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Alabama Snapshots: Baby’s First Christmas

Luke, 5 months old. Photo taken by mom, Andrea Overman. SUBMITTED BY Austin Overman, Hope Hull.

Marley Alani Gaillard. SUBMITTED BY Jacqueline Gaillard, Jackson.

Ann James Kohn is the light of our lives.SUBMITTED BY Debbie Kelley, Troy.

The first Christmas for Brynlie Cook, great-granddaughter of Myra and Joe Ciotta. SUBMITTED BY Myra Ciotta, Cullman.

Billy Daniel Greenlee in his rocking chair that has been in the family more than 75 years. SUBMITTED BY Jenni Greenlee, Wetumpka.

First Christmas, we pull Santa’s beard. Second Christmas, we scream. SUBMITTED BY Fran Jackson, Huntsville.

Submit Your Images! February Theme: “Service Pets” Deadline for February: December 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.

Alabama’s Health

Need for dialysis likely to increase; options available

Nearly 10,000 Alabamians receive dialysis treatments to remove excess water, solutes and toxins from their blood. This number is approximately equal to the total current population of Perry County.

About half of all Alabama dialysis patients must receive dialysis due to diabetes. High blood pressure (or hypertension) is another leading risk factor. Unfortunately, both risk factors are increasing among Alabama’s adults and may be even more serious among our youth. The number of Alabamians receiving dialysis is expected to increase.

Eric Wallace, M.D., a UAB nephrologist, has a required office visit with a home dialysis patient using telemedicine. Photo by UAB News
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 36 percent of all adult Alabamians were classified as obese in 2016. This is the third highest percentage nationwide and up from 32 percent in 2011.

The most current county level data on obesity is produced by the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps Program. In 2013, this data indicated that 17 of Alabama’s 67 counties (all rural) had 40 percent or more of their adult population classified as being obese. This reflected an increase from 11 counties in 2011.

Data on hypertension is not adequately available. However, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services publishes an online Medicare Chronic Condition Dashboard that provides 2015 data on the percent of Medicare recipients diagnosed with hypertension. According to this data, more than 62 percent of all Alabama Medicare recipients had been diagnosed with hypertension. This is the second highest percent among all states. The percent of Medicare recipients diagnosed with hypertension in all 67 Alabama counties exceeded the national percentage.

Dialysis treatment can be demanding on patient lives. Most dialysis patients in Alabama are receiving this treatment at end stage renal treatment centers (or dialysis clinics). This treatment usually requires four hours per day for three days. This procedure, in-center hemodialysis, involves removing, cleaning and replacing the patient’s blood. Transportation to dialysis clinics poses a great challenge for many patients, especially because 13 rural counties have no dialysis clinics.

An expanding option is to receive this treatment at home. Approximately 10 percent of patients on dialysis (roughly 1,000) are currently using this option. There are two types of home dialysis treatment, hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. Home hemodialysis involves a procedure like that done in dialysis clinics. Hemodialysis at home must be done five or six days per week for about 2 and 1/2 hours per day. Before this can be started, a patient must go to a home dialysis training unit three or four days per week for six weeks to be trained in this procedure and must have a partner during dialysis. When the patient starts home hemodialysis, he or she must have a face-to-face meeting with their nephrologist once or twice each month.

The specific procedure used for dialysis depends on the patient’s activity and lifestyle. For additional information, contact any actively practicing Alabama nephrologist.

Dale Quinney is executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, 1414 Elba Highway, Troy, 36081.


Alabama Academy of Honor class features all women

Deborah Edwards Barnhart talks with Catherine Sloss Jones after both women were inducted into the 2017 Alabama Academy of Honor on Oct. 23, 2017.

The Alabama Academy of Honor, established in 1965, recently celebrated its first class that features all women.

Cynthia Tucker Haynes is inducted into the 2017 Alabama Academy of Honor on Oct. 23, 2017, in the Old House Chamber in the State Capitol.

The academy bestows honor and recognition upon Alabamians for accomplishments and service benefiting or reflecting great credit on the state. The membership is limited to 100 living Alabamians, plus all of the state’s living governors. New classes are inducted each year.

This year’s inductees are:

Gov. Kay Ivey, a graduate of Auburn, who in 2002 became the first Republican elected State Treasurer since Reconstruction. She was elected lieutenant governor in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014. She was sworn in as governor in April 2017.

Deborah Edwards Barnhart is chief executive officer and executive director of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. Her career spans four decades of service in commercial industry, government, aerospace and defense.

Cynthia Tucker Haynes of Monroeville has had a distinguished newspaper career, including winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She was a columnist and editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and now writes a syndicated newspaper column and blog.

Catherine Sloss Jones of Birmingham was born into the family that built Sloss Furnaces and is today president and CEO of Sloss Real Estate, a family-owned firm. She’s a recognized civic leader and in 2000 created the not-for-profit Market at Pepper Place, an award-winning farmers’ market that supports small farmers and artisans.

Hay Now!

West Alabama man’s whimsical hay bales continue to delight motorists

by Allison Griffin

There’s precious little to break up the rural scenery along this stretch of Alabama Highway 43 between Demopolis and Eutaw.

That is, until you spot some curious creatures – including a 30-foot Tin Man of “The Wizard of Oz” fame – peeking at you from a clearing just south of Forkland, population 597.

This pastureland is home to Jim Bird’s hay bale art, a collection he started as a whimsical gift for his wife, Lib, about 20 years ago.

The background: Lib left for a few days to visit one of their grown children, and Jim stayed home to cut hay. “My baler was putting out all kinds of oddball bales. I pushed them to the side of the field, and I thought later I could take them and make something out of them.

“I made a caterpillar and a spider. I thought I would surprise Lib with them when she got home,” he says, and Lib was certainly surprised! She was also pleased, which pleased him.

Jim Bird, pictured above, started creating his sculptures of hay and found art more than 20 years ago to amuse his wife, Lib. Today, the creations continue to draw visitors to his rural west Alabama farm.

It was just the beginning – his collection now numbers more than two dozen. He isn’t creating many sculptures these days, but he takes care of the existing ones and gets some help from his daughter, Avery. 

The hay art is more of a hobby than a labor of love for Bird – but it is part of a love story. Look no further than the red heart attached to that towering tin man, which reads, “Jim loves Lib.”

A life well lived

Bird is small in stature, with a warm smile to welcome visitors. At 90, he still lives by himself on the family property, which is farmed and tended by his son, Archie. A member of Black Warrior EMC, Bird remains active, going to a nearby wellness center every day and tending to his artsy creations. He sprays herbicide around each sculpture to keep the weeds down, and repairs those that lose an eye (often a bucket lid) or a nose (perhaps a safety cone).

Such found objects – or junk, if you prefer – are the thread that connects all the sculptures. From the beginning, Bird decided to spend no more than $5 on each creation. The one exception is the tin man – though he used old bathtubs for the feet, 55-gallon drums for the legs, a 1,000-gallon fuel tank with a hole in it for the torso, 30-gallon drums for the arms and an old fertilizer container for the head, he had to buy paint for it, which he figures ran him about $45.

Some of the creations aren’t doing so well. “I’ve got one or two that are dying,” he says; the elements take their toll on the hay bales, as do the occasional vandals and feral hogs, which are tearing up the land near some of the bales.

The last few years have been tough for Bird as well. After 65 years of marriage, his beloved Lib died in 2015 after a long illness, and it’s evident he misses her. They met in Gulf Shores when he was an engineering student at Auburn. “I was going down there to see another girl,” he recalls, but obviously Lib won out. She was from Greensboro and was working as a police reporter for the Birmingham News. “She was quite a go-getter.”

They married and raised four children, and he had a variety of ventures, including opening a junkyard. “My children were going to school, and they put down that their daddy was a junk dealer, so I thought, I’ve got to do better,” so he bought into the John Deere business for a short while. He also bought property near Demopolis that later became the home for Walmart, and was also in the well drilling business. For the last of his working years, he raised cattle and farmed on this 1,000-acre property where he still lives.

And his home was a total loss after fire a year or so ago; fortunately, he wasn’t home at the time, but all that remains are a chimney and the pool. He now lives in a small caretaker’s home a stone’s throw from the old home site, a picturesque setting that overlooks a bend in the Tombigbee River.

“I’m about to play out,” Bird says. He’s not sure if anyone will take over the hay bales; though his daughter helps him, she lives in Gulf Shores.

While he does stay active, he’s slowing down a bit. “I get nothing constructive done anymore,” he says.  

Still, he enjoys his creations, and is pleased to offer a visitor a golf cart ride around the property to talk about them.

‘An inspiration’

A few of the creatures have stories attached to them, while others just seemed to evolve, depending on what kind of junk Bird had lying around.

Some of the funny roadside friends are pretty obvious: There’s the alligator, with a hide of hickory bark and a mouth full of beer can teeth. The bunny rabbit has bucket tops for eyes, small pipes for the whiskers and buck teeth and ears made of scrap wood and metal. But some, like the creature with pie plate eyes, a propane tank for a nose and a tractor tire base, are a little more abstract, and their creations elude Bird’s memory.

Even his garbage can is fancifully decorated, with hands of old rubber gloves and a head made of wood topped with moss and oversized sunglasses (though the can seems to have suffered a bit at the hands of the Greene County Public Works sanitation workers). The nearby newspaper box is half swallowed by a bright blue sea creature made of scrap pieces of plastic, with pink eyes (golf balls) and mouth that might be an old bicycle tube.

Unfortunately, the art is not immune to vandals. Bird says he once had a black cat cut out of plywood placed near the road, but thinks fraternity boys from nearby Tuscaloosa absconded with it. And just off the right-of-way is a curious golf cart, topped with an oversized Oriental sculpture and a life-size mannequin at the wheel. Bird says the mannequin is supposed to be him, though the inanimate version is wearing a pink-hued suit and polka-dot hat (for his interview with Alabama Living, Bird was much more conservatively attired).

“Somebody stole me, and I thought I was going to be shopping around fraternity parties,” he laughs. “They threw me in the dump. I found it and just stuck it back up there. I didn’t manicure it.”

Like that mannequin, not all the sculptures are hay-based. A sheet-metal Snoopy flies his similarly-fashioned Sopwith Camel into a pine tree near the highway. A bull, cut up out of a large piece of driftwood, chases a woman dressed in silver bubble wrap (“she’s got several coats of stuff on her. She’s been around awhile,” Bird says). And ET, the extra-terrestrial of 1980s fame, is cut out of sheet metal and wears a sparkling hubcap as he sits atop a spaceship made of an old satellite dish.

Across the driveway from the tin man is a less fanciful, and more artistic, metal rooster, which Bird built for a gallery owner in York, Ala. But he scoffs at the notion that he’s an artist.

He doesn’t play golf or garden or have any of the other usual retirement activities, he says. This is his hobby, though he seems happy that these creatures continue to delight passing motorists.

Some drivers fly right on by, but many honk when they see Bird out tending to the artworks. Others stop just to look and take photos; some stop to chat. He’s been interviewed many times over the years, with write-ups by the Associated Press and the Birmingham News, among other outlets, in addition to documentaries.

“I get a lot of real interesting folks,” he says. One woman brought him a small photo of the tin man, which she found among an artist’s offerings in New Orleans. She asked the artist if he knew the creator of the tin man. The artist wrote a note to Bird on the photo: “Thank you for your art, you are an inspiration.”

The power of co-ops working together

Association celebrates 70 years of serving Alabama’s cooperatives

by Allison Griffin

The AREA board meets in the association’s new headquarters for the first time in February 1993.

Your rural electric cooperative is one of 22 such co-ops in Alabama, and together they provide electricity to more than 1 million Alabamians – a quarter of the state’s population – and cooperative power lines cover more than 70 percent of the state’s land mass.

Each non-profit, member-owned cooperative in Alabama is independent and governed at the local level, by boards of trustees elected locally. But co-op leaders recognized 70 years ago that it was prudent, and even essential, to have one unifying voice to represent the co-ops on a state and national platform. From that need, the Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives (AREA) was born.

“Our members are very diverse and their service areas are very different,” says president and CEO Fred Braswell, who started with Montgomery-based AREA in 1999. Despite such differences, Alabama’s co-ops have similar wants and needs:

• A strong voice for rural voters among local, state and national elected officials;

• The coordination of power restoration and disaster recovery, both in Alabama and with sister cooperatives in other states;

• Youth programs and scholarships, to train up the next generation of rural leaders;

• Safety and loss control (the jobs of electric utility linemen rank among the country’s most dangerous), as well as compliance with often complicated state and federal regulations;

• Self-insured plans, including workers’ compensation insurance and health plans for cooperative employees; and

• Communications services, including public relations and the production of Alabama Living magazine.

These services have evolved and expanded tremendously since AREA’s incorporation on Dec. 26, 1947. But its commitment to serving its member co-ops, providing the support and programs that its members need and expect, remains unchanged.

Dail Gibbs was AREA’s executive vice president for more than 25 years.
Fred Clark led the association from 1991-1998.
Developing clout

Almost immediately after it was formed, AREA jumped into the communication realm, publishing the Alabama Rural Electric News beginning in January 1948. That publication, which was then a broadsheet newspaper, was distributed to all co-op members to help them learn about the rural electric industry, which in many areas was still in its infancy. (A story in next month’s issue will look at the history and evolution of the publication, which later became Alabama Living.)

This magazine is perhaps AREA’s most visible component – it’s distributed to more than 420,000 households in Alabama each month. The publication is just one of many services that AREA provides to its member cooperatives, but it wasn’t always that way.

Dail Gibbs became AREA’s leader in 1966, after serving more than six years in the same role at the South Dakota statewide office. (“Statewide” is the term used to describe a state’s trade association.)

A colorful character, Gibbs, now in his late 80s, still remembers AREA in the early years of his tenure.

“When I came in, about all that was being offered by the statewide staff was the magazine,” Gibbs recalls. “The co-ops could see a need to do more things together, and they were able to see what other states were doing.”

Fred Braswell is the current President and CEO.

Any trade association needs strong leadership, but in the case of AREA, also having strong leadership at the co-op level was essential for its growth. When Gibbs arrived, there were several young, strong co-op managers eager for change. “They were ready to grow, (and) they were ready to do more things together when I came there.

“They kind of kicked me in the pants and told me to get going.”

And he did. Among Gibbs’ priorities was building political clout for the rural electric cooperatives. “We were just kind of a non-entity. We had a lot of strength if we just worked together.”

AREA needed a permanent home and purchased land just a block or so behind the Capitol – a location that was no accident. “We made the appearance of, ‘we’re here.’ … We just didn’t have the muscle in the legislature that we had to develop.

“I guess you could say we were a potential strength in the state, and we just had to gain some prominence.”

Yet political muscle did not then, and does not now, translate into partisan politics. “I maintained a (mostly neutral) posture for the statewide,” Gibbs says. “You’ve got to be involved, but you’ve got to be bipartisan in your approach to be effective.”

AREA remains politically neutral, but encourages rural Alabamians to educate themselves about elections and, most importantly, to vote and make their rural voices heard. And the association encourages and assists member co-ops in working with and educating elected officials on the local level.

“We want to be sure policy makers understand our needs, and we have the kind of relationship with them to work through issues,” says Braswell, the current AREA leader.

AREA’s headquarters as it looks today.
The AREA current headquarters under construction in 1992.

Continued growth

Throughout Gibbs’ tenure, the association worked through several challenges, including the passage of legislation in the 1980s (later upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court) to protect electric cooperatives’ service areas from municipal annexation.

And in 1992, AREA passed a comprehensive rewrite of cooperative enabling legislation, or how electric co-ops can do business. Fred Clark, the president of the association at that time, recalls that this very long piece of legislation allowed co-ops to be involved in other businesses – a key for co-ops to continue growing.

“That allowed the co-ops to wholly own other corporations,” Clark says. “It quantified how a board of directors did business.”

The association’s building near the State House in Montgomery was convenient for legislative needs, but it lacked the space needed for future growth. With the purchase of land and construction of a new building in east Montgomery, in the Dixie Electric Cooperative service territory, came the ability to expand AREA’s training programs, Clark says, which benefit everyone who works for a cooperative – from member service representatives to linemen to board members.

Co-op leaders value education in their service areas, and co-ops strongly support their local schools. Each year, AREA’s Montgomery and Washington Youth Tours help more than 150 high school juniors who live in co-op areas learn about cooperative principles, cultivate an interest in governmental affairs and develop leadership skills.

The Electric Cooperative Foundation, also established in Clark’s tenure, distributes scholarships to high school seniors who are dependents of co-op members. So far, the ECF has distributed $620,000, helping to encourage children to further their education at either a trade or vocational school or four-year college.This growth in services was in response to the needs of the co-ops, but they were invested in their statewide, Clark says. “We had a lot of support from the members during those periods,” he says. When Braswell took over, it was much the same: “I was very impressed with the support of the member cooperatives for the statewide program,” he says. “There was, and continues to be, a deep commitment to have the statewide be a place where the members work together.”

Water heater efficiency and maintenance

Q: Our water heater is 15 years old. About how long should it last? Are there things I can do to maintain it and make it more efficient? Or should I just replace it?

It’s hard to say how long your water heater will last. Certified home inspectors estimate the life span to be about 10 years. Some manufacturers suggest 12 to 13 years, but I had a water tank that lasted more than 40 years before the heating element finally gave out. That said, it’s wise to replace a water heater before it fails because sometimes failure includes a ruptured tank or a massive leak that can do a lot of damage.

Insulating your water heater and keeping the temperature at 120 degrees or below are two ways to save money on your utility bill. Photo credit: Water Heater Repair Portland

The life span of a conventional water heater (one with a tank) depends on factors such as the volume of water cycled through it, the hardness (mineral content) of the water and the tank’s interior coating. Many water heaters come with a warranty as long as 12 years. Presumably, a longer warranty indicates higher quality and the chances of longer life. These warranties usually only cover the cost of a replacement tank; they typically do not include the cost of labor to install it or the costs from flood damage if the tank fails.

There are a few warning signs that your water heater tank or heating element may be failing:

• Water leaking from the tank or pooling on the floor underneath it

• Rust, corrosion or mineral deposits around fittings or release valves

• The water temperature from your faucets is dropping

Most experts believe that an important water heater maintenance practice is to drain the tank every year or two. provides an excellent step-by-step guide. However, Ken Maleski, the residential energy advisor at Central Electric Cooperative in Pennsylvania, recommends that if your tank has not been drained in the past six to seven years, you should avoid doing so because draining could remove sediment in such a way that a leak could develop.

Mineral deposits on pressure release valves or corrosion on fittings coming out of the water heater are signs of leakage that should be addressed. Photo credit: Jim Troth,

Here are a few simple steps you can take to increase the efficiency of your water heater:

• Insulate the first six to 10 feet of easily-accessed hot water line where it exits the tank.

• If the tank is warm to the touch or is in a cold location like your garage, consider insulating it with a heater blanket. But first, check the owner’s manual to make sure doing so won’t void the warranty. If you have a gas or propane water heater, be careful the blanket doesn’t block the unit’s air supply.

• Keep your water temperature to 120 degrees or less. This will help you save money on your heating bill and ensure longer life for pipes and gaskets.

• Keep safety in mind. If you have a gas or propane water heater, protect your family from the “silent killer” of carbon monoxide gas. Pick up a carbon monoxide detector from the hardware store and install it near the heater.

Opportunities to save money on your hot water budget abound throughout the house. Showering uses almost 17 percent of our indoor water use, so you can save money by installing efficient shower heads. Replacing older dishwashers and washing machines with more efficient models will also reduce your energy bills. You should repair any leaky faucets, as a drip every second can add up to $35 a year.

When it’s time to purchase a new water heater, there are many options available. Be sure to check with your electric co-op. Some co-ops offer rebates on energy efficient models. Others offer incentives for water heaters with large tanks or to install a switch that can be triggered remotely to turn the water heater off for brief periods of high energy demand. Last but not least, check out’s excellent article on selecting a new water heater.

Patrick Keegan writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives. Write to for more information.

“Rose of Winter” Season: Best time of year for the A-O Men’s Camellia Club

The Auburn-Opelika Men’s Camellia Club has been gathering monthly to share knowledge, plant material and fellowship with one another. Pictured, from left, are some of its more than 30 members: Steve Crannell, Ken Rogers, Dale Peterson, Wallace Baldwin, Charles Mitchell, Ted Thompson, Vic Payne and Rick Himmer.

Winter officially arrives this month, which may make some gardeners feel a little sad. But for a group of east-central Alabama gentlemen, this is a month of great gardening joy. That’s because this is high season for the “rose of winter” — more commonly known as the camellia.

Camellias have been adored by Southern gardeners for many generations, primarily because of their gorgeous winter blooms. They’ve also been adored for nearly six decades by members of the Auburn-Opelika Men’s Camellia Club, an all-male gardening group that strives to share camellia knowledge, plant material and fellowship with one another and with the gardening public.

Chartered in 1959, the club began when a group of primarily Auburn University agriculturists started gathering monthly to share and learn all they could about camellias (and other plants and gardening subjects). Since then, the club’s roster has included many accomplished professional and self-taught plantsmen and, while the last of those founding members (venerable gardener Tom Corley) passed away earlier this year, the club still has many exceptional experts in its ranks.

Among those experts is Charles Mitchell, who first learned about the club when he was a student at Auburn. “I thought it odd, but delightful, that a group of ag professors, most of whom grew up on a farm, would form an all-men’s camellia club,” he said. But, since becoming a member in the mid 1980s, Mitchell has seen firsthand the club’s value to its members and to the local community.

“Our club grew out of the love of gardening, the love of camellias and the joy of sharing with others,” he said, all things the members of this good old gardening boys club still focus on today.

Another of the club’s experts is Ken Rogers, who also first learned of the club when he was an Auburn student and became a full-fledged member around the same time as Mitchell. In the years since, Rogers has become a skilled camellia grower and grafter (among his many gardening talents) and he’s never lost his fascination with these plants.

Easy to grow

“They are tough plants and easy to grow,” said Rogers. But for him, the main reason to love camellias is because of their “beautiful, diverse blooms at a time of year when nothing else is blooming in the landscape.”

Depending on the species (Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua are the two most common species planted in Alabama), camellias may begin blooming as early as September and bloom times can last as late as April or early May. But camellias are typically at their best from November through March when they produce prolific numbers of flowers that, depending on the cultivar, come in a wide range of colors (white, pink, red, salmon and variegated among them), sizes (from ½ to 5 inches in diameter) and forms (single- and double-petal arrangements as well as peony, anemone and rose styles).

Though the A-O Club membership (which numbers about 32 men —novices and experts alike — and is welcoming new guys to their ranks) is limited to menfolk, these guys truly want to share their love — and knowledge — of camellias with everyone. To that end, they hold an annual camellia show (usually in late February or early March), have established a number of public camellia gardens and plantings in the area, host public workshops to teach camellia pruning and propagation techniques and its members are available to speak to other garden clubs and civic groups.

For those who don’t fit the gender qualifications or who live in other parts of the state, there are several co-ed camellia clubs. Find out more on the “Alabama Camellias” Facebook page or the American Camellia Society’s website at And for more information on the A-O

Men’s Camellia Club’s events and educational opportunities, contact Rogers at or Mitchell at

Camellia Facts

Camellia japonica L was designated as Alabama’s state flower in 1959, the same year that the Auburn-Opelika Men’s Camellia Club was chartered. Both will celebrate their 60th anniversary in 2019 in conjunction with Alabama’s Bicentennial celebration of 200 years of statehood.

Some 20,000 known cultivars of camellias exist in the world, several hundred of which can be grown outdoors in much of Alabama.

Because they are tropical plants and cannot tolerate prolonged cold temperatures, camellias are best suited as landscape plants in the Deep South, though more cold-tolerant cultivars are now available for those living in more northern parts of the state.

Camellias grow well in containers, making them great houseplants and allowing them to be moved in and out during the year as temperatures fluctuate.

Camellias require an acid soil and do best in partial shade. They have few pests and diseases and require minimal maintenance.

To learn more about growing camellias in Alabama, check out the Alabama Cooperative Extension System publication The Culture of Camellias: Alabama’s State Flower (

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

Alabama People: A man of letters

Dr. Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University, is the author of 13 books, the most recent of which, Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, chronicles 25 years of correspondence with the famed author of To Kill a Mockingbird. He disputes rumors that Lee suffered from Alzheimer’s in her later years and knew nothing of thepublication of the forerunner of TKAM, Go Set a Watchman, in 2015. He holds degrees from Howard College (now Samford University) and Florida State University, taught at Samford and joined the Auburn faculty in 1977 where he remained until his retirement in 2005. He is also the founding editor of the online Encyclopedia of Alabama. At 77, Flynt still writes and speaks to groups across the country, although his travel has been somewhat limited as he lovingly cares for Dartie, his wife of 56 years, who has Parkinson’s Disease. They have two sons who married two “brilliant” sisters, and three grandchildren. – Lenore Vickrey

What’s been the reaction to your latest book, “Mockingbird Songs”?

The reviews were probably the best I’ve ever had, certainly from the other side of the pond, from the London Times Literary Supplement and the Economist. And I’ve been really happy with the letters I’ve received. I always try to answer everyone’s letter. So many are not the traditional kind of letters we get about a book; they are long, thoughtful letters, handwritten on fine stationery, in many cases, with a fountain pen. Most are letters from people who always fantasized about what Nelle (Harper Lee’s first name, and what Flynt, her family and close friends called her) would be like. They say things like, “At last I understand her.” “She’s so funny, so satirical.” “She’s not politically correct.” Frankly, I wrote the book for that reason. There were so many false statements and conspiracy theories out there, and that Nelle was demented, none of which are true. All you have to do is read the pages from our journals to see how sharp she was, how funny she was and how delightful she was. In the end, it was her decision to have the book published. Journalists look for conspiracy theories. Historians look for the most plausible explanation.

Do you miss the classroom?

I miss it terribly. The only thing that makes it tolerable is that I have taught Sunday School ever since I was at Florida State. Now I teach the Pilgrim Sunday School class at Auburn First Baptist. I treat this very seriously in terms of preparation. There’s 107 in the class from agnostics, to Episcopalians, Catholics and traditional Baptists, libertarians, socialists, liberals, Nigerians, African Americans. We have a big poster on the wall, “We reserve the right to accept everyone”! Politically, it’s all across the landscape. I don’t talk politics. Bible study is still the core component. They minister to each other. It’s like a real New Testament church, as opposed to the politically charged.

Is there anything you don’t miss about the college classroom?

Grading papers, teaching students how to write. By the time I retired, even the honors students didn’t know how to write. Writing has become a lost art. I don’t know if it’s the computer, sound bites or social media, but there’s no such thing as a lyrical writer. I also don’t miss the politics of higher education. It’s just so bloody awful.

What writers do you read?

I came to Eudora Welty late. I like Flannery O’Connor. Obviously, I read Harper Lee. I didn’t read fiction at all until I came to Samford. I was 23 when I read To Kill a Mockingbird. All of a sudden I realized the power of fiction to change your life. Here was a deeply biblical woman with a deeply biblical message. It is a religious book, not about religion. Now I read To Kill a Mockingbird every year. I also read lots of theology, Buechner, Niebuhr; Thomas Wolfe, Peter Taylor, William Faulkner, all the major writers of Southern fiction.

Do you have any writing projects in the wings?

Yes, but I’ll probably never finish it. If we live long enough, it’ll be “Afternoons with Harper Lee,” based on Tuesdays with Morrie. It would not be a biography because I don’t think anyone will write that. She was too private of a person. We never probed and she never told. We had ten years of visits. We never recorded them, but Dartie has amazing recall, and we would sit in the parking lot and write notes after our visits with Nelle. We have 250 pages of notes from those visits.

The free online resource Encyclopedia of Alabama ( is something you were heavily involved with. You must be very proud of that.

It’s the most confounding event that I, as the least technologically advanced person, was asked to oversee a completely electronic encyclopedia! It was truly a collaborative effort (between Auburn, Alabama and many museums, agencies and other groups). We started with 500 articles and I edited every single one. Until I retired, I’d read every article. I wrote the overview, the article on To Kill a Mockingbird, the book that changed my life, and I got to write the sections on religion and Alabama Baptists. There are some advantages to being the boss! If I have one legacy to leave the state, I don’t know that I’m prouder of anything more than the Encyclopedia.

WTD: Italian fare with Irish flair

Stevarinos owner Steve Flynn is ready to help out wherever he can, including at the bar to greet customers.

Story and photos by Aaron Tanner

Steve Flynn has an Irish heritage, but when he wanted to start a restaurant of his own, he knew that Italian would be a bigger customer draw than Irish food. “We couldn’t make a living selling corned beef and cabbage,” he says.

He was obviously right. He’s been dishing out delicious Italian food – with Irish influences – to locals and tourists alike since 2007 at Stevarinos, his restaurant in a busy shopping center in Scottsboro.

Flynn’s childhood nickname was “Stevarino,” the salutation made popular on Steve Allen’s 1950s variety show. While trying to come up with a name for his eatery, Flynn suggested the name to some friends. “I thought then it sounded corny, but I told my friends, and they loved it,” he says.

Flynn, who grew up in the Queens borough of New York City, fell in love with cooking and worked in the restaurant industry all around the U.S. One of the stops in his culinary career was in Fort Myers, Fla., where he met Kerry Hoefer; the two became friends while working together at a Mexican restaurant chain called Chevys Fresh Mex.

On the side, Flynn sold properties in Florida. He took some of the proceeds from his real estate sales and invested in property in Tennessee. It was there that Flynn got the idea to start his own restaurant. He convinced Hoefer to join him on his new journey.

The two bought an old bar in South Pittsburg, which is just over the state line from Alabama, renovated the property, and opened the first Stevarinos in 2006. “I had a dream and a vision and if it didn’t work, I could still go back to what I was doing,” says Flynn.

Fortunately, the South Pittsburg location did work, and many customers made the drive from northeast Alabama to eat there. Flynn saw the opportunity for a second restaurant in Scottsboro after consulting with the Chamber of Commerce. “Scottsboro was the right fit for us,” Flynn says.

Today, Hoefer operates the South Pittsburg store while Flynn runs the Scottsboro location. Both enjoy working with each other and are hands-on with running their businesses. “If I have to cook, if I have to pour drinks or if I have to wash dishes, I do whatever it takes,” Flynn says.

All the menu items at Stevarinos are homemade and made to order. “I’m not one of those that will substitute quality because I can get a better price on something,” says Flynn. “I’m very picky because I like to put out a stellar product.”

The appetizer sampler features beach bread, fresh mozzarella sticks and Irish egg rolls.

While a few of Stevarinos’ recipes come from Papa Joe’s, a favorite Italian eatery in the Fort Myers area owned by one of Flynn’s friends, most of the creations on the menu are from Flynn himself. Living by the beach inspired him to create a favorite appetizer called beach bread – a toasted hoagie roll topped with homemade bleu cheese dressing, pieces of bacon, tomatoes, fresh garlic and oil and mozzarella. The item is such a hit with customers that it was named one of the state Tourism Department’s “100 Dishes to eat in Alabama Before You Die.”

“We sell a lot of it,” Flynn says.

Another favorite appetizer at Stevarinos is the Irish egg rolls, featuring corned beef and mozzarella cheese cooked into an egg roll and served with Thousand Island dressing for dipping. “It’s almost like a Reuben,” he says. The corned beef is slow cooked and marinated at the restaurant.

One of the recipes brought from Florida is the pizza sauce, used for the restaurant’s New York-style pizza. Flynn makes the dough every day from scratch.

Another dish not to miss is the blackened Cajun pasta, which is mixed with chicken, shrimp, and Andouille sausage and topped with Alfredo sauce, made in-house. Other items on the menu include lasagna, spaghetti, paninis, hoagies, steak, and seafood.

Flynn’s goal is for Stevarinos to stand out among other dining establishments by offering options not found in other restaurants. “We try not to be like the typical restaurant where everyone’s menu food is the same,” he says. “I like having things on there you can’t get everywhere else.”

The restaurant receives a steady stream of repeat business thanks to the delicious menu items and quality customer service. Flynn personally says hello to patrons who walk through his door. “I like for people to leave my place with a smile on their face knowing they were made to feel special,” he says.


The encyclopedia of modern electricity

DOE study describes how coal plants and solar cells can share the same power lines—and more

Coal-fired power plants are closing. Homeowners with rooftop solar panels are selling unused electricity back to their utility. Windfarms are springing up across the Great Plains. Fracking and other drilling techniques have cut the cost of natural gas by more than half since 2002, and doubled the amount of electricity generated by natural gas.

What does all this mean for the nation’s network of wires and power plants otherwise known as the electric grid? The answer lies within a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy, says Pam Silberstein, senior director of power supply for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“It’s incredibly well-written, well-researched, very thorough, very comprehensive,” says Silberstein. “It’s a well put-together compilation of the state of the grid.”

DOE’s August 2017 Staff Report to the Secretary on Electric Markets and Reliability describes the complex state of the electric grid and goes into great detail on how utility trends might affect the price and availability of electricity. It highlights the importance of retraining coal and nuclear power workers, and the effects that renewable energy has on the stability and reliability of the existing electric utility system. 

Better reliability

Another way to describe the report: If someone decided that every high school student should understand how the nation’s system of electric wires and power plants works, this study would make a good textbook.

Silberstein sees the grid study as a report that puts in one place all the changes affecting utilities and what those changes might mean. She says, “We’re asking our utility systems to meet a lot of demands they haven’t been asked to do before.”

The study is a quick-turnaround response to an April 14 memo from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to DOE’s chief of staff to “explore critical issues central to protecting the long-term reliability of the electric grid.”

Plenty has changed for electric utilities over the past 20 years, and this DOE study describes that new landscape with enough detail to satisfy the most hard-core energy nerd:

About 15 percent of the nation’s power plants have been retired since 2002, mainly coal and nuclear plants. That trend is expected to continue due to low natural gas prices, slower growth in demand for electricity, environmental regulations and more solar and wind power. While new generating capacity from sources including natural gas and renewable energy has amounted to about three times the plant retirements, that radical change in the energy mix requires new ways of managing the flow of electricity from the power plants where it is made, to the homes and businesses where it is used.

People are demanding better reliability in their electricity; enough that utilities have supplemented their goals of reliability with a new term, “resilience.” Basically that means being able to get the lights back on faster after a natural disaster. That has utilities experimenting with things like utility-scale storage batteries, and more precise targeting of which customers should get power restored first.

A lot of states are passing Renewable Portfolio Standards that mandate levels of green energy, creating a patchwork of requirements in the national grid.

New and growing additions to the electric grid are changing the way it needs to be managed. Those new power sources include rooftop solar panels that sell electricity back to the utility, natural gas plants that require new pipelines, solar and wind farms in remote areas that need to be connected with new transmission lines, and “demand response programs” in which utilities can turn off home water heaters and air conditioners for short periods during times of peak demand.

Recommendations from the study include:

  • Updating the pricing arrangements that govern the buying and selling of electricity
  • Improving disaster preparedness
  • Reviewing regulations that limit the growth of power generation, especially for coal, nuclear, and hydroelectricity
  • Focusing on workforce development as energy workers face a changing energy marketplace.
  • Modernizing the software that manages electricity transmission
  • Coordinating with Canada and Mexico to enhance electric reliability across all of North America

The study also notes the importance of cybersecurity to the electric grid, but said that would be addressed in an upcoming joint report from the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security. 

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

Co-op leadership in the new energy reality

An important new study by the U.S. Department of Energy describes how the nation’s electric utilities are balancing traditional power sources like coal and nuclear, with renewable trends like wind and solar.

Member-owned electric co-ops acknowledged “this new energy reality” in a statement on the recent DOE study, by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“The electric industry is becoming more consumer-focused as a result of evolving technology and changing consumer expectations,” says the NRECA statement in response to the DOE study, titled Staff Report to the Secretary on Electric Markets and Reliability.

Co-ops are pioneering in that consumer focus by helping their members use energy more efficiently, and through research in innovative smaller utility networks knows as microgrids.

The NRECA statement says, “As part of our response to this new energy reality, electric co-ops are leading the way in community solar, are developing micro-grids and are implementing energy efficiency programs.”

Other fuels are needed as well, concludes the NRECA statement: “Even with these measures, coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants remain an important part of a diverse energy mix that is fundamental to ensuring reliability of service and agility of the electric system during harsh weather. Electric co-ops will continue to rely on these proven resources while integrating new energy options and consumer technology to provide more ways for our members to access affordable, dependable electricity.”  — Paul Wesslund