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Alabama Snapshots: Unlikely pet friends

After Buck-Buck’s mother died, he and Billy became best friends. They ate together, played and slept together in the barn. SUBMITTED BY Judi Mallory, Pike Road.
Biscuit and Totoro have been best friends since they first met. SUBMITTED BY Allison Lumbatis, Dothan.
Booger (cat) with her babies and some friends. SUBMITTED BY Melissa Benton, Skipperville.
Opie found his happy place with Louie. SUBMITTED BY Kathy Ledford-Gledhill, Fort Payne.
Scrunchy (kitten) and Macca-n-e (racoon) are two rescues that first became friends at a wildlife rehabilitation center. SUBMITTED BY Laurel Fleming, Daphne.


Outdoors: Late season hunting

Sportsmen still have more to do in late season

Jeff Ferguson waits for a bird to flush during a hunt on the Northeast Alabama Hunting Preserve near Section, Ala.

For most Alabama sportsmen, hunting season begins and ends with deer season. Deer season goes through Feb. 10, but hunters can still find things to do after that season closes.

This year, the state gave small game hunters additional opportunities to pursue squirrels and rabbits. Both seasons opened on Sept. 15 and run through March 5 with a limit of eight each per day. After deer season ends, small game hunters will largely have the forests, fields and wetlands to themselves until turkey season begins in March.

“The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division recommended that the small game hunting seasons begin earlier and end later than in the past and the Conservation Advisory Board agreed,” explained N. Gunter Guy Jr., commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Alabama sportsmen can find many places to bag squirrels and rabbits all across the state. Just about any wildlife management area with abundant hardwood trees can offer good squirrel hunting. Some better WMAs for bagging bushytails include Black Warrior near Moulton, Cahaba River near West Blocton, Oakmulgee in Bibb, Hale, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties, Skyline near Scottsboro and Upper Delta near Stockton.

“The squirrel population is so dense in some areas of the state that they are a nuisance,” says Steve Bryant, a state wildlife biologist. “The habitat requirements for squirrels are minimal. A few nut or seed producing trees can sustain a squirrel. The more mast producing trees present, the greater the number of squirrels the area can support.”

Cottontail rabbits thrive throughout the state. Besides cottontails, Alabama sportsmen might also bag swamp or marsh rabbits. Large swamp rabbits occur statewide. Swampers can live in woodlands and grasslands like cottontails, but typically stay close to water. Swamp and marsh rabbits prefer floodplains, river shorelines, bottomlands, swamps, marshes and other wetlands in the southern half of the state.

Squirrel and rabbit hunting usually go together since the seasons run concurrently, but people traditionally hunt these two animals differently. Occasionally, a squirrel hunter kicks up a big swamp rabbit in a hardwood thicket or jumps a cottontail while walking along the wooded edge of a field, but for rabbits, look for thick cover, the thicker the better, since almost every predator wants to eat them.

Some better WMAs to hunt rabbits include Choccolocco near Heflin, the Jackson County WMAs, Lowndes near White Hall, Skyline and Swan Creek near Decatur. For the best chances at bagging a swamp or marsh rabbit, visit the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

“Swan Creek WMA has historically provided good rabbit hunting,” Bryant says. “Any area that contains the appropriate habitat should be good. Cane cutter, or swamp rabbits, occur in low lying areas along streams and lakes where the high moisture content of the soil inhibits some species of trees.”

Late season hunters can also test their wing-shooting skills on bobwhite quail and snipe. Quail season runs through Feb. 28 with a daily limit of eight per day. Snipe season continues through Feb. 26, also with a limit of eight per day.

Quail like upland fields and piney woods. Not many places in the state hold good concentrations of wild quail any longer, but sportsmen might find some bobs on Barbour WMA near Clayton, Freedom Hills WMA near Cherokee, Geneva State Forest WMA near Florala and Blue Springs WMA near Andalusia.

With wild quail populations low, many people turn to hunting pen-raised birds at commercial preserves. After a quick internet search, sportsmen can find many such preserves all over Alabama. Besides quail, some preserves also offer opportunities to hunt pen-raised ducks, pheasants, chukar and other birds. The season on pen-raised birds runs through March 31.

Like ducks, snipe migrate to Alabama each winter. The swift, erratic fliers can humiliate even the best wing shots. The military term “sniper” for an expert marksman originally described hunters skilled enough to hit these birds in flight. The long-billed birds like moist soils, such as old crop fields, meadows and lake shorelines, but the best snipe hunting in Alabama probably occurs in the marshy lower part of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta near Mobile.

Besides those traditional game birds and animals, Alabama sportsmen can hunt bobcats, foxes, coyotes, feral pigs, raccoons, crows, blackbirds, starlings and Eurasian collared doves all year long with no bag limits on private lands. Before hunting anything, check the current regulations to stay out of trouble.

John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who writes from Semmes, Ala. Contact him through his website at

Recipes: Two-Terrific

Chicken bundles for two.

Cooking for two made easy and delicious


Most recipes are written to serve four (or more) people, forcing young married couples, empty nesters and other families that are only composed of two people to do math just to make dinner. (That is, of course, if they don’t want leftovers, and lots of people don’t, and lots of foods don’t freeze that well.)

I usually try to avoid math, so when my husband and I were first married, I just followed the recipes I had, as written. Most of them came from my mama and grandmother. I still treasure the index cards with my grandmother’s tiny, scrawling, half-cursive, half-print ingredient lists and instructions and those with my mother’s elegant, textbook-perfect penmanship.

Many of these dishes were rich, hearty, comfort-food classics (read: packed with fat and calories), and as mentioned above, most were meant to feed four folks. Despite having no problem with eating leftovers and owning a working fridge, a big freezer and a brand new collection of tupperware I’d gotten as a wedding gift, for some reason, my hubby and I felt obligated to eat nearly every bit of whatever it was I’d cooked, every single night.

Within three months of our taking our vows, our pants no longer fit. We’d quickly and easily gained 10 pounds apiece. We signed up for Weight Watchers, and two weeks later, he’d lost about 12 pounds. It took me months to get rid of eight pounds, and I swear the final two are still sitting on my hips, some 18 years later.

To prevent others from choosing between math (yuck!) or eating more than they really should, we asked our readers to send us their best recipes for two. Here are our favorites from the ones we got. Find those that look appetizing to you and enjoy the appropriate portions!

Cook of the Month

Peggy Key, North Alabama EC

Desserts can be some of the hardest dishes to make for two, but Peggy Key’s just-right-sized recipe for Blueberry Cake Cups makes satisfying your sweet tooth with appropriate portions simple. “These are really easy to whip up, and when you are done, you don’t have the rest of a whole cake or pie sitting around,” she said. “That’s why I keep making this recipe over and over. We love it.” She and her husband also love its ingredients, namely blueberries. “Who doesn’t love blueberries? I think we all do,” she said. She also pointed out that the recipe works just fine if you want to substitute Splenda for sugar. And she even enjoys making her cake cups for breakfast. “They’re great in the morning,” she said.

Blueberry Cake Cups

  • ¼ cup plain flour
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • Dash of salt
  • ¼ cup milk
  • 1tablespoon butter or margarine, divided
  • 1cup blueberries (fresh or frozen), divided

In a small bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Stir in milk and butter just until moistened. Divide half of the berries between two greased 10-ounce custard cups. Top with batter and remaining berries. Bake at 375 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.

Chicken Bundles for Two

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
  • 2 medium red potatoes, quartered and cut into ½-inch slices
  • ¼ cup chopped onion
  • 1 medium carrot, thinly sliced
  • 1 rib celery, finely chopped (optional)
  • ½ teaspoon rubbed sage
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh dill sprigs

Pull off two 18-inch square layers aluminum foil. Sprinkle chicken with sage, salt and pepper; top with dill sprigs. Place each chicken breast and half the vegetables on each foil square. Fold foil around the mixture and seal tightly. Place on cookie sheet and bake about 45 to 50 minutes on 350 degrees or until the chicken juices run clear and the vegetables are tender.

Peggy Key, North Alabama EC

Meat Loaf for Two

  • ½ pound ground beef
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup oatmeal
  • 1 tablespoon ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon each bell pepper and onion, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon oil

Beat egg and other ingredients; add meat last, mixing lightly. Form into two portions. Fry in oil for 15 minutes or until done. Turn once.

Pat St. John, Cherokee EC

90-Second Microwave Brownies

  • 3 tablespoons each flour, sugar, cocoa
  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons of any liquid (I like milk)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla
  • Pecans (optional)

Stir and microwave for 75-90 seconds. (I put the liquids in first to melt the butter.)

Patricia Reed, Cullman EC

Creamed Chicken and Eggs

  • ¾ to 1 cup cooked, diced chicken
  • 1-2 boiled, peeled and sliced eggs
  • 1½ tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup milk, whole or low-fat
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch

Other seasonings, such as leftover cooked vegetables, minced parsley or celery leaves, onion or garlic powder, etc.

Make a sauce by melting the butter and slowly stirring in the cornstarch, salt and  other dry seasonings. Gradually add the milk, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil and cook for at least one minute, stirring until it is a thick as you want. Fold in the chicken, eggs and cooked vegetables if you have them and heat thoroughly. Serve over toast, biscuits or cornbread with a tall glass of iced tea.

Helena Harris, Baldwin EMC

French Toast

  • ½ cup milk
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Dash of nutmeg
  • 6 slices of bread
  • 3 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • Syrup
  • Chopped pecans

In a shallow 4-quart casserole dish, stir together milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and nutmeg. Lay bread slices in milk mixture. Turn the bread over to coat both sides; allow to soak 2-3 minutes to absorb the milk mixture. While the bread is soaking, melt the butter in a skillet or on a griddle. Fry the bread on both sides until golden brown. Place 2-3 slices of French toast on each plate; drizzle with maple syrup and sprinkle with pecans.

Rena’ Smith, Tallapoosa River EC

Recipe Themes and Deadlines:
April: Easter Meals, February 8
May: Shellfish/Shrimp, March 8
June: Berries, April 8

Coming up in March…


Worth the Drive: Buona mangiata! (good eating)

Pintoli’s brings a touch of Italy to south Alabama

LEFT TO RIGHT:  Pintoli’s waitress Wendi Ramer carries a tray of tiramisu, house spaghetti, and breadsticks with marinara sauce; Muffaletta with fries; pasta and meatballs.

Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Rome – except maybe Pintoli’s Italian Cafe, the best Italian restaurant in Satsuma, Ala.

OK, Pintoli’s is the only Italian restaurant in Satsuma, Ala. But ask anyone in this town of 6,000 residents, north of Mobile. Pintoli’s Italia, mamma mia – that’s for me-ah, cuisine is like fine cheese: It’s Gouda.

The Highway 43 eatery, about two miles off I-65, Exit 19, has been a local fixture since 1999. The outside is an unpretentious strip mall tenant. But once inside the pasta paradise, Satsuma becomes Venice, minus flooded streets.

“I visited Italy to research their cafes,” said Pintoli’s owner, Stephanie Nicholson. “Over there, restaurant exteriors are often plain but the inside is much fancier.” Pintoli’s is like that.

Stucco pastel walls, warm lighting, and arched dining parlor entrances surround linen-laid tabletops. “People are surprised, walking in for a first visit,” Stephanie says. “Seeing the outside, is not what you expect on the inside.” Pintoli’s is not what Stephanie expected either.

She comes from a family of restaurateurs. Her relatives are owners-operators of dozens of establishments, from pizzerias to fine dining. “I am all of those in one,” she says. But it was not always like that. Pintoli’s was not her original career choice.

In 1999, Stephanie’s intent was to complete college as an English Literature major and teach school. But the young lady from neighboring Baldwin County agreed to help family members open the fledging Satsuma restaurant on a temporary basis. Temporary basis is now 18 years and counting.

On a wing, a prayer, and pepperoni, Stephanie and former husband, Jose Pinto, launched their venture as a tiny pizza pick-up with limited seating. Rewards were few and work was great. Her chef hat was multi-purposed: waitress, cook, cashier, menu designer, dishwasher, and more. Stephanie was a 22-year-old restaurant owner and business was terrible.

“We had little money, and virtually no equipment,” she recalls. “We couldn’t even afford a sign. I spread a canvas banner across the building with our name on it.” Their food was great but so was the competition, including one nearby with a red roof.

In 2006 Pintoli’s took a major plunge – expansion in both building and menu. Incorporating her father’s recipes and mother’s help, new dishes were added. Satsuma welcomed fettuccini Alfredo, crawfish pasta, chicken parmigiana, mountainous muffalettas, and lasagna kissed by angels. Floor space and seating capacity doubled, a new wing was added, and the staff grew from 10 to today’s 30-something. Bring on the Stromboli

Pintoli’s rebranded itself as the best of both worlds. As executive chef Marcus Beekman notes, “We are a pizza parlor, and offer free in-town delivery to the community and area hotels. But we’re also an Italian restaurant, popular for wedding rehearsals, parties, and family dining.”

The customer base is a mix: locals, neighboring towns, and Interstate 65 – where one can drive in from Chicago without a traffic light. “A lot of people from all over the country write us through our website after stopping here while traveling,” says Stephanie. “It is very rewarding receiving compliments from people passing through.”

Pintoli’s day starts the night before. Fresh breads are made from scratch. Sauces are produced in caldron-sized kettles. Daily specials are planned. Chef Marcus oversees the operation.

“We make sure everything runs smoothly,” he adds. “I do a lot of behind the scenes operations the customer never sees.” Customers may not see it but they smell, and most important, taste it. That’s when you hear “Momma mia!” – with a Southern accent.

Pintoli’s cooks about a thousand lasagna plates a month. Rounding out the most popular menu entrees are crawfish pasta and shrimp and bacon Alfredo. Custom-built toasted sandwiches are available, including the Italian (smoked ham, salami, pepperoni laced with mozzarella cheese.)

Five types of pizzas are available, and assembled, based on and named for celebrity favorites: Frank Sinatra (supreme), Rocky Marciano (combination), Al Pacino (all meat), Sophia Loren (veggie), and Joe Pesci (gourmet).

All entrees include a basket of garlic bread sticks and homemade marinara sauce –good for munching while studying the menu. For the indecisive among us, there is the Pintoli’s Sampler – portions of the most popular dishes on one platter, including chicken parmigiana, pasta Alfredo, and of course, lasagna.

Steaks are available on Valentine’s Day and other occasions. Also, and somewhat surprisingly, Pintoli’s has good collection of wine, by glass or bottle. And desserts? Delizioso!

Tiramisu – alternating layers of imported mascarpone and ladyfingers soaked in expresso and a touch of liqueur. Turtle cheesecake, covered – you heard me – covered, with caramel, chocolate, and pecans. A slab of chocolate cake and New York-style cheesecake.

Pintoli’s special of the day changes daily, forcing diners to return often for updates. That is a good problem to have for a taste of Italy in one of the most unexpected places.

Pintoli’s Italian Café

5573 Highway 43
Satsuma, Ala. 36572

11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and Saturday
11 a.m. – 10 p.m. Friday

Consumer Wise: Smartphone energy apps

Do they really work?

Q: I’m interested in smartphone apps that will help track my energy use and provide tips for how to reduce it. Do you have any suggestions?

A: There are several smartphone apps that can help you determine how energy is used in your home. Energy use apps can also provide information that helps you choose efficiency upgrades that make the most sense for your home.

Here are a few types of smartphone apps you could consider downloading:
Your electric co-op’s app: Many electric co-ops offer smartphone apps that allow you to view recent bills and set high use alerts. Many of these apps will also let you pay your bill through the app, read about any co-op efficiency programs or incentives, compare your energy use to similar homes and learn how the weather may have impacted your energy bill. Visit your co-op’s website to find out if they offer a smartphone app.

Smart thermostat apps: There are a number of smart thermostats on the market from companies like, ecobee, Honeywell and Nest. Smart thermostats can optimize your home’s heating and cooling based on your family’s habits and the weather. If you have one of these smart thermostats, take advantage of the corresponding smartphone app that can give you detailed information about your home’s heating and cooling use.

Touchstone Energy’s Together We Save app provides energy tips and energy use calculators.

Energy disaggregation device apps: There are some devices and corresponding smartphone apps from companies such as Bidgely and PlotWatt that analyze electric signals to determine how much electricity appliances are using in your home. With these devices and apps, you can see the energy use of a particular appliance over time. An unexplained jump in energy use could pinpoint a problem.

Apps with energy savings tips: Some apps provide personalized energy tips based on your location, home characteristics and other information that you provide. One example is Touchstone Energy’s “Together We Save” app, which provides energy savings tips for the home, as well as energy use calculators.

Additional apps that can help you track and understand your energy use are becoming available each day. Read reviews from other users to learn which apps have been most beneficial. Keep in mind that while these apps can give you an idea of how much energy you are using, which areas of your home are using the most energy and tips for reducing your use—it’s up to you to evaluate the information the app provides. One thing to remember is that apps often only look at a single fuel use, so if you have an all-electric home, the app could be quite conclusive—but if you have appliances fueled by natural gas or propane, the information will be less thorough.

With trend data from an energy app, you should be able to pinpoint large energy uses in your home. For example, if heating and cooling are significant draws on your energy bills, investing in weatherization measures or upgrading your system to a more efficient one could have a big impact on your bill. Apps that give you access to real-time information can be a powerful diagnostic tool to help you evaluate the impact of an energy efficiency measure.

A good practice is to sit down regularly to look at trends and changes to your energy bills. Has your energy use increased in the last month? Was the weather significantly colder or warmer? Was your family at home more often because of a holiday? Does your co-op have time-of-use rates, and if so, do you make any adjustments to your energy use to account for those different rates—for example, running your clothes dryer overnight instead of when you get home from work?

If your bill is increasing and you are not sure why, or you want more ideas for how to reduce your energy bills, your electric co-op is a great resource. Your co-op’s energy advisor may be able to sit down with you and analyze your bill, talk about your home’s characteristics and your family’s habits, and provide tips for how to reduce your energy use.

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Amy Wheeless of Collaborative Efficiency. For more ideas on efficiency apps and how to save energy, please visit:

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.

Gardens: The month to love our water

Late last year, roadside signs began appearing near my home in Lee County stating “Drought Alert: Conserve Water.” Those signs were in response to a statewide drought declaration that put all 67 Alabama counties under an official drought “emergency” or “warning” status.

As 2017 arrived, and despite intermittent rains in December and several days of steady rain in early January, the signs stayed up — a reminder that even heavy winter rains may not be enough to fully replenish our water supplies for the coming year. The signs were also a reminder that we gardeners can do our part in conserving this most valuable of natural resources in our own yards.

In light of last year’s drought, the possibility of future droughts and the fact that saving water usually translates into saving money, I propose making water our official Valentine of 2017 and showing it a little love!

Lots of information on making our yards and gardens more drought tolerant can be found through local and state water and conservation agencies and through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Many of these resources tout the idea of a water-friendly landscape management approach called xeriscaping.

Xeriscaping (also known as xero-scaping and smart-scaping) helps us rethink our yards and gardens with water conservation in mind. Applying its principles to our landscapes can help reduce water use by one-third and make our yards and gardens easier to maintain. It’s a relatively easy approach to adopt that starts with an evaluation of the existing landscape, a process that can begin this month while most of us are in a gardening lull.

On those wet, cold February days when you’re stuck indoors, take some time to list which parts of the yard and which plants needed the most irrigation in the past. This can help target areas that need the most immediate attention.

During those pretty February days, walk around the yard and garden and make notes about which areas are typically dry or wet, sunny or shady and hilly, flat or low-lying. These areas represent microclimates that may have different water needs as you plan for the future. Also, identify areas where the soil is poor and take soil test samples, the results of which can help you decide what nutrients and amendments to add that will improve soil fertility and moisture-holding capacity.

While you’re at it, assess the way you’ve been irrigating in the past. Does your irrigation system need updating or adjusting so it irrigates plants, not the sidewalk or the street? Are you using hoses and sprinklers that need to be replaced with more water-efficient equipment? Make a shopping list and use it to stock up on new equipment before prices start to rise in the spring.

Also, think about what plants you hope to add to your yard and garden in the coming year and pick ones that require less water, such as native plants and drought-tolerant varieties. If you’re not sure which plants are best, consult plant lists for the South. If you’re ordering vegetable seeds and transplants, pick ones that are more drought-tolerant or better adapted to Alabama’s climate. Now is also a good time to think about reducing the size of your lawn, the thirstiest part of almost any yard.

And on those February nights, curl up with reading material on drought-tolerant gardening strategies. Visit your local library and browse through magazines and books or get your hands on some step-by-step publications. Two great ones are available through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System: Xeriscaping: Landscape Design for Water Conservation and Drought Tolerant Landscapes for Alabama, which contains an extensive list of water-thrifty trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and herbs. Both publications are available on

By matching a landscape’s water needs with your gardening dreams, you can rethink your yard and garden for this year and for years to come. And take heart: You don’t have to completely re-do the landscape all at once. Just concentrate on the thirstiest parts of the yard first and make small changes where you can. Your yard and your water supplies will feel the love.

February Tips:

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

Alabama People: Ernestine Crowell

Information, please

If you visit the House of Representatives in the Alabama State House in Montgomery, you can’t get very far without encountering a petite bundle of energy named Ernestine Crowell. Below her name on her business cards is a simple title: “Information Desk,” and no one who does business at the statehouse would dispute that. At 68, she is the go-to person for new and old legislators, their staffs and anyone else who steps off the fifth-floor elevator, dispensing advice and the quick retort, usually with a smile. A native of Russell County, she and her husband Gen. Ed Crowell, a retired Air Force general and top executive with VT Miltope, live in Montgomery.

“Ernestine is the sprocket that makes the legislative machine continue to run,” says Sean Strickler, vice president of public affairs at the Alabama Rural Electric Association. “She is the first person you see when you come to the House. She knows who the players are and who can answer questions and solve problems. Without her, countless would have left the House with unanswered questions instead of solutions.” Alabama Living caught up with her last month, before the Alabama Legislature’s 2017 session convenes on Feb. 7.
– Lenore Vickrey

How long have you worked at the State House?

Too long (laughs). Twenty-five years, through the tenures of seven governors. I started in 1985 part-time only when the Legislature was in session. I was in bills and duplicating when we were in the Capitol. Those were the days! Eventually I went fulltime and we moved to the State House, and they needed someone to handle mail and answer the phones at the Information Desk.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?

When a stranger walks onto the 5th floor, I say, “Excuse me, stranger, what are doing and why are you loitering in my hallways?” They look at me like, “What?” And then they relax. My favorite thing to do is harass people. And I don’t discriminate. Once when (current Attorney General) Luther Strange came up here, I showed him my hammer (a hand-carved wooden mallet given to her by former Rep. DuWayne Bridges of Valley). I said, “You know Troy King?” He said, “Yes ma’am.” I told him, “When Troy King started he was your height.”

When the Republicans swept the legislative elections in 2010, (then House Speaker) Mike Hubbard told the incoming legislators, “Don’t leave here until you see Miss Ernestine.” And I told them all, ‘I need your cell number and your spouse’s name and cell number. So if you get out of line, I will beat your b— and I will call your spouses. I’d call the legislator up and say, “What were you thinking?” They become like your family members, and I’m like their grandmother. Sometimes I have to take care of legislators who are sick. I adore every one of them.

What are some of your favorite memories?

I’ve been here when we had the big crowds for famous folks like (former New York mayor) Rudy Giuliani, (former Alabama coach) Dennis Franchione and (country singer) George Jones. When George died, I told Gov. Bentley I needed the state plane to go to Possum’s funeral. I didn’t get it.

You don’t have a problem giving advice to legislators and state officials, do you?

No, I have nothing to lose. They’re really a good group of people, but like I told (former Governor) Bob Riley when he started out, ‘You need to get out of your ivory tower and don’t have all those ‘yes’ people surrounding you.’ He listened to me because he came back and started going up and down the halls talking to people. He works for you and me. He puts his pants on like everybody else.

You are the first person people reach when they call their representative.

Yes, and I get calls from people, many times senior citizens who are having a hard time. Many are veterans. When I talk to a person and they need help with their power bill or need some help, I call on two people I rely on and they help. That’s why I’m here. I work for the citizens of Alabama.

New speaker aims for cohesion among House members

State Rep. John Knight, second from left, talks with new House Speaker Mac McCutcheon on the House floor in 2016.

As the 2017 Legislative session nears, one of the biggest concerns for new Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon is healing some of the divisions among his House members, and changing their focus to work for a common good.

“They’re working well together,” the speaker said of the House members just before Christmas. “They’re focused on working together to accomplish something. That was one of my big goals, to try to bring the group back together so we could all work together, and they’re doing that.”

McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, was elected speaker in August, replacing former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard. The Auburn legislator was convicted of 12 ethics charges in 2016, which triggered his removal from office. Legislators chose McCutcheon to fill the speaker’s chair with 68 votes over the Democratic candidate, Rep. John Knight of Montgomery.

By all accounts, McCutcheon is universally liked and respected by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Other than creating a more unified body, McCutcheon’s top priority is the budgets, especially the continually troubled General Fund budget. McCutcheon says he’s been traveling around the state, talking to voters about their concerns, and “looking at facts and information rather than rumors.”

To that end, McCutcheon sponsored a resolution in September that created a 14-member task force, which includes seven senators and seven House members, to meet and discuss budget reforms and tax credits. It is to report its findings to the Legislature during the upcoming session.

“This commission is not about a piece of legislation,” he says. It’s about gathering facts and information, he says, “and we’ve never approached it that way before.”

McCutcheon says he’s weary of people who say, “we’re wasting too much money,” with little evidence to back up the assertion. “My response is, where are we wasting it? So far, I haven’t had anybody who’s been able to give me facts and figures about which agency is wasting money.”

He also wants to find a solution to the revenue streams, which fund state government. “We keep chipping away at a revenue stream, and the cost of running business continues to go up.” He says a fresh look at property tax and a fair tax (moving away from income tax and moving toward a consumption-based system) is a “discussion that needs to happen to get us thinking about new ideas and being creative.”

The new speaker discussed several issues he foresees in the upcoming session in a recent interview.

Infrastructure. “We haven’t addressed any type of funding for statewide, and I emphasize statewide, infrastructure,” he says. But there is no clear-cut solution. “Is gas tax the answer? Energy-efficient vehicles? Tags? Buying registration permits?”

McCutcheon says that for many of the rural counties that have high unemployment, the lack of a good transit system is holding them back from prosperity. “The workforce is there,” he says. “But you can’t get companies into the state, into some of these areas, because we don’t have the infrastructure to move their stuff in and out. That’s a huge thing.”

Medicaid. President Trump has advocated turning Medicaid funding into block grants, which McCutcheon thinks could be beneficial for the state, so long as the feds don’t over-regulate the money. Advocates for the poor fear the block grant idea will actually mean less funding for Medicaid, which is a state-federal partnership.

Medicaid covers one in five people in Alabama and is crucial to the health care for nearly half of the state’s children. Medicaid’s funding hasn’t kept pace with its growth; the legislature voted to use part of Alabama’s share of BP settlement funds over the 2010 Gulf oil spill to provide $105 million for Medicaid in 2018.

But that in itself is an issue, McCutcheon says. One-time monies have plugged holes in the budgets, but “we are not in a position where we can sustain Medicaid growth,” he says. “We have to find a way to fix the problem.”

Prisons. In 2016, Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, with Gov. Robert Bentley’s backing, proposed an $800 million plan to construct new prisons to close and relieve the state’s overcrowded prisons. The plan didn’t make it out of the Legislature, and among the concerns are the impacts the closures would have on rural communities, where the prison is often the largest employer.

“I know it’s a hotbed subject, but I think it needs to be on the table,” McCutcheon says. It will be a No. 1 priority from the governor’s office, and he thinks the legislators can find a solution. “We sure don’t want the federal government to dictate to us what to do.”

Agriculture – specifically incentivizing irrigation of farmland. “The studies have shown that if we can provide water to (more) land, we can increase our economic agriculture situation tremendously.” Even without the lingering drought in Alabama, McCutcheon says the state needs to help farmers be more productive.

All aboard for Alabama’s railroad history

Jim Garnett, in full costume, beckons passengers onto one of the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum cars decorated for Christmas.

After 1830, when the General Assembly of Alabama approved the Tuscumbia Railroad in Franklin County, railroads steadily became more important to the young state as an efficient transportation option for people and goods. Many towns and cities can trace their beginnings directly back to the railroads and the business it brought to otherwise remote areas of the state, including Birmingham, which was developed at the intersection of two rail lines – making transportation of raw materials for the fledgling steel industry possible.

Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum

The rumble of a locomotive welcomes me when I arrive at Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum; I feel a subtle vibration in the air. For any train and railroad buff, these are the things railway dreams are made of.
The museum, the official railroad museum of the state of Alabama, is located just south of Birmingham in Calera. Straddling a stretch of what was The Alabama Mineral Railroad that once served much of central Alabama and Birmingham, the museum includes a large collection of railroad cars, locomotives and cabooses, and a train designed for regular rail excursions into the Alabama countryside.

The mineral railroad was a mixture of freight and passenger cars, and traveled as far east as Anniston before circling back to Birmingham and then down to Calera before heading east again.

“The train stopped at all the little towns along the way,” says Jim Garnett, museum president. “At the same time limestone, iron ore and coke were collected and then dropped off in Birmingham for the steel industry before making the journey again.”

There are also two restored train depots at the museum. One now serves as a showplace for smaller items, including historic uniforms, signal lights and lanterns; linen, china and cutlery from early train travel; and lots of historic photos.

Dozens of old rail cars sit in the yard at the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum in Calera.

“We have an extensive collection,” says Garnett as we walk around the gallery.

“Our organization dates back to the 1960s,” he says as we walk outside for a closer look at some of the railcars. “We started out in Birmingham, but in the ’70s we realized we needed a bigger area to store our collection.

“A lot of our collection has been donated by railroad companies, or the cars are surplus and we bid on them to add to our collection,” he says. “We have tank cars, box cars, railroad post office cars, flat cars, passenger cars, baggage cars; we even have a camp car that was used by employees working on rails in remote areas. It is equipped with beds and a small kitchen.”

One car Garnett is especially proud of is a planetarium dome car. “We have extensively restored it,” he says. “We’re lucky to have it in our collection.”

Garnett says the non-profit museum’s train rides are their main source of income. Throughout the year regularly scheduled excursions as well as special events provide more than 40,000 guests the opportunity to ride the rails.

Huntsville Depot and Museum

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Huntsville Depot dates to 1860 and is the oldest train depot in the state, and one of the oldest in the nation.

“The Depot served passengers and was the corporate office for the eastern division of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad,” says museum tour guide Winter Forest. “It was used until 1968.”

We start the tour in a life-size diorama complete with moving animatronic ticket agent, telegraph operator and mechanic catching 40 winks. The figures are surrounded by antique furniture and equipment showing what it was like to work for the Southern Railway at the turn of the last century.

The next room once served as the waiting area for passengers. It is now home to dozens of interesting artifacts and informational displays. Several trunks are stacked along one wall just below a schedule board, and benches stretch down the center of the room.

“There is a lot of Civil War history associated with the depot as well,” says Forest. “Union Forces occupying Huntsville during the Civil War used the depot as a prison for soldiers in the Confederate Army in 1862.
“Come on upstairs,” he says. “The graffiti the soldiers wrote is still on the walls.” Protected by Plexiglas, the pencil-written signatures, messages, drawings and dates can still be seen.

Another display helps explain the importance of cotton in the South and how it was grown, harvested and prepared for transport to mills. Several photographs show the depot in its heyday, and a large model railroad illustrates the local rail history.

Alabama has a wonderful and rich train heritage spanning nearly two centuries. A visit to one of these museums, or another restored depot or rail museum, is a worthy history lesson. Volunteers and train enthusiasts are always available to answer questions.

Railroad museums and attractions in Alabama

Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum, 1919 Ninth St., Calera. (205) 757-8383;
Huntsville Depot and Museum, 320 Church St., Huntsville. (256) 564-8100;
North Alabama Railroad Museum: 694 Chase Road, Huntsville. (256) 851-7276;
Bessemer Hall of History: 1905 Alabama Ave., Bessemer. (205) 426-1633;
Foley Railroad Museum: 125 E. Laurel Ave., Foley. (271) 932-1818;
Fort Payne Depot Museum: 105 Fifth St. NE, Fort Payne. (256) 845-5714;
Wales West Light Railway: 13670 Smiley St., Silverhill. (251) 943-1818;

Have you met a president?

Alabama Living readers share their stories

Regardless of your political bent, meeting a president is a memorable occurrence. For most of us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.
For this month that includes the federal and state holiday known as Presidents Day, Alabama Living asked readers who have encountered a president – whether before he was in office, during his term or after – to share their stories.

The responses were wonderfully varied: There are federal employees who encountered presidents as part of their jobs; a college student who by a stroke of incredible luck had lunch at McDonald’s with a sitting president; and two readers who met the current U.S. leader long before he entered politics. Several wrote in to talk about meeting the peanut farmer who returned to his rural Georgia church after he left the Oval Office.

Below are some of the stories submitted, some of which were edited for clarity or length.

– Allison Griffin

Shirley Rossano, Hollywood, Ala.:

As a federal government employee, I had the opportunity to see, meet, and interact with several presidents.
My first encounter was on Jan. 20, 1961, standing on the curb in deep snow watching President John and Jackie Kennedy pass by in a convertible in his inauguration parade. I also attended the inauguration parades for Presidents Nixon and Reagan.

Another time I had the privilege of being in the Oval Room of the White House with President Jimmy Carter to see my immediate supervisor receive an award.
When I worked for the CIA, my supervisor and I escorted George H.W. Bush, then Director of Central Intelligence, on a tour of one of our facilities. He was visiting one of the labs that processed photos from spy satellites, and he was looking at some photos in real time. This was during the Cold War. Mr. Bush is peering into the microscope in the above photo.

I was also in attendance at a ceremony when President Clinton visited our facility in the 1990s.

David Batt, Orange Beach:

In 1965, I was working in Washington for Congressman Joe Waggonner of Louisiana when we received a call from the White House that President Lyndon Johnson would be signing a piece of legislation I had helped draft. The signing would occur later that day and Rep. Waggonner, myself and another staff member were invited to attend.

The legislation was a “private relief” bill to relieve several military personnel of having to repay money the government had erroneously paid them. We expected others there because several other members of Congress had co-authored the measure, but when we entered the oval office, it was just the three of us. The president signed the bill and handed each of us a pen. The photo shows President Johnson handing a pen to me.

Not too surprising, the signing of the bill was not the real reason we were there. Rep. Waggonner, a strong states rights advocate and a leader of conservative Democrats, was blocking the highway beautification bill being pushed by Lady Bird Johnson because he believed it usurped a state’s rights regarding the placement of highway billboards. To watch President Johnson and Rep. Waggonner, standing next to me, “debate” the issue was an experience I will never forget.

Cecilia Sprinkle Sanaie, Fort Payne:

When I was very young and had my first “history” lesson, which was about Presidents of the United States, I decided that one day I would meet the president and shake hands with him. Growing up and then in my adulthood, each time I saw a president on the news I would remind myself that one day I was going to meet and shake hands with the president.

I went to the White House seven out of the eight years that George W. Bush was president, and had tea with first lady Laura Bush through the National Federation of Republican Women, but never had a chance to shake hands with President Bush.

As it happened, he was coming to Kansas where I lived for a fundraiser for Sen. Pat Roberts and I was fortunately privileged to attend! I have to be honest and say that I NEVER got to shake his hand, but the hug and kiss on the cheek was worth all the years I had waited to meet the president!

David Hitchcock, Elberta:

I previously worked for the Navy at NAS Pensacola Fire Department. I was B-shift Assistant Fire Chief.

When Hurricane Ivan hit on Sept. 16, 2004, we were preparing to receive President George W. Bush so he could look at the damage along the Gulf Coast. We had received his advance team of Secret Service and we were housing his vehicles in our fire station. The fire station withstood the storm very well and only received minor damage.

I worked the 24-hour shift from 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 18 to 7:30 a.m. Sept. 19. It was a day of surveying damage at the Navy base and working to make sure we helped the Secret Service and make sure the president didn’t have any problems.

The shift ended and I was on my way home when I got a call from my boss, Fire Chief Carl Thomann. He asked me to return to station and he couldn’t tell me why but I would not regret it. I was still on the base so I turned around and returned to the station.

When I got there he told me to get in his staff car and at that time he advised me we were on our way to meet President George W. Bush.

The picture shows all the different heads of the different agencies involved in dealing with Ivan, and Bush shook all of our hands and thanked us for doing what we do. I was the second to last in line and prior to starting the greeting I got clearance to present President Bush a challenge coin (of our fire department). He asked for the coin and looked it over, gave it back to me, and gave me permission to do so. The picture shows us shaking hands and I had just given him the coin and he thanked me and put it in his pocket.

It was an honor to meet him and I am very happy that I had enough sense to turn around and not go home.

Bonnie and Milton Taylor, Remlap:

My husband and I were fortunate to be able to meet President George W. Bush on Thursday, June 21, 2001, when he visited Birmingham. (He was greeted by Alabama Air National Guard workers and their families.)

Our son was in charge of this visit. I would say there were at least 500 or more people as well as lots of children.

President Bush tried to shake hands with each one.


Barbara Miller, Brilliant, Ala.:

My daughter, Myra, is senior vice president of the Winston Group, a strategic planning and research firm in Washington, D.C.

During the Bush administration, she worked closely with the White House as well as the House and Senate leadership.

In 2007, she was invited to the White House for a Christmas event. Instructed to “bring a guest,” she invited me, her mother.

Indeed a memorable evening made even more special by meeting President George W. and Mrs. Bush.

Linda Morgan, Crane Hill:

I met future President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., in 2006 when I was there to attend an airshow at Andrews AFB and to meet a young girl, Baylie Owen, who had had the same brain surgery I did.
My surgery for Arnold Chiari Malformation was in 2002 at age 57. Chiari is a condition where the brain herniates down into the spinal cord. If not repaired it will cut off the flow of spinal fluid between the brain and the spinal cord and can lead to death.

I read about Baylie Owen in People magazine.  This adorable 5-year-old cutie had Chiari surgery at the University of Chicago. Baylie decided to raise money for Chiari research by making beaded bracelets and selling them for $5 each. In one year she made $100,000 and donated all of it to the University of Chicago for research.

I talked with Baylie and her mom by phone, and learned that we were both going to be in Washington, D.C. at the same time. We arranged to meet and attend a coffee sponsored by then-Illinois Senators Obama and Dick Durbin at the Senate Office Building. I invited Baylie to attend an air show at Andrews AFB with me.

During the senators’ coffee for their Illinois constituents, Baylie and others were invited to the podium to tell the senators what they needed help with. After telling her story, she turned, faced the two senators, placed her hands on her hips and said “Gentlemen, I cannot continue to raise money for Chiari research by myself – I NEED your help.”

Sen. Obama pointed at Bailey and said, “Young lady, I want YOU on my staff.” After the coffee we sold Bailey’s bracelets to the attendees and made $500 in about 15 minutes. We were photographed with the two senators, who sent the photos to us.

Then we were off to the airshow. The Andrews AFB newspaper wrote a terrific story about Baylie. We sat under the wing of the B-17 Memphis Belle used in the Hollywood movie of the same name and sold a lot of bracelets. All in all a grand weekend for two brain surgery survivors who got to meet a future president.

Ralph Crow, Smiths Station:

In the spring of 1994, my son Matt and I traveled to Plains, Ga., to hear President Carter teach Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church.

It was so awesome for Matt and I to worship with our former president and first lady.

Matt and I were able to shake hands with them and have our picture made after the service.

Mrs. Carter, I remember her squeezing my arm real tight. They were both so friendly.

Shirley Cunard, Rockford:

My husband, Sam, and I visited Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., around 2010. We arrived early and were able to sit with others near the front. Former President Carter would be teaching Sunday school and we were briefed on not making an effort to shake hands with him.

After Sunday school was over, as President and Mrs. Carter re-entered the sanctuary for the morning service, President Carter reached out to shake hands with Sam, no one else, just Sam! Sam said, “Well, he offered and I was not going to refuse him.”

Following the morning service, we took a picture with President and Mrs. Carter. While getting ready to take the picture, President Carter chuckled when I said, “Ain’t nobody in Coosa County, Alabama gonna believe this!

Jennifer Coker, Georgiana:

In April 2014, my family and I decided at the last minute to take a quick weekend trip to celebrate my father’s 64th birthday. I remembered reading Jimmy Carter’s book, “An Hour Before Daylight,” which was his story of growing up on the family farm in Plains, Ga., during the Depression era. I was intrigued by the book and wanted to visit his boyhood home and farm.

We drove to the Carter farm, which is located just outside of Plains. The farm includes the main house, a tenant house, a store, several barns, and a blacksmith shop. As we toured the grounds, we noticed a larger group of people just outside the house. We noticed several government vehicles pull up, and Secret Service agents emerged quickly and made the home temporarily unavailable to those other than the private group. A little while later we watched from a distance as Mr. Carter came down the steps of the back porch and addressed the group. We were all in awe that we were actually seeing a former president in person.

Later, we meandered through several of the small stores on Main Street. Soon Mr. and Mrs. Carter were walking past my parents as they sat on a bench in front of a store. My Daddy and Mr. Carter exchanged nods as many Southern gentlemen do. I did not want to intrude, but did not want to pass up on an opportunity either so I made my way across the street and the Carters graciously allowed us to have our pictures made with them. The encounter was brief, unexpected, and definitely a once in a lifetime experience for us small-town folks from Georgiana, Ala.

Steven Neleson, Guntersville:

This photo was taken in Donald Trump’s office in Trump Tower in New York City in August of 1989.

Our family was attending the wedding of my cousin, whose future father-in-law just happened to be one of Trump’s personal lawyers and friend. The lawyer was giving us, his new extended family, a tour of the city and, unexpectedly, took the opportunity to introduce our family to Mr. Trump in his office.

Mr. Trump was very personal and pleasant and took the time to meet each one of us and asked where we lived and what we did for a living. After the introduction, the lawyer had a short one-on-one meeting with Mr. Trump and must have told him about my situation with cancer, which I battled in 1988 and 1989.

After the wedding I made one last final trip to the hospital for chemotherapy. When I got home this letter was in my mailbox. I was not expecting the letter when I got home, and it was a nice surprise and keepsake. Unfortunately, the signature has faded over time.

Bill Moore, Fyffe:

I am a retired wholesale fine arts dealer who sold original oil paintings to galleries and interior designers, throughout the southeast but especially in Florida.

I actually met Mr. Trump twice. Once in the spring of 1995, when he visited our showroom at the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C. He was somewhat aloof and distant, barely speaking and not making conversation. I have since decided that was his way of not being overwhelmed in public.

Later that year, I met him at the Mar-a-Lago, his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was very friendly and personable, and talked at length with me. We talked about the estate there. He was very proud of the beautiful home and grounds. The mansion originally consisted of 114 rooms and was later expanded to 126 rooms. It was built in 1927 by Marjorie Merriweather Post, of the Post cereal fortune.

Mr. Trump drew my attention to the arched gate in front of the home, of which he was especially proud, and which was once the front entrance to the estate, but is no longer used because it is not large enough to accommodate today’s automobiles.

Mr. Trump saw the Alabama tag on my truck and talked to me about Alabama football. He took me into a couple of rooms of the mansion.

Mr. Trump purchased 16 paintings from me. He wanted to negotiate the price of each one, which I resisted at first, but I decided that was his way of doing business. I really enjoyed our bantering back and forth. He was a tough but fair negotiator. I had several paintings by a particular artist that he especially liked but would not buy because, he said, they were too expensive for him.

It was my pleasure to meet Mr. Trump. I told him of my appreciation for him because I know of a case where he provided extreme generosity to someone in great need.

Debbie Deese, proprietor of Red’s Little School House restaurant in Montgomery County:

It was raining when I drove our school bus onto Mr. Ray Scott’s property in 1990w. Kinda cute using an old school bus for Red’s Little School House to cater out of, huh? We were instructed to set up the buffet line in a garage. There was a side door that led to a tent filled with tables and chairs for the guests.

I didn’t get to see President George H.W. Bush come through the line because I was running back and forth to the bus for refills. In the process, I dropped a ladle and it rolled under a work table. There is a rubber mat that runs down the center of the bus, and it was wet. As I was crawling around to get my ladle, I got two big black stains on my knees.

As we were cleaning up, Mr. Scott came to tell us he was bringing President Bush to meet us. Oh my, I looked so dirty! What would I say? I told myself to be polite and calm. (Very hard for me.) Another thought: there were issues with Israel at that time; dare I talk politics with him? The scriptures clearly say, woe to any nation against Israel. No matter what, I did not want to sound like the country bumpkin that I truly am. When they walked up, I had something like an out-of-body experience and I heard myself say, “me and my boy picked them collard greens yesterday.” Can’t take the country out of me!

Jim Strickling, formerly of Huntsville:

It was a beautiful day, that Saturday, May 18, 1963. And it was a special day. The President was coming to town. My children and I spent the morning at a neighborhood park enjoying the sunshine. It was there that I first mentioned to my 4 ½-year-old daughter, Katrina, that the president was coming to Huntsville that day. “President Kennedy?” she asked. “Yes,” I answered, “and if we go to see him, maybe he’ll give you his autograph.”

She seemed somewhat more excited than I had expected. Maybe she sensed his importance because she had seen him on television so often.

Somehow, we managed to get in the very front of the crowd, right against the retaining rope near the rostrum. As the hours passed, Katrina grew more anxious every minute we waited. With 10,000 people standing restlessly around, she realized more than ever that our visitor had to be somebody really special. At long last, a huge gleaming jet approached the nearby airstrip, and within minutes after that, the president of the United States was standing before us.

We wanted to make pictures, but how does one make pictures with an umbrella in one hand, two cameras in the other, and a small daughter around the neck being squeezed by 10,000 people?

I set Katrina down and attempted to stick my umbrella into the ground. It bent double; I guess it was time to buy a new one anyway. All this as a Secret Service Agent was yelling “Get that child out of here.” I got a shot of the rostrum, but a picture of Katrina with the president was out of the question.

It was a short speech, but impressively oriented toward a space-conscious city. When he finished speaking, the president turned to leave. The crowd stampeded toward him.

“President Kennedy didn’t sign my om-ga-lope (envelope),” Katrina wailed. I picked her up and bulldozed my way to the rear of the rostrum, where we managed to get between the president and his plane. After a few minutes of difficult maneuvering through the crowd, the president was within arm’s reach.

Thrusting her envelope before him, Katrina asked sweetly, “Mr. Kennedy, will you please sign my om-ga-lope?” He paused, looked at her, took it, signed it, and returned it.

“Thank you, Mr. Kennedy.”

Katrina’s om-ga-lope had now become a treasure. Guarding it carefully we eased through the crowd and made our way home.

Six months later, the whole world was stunned by an assassin’s bullet. For three solid days, Katrina watched the tragic proceedings on television with a continuing question in her little heart: “Why did he have to die? He was my friend.”


Strickling and his daughter would have another nice encounter with a future president not long after:

In 1965, I was transferred to California, where my job on NASA’s Apollo program continued. Ronald Reagan was soon campaigning for his first term as governor of California. Katrina and I went to see him when he made a campaign stop in nearby Santa Ana.

Mr. Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were gracious enough to pose for a picture with Katrina and give her his autograph.

John Barnett, Brewton and Monroeville:

I have had the pleasure of meeting both Bushes, and Jimmy Carter when he was governor of Georgia and beginning his run for the presidency.

I met President Carter at his son Chip’s wedding in Hawkinsville, Georgia, in the early 1970s. I was invited to come over by a girl I had dated. He was cordial and we did not speak very long but he told me to “take care of those pretty girls you are with.” I laughed and told him I would try.

The circumstance of meeting the elder Bush was somewhat unusual. I was attending business a meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., and George H.W. Bush was the keynote speaker. It was during the 2000 campaign for George W. Bush. After the dinner, the attendees could line up for a photo op with the former president, and we all got an autographed copy of his book.

When it was my turn for the photo, he was sitting down and appeared white as a sheet. I commented that it was a pleasure to meet him and that he did not look like he felt very well. He smiled and said, “Oh, I’ll be fine,” and I filed on out and went to my room. When I woke up the next morning the news reported that “former President Bush is resting comfortably at a local hospital,” which shocked me. It turns out he had been campaigning and was just exhausted from it all.

I was invited to sit at the Bedsole Foundation table when former President George W. Bush spoke at a University of Mobile function in 2010, and we had an opportunity for a photo with the president. I had seen Nelle Harper Lee that day, and I told him that she sent her regards. He asked, “Is she a friend of yours?” I said yes, she was. My grandfather and her father were law partners, and I was law partners with Miss Alice Lee, her sister, for many years.

He also told me that “Laura told me that if I was giving the Medal of Freedom to anyone it was going to be Harper Lee.” (Bush presented the award to Lee in 2007.)

Charles Patterson, Elkmont:

The morning of Oct. 15, 1984, was an exciting one for me. President Reagan was coming to Tuscaloosa to speak to the student body at the University of Alabama, so not only was I going to be able to see the president of the United States, but I didn’t have to go to classes that day.

When his speech at Memorial Coliseum (now Coleman Coliseum) ended, I decided to drive out to the airport to watch Air Force One take off. State troopers had the entrance to the airport blocked and wouldn’t let anyone in, so I turned around and headed to get some lunch before reporting to work at Battle’s Auto Parts.

I chose to eat at the McDonald’s in Northport so I could at least see the motorcade drive by on its way to the airport.

I went in and ordered my meal and sat down by a window. In a few minutes, I saw the motorcade making a left turn onto McFarland Boulevard off Bridge Avenue. As it started up the incline, it turned onto the access road alongside McFarland and then turned into the Wendy’s next door.

The motorcade circled Wendy’s and waved at everyone inside the Wendy’s and then came up the access road and turned into the McDonald’s.

I thought to myself that the motorcade was going to do the same thing and circle and wave at everyone then head to the airport. I stepped out on the sidewalk and waved to the president as his limousine went by. Just as I got seated at my tray, I noticed the motorcade had stopped.

About that time, one of President Reagan’s aides came into the McDonald’s and announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the president of the United States.”

President Reagan then walked in. He stopped at the door with the aide and they kind of huddled together and pointed at me.

President Reagan walked on up to the counter to place his order, and the aide came over to me. When he got to me he told me that the president had sent him over to ask me if I would have lunch with him. I said, “Sure. Just show me where to go.”

He asked me to bring my tray over to a table that they had chosen. I took my tray over and waited on the president. He came to the table a couple of minutes later.

I stood up, stuck out my hand and introduced myself to the president, and he said, “Charles, let’s eat.’’

I had a Big Mac and a fish sandwich, a large fry and a Dr. Pepper. He had a Big Mac, a large fry and an unsweet tea.

What was cool about the unsweet tea was that when he got to the table he reached into his pocket and he pulled out what looked like was an ink pen. He held it out over the tea and started clicking it, like you would click a fountain pen.

A white powder fell out into the tea. It was a sweetener. Someone said, “Oh, oh. It looks like our president is using a controlled substance.’’ And everyone got a big kick out of that. I had never seen one of those pens before and I haven’t seen one since.

As soon as we sat down, camera flashes started going off and reporters started asking a barrage of questions. There were news cameras pointed at us and microphones hanging over our heads.
I tried to be calm, but this was quite unnerving for a 23-year-old kid. I noticed at one point that when I dipped my fry into my ketchup, it was shaking as I put it into my mouth.

President Reagan was super nice. He wanted to know where I was from, how old I was, what I was majoring in at school. He talked some about Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Alabama football. He was a genuinely nice man. I have told people that it was almost like talking to your grandfather. He was easy to talk to.

While we were eating, one of his aides came up and said, “Mr. President, we need to leave.” The president told him to let him finish his hamburger. The aide left but came back just a few minutes later. He again said, “Mr. President, we have to be in Georgia so we need to leave.” President Reagan told him rather sternly, “I’m going to finish this hamburger.” The aide walked away.

The president then leaned over to me and said, “You see what I have to put up with?”

He then smiled. He seemed to be enjoying his hamburger. He told me that that was the first time he had eaten a hamburger in a McDonald’s since before he was governor of California.

As soon as he put the last bite of his hamburger into his mouth, the aide once again came up to him. “Mr. President …” was all he got out of his mouth. President Reagan said, “Here, take my fries and my tea and put them in the car.”

We stood up and shook hands again, and he spoke to others in the McDonald’s and headed to the limousine. I walked Sen. Jeremiah Denton to his car and he told me, “Son, you have made history today. You are the first person in history to eat lunch inside a fast food restaurant with a sitting president.”

That night I was on all three major network news shows. I taped them all. They are burned on CDs now. The next day, I was in newspapers from Maine to San Francisco. I got copies of all I could, and they are in a scrapbook in my home.

The next week, I was in Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report magazines.

I flew to Washington a few weeks later for a job interview. While in Washington, I left an 8-by-10 photo with a White House staff member.

President Reagan signed it and mailed it back to me. He also sent me an invitation to his inauguration. I have both the photo and the invitation hanging on a wall in my home.

Over the years, my lunch with President Reagan aired on HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News’’ and was also included in two documentaries, one on A&E and one on the History Channel.

The day President Reagan died, on June 5, 2004, I had four news crews at my home and I relived that lunch again.

What a day I had back on Oct. 15, 1984, at the McDonald’s in Northport.