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Alabama Snapshots: Front Porches

Joyce Peterson and great-grandson Luke Peterson, looking for “big trucks”. SUBMITTED BY Debbie Peterson, Robertsdale.

Katie-bell (the dog). SUBMITTED BY Cindy Walton, Vinemont.

Family Christmas 2009. SUBMITTED BY Anthony Paradise, Scottsboro.

Stunning style by the bay. SUBMITTED BY Jeff Hosterman, Fairhope.

SUBMITTED BY Mildred West Hutcheson, Old Nauvoo.

The I.D. Killough home, built in 1904. SUBMITTED BY Annie Killough, Greenville.

Submit Your Images! May Theme: “Graduates” Deadline for May: March 31

Submit photos online: or send color photos with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Photos, Alabama Living, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124

Rules: Alabama Living will pay $10 for photos that best match our theme of the month. Photos may also be published on our website at and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.

Plant Detectives

Students learn about state’s diverse ecosystems

Students in Emily Smith’s science classes at Pisgah High School visit Graham Farms in Jackson County to collect plant samples, which they will send to HudsonAlpha for DNA sequencing. The classes are participating in the Bicentennial barcoding project, which gives them hands-on experience with an innovative curriculum. Photos courtesy of Emily Smith

As you enter the state from Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, road signs welcome you to Alabama the Beautiful. The highway turns bumpier from some states and smoother from others, but the same deep, green pine forests usher travelers onto paths that lead to species as diverse and complicated and beautiful as Alabama herself.

Thanks to a unique project, high school students are getting the chance to learn more about our state’s biodiversity – all the different kinds of living organisms in Alabama. Biodiversity generally includes plants, animals and fungi, but this particular project is focusing on plants, and will allow students to become like plant detectives – giving them valuable insight into Alabama’s unique ecosystems.

Learning about barcoding

The nonprofit biotech institute HudsonAlpha, based in Huntsville, is teaming with 29 public high schools and community partners to catalog barcodes of Alabama’s flora. Barcoding uses a very short genetic sequence from part of the plant’s genome – its genetic material – to help distinguish plants that may look similar to the untrained eye.

Think of barcoding as the way a supermarket scanner distinguishes two similar products.

This innovative project will allow students to study plants unique to their counties.

Students, most of whom have little opportunity to use advanced technology to study plants, will get a tremendous educational benefit. They’re learning how to collect specimens, enter information into databases, photograph and use GPS to record locations of species, and organize samples and their numbers.

Collected samples will be sent to HudsonAlpha for DNA extraction and preparation of samples for sequencing. Using a DNA analysis program, students will examine the DNA sequences and look for a match to existing barcodes.

If a sequence is not a part of the barcode of life database, students will have the opportunity to submit the sample for validation and register a new entry in the database.

The project is a vanguard for one of its scale and funding from Vulcan Materials and others made it possible, says Jennifer Whitney Carden, public outreach lead for HudsonAlpha. Schools were chosen for their geographic diversity and teacher interest from those who applied.

The project is in conjunction with the Alabama Bicentennial celebration. Jay Lamar, executive director of the Bicentennial Commission, says it’s a wonderful way to open an avenue of participation that would not have existed otherwise. “This is a project that will take place during the bicentennial, but have a life far beyond it,” Lamar says.

A ‘jewel’ of biodiversity

Participating in this project provides Alabama educators an opportunity to introduce students to cutting-edge genetic technologies and the growing field of informatics (a discipline that focuses on the study of information processing); highlight Alabama’s natural resources; and teach the importance of preserving Alabama’s unique ecosystems.

The technologies

and supporting concepts align with objectives in the Alabama Science Course of Study for the units on ecosystems, heredity and unity/diversity, and the activities cross-reference with topics from geography, earth science and early American history.

The Bicentennial Barcode project began in the spring of 2017 and will run through early fall 2019. Students in high school biology and environmental classes will gather approximately 1,775 samples over the course of the project.

Emily Smith’s ninth-grade biology class at Pisgah High School, a member of Sand Mountain EC, is participating. She’s excited for her students to have an interactive curriculum and access to expensive equipment that would be normally out of their reach.

The class partnered with Graham Farms and explored their diverse 400-acre farm in order to collect samples that they will send to HudsonAlpha for extraction and analysis. When the sequences are returned, students will utilize a database to compare them to existing barcodes; for example, students may discover whether a particular species of oak has been cataloged.

“They’re going to get a chance to look at DNA samples, which is very rare,” Smith says. “Alabama hasn’t been that well studied as far as biodiversity and we have a lot of biodiversity. So we’re going to be able to compare the same plant grown in south Alabama as north Alabama to see if they match.”

The diversity of Graham Farms and Jackson County allowed Smith’s students to sample data from a mountain range, swampland and grassy areas. Smith, a longtime fan of biodiversity, learned a lot about her state.

“I was really intrigued with the honey locust tree,” she says. “I knew about the leaves, but I didn’t know they grew a crown of thorns off every branch and their seed pods look like green beans.”

That such a species of the flower exists here, and in a few other southern states, is another example of what makes Alabama’s biodiversity distinguished.

“Alabama is a jewel,” Carden says, and notes that the state ranks fifth among states in biodiversity. We’re the most diverse state east of the Mississippi River. “We live in a unique and gorgeous state.”

Southern storyteller

‘Sean of the South’ celebrates the good, the broken, the angels among us

Sean Dietrich, better known as “Sean of the South,” uses his daily columns to celebrate the South’s everyday heroes and treasured traditions. Photo by Sean Murphy

By Allison Law

After the potluck dinner in the fellowship hall and the speech in the sanctuary, Sean Dietrich greets his fans in the vestibule of this church in southeast Alabama. Those who came to hear him are eager to give him a hug, snap a photo and tell him what his writings have meant to them. He’s one of them, and his words touch their hearts, they tell him. He considers those mighty compliments.

He’s in his element. He’d stay all night and chat with them, if they’d stick around that long.

Dietrich is better known as “Sean of the South,” the name of his blog and part of the title of four of his books. His stories touch on hope, goodness, redemption and kindness. Many relate an appreciation for the slower, sweeter pace of Southern life in the towns and farming communities his readers call home.

The columns that seem to resonate the most are the ones that celebrate the everyday heroes, who perform miracles big and small with no thought of reward; the ones that relate the heartbreaking stories of the angels who walk among us; and the ones that highlight the sometimes split-second decisions and seemingly small events in our lives, which lead us on journeys we could never have imagined.

Finding direction

Dietrich’s dad was a steelworker, and the family moved around – Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, North Carolina. But as a teenager, home became the Florida panhandle, where he and his wife Jamie live today.

But he says he identifies more with the people in Alabama than Florida. Jamie is from Brewton, and when they married more than 15 years ago everybody in the town welcomed him into the fold. The logo for his blog includes a drawing of the state of Alabama, and the blog name itself is a play on the old Alabama tune, “Song of the South.”

Growing up was tough. After his father’s suicide when he was 12, he quit school to help support his mom and younger sister. He loved music, a talent he started nurturing early on. He plays piano, guitar and accordion, and plays in several bands today.

But he dreamed of being a writer. He would play music at night, often spending weekends at places in the Panhandle where he could camp on the cheap while playing a gig. During his down time, he started writing a novel. “I finished my novel, and I thought, this is fun. I’m gonna do this, I’m going to write a column. I’d always wanted to be a columnist.”

He suffered through some rejections, but they redirected his life and his work. He wanted to be a humorist, and there are elements of humor in some of his columns. But his style evolved into telling more of his story, which got a good response, and then the stories of others he met along the way.

Becoming a storyteller

And he meets lots of folks. He’s naturally talkative, but is able to draw people out; they feel safe with him. “My mother is a lot like this – somebody will buddy up to her, telling her their story. I thought it was annoying when I was child, because she would sit there and listen, and ask them questions to keep them going, and I hated it.”

One night, he and Jamie went out for their anniversary, and a fellow at the bar sidled up to him and shared an incredible story of loss. He and Jamie talked to the man for about an hour.

“I realized that night, I’m just like my mother. Put me in a bar, and they’re going to find me. I’m grateful for that now. I’m learning to listen more than I ever have before in my life, just because of what I do. I want to say that I notice things that were there all along, that I didn’t notice before.”

Dietrich signs a book for a fan at one of his speaking engagements in October in Dothan.
Photo by Allison Law

If he got his natural magnetism from his mom, he got his love of storytelling from his dad.  “My father was a storyteller – I grew to love those stories. (One day) he told me I might be a storyteller too. A storyteller is someone who does not judge, who just observes.”

‘Where the people are’

The columns and books have paved an unexpected but welcome career path for Dietrich. He’s become a much-requested public speaker all over the South. He loves the chance to interact with people – to hug necks, to hear memories, and bring a little light into lives of those who could use some.

They tell him the details of their lives – sad, hopeful, sometimes humorous, always heartfelt – and he’s eager to hear them.

“If (someone) were to follow me around for a week, they’d say, you look like you’ve hit rock bottom. You’re speaking at the rest home, or you’re speaking at the high school. This is not glamorous stuff. These are small towns. But I love it. That’s where the people are, you know?”

Life partners

Sean and Jamie are very close; his favorite column, he says, is the one called “Baker.” Jamie had a medical scare and the two were on their way back home from UAB. They stopped at the Gator Cafe in Baker, Fla., after the doctor called with good news. “It was one of the best days of my life,” he recalls, “and writing about it was a special experience. I wrote it in about 10 minutes, and hardly even edited it.”

Jamie quit working as a private chef to travel with him and handle his scheduling. The two seem genuinely happy to spend their time together, often on the road, meeting strangers who instantly become family.

“I feel like these are the best years of our life, until next year,” Sean says. For many years, he says he was plagued by self-doubt and a lack of confidence. He credits Jamie with having faith in his talent.

Jamie is equally happy to witness his growth and success. “I certainly feel blessed to be on this journey. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but it’s fun, and we’re enjoying it. We’re meeting so many real people, so many incredible people.”

Sean Dietrich has started recording podcasts under the “Sean of the South” title Each podcast is a collection of his stories recorded in front of live audiences with Southern regional music thrown in. New episodes are released on Saturdays, and are free on iTunes and at

Five facts you might not know about Social Security

Most people know at least something about Social Security. For decades, Social Security has been providing valuable information and tools to help you build financial security. Here’s your opportunity to find out a little more, with some lesser-known facts about Social Security.
1. Social Security pays benefits to children.
Social Security pays benefits to unmarried children whose parents are deceased, disabled, or retired. See Benefits for Children at for the specific requirements.
2. Social Security can pay benefits to parents.
Most people know that when a worker dies, we can pay benefits to surviving spouses and children. What you may not know is that under certain circumstances, we can pay benefits to a surviving parent. Read our Fact Sheet Parent’s Benefits, available at, for the details.
3. Widows’ and widowers’ payments can continue if remarriage occurs after age 60.
Remarriage ends survivor’s benefits when it occurs before age 60, but benefits can continue for marriages after age 60.
4. If a spouse draws reduced retirement benefits before starting spouse’s benefits (his or her spouse is younger), the spouse will not receive 50 percent of the worker’s benefit amount.
Your full spouse’s benefit could be up to 50 percent of your spouse’s full retirement age amount if you are full retirement age when you take it. If you qualify for your own retirement benefit and a spouse’s benefit, we always pay your own benefit first. (For example, you are eligible for $400 from your own retirement and $150 as a spouse for a total of $550.) The reduction rates for retirement and spouses benefits are different. If your spouse is younger, you cannot receive benefits unless he or she is receiving benefits (except for divorced spouses). If you took your reduced retirement first while waiting for your spouse to reach retirement age, when you add spouse’s benefits later, your own retirement portion remains reduced which causes the total retirement and spouses benefit together to total less than 50 percent of the worker’s amount. You can find out more at
5. If your spouse’s retirement benefit is higher than your retirement benefit, and he or she chooses to take reduced benefits and dies first, you will never receive more in benefits than the spouse received.
If the deceased worker started receiving retirement benefits before their full retirement age, the maximum survivors benefit is limited to what the worker would receive if they were still alive. See for a chart.

Social Security helps secure your financial future by providing the facts you need to make life’s important decisions.

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at

Having a pet teaches a child empathy, responsibility

“When you discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy – something that truly matters – you care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life.” – Jean Bolen, M.D., psychiatrist and author

In January, we talked about the contributions pets make to our lives. However, this great reward comes with great responsibility. The cuteness of a new puppy or a kitten wears off soon and gets replaced with a sense of “another burden” to deal with. That’s why there are so many dogs and cats that are left in the shelter –– or worst-case scenario, just tossed out on some farmland.

Before starting with a pet, please research what you are getting into. Taking a few months to learn about different pet’s characteristics, the cost of healthcare and how they will fit into your lifestyle is worth every minute of your time. Visit your local shelter several times to meet with the many amazing creatures there.

Talk to the people who work there. They are passionate and dedicated pet people who can help you find a pet to fit your lifestyle. You don’t want a high-energy working breed if you’re too busy to play with them for hours every day!

I strongly believe that all children should grow up with pets.

Having a dog and a cat in the house may prevent pet allergies in later years. A pet can teach a child to be empathic, responsible, confident, have self-esteem and increase their verbal skills.

If you want a pet for your child, it is important to remember that it’s likely you will be the one who will do all the work. But by demonstrating excellent care for the pet, we can teach our children how to become a patient, responsible, kind and generous person.

I interviewed three people associated with the veterinary profession. I asked what was the earliest age they remember having their own pet, and how did they reconcile between the new cute cuddliness and the tedium of feeding and watering them, cleaning their poop, playing and walking them. Surprisingly, I got three different perspectives.

For Jana, it was the rescue mentality. She was only 6. It started with a high-strung “weiner” dog, difficult and unruly! The family would have given the dog away unless she stepped in. Even at that tender age, her “protector” instinct kicked in, she “grew up” and took responsibility to care for this dog. Now, Jana is studying to be a veterinarian.

Next, it was Morwena. When asked about this issue, she simply said, “If I eat, they eat.” So, she was driven by some inner ethics, which was very noble.

Then I asked Amber. She had her first pet horse when she was 12 years old. Her parents taught her the value of responsibility. She was not allowed to ride her horse until he was fed, brushed and the stall cleaned. She was taught that fun comes after you take care of things that need to be taken care of. She learned at a very young age that privileges are earned!

In the May issue, we will talk about vaccines and preventable diseases for dogs and cats.ν

This column appears every other month. If you have a pet-related question of general interest, write to Dr. G at P.O. Box 687, Geraldine, AL 35974.

Goutam Mukherjee, DVM, MS, Ph.D. (Dr. G) has been a veterinarian for more than 30 years. He works part time at Grant Animal Clinic and is a member of North Alabama Electric Cooperative.

MMI’s 175 years of history

America’s oldest military junior college marches into its third century of educating future leaders

The entire Marion Military Institute Corps of Cadets, faculty and staff celebrates “Marion Made Day” on October 4, 2017 in honor of college founder Colonel J.T. Murfee.

By Alvin Benn

Marion Military Institute is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year with numerous events planned to commemorate one of America’s most historic educational facilities.

It will never rival West Point or Annapolis because of its size, but it has left indelible marks as MMI continues into its third century of excellence during times of war and peace.

MMI is America’s oldest military junior college with an origin dating back to 1842 — two decades after Alabama became a state. That’s quite a pedigree to promote.

Universities across America are rightly proud of what they have accomplished through the years, but MMI has its own reasons for such a lengthy existence.

In addition to its academic achievements, it’s also known for military programs that have educated hundreds of future generals and admirals to help protect America. The list of MMI graduates is extensive, with every branch of the military represented. Many have paid the supreme price in defense of their country.

But there is no military obligation in attending MMI; about 40 percent of the cadets are not pursuing a military career. The civilian track students come to MMI to gain peer leadership experience, earn an associate’s degree, prepare to transfer to a four-year university as a junior, and/or compete as a student-athlete on one of the school’s nine National Junior College Athletic Association teams.

The school offers the opportunity to live a disciplined lifestyle while gaining practical experience in leadership and organizational management.

Members of the 1921 MMI “Navy Class” were preparing to transfer to the U.S. Naval Academy; the Marion pipeline to the five U.S. Service Academies continues to this day as a one-year MMI program.

Future once in doubt

MMI has had loyal graduate support throughout its long history, but its existence appeared in danger at one point.

That happened two decades ago when a majority of MMI trustees voted to move the school to Fort McClellan in Anniston, where the facility was in the process of being closed by the Army.

The federal government had offered the east Alabama site as a new location, but a two-thirds vote was required. It fell one vote short on the 18-member board.

What made the situation doubly hard to swallow was the fact that the proposed move to Fort McClellan was orchestrated by Thomas Adams, MMI’s president at the time.

A storm of controversy followed Adams’ recommendation that MMI be moved from Marion, and that eventually led to his resignation as president shortly after he suggested it. He refused to back down from his recommendation to leave Perry County, insisting the school was in too remote a location.

The uproar at MMI was not unexpected and Adams’ idea backfired. He officially tendered his resignation to the chairman of the MMI Board of Trustees on Aug. 9, 1999. It was accepted “with great reluctance.”

The controversy slowly subsided, but it took a few years to ease the unrest just as the state of Alabama entered the picture with a merger idea that helped save MMI.

In 2006 the Alabama Legislature placed the school under the auspices of the Alabama Department of Post-Secondary Education.

MMI cadets from around the country learn to work together in a peer leadership environment.

That move turned out to be an educational shot in the arm that was badly needed. MMI is now officially known as “The Military College of Alabama.”

As part of the transition from private to public institution, MMI phased out its high school program, one that had attracted thousands of students through the years. The last high school class graduated in 2009 from MMI’s prep-school that had dated back to 1887.

New leadership

Marion’s population and businesses have dwindled in past decades – a distressing development for local leaders who have watched the shrinkage grow before their eyes.

Retired drug store owner Roy Barnett, 80, can remember when Marion had three pharmacies surrounded by other thriving businesses.

Judson College, an all-female college located only a few blocks from MMI, has helped make Marion educational bookends. That’s why Barnett named his business “College City Drugs.”

“MMI is what’s driven our economy for many years, but our downtown district has gone through some bad times and it’s not good,” Barnett says.

New leadership at MMI couldn’t have come at a better time, especially with the hiring of retired Marine Col. David Mollahan as the school’s 16th president.

A Marine aviator with 4,100 flight hours under his belt, including hundreds of hours on combat missions, Mollahan liked what he saw the first time he got a glimpse of the MMI campus.

“It had really impressive, stately-looking facilities that you’d think of in the South,” says Mollahan, an Oregon native, after he completed an interview process.

A nuclear engineer as well as a military helicopter pilot, Mollahan has thoroughly enjoyed the past nine years since he took command of MMI. At the moment, he’s busy stepping up efforts to bring more cadets into the fold.

“We’re getting the word out about who we are as well as the unique things we have available that they aren’t going to find anywhere else, especially in leadership and character development,” Mollahan says.

What concerns him today are “myths” perpetrated by detractors. He’s been working hard to dispel them as he moves toward completion of his first decade at the helm.

“Some claim we’re not much more than a boarding school for troubled students and that half of our students aren’t going to class.”

MMI has had fluctuating enrollments for years, with highs in the 600-800 range at times, but that was due to MMI’s prep school involvement. Without a high school now, enrollment has dropped into the mid-450 range, and Mollahan is confident that is what was needed.

“This is a special place with opportunities for students to come here,” he says. “What we do here is develop young people of high character with fundamental leadership skills.”

Mollahan says MMI’s in-state tuition is about $16,000 a year, with out-of-state student tuition listed at about $22,000. He said the school’s annual budget is in the $13 million range, with support from Alabama’s Educational Trust Fund — one of the benefits of being under the

MMI cadets are put to the test on their new, military-grade obstacle course that teaches them physical and mental endurance.

state’s financial wing.

Looking forward

If special thanks are in order at Alabama’s “new” MMI, it belongs to Dean Mooty Jr., who spent five years at the school encompassing high school and junior college before moving on to the University of Alabama. Mooty, who grew up in Marion and created a prominent law firm in Montgomery, not only devotes much of his free time to MMI, but he’s also chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees.

Celebrations have begun on the MMI campus and smiles abound as Mollahan, his staff and cadets take part in events to honor Alabama’s unique one-of-a-kind facility.

Mollahan and parents of cadets took part in the official kickoff event in September when he delivered a speech, followed by the cutting of a “birthday cake” at a packed gymnasium.

He used a number attached to the celebration that also included a “cresting ceremony,” signifying the official welcoming of young men and women into MMI’s Corps of Cadets.

“Today we mark 175 years of history, 175 years full of momentous events, 175 years of ups and downs, 175 years behind us, 175 years ahead,” the president said in his address.

O’Neal Holmes, director of MMI’s alumni and community affairs programs, said a time capsule will be buried in April as part of acknowledging a milestone event in the school’s history.

“Being here has meant everything to me,” he says.

Storm spotters keep Alabamians safe during severe weather

Night shot with big thunderstorm at the starry sky.

By Aaron Tanner

Alabama experiences all modes of severe weather every year. Despite advances in Doppler radar technology that allows more extended warning lead times, radar usually cannot see what is happening on the ground.

That’s where the SKYWARN Storm Spotter program comes in. Volunteers of various backgrounds, including first responders, law enforcement and business owners, help the National Weather Service verify real-time conditions when deciding to issue or continue a warning.

“Our SKYWARN spotters are like our eyes in the field,” says Todd Barron, Warning Coordinator Meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Huntsville.

Storm spotters are different from storm chasers in that a spotter stays in one location, while a chaser travels to a storm. Barron says that storm spotters are preferred over storm chasers in Alabama due to various issues, including the hills and trees limiting views, heavy rain that often obscures tornadoes and the fast motion of storms. “It is dangerous to storm chase, especially if you are not a well trained professional.”

Those interested in becoming a storm spotter receive training from a meteorologist from the National Weather Service, either in person or online. Volunteers learn to appropriately identify and report severe weather, such as finding rotation in a wall cloud or adequately measuring the size of hail, along with safety tips while in the field. “We want the spotters to know what they are looking at when watching for severe weather,” Barron says.

One of many ham radios across Alabama that allow spotters to communicate with the National Weather Service.

After completing the class, graduates receive a certificate certifying them as spotters, and their name is put into a database if they choose to do so.

A report from a trained spotter is taken more seriously when deciding to issue or continue a warning, versus a report from someone not adequately trained. The reports are especially important in rural areas, since those spotters may be the only ones able to accurately verify a report for that particular area, especially if a storm is moving into a more densely populated area.

SKYWARN spotters also help emergency managers. Phyllis Little, director for the Cullman County Emergency Management Agency (CCEMA), is especially grateful for the storm spotters in her county who receive proper training. Because the agency cannot be everywhere during severe weather, they rely on information from storm spotters to know where to send resources. “These are volunteers who have a vested interest in serving our community,” Little says.

In March of 2017, the CCEMA sponsored a class in the town of Colony that was well attended by different people of all ages. Little says those attending help their community stay safe, thanks to their proper training. “Many will never call in a report, but they do have the knowledge to recognize conditions that may signal a severe weather event.”

Left to right, Rex Free of Lawrence County, Jonathan O’Rear of Madison County and Ed Weatherford of Lawrence County are some of the many storm spotters scattered across the state of Alabama that who help the National Weather Service during severe weather.

Spotters in the field

Rex Free of Lawrence County is one of many certified spotters in Alabama who received proper training. His interest in storm spotting comes from the tornadothat killed 13 people in his county during the Super Outbreak of April 3, 1974. “I saw a lot of destruction that traumatized me,” says Free, who owns an audio-visual company.

In 1989, Free met Ed Weatherford, president of the Bankhead Amateur Radio Club in Moulton at the time. He suggested Free help him with ham radio and storm spotting. Weatherford is the Deputy 911 Director for Lawrence County.

In March 2012, Free and Weatherford met Jonathan O’Rear, who lives in Madison County, through the National Weather Service. Like Free and Weatherford, O’Rear experienced severe weather first hand, when a tornado tore through his neighborhood in Florence in 1989. He also had an interest in CB and ham radio.

Though there are several methods of communicating severe weather reports to the National Weather Service, such as by telephone, social media and internet chat, ham radio is still widely used by storm spotters. When cell phone towers and power lines are heavily damaged, ham radios still operate because the FCC allocates a portion of the radio bandwidth to amateur radio. “When all else fails, there is amateur radio,” says Weatherford. “It is viable in any emergency.”

Although many spotters in Alabama have a ham radio license, it’s not a requirement  to be a storm spotter.

Free, O’Rear, and Weatherford are part of Huntsville’s National Weather Service’s ham radio program. When a severe thunderstorm or tornado watch is issued, a liaison at the Weather Service formally activates the spotters.

Storm spotters and ham radio operators were put to the test during the historic tornado outbreak of April 27, 2011. On that day, Free and Weatherford received reports over ham radio of significant damage and injuries from a powerful tornado that hit the Lawrence County community of Mount Hope. Emergency responders had difficulty reaching the victims due to the heavy rain and debris scattered across the affected areas.

Free remembers feeling helpless after hearing about the devastation. Conditions were so bad that Weatherford relinquished control of the SKYWARN network to another ham radio operator located outside the county. “It was a terrifying, deadly event and will always be imprinted in my memory,” says Weatherford, who drove to Mount Hope to give damage reports to the county emergency management agency after the storm.

Despite being an unpaid position, the danger involved and experiencing first-hand the worst of Mother Nature, storm spotters enjoy giving back to their communities by helping the National Weather Service and emergency managers.

But there’s also a sense of community among the ham radio operators. “There is a big camaraderie amongst each other,” Free says.

Alabama People: Cultivating students as well as plants

Photo courtesy Auburn University College of Agriculture

Ask almost anyone in today’s southeastern (and beyond) horticulture industry who was his or her biggest influence and you’ll likely hear the name Harry Ponder. This icon of Auburn University’s horticulture teaching program began his career by helping load-out plants at his family’s third-generation nursery business — Ponder’s Nursery in Dadeville, Ala. He went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture from Auburn and a Ph.D. from Michigan State, then spent three years teaching at the University of Georgia before returning to Auburn as a professor in 1978.

Revered for his knowledge of plants and their uses, Ponder is also legendary for knowing and remembering the names of every student in his classes (that’s been more than 2,000 students through the years) and for nurturing them throughout their careers. Though Ponder retired from Auburn in December 2017 after nearly 40 years of teaching, he’s still cultivating new generations of horticulturists there on a part-time basis. – Katie Jackson

What was it like growing up in the nursery business?

It was very interesting because we grew plants to sell both wholesale and retail.  On the wholesale side, we sold plants to places like Russell Manufacturing and Auburn University. Little did I know when I was a young person loading trucks destined for Auburn that I would one day be teaching there. Another twist is that a lot of the retail customers whose cars I loaded were professors at Auburn who later became my colleagues.

What part of horticulture — plants or people — do you feel is most important?

They go together. I always told every student I taught, you’ve got to like plants and you’ve got to like people. People go with plants. There’s a relationship there, so to maximize your effectiveness you need to get along with both, and I genuinely like both.

How do you remember so much about your students, past and present?

One thing is that I am blessed with is a good memory, but when I came to Auburn, I wanted to have a real connection with my students. I always heard that people don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care. I also read once that the sweetest word anyone ever hears is their name — once you call them by their name, they feel an affinity — so I decided I would make sure I learned every student’s name in my classes. I also made it a priority to help students after they graduated, and I still see students today that I may have helped change jobs three or four times in their careers. I tell my students, “You are family and, while you may move out into the world, we are still here for you.”

Are there any tricks to help home gardeners educate themselves about plants and their uses?

The best way in my opinion is to observe.  You can read books, but if you have looked at the plants, you’ll know them. And anywhere you go there are plants, so by really looking at them and noticing if they are they in the sun or shade, wet or dry, it sticks with you.

How has the horticulture profession changed and where is it going?

I think the future of the horticulture industry is very bright for several reasons.

When I was coming up, people did their own planting or had their own gardener. Now they use professional installers, designers and maintenance companies. People are also more and more aware of their environments, and for a quality environment there is no substitute for plants. Another thing is that horticulture is what I call an “uninterruptable” industry, because gardens are living systems. We can’t quit maintaining them and that job cannot be outsourced to foreign countries. All of that signals a very bright future and continued growth for horticulture. I don’t see it ending and that’s good for our students, too.  The job market has increased so much that we don’t have enough students to fulfill the need.

What are your plans in “retirement?”

I won’t be teaching in the classroom, but I have committed to work part-time to help place students in jobs and to run Auburn’s horticulture internship program. I also want to stay involved in the industry’s state and regional meetings. But after 40 years in the classroom, I’m looking forward to having more flexibility so I can spend time with my 1 ½-year-old grandbaby and have time to read and travel with my wife. Now that I say it, I may be wanting to do more than is possible.

Second act: Cullman bakery is leap of faith for couple

Turn left off I-65 south from Cullman, and The Sunflour Bakery and Eatery appears like a mirage so good it just might make you forget the billboards you passed proclaiming homemade meals and humble country times.

A yellow house with a long front porch welcomes diners to the restaurant, which is open for breakfast and lunch. It will be tempting to stop and try out the turquoise-painted rockers, but resist, there’s time for that later. Besides, you don’t want to risk the cinnamon orange rolls selling out. They did on a recent morning, at 10 a.m.

A wooden sign reading “Mustard Seed Nursery” welcomes you inside. Don’t worry, you’re at the right place. Sunflour shares this historic home with a local plant nursery, and both businesses rely on faith to make it through the grueling tasks of being their own bosses. It is faith, after all, that got Amanda and Brad Quattlebaum out of their former day jobs and into the kitchen.

Amanda worked as a surgical nurse, and Brad drove a cement truck. They had no experience in the food industry, but imagined running a small wedding venue one day. Then, the couple had a decision to make. 

The Philly Cheese Steak sandwich is one of the lunch menu’s popular items. Courtesy Sunflour Bakery

“We had an opportunity three years ago and we went for it,” Amanda says.

The New Testament verse, Romans 12:12, adorns many surfaces including a ceiling beam: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer.”

Worn, painted white furniture and turquoise walls hide behind a sign advertising the Sunday lunch special: meatloaf, chicken casserole, green beans and corn. Another sign beckons you to get on with your meal: “Life is short. Eat dessert first.”

Amanda made cakes at home as a hobby, and friends and customers told her for years she should go into her own business. She and Brad started renting just the kitchen — the house had hosted two other restaurants — but demand led her to expand through the building in September. At first, making a new restaurant in an old building, even one that already had a kitchen, proved challenging.

“Nothing is level or square in the place,” Amanda says.

The couple was surprised to find horsehair plaster walls when tearing down the drive-thru window.

Brad Quattlebaum, a former cement truck driver, and his wife, Amanda Quattlebaum, left their day jobs and took a leap of faith to open their restaurant. It proved to be a wise decision. Photo by Jennifer Crossley Howard

“It’s probably better than drywall today,” Brad says.

Sunflour, a customer of Cullman EC, has six employees, and a few carried cakes to cars for customers on a recent winter morning. Regulars come from as far as Nashville and as close as down the street in Cullman. Many go for cheeseburgers, patty melts and Philly cheesesteaks for lunch. Sunflour also serves a full breakfast.

The greatest joy of the Quattlebaums’ second act as restaurant owners is not the food.

“Getting to know customers is the best,” Amanda says. “We want you to feel like you’re at home or at your grandmother’s house.”

In five years or so, the Quattlebaums envision a second store in Cullman. So far, word of mouth and reviews from Yelp and Facebook and Instagram pages are enough to keep tables full.

But what looks like a cook’s shabby chic heaven requires more work than sleep.

“We never dreamed it would be so hard,” Brad says. His wife agrees. The couple typically works 16-hour days, seven days a week.

“He’s always said we’re married to this place,” she says. “This is our life right now.”


Garden clubs continue history of service, friendship

On March 6, 1847, a group of women and men living near Union Springs, Ala., held a meeting that forever changed Alabama’s gardening history — and the gardening history of the whole nation.

It was on that day that the Chunnenuggee Ridge Horticultural Society, the first such society in Alabama and one of the first of its kind in the United States, was formed. The organization’s primary goal was to preserve and protect the beauty of their community’s landscape and, as their early minutes stated: “…we claim not for  (the Society) the cultivation of flowers only, we aim at usefulness and utility.”

“Usefulness and utility” remain the tenets of its modern-day successor, the Chunnenuggee Public Garden Club, and also of the many gardening clubs and societies that have been created in the 170-plus years since.

Tricia Mitchell is the current president of The Garden Club of Alabama, Inc., the umbrella organization for Alabama’s more than 100 active garden clubs. She says members of these groups are committed to beautifying and protecting natural and cultural resources in their communities while also educating and honoring their fellow citizens. In the process, those members reap amazing benefits themselves.

Garden clubs, Mitchell says, educate their members about a wide range of horticultural subjects, from gardening best practices to landscape and flower designing. But their educations don’t stop there. Club members also learn about, and teach the public about, vital environmental issues, such as protecting pollinators and watersheds.

Mitchell knows firsthand how educational garden club membership can be. “I grew up in an era where people farmed and canned and I loved gardening,” she says.

When she joined her local Decatur Garden Club, she embraced the chance to learn more about the breadth of gardening. But in the process, she discovered that there was so much more to love about being in a garden club. “It’s as much about fun, fellowship, friendship, unity and support as it is about plants,” she says.

Members include men, children

While garden clubs are usually thought of as women’s clubs, their memberships (in Alabama there are more than 2,000 people who belong to a garden club) include many men as well as children. In fact, children, who can join junior garden club organizations and be involved in an array of garden club-sponsored activities, are a priority for the GCA and its member clubs.

“Teaching our young people is so crucial,” Mitchell says. “We want to invest in them so they can be the next generation of gardeners.”

Garden clubs also invest in future professionals. The GCA sponsors six endowed scholarships at Auburn University for students majoring in horticulture, forestry and landscape design, and a number of local clubs also fund their own college scholarships.

Supporting military veterans and their families is also a primary focus of garden clubs, a focus that began in the 1940s and continues today as the clubs support Blue Star and Gold Star programs and memorials. (In 1951, Alabama garden club members held an “Every Light a Prayer for Peace” ceremony to pay tribute to those serving in the military as the Korean Conflict was raging. That service is now held annually and is practiced throughout the country.)

In addition, the GCA has been active in establishing garden spaces, such as the Garden of Memory on the Auburn University campus that honors veterans of both World Wars and the Korean Conflict and the Helen Keller Fragrance Garden at the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind.

Today, garden clubs continue to help with a wide range of community projects ranging from beautification and memorial projects to supporting state parks and preserving land, heritage sites and endangered species. They also take care of others. One Alabama club sponsors a program to teach female prison inmates how to grow and preserve food, and several clubs run community gardens to help feed the hungry.

But perhaps the best benefit of being in a garden club is the chance to develop lasting relationships. “Garden club members will probably be some of your best friends forever,” Mitchell says. “I guess that’s because we have a lot of things in common.”

To become involved in this 170-year-old tradition, visit the GCA website at There you can find contact information for garden clubs in your area or learn how to start one of your own. You can also sign up to attend the GCA’s state convention April 8-10 in Tuscaloosa.

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at