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And while Craig sees the value of technology and even social media, he acknowledges that we are hurrying ever faster to get through life, and our kids are suffering. Using Scripture to seal his points, he said, “Feed your kids a healthy lifestyle, moments of rest, and uninterrupted time together.” That means that there have to be times when everyone’s cell phone is off, with no exceptions. There is simply no other way to defeat “the tyranny of the urgent.”

Mayor Ronnie’s first experience with texting was at an Alabama basketball game about ten years ago, where a girl showed him her text sent to another girl about a cute boy at the game, and he assumed one of the girls was not present. He had a chance to chat with her further, and to his surprise, both of them were just a few feet away from each other. The reason for texting rather than sitting together and talking was simply explained as, “I like it this way.”

He, like the rest of us, has to manage what comes through on his phones and his email, and there are days he feels like he’ll never get to the end of the electronic to-do list. However, the other part of Craig’s message was one that we all need to take to heart, whether we are Facebook fanatics or not: learn to recognize the seasons, and live each season well. “We are just in too much of a rush, all the way through life,” he said. “We want to get married and have kids, and then we are anxious to have them leave. Then we are impatient about them coming back with grandkids, and on it goes.” One of the solutions Craig gave was to recognize what season you are in, and live it to the fullest. “Don’t rush through it!”

“The season we are in is fast growth in Limestone County, and we must build the foundation that can handle growth and be a support for families,” the mayor said. It was then time to pray, and it was a mutual “Lord, help us” prayer. On this particular day he was dealing with potholes along with projects that could garner several million dollars in economic growth for our city and county, and he needed help from on high, without apology. Then, as the time had flown by once again, and our phones chirped demandingly, it was time for Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

10-7-2016-12-36-39-pmAs I have talked about before, Mayor Ronnie is one of those rare birds who absolutely loves budgets. To him, they are like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and when by state law that last piece is put in place by September 30th, he and the rest of City Council is free to enjoy Fiddlers’ and Storytelling. With this year being special anniversaries for both, he was especially glad that the “budget came in on time and under budget.”

He was very pleased to report that the General Fund will be $1.2 million dollars in the black, and our city is in good shape to face several challenges. First of all, there are several city employees who have reached retirement age, and as is the case with many Baby Boomers, funding their retirement packages is not easy, by virtue of the fact that we are a huge part of the population.
“We are going to be able to get the fire truck we need, and it is on its way,” he said. Other things that are going to be able to be purchased will be a garbage truck and new police cars. “Public safety is always going to be our top priority,” he said, and the top two budget items were both tied to filling that need.

He spent a good deal of time expressing his gratitude for the work of all the department heads, City Council members and especially that of Annette Barnes. I know from experience that the woman’s command with numbers, both those that are in “the red” as well as those in “the black” is phenomenal. “Tons of work was done prior to the vote on the budget,” he said. He mentioned that Councilman Frank Travis, the newest member of Athens City Council was amazed at the work Annette had done before they had their all day work session to button up the budget.

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“We got it done, and now we can head straight in to festival season,” said Mayor Ronnie. He took a moment to reflect on the positive effect the 5K runs have on our community. He started with the 9/11 Heroes’ Run, the Keep Athens Limestone Beautiful Duck and Run, the Apple Annie Charity 5K, and as one who has run in those races, I can say he has always been on hand early on race day to cheer people on. In addition, this weekend the Wacky Quacky Ducky Derby will be held on Saturday during Fiddlers’, and he will even be on hand to cheer on the ducks as they “fly” down the spillway of Big Spring Park.

“Festival season is just that much sweeter because the budget is finished,” he said with reasonable pride. Then he mentioned his concern for Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson, who, at the time of our interview was in Athens Limestone Hospital battling pneumonia. “Oh, man,” I said, “Let’s pray.” So we did, and then it was time for Ronnie to roll.

It was later that day it was with great joy that I got the news that Chief had been released from the hospital to his home, and as far as I am concerned, for all of us, that was as sweet as the music of any festival, and the best of any stories.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

9-16-2016-10-58-16-amOver the years, it has been common for Mayor Ronnie to be enthralled with a book, share it with me, let it inspire me, and the result has been a series of articles on any number of topics for this column. I for one am a citizen that is glad that we have a voracious reader for a mayor, and one who is determined to be a lifelong learner. However, I don’t think I have ever seen him as excited as he was the day he received by surprise an autographed copy of a book entitled The Awakening of H.K. Derryberry: My Unlikely Friendship With The Boy Who Remembers Everything. It is written by Athens High School graduate Jimmy Bradford, and I hope it becomes as much of a classic as The Miracle Worker, or Radio.

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Jimmy and Ronnie have known each other for over 50 years, and a few years ago, through their friendship, Ronnie became aware of the young man simply named “H.K.” The child was born blind, has cerebral palsy, is paralyzed on one side, and has been diagnosed as being one of six people on earth to have what is known as HSAM, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. In a word, H.K. remembers everything. It is as though his mind is a security camera that never runs out of tape and goes on forever. He just “backs it up,” and tells you with precision what happened, and the amount of time elapsed since the event is of no consequence. Through a series of what can only be fairly described as providential events, H.K. and Jim became friends when H.K. was nine years old. He is now in his mid-20s, has gone on to become a highly successful speaker, and has spoken here in Athens at Central Church of Christ on more than one occasion.

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Mayor Ronnie has a treasure, and it is a letter he received from H.K., written in Braille by the use of H.K.’s one good hand. Most of the time it is visible in Ronnie’s office, and it reminds him that with God’s help and determination, disabilities can be turned into strengths.

“I invited him here a couple of years ago,” said the mayor, “and made him Mayor for a Day. He sat in my chair and decided that he would make sure that all the ladies who worked at City Hall would get a raise.” We both laughed. While Mayor Ronnie worked on the budget, I read the first 25 pages of the book, and I am hooked. Here is how Jimmy Bradford describes his first encounter with H.K: “Like a pick-pocket honing his stealthy craft among the gawking tourists of Nashville’s down-town honky-tonks, H.K. Derryberry had committed the perfect crime: he stole my heart.”

Former Alabama coach Gene Stallings calls it a “must read.” Country music legend Allen Jackson’s endorsement on the back cover says, “This heart-warming story will change you for good.” H.K. and Jimmy changed each other for good, that’s for sure, and the ripple effect is far-reaching. H.K. has gone on to graduate from school, is the only known Braille user who can navigate the system with just one hand, and has no sense of being limited. Mayor Ronnie and I talked for quite a while about what a blessing the book and the lives of these two are for Athens, and then we prayed, for it was time for Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner