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January Spotlight

Co-ops rural electrification trip to Bolivia rescheduled

Volunteers from five of Alabama’s rural electric cooperatives were originally scheduled to travel to Challapata, Bolivia, in the fall to bring power to about 60 households that have never had electricity.

Due to political unrest and uncertainty about potential transportation disruptions, executives with National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)’s international affiliate, NRECA International, decided to postpone the trip. 

The political and security situation is now stable, and the volunteers from Alabama are again getting ready to travel to the rural, mountainous area of southwest Bolivia. The team plans to leave in late January and return in early February. 

NRECA International works with cooperatives to bring electricity to people in developing countries, and has worked with the Alabama Rural Electric Association (AREA), which publishes Alabama Living, on this project. Look for more about the project in an upcoming issue.

RURAL Act passage will help electric cooperatives

The U.S. House passed the RURAL Act just before Christmas, protecting more than 900 electric cooperatives throughout the nation from the risk of losing their tax-exempt status when they accept government grants for disaster relief, broadband service and other programs that benefit co-op members.

 As of press time, the U.S. Senate was poised to pass the bill, and President Trump is expected to sign it into law.

 U.S. Reps. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, and Adrian Smith, R-Nebraska, were the lead sponsors of the RURAL Act, which had wide bipartisan support. Lawmakers passed the popular legislation in the final hours of the 2019 session as part of a larger tax and spending bill that funds the government through September 2020.

 “I serve communities across Alabama’s Black Belt that face persistent poverty,” Sewell said in an interview this fall with “They depend on these rural electric cooperatives for reliable electricity and broadband service, and they are particularly vulnerable to anything that would increase price. These are basic necessities.

 “The tax-exempt status of the co-ops really ensures that these families get the critical services that they need.”

 The bill’s passage fixes a problem created in 2017 when Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which redefined government grants to co-ops as income rather than capital. That change made it difficult for many co-ops to abide by the 15% limit on non-member income to keep their tax-exempt status. The RURAL Act once again exempts grants from being counted as income and is retroactive to the 2018 tax year.

 Without the fix, some co-ops would have had to start paying taxes this spring after receiving grants in 2018 or 2019 to repair storm damage, bring high-speed internet to rural communities or invest in renewable energy and energy-efficiency programs. Many co-op leaders feared they would have to raise rates for members to pay the new taxes.

Hunting, fishing had $3.2 billon impact in 2018, study says

Hunting and fishing in Alabama during 2018 had a $3.2 billion economic impact on the state, according to a report.

The Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association (ABBAA) shared that number and others at a recent news conference. Pam Swanner, director of ABBAA, said the report underscores the economic importance hunting and fishing has on Alabama’s economy, especially in rural Alabama’s Black Belt region.

The report, which Southeast Research compiled for ABBAA, found:

• Spending by sportsmen and women supports 73,553 jobs

• Salaries and wages: $1.1 billion

• State and local taxes generated: $185 million

• Contribution to Alabama Education Trust Fund: $84 million

• Total number of hunters: 535,000

• Total number of anglers: 683,000

• Hunters spent more than 14.3 million days hunting in Alabama

• Anglers spent close to 10.9 million days fishing in Alabama

• Alabama residents accounted for almost 91% of the total spending on hunting and fishing in the state.

Story courtesy of Alabama News Center

Take Alabama Living with you and you might win $25!

During 2020, we’re looking for photos of our readers with a copy of Alabama Living on their travels. Send us a photo of  yourself, or other family member, holding a copy of everyone’s favorite magazine while you’re on vacation. To give you an example, here’s Roland Hendon with his copy next to a vintage 1957 Ford while traveling in Havana, Cuba, last year. Hendon, who lives in Mentone, is a member of the board at Sand Mountain Electric Cooperative in Rainsville. 

Send your photo, name, address, location of the photo and your co-op name to: 

Deadline for the February issue is Jan. 8

Alabama Music Hall of Fame inductions set for January 25

Four Alabamians will be inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame on Jan. 25 at the Marriott Shoals in Florence. This year’s inductees are:

Gary Baker, songwriter, producer and bassist from Sheffield; Mervyn Warren, five-time Grammy Award winner from Huntsville; Elton B. Stephens, businessman born in Barbour County who was instrumental in the rebirth of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra; and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, Montgomery native and rhythm and blues musician. 

Induction is reserved for a select few Alabamians who have made exceptional musical contributions throughout their careers. The first induction was held in 1985 and occurs every other year. For more information, visit or call 256-381-4417.

From Alabama to Hollywood and back home

New generations are discovering tv and film actor Michael O’Neill

Photo by Jeff Rease.

By Alec Harvey

Had it not been for a speech that Michael O’Neill gave to his fraternity, he probably wouldn’t have been an actor.

He wouldn’t have been Special Agent Ron Butterfield on “The West Wing.” Or Sen. Mitchell Chapin in “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.” Or the mass shooter Gary Clark, perhaps the most memorable guest character ever on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Not to mention all the roles he’s played in movies such as “Seabiscuit,” “Transformers” and “Dallas Buyers Club.”

But after O’Neill, who was about to graduate from Auburn University with a degree in finance, delivered an address to a national Lambda Chi Alpha gathering in Muncie, Indiana, he got a call from a fellow fraternity member – Will Geer, who was one of TV’s biggest stars at the time, starring as Grandpa on “The Waltons.”

“I had just finished my last final and was well into a keg of beer,” O’Neill says with a chuckle. “He had heard the address. He said, ‘Son, I think you should try acting before the corporate structure snaps you up.’ I’ll never forget that. I got in my car two weeks later and drove to Hollywood.”

Working with Geer and his daughter, Ellen, at their Theatricum Botanicum, he’d soon learn that Geer didn’t single him out – “I must have heard him say the exact same thing 100 times to other people,” he says – but it didn’t matter. His trajectory was set, and it was going to be played out on stage and screen.

O’Neill plays Chaplain Kendricks in the critically acclaimed feature film, “Clemency,” which won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize. It opened in theaters Dec 27.
Photo courtesy of Neon

O’Neill toiled away for years, first in Los Angeles and then in New York, where he studied at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse, worked off- and off-off-Broadway and “did whatever I needed to keep body and soul together.” 

And then, 25 years after launching his unlikely career, the White House came calling. In 1999, O’Neill auditioned for “The West Wing,” a new series created by a young writing phenom named Aaron Sorkin, and it didn’t go well.

“You didn’t change Aaron Sorkin’s words, and I stumbled and messed up the audition,” O’Neill recalls. “Chris Misiano, the director, stepped in and said, ‘Oh, I gave you the wrong direction there,’ and he gave me another chance.”

That second chance would prove to be O’Neill’s big break. He made his debut as Special Agent Ron Butterfield in “Mr. Willis of Ohio,” the award-winning series’ sixth episode, and over the course of the next eight years, he’d appear in 15 more.

“I get recognized for it all the time,” O’Neill says. “New generations are discovering it now.”

O’Neill as Senator Mitchell Chapin in Season 2 of “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” which premiered Oct. 31 on Amazon Prime.
Photo by Sarah Shatz/Amazon Video

In 2010, O’Neill took on another role that viewers still remember, and it took its toll on the actor. In a four-episode arc on “Grey’s Anatomy,” he played a man seeking revenge for his wife’s death by going on a shooting rampage throughout the series’ Seattle Grace Hospital. In a memorable season finale, Clark confronted Patrick Dempsey’s Derek Shepherd.

“It was very difficult, and I needed some therapy after it,” O’Neill says. “It’s still painful.”

Moving back to the South

By that time, O’Neill had married, and he and his wife, Mary, an attorney and sister of actor Michael O’Keefe, were raising their three young daughters in Marina Del Rey, California.

“My wife turned to me in our kitchen one day and said, ‘We’re moving to Birmingham,” he recalls. “My career was at a pretty decent place, and my family was at a pretty decent place. We had chosen to homeschool our girls, and she said our girls were curious and wanted to go to school and there was nothing in California to suit them. Los Angeles is an image-driven city, and adolescent girls don’t need image-driven issues. We had dear friends in Birmingham that we visited a lot, so my girls knew it more than other cities.”

So eight years ago, the O’Neills packed up and moved to Mountain Brook. O’Neill, a Montgomery native who had grown up during the civil rights movement and didn’t have fond memories of his home state’s racial history, didn’t know what to expect, but he has been pleasantly surprised.

“It’s friendly and smart and I think progressive in some ways,” he says of Birmingham. “You have a lot of people in Birmingham who have repatriated there for the hospital industry, the banking industry, the restaurant industry. It’s a wonderful city.”

And their daughters have thrived. Their oldest, Ella, graduated summa cum laude from Auburn in December, and her father gave the commencement address. His younger twin daughters, Annie and Molly, are in school at Rhodes College and California Polytechnic State University.

Moving to Alabama didn’t mean O’Neill put his career on hold. “Sometimes I need to be in Los Angeles or New York,” he says. “I go for extended periods of time.”

The past year has been particularly busy, with O’Neill appearing in three feature films – “Clemency,” “The Stand at Paxton County” and “Indivisible” – and, among other series, the second season of “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” on Amazon.

Most recently, he has been in Savannah, Georgia, filming the first episodes of his new NBC series “Council of Dads,” which will premiere in March. Based on the book by Bruce Feiler, it’s about a young father, diagnosed with cancer, who puts together a group of six friends to help raise his daughters.

“I feel like I’ve been waiting on this one for 25 years,” O’Neill says. “It’s really, really powerful. I’ve done a lot of characters that have driven people apart, and this one may bring people together.” 

O’Neill has appeared in more than 100 TV series and movies, playing senators, FBI agents, fathers, chaplains, disturbed killers – a wide array of roles. “There are certain things I won’t play,” he says. “I won’t play a racist, and I won’t play a guy who hurts a child.”

“Council of Dads” has already joined a list of O’Neill’s favorite projects.

From left, the cast of “Council of Dads”:   August Richards as Dr. Oliver Post, Clive Standen as Anthony Lavelle, Michael O’Neill as Larry Mills. The NBC drama premieres in March. 
   Photo by Quantrell Colbert/NBC

“Clearly Butterfield in ‘The West Wing’ is a favorite of mine, and ‘Seabiscuit’ was really important to me because I had three small children at the time,” he says. “I loved ‘Transformers’ for a different reason – I had never done one of those big, big films, and it was just a lot of fun. ‘The Unit’ meant a lot to me, because of the proud tradition in the South of serving in the military.”

That array of roles means that O’Neill gets recognized often.

“There are a lot of ‘West Wing’ or ‘Seabiscuit’ or ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ fans,” he says. “My wife sees it more than I do. What happens a lot is that people confuse me for someone they know because I’ve been in their living rooms. There’s a lot of that.”

And that’s just fine with O’Neill, who might never have gone into acting at all save for that kind word from Will Geer.

“I never thought this would happen, and the only part that I envisioned was that it would be better for me late than early,” says O’Neill, who turned 68 last May. “That seems to be what’s happening now. It was a busy year, a really busy year, and I’m thankful. I’m grateful they’re letting the old guy run.”


Helping women grow family trees and legacies

Story and photos by Katie Jackson

Becky Barlow, professor of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences at Auburn and ACES forestry specialist, explains how to measure the diameter of a tree to members of a 2019 ForestHER class.

Family forestlands don’t just grow trees, they grow family legacies — inheritances that, if managed well, can be sustained for generations to come. 

What happens to those legacies, though, if family forestland is passed on, but forestland management know-how is not?

That’s been a puzzling question for generations of families, and it’s been particularly vexing for women who, all too often, inherit family land without the benefit of family land-management knowledge. Luckily, it’s one of many questions being answered by Alabama’s ForestHER program.

ForestHER is a woman-focused workshop series designed and led by Auburn University Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Professor Becky Barlow, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System forestry specialist who knows firsthand the challenges women forestland owners can face. 

While there are many experienced female land managers in the state, it’s quite common for women with little, if any, experience to be thrust into managerial roles. That’s because family land management has traditionally been under the purview of the menfolk, often leaving the womenfolk less, if at all, engaged in the process. 

Since women typically outlive men, that arrangement is — and always has been — problematic for the wives, daughters, sisters, mothers and female cousins who inherit responsibility for land, but not the knowledge or connections they need to carry on the land’s legacy. It can also be a problem for the growing number of women who are creating their own legacies by investing in forestland.   

ForestHER participants using clinometer, a device that allows foresters and forestland owners to measure tree heights without having to climb the trees.

These two groups are among the growing number of land-owning women in the U.S., which doubled from 11 percent of all landowners in 2006 to 22 percent in 2013 and continues to rise. Whether these women come into land management roles by choice or by chance, however, they all need networking and educational opportunities. Finding those opportunities and resources can be a challenge, especially for women who aren’t familiar with the lay of the land or feel out of place in a primarily male-dominated industry.

This need has spurred the creation of numerous woman-focused forest and woodland landowner programs across the country. Here in Alabama, where two-thirds of the state’s 23 million acres of forestland is family-owned, Barlow and her Extension colleagues recognized a similar need and created ForestHER, the idea for which sprang from Barlow’s own experience in her home state of Mississippi. 

“It started with my grandma,” Barlow says. Her grandmother, who owned long-held family land in Mississippi, was busy caring for her sick husband when a kind-seeming man befriended her. Before long, the gentleman offered to help Barlow’s grandmother make a little extra money by arranging the sale of timber from her family property. 

Barlow, who was working on a forestry degree at the time, cautioned her grandmother against the sale, but to no avail. “My grandma said, ‘No, no, he’s a good boy and he’s going to do me right,’” she recalls.  

He didn’t do Barlow’s grandmother “right.” Instead, he cut the timber indiscriminately, making a mess of the property and then making himself scarce. “We later found out he was a timber buyer who didn’t represent her; he represented the mill, but she didn’t know that,” Barlow says.

Providing hands-on training

According to Barlow, this is a common mistake made by forest landowners, both female and male, if they don’t know the true value of their land and trees or know how to negotiate timber sales. It’s one of many potential pitfalls that Barlow addresses in ForestHER workshops, the first of which was held near Birmingham in 2017.  

“We had no clue if anyone would show up,” Barlow said of that initial two-day session. However, nearly 30 women — and one very brave man — did come from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and as far away as Michigan to learn more about the basics of forest management.

 The workshop provided hands-on training in such vital forestry management skills as how to read a topo-map, use a compass, measure tree diameters and heights, estimate forest inventory and much more. It also included outside speakers ranging from consulting foresters to experts from USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service, the Alabama Forestry Commission and Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. 

According to Barlow, these speakers represent a crucial component of forest management. “Landowners usually have multiple objectives for their land, ranging from harvesting timber and hunting to environmental and historical preservation and more, so they need a team of people with a broad range of expertise to answer their questions.” 

Since that first workshop, Barlow has taken the forestry basics course to locations across the state. She has also expanded ForestHER programming to include shorter workshops focused on specific topics like tree thinning, controlled burning, wildlife and pond management, forest history and much more. 

Seeing the forest and the trees is a big part of the ForestHER program, but it is also a chance for forestland owners to connect with other women — and men — striving to better manage and sustain family forestland and family legacies.

While there are many experienced female land managers in the state, it’s quite common for women with little, if any, experience to be thrust into managerial roles.

ForestHER workshops not only build knowledge, they also help women refine their vision as landowners. Take Donna Kinstley, for example. Kinstley and her husband, Anthony, own and manage a 130-acre piece of land in Blount County. 

“As long as I can remember, we dreamed of having property outside the city,” Kinstley says. It took them a long time, and a lot of Sunday scouting drives, but they finally found and bought this property, located a little over an hour from their home in Hoover, in 2013. 

With help from such organizations as the ADCNR and the Alabama Forest Owners Association, the Kinstleys began making basic improvements to the property, which they use for hunting, outdoor education and as a spiritual retreat for family and friends. According to Kinstley, however, the huge turning point for their property came from her ForestHER workshop experience. 

“I had two big takeaways from that ForestHER workshop,” Kinstley says. “The first was, it inspired us to work with the Alabama Forestry Commission to create a working wildlife habitat management plan.” That plan has helped the Kinstleys gain Alabama TREASURE and Stewardship Forest certifications and also helped them refine and, in some cases refocus, their land management strategies. 

“The other thing is more intangible: to make the best of what we do have,” she continues. “We don’t have a lot of knowledge, money or even perfectly compliant land, but we can, and have, made improvements that are significantly impacting the wildlife as well as people who enjoy this property.”

According to Barlow, those kinds of takeaways, which are unique to each participant, are at the core of ForestHER. Its goal is to help participants envision the future of their land and give them the confidence to pursue that vision. Ultimately, that may mean Alabama’s female — and male — family forestland owners can grow not just trees, but family legacies.

To learn more about ForestHER and upcoming workshops, go to, contact your local Cooperative Extension office or email Barlow at

How electric vehicles will shape the future of driving

By Paul Wesslund

Predictors of future auto and energy forecasts say that by the end of this new decade, some versions of electric vehicles (EVs) could account for half of auto sales in the world. The trends that could lead to those projections include better battery technology and a rising interest in energy efficiency for buses, rideshare vehicles and even electric scooters.

EV sales jumped an incredible 75% from 2017 to 2018, according to the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, but by the end of 2018, EVs still only accounted for less than 2% of the overall vehicle market. 

But auto companies see those small numbers as an opportunity for growth. Around the world, they are investing $225 billion over the next three years to develop more EVs. Industry groups report that manufacturers are now offering more than 40 different models of EVs, a number expected to grow to more than 200 over the next two years. An analysis by the J.P. Morgan investment firm sees traditional internal combustion engine vehicles falling from a 70% share of the market in 2025 to just 40% by 2030.

The efficiency of electricity

What’s powering those predictions is the worldwide interest in the related desires for less pollution, higher efficiency and greater economy. A study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) concludes that electricity produces less greenhouse gases than other forms of energy, especially with the increasing use of renewable power sources to generate electricity. The ACEEE study cites transportation as a sector of the economy that could produce the biggest gains in energy efficiency, mainly due to a shift toward EVs. The study says, “Electric vehicles are generally more efficient and have lower emissions than gasoline or diesel internal combustion engine vehicles. Thus, operating costs are typically lower for electric vehicles.”

While efficiency and environmental concerns provide reasons for EV growth, it also helps that they’re getting cheaper. A lot cheaper. One of the biggest costs of an EV is the battery, and fierce competition is driving down prices. The incentives for researchers and manufacturers to lower costs have reduced battery prices about 15% a year for the past 20 years. As a result, the cost of the battery has dropped from more than half the cost of an EV four years ago, to one-third today, and is expected to be down to about one-fifth the cost by 2025, according to the research firm BloombergNEF.

Electric buses, scooter and ride sharing

As battery prices drop, they get better. In the case of a battery, better means they last longer, which addresses one of the biggest roadblocks to more people buying EVs. 

There’s a term for the concern that an EV battery will run out before you’re done driving for the day—range anxiety. 

But batteries can now provide a range of 200 miles before needing a recharge, well above the 40 miles a day that most people drive, even in rural areas. 

Which brings up another roadblock to EVs—how you charge them. One easy place to charge an EV would be in your garage overnight, and your local electric co-op can help you with advice on how to do that. There are different ways to charge your car, from a standard outlet, which takes longer, to higher-voltage techniques that might require an upgrade your co-op can help with.

Electric co-ops around the country are also helping to install charging stations around the country—another factor people will want available before buying an EV. That number is growing as well. The Department of Energy reports that in the past two years, the number of EV charging stations in the U.S. has increased from 16,000 to 22,000.

Experts expect some of the strongest growth of electric transportation to come in specialized uses that could expand to wider acceptance. Bloomberg expects that by 2040, 81% of municipal bus sales will be electric. Ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber are another expected market. More than a billion people around the world use ridesharing services and the stop-and-go nature of rideshare driving could make the greater efficiency of EVs attractive to those drivers. New technology also brings unexpected uses. One industry writer says a new electric scooter with a range of 75 miles and a top speed of 15 miles per hour could change what we think of as a vehicle.

As the Bloomberg study concludes, “Electrification will still take time because the global fleet changes over slowly, but once it gets rolling in the 2020s, it starts to spread to many other areas of road transport. We see a real possibility that global sales of conventional passenger cars have already passed their peak.”

Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.

Pet Health | Taking a look at the cancer trilogy: Prevalence, cause and prevention

First of all, Happy New Year! Now to continue with our discussion on cancer in our pets. Previously, I’d talked about the prevalence and causes of cancer. As this is not a scientific article, I will keep it simple, but let’s focus on cancer prevention. 

• Avoid cancer prone breeds. This is not to say that mixed-breed dogs do not get cancer; they do, but why stack the odds against us? 

• Spay and neuter your pets at the proper time. This will eliminate chances of testicular cancer and greatly reduce chances of breast cancer. 

• Keep your cats indoors. This eliminates the chance of them fighting with a cat that is positive for feline leukemia. The transmitted virus can cause cancer in cats.

• Reduce the number of chemicals in your life. The best deodorizer for your home is the open window (unless you live next to a chicken house!) Avoid plug-ins, scented candles, chemical cleaners, dryer sheets, etc. 

• Avoid smoking, especially indoors. This can increase the chances of nasal cancer in dogs and lymphoma in cats. 

• We know that in humans, processed meat increases the chances of cancer. Avoid giving your pets processed meat. 

• We think it’s best if you can cook for your pet, but that may not be practical for most people. An easier idea would be to add cancer-preventing veggies and fruits like steamed or sautéed broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and fresh blueberries and apples to existing dog food. We make that in a slow cooker and freeze away in yogurt containers. If you’d like more guidelines, email me. Choosing the “best” off-the-shelf pet food is a challenging task to say the least! We intend to tackle that in a future issue.

• If you are one of the rare and brave few who cooks for your pet, here comes a controversial suggestion! Avoid animal products as much as possible! In our case, we cook organic vegetarian meals for our dogs. We have to use meat for our cats, though, as they are obligate carnivores. Consult with your veterinarian on how to make a balanced meal. 

• This last point may be one of the most important. Keep your pet skinny. Obesity is second only to smoking as the biggest preventable cause of cancer in the U.S. Clients are always asking how much their dog should weigh. It’s not just the pounds, it’s the shape of the pounds. We should be able to see their ribs when they are turning and stretching their sides. We should not be able to see their ribs when they are standing straight; that is too skinny.

Before we part, one more thing. Two years ago, I started writing this column with the hope of bettering the lives of dogs and cats around us. My great lamentation is that people who read my articles probably do not need to read them and people who need to read my articles probably do not read them. 

If you are reading this article, you probably do not have an unprotected animal outside in the cold. Please keep an eye out for dogs and cats who are left outside without proper protection in this cold. Spread the word. If you can afford to, please help out your neighbor with a shelter for their dog!

Carrying King’s legacy forward

Through her position as tour director at the historic Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in downtown Montgomery, Wanda Battle has the unique opportunity to share the message and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who pastored there from 1954 to 1960. It is a responsibility she takes seriously, and her talks are informative and full of history; but her tours are also engaging and enjoyable and begin (and end) with hugs and selfies. Her energy, joyful personality and love for people is infectious and undeniable. – Allison Law

You grew up in Montgomery?

I absolutely did. I was born Sept. 11, 1956, so I was born two months before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional in Alabama. This was toward the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. My parents worked in the boycott, and (my family) has always been active in the civil and human rights movement. 

In 1965, when I was 9, I remember very clearly the Selma to Montgomery march. I wasn’t old enough to be in the march. But I remember March 24, 1965, when all the celebrities – Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Leonard Bernstein – played at the Stars for Freedom rally at St. Jude (which helped encourage the marchers to continue their journey toward the Capitol).

I remember, a white guy put me on his shoulders so I could see the concert! I can still envision what that looked like, up on his shoulders, watching all of those stars. The atmosphere that night was so magnetic. It was so much energy, a momentum that could not be stopped.

When Dr. King was killed April 4, 1968, my mother moved us away to Atlanta in August of that year. I completed high school (there) and graduated from Spelman College in 1977.

When did you come back to Montgomery?

In December 1994. My third husband got me back home, and he passed away 8 months after we got here.  I understand (now) why God had him to bring me back home. For such a time as this, this work that I’m doing here at Dexter, it’s like the answer to all of the challenges and all of the journey getting here. 

Talk about your work at Dexter.

I have such a rare opportunity here in this position as tour director and a tour guide here at this church, which represents humanity of all people and respect, and affirmation of every diversity of person, and to honor and value what everybody brings to the table. This place represents that. It’s like God put me here. … The nonviolent movement of love and unity still continues. But it’s not about being in a protest with a sign. It’s about a lifestyle, it’s how we live every day, with the people in our homes, how we treat people in the community. How do we think about people of different diversities. It challenges all of us to be better, or to try to want to be better, if we choose to.

Please understand, I said the word “choose.” Every day, every one of us are choosing how to live this life with one another. I choose to love, forgive, be kind. I choose to be joyful.

You relate so well to children and young people. How do you do that?

Whenever I have children around me, I go into kids’ world. I go where they are. That’s another gift God has given me, the gift of teaching. Almost everybody in my family has the gift of teaching. We love sharing information and making it relatable. I’ve always had a creative mind when it comes to teaching children. I sing songs, or I engage them, to ask them questions about things to see what they know.

That singing is a hallmark of your tours.

I started singing on the tours because during the civil rights movement, prayer and singing were essential to Dr. King’s leadership. Whatever he did, he was going to pray and he was going to sing freedom songs. I started trying to bring some of that experience to visitors. But also, it gives them a sense of, where are we taking this love? This movement that represented love and struggle and victory and sacrifice. What do we do with it?

Does it ever get old, doing these tours?

(Philosopher and activist) Cornel West said it two years ago when he came here to speak at Auburn. He said “to do this work, you’ve got to pour it all out. You can’t leave anything left.” Many nights we go home, and we are so tired. Because when you are laboring doing spiritual work – it’s called tourism ministry here at Dexter – when we get home, it’s like physically we feel tired. But in the spirit, it never gets old.

What happens every day is nothing short of miracles, of meeting all of the wonderful people and the interactions that are so diverse and varied. That’s why I take so many photographs!

Worth the Drive | Green Leaf Grill: chef keeps things simple, fresh and local

Story and photos by Liz Young

Mentone’s beloved local chef Jimmy Rogers on the front porch of the Green Leaf Grill.

Jimmy Rogers grew up in a family that spent most of their time in the kitchen cooking great fresh food. “Dad and I would dream up new recipes all the time,” says Rogers, and the typical feast included the harshest of food critics made up of grandparents, aunts and uncles. It was their opinion that mattered most and trained Rogers in cooking the best food possible.

Growing up on nearby Sand Mountain, Rogers spent a good deal of time in Little River Canyon and Mentone. Returning to the area for a high school reunion renewed his appreciation for the beauty of the area. “I was pleasantly surprised that Mentone had remained as I remembered — serene, natural — like time stood still.” Then the perfect opportunity presented itself for Rogers to move back to the area, bringing with him his signature down-home style food.

“I wanted to show Mentone what I learned about serving great food: fresh and simple.” He partnered with the owner of Green Leaf Grill and fell right into place in the small town with a population of just over 300 residents.

Green Leaf’s Bama Grown Fried Catfish Sandwich was named best sandwich in the state of Alabama by People magazine.

Green Leaf Grill, named for the natural refreshing surroundings, is located in the Log Cabin Craft Village on the main drag in Mentone, the quirky, artsy town atop Lookout Mountain in the foothills of the Appalachians in northeast Alabama. 

Built in the 1800s — and originally an American Indian trading post — the log cabin that is Green Leaf Grill maintains its naturally rustic charm with a nod to a past unchanged over time.  Rogers is known as a “famed local cook” with a huge following who serves up authentic Southern fare at a more-than-reasonable price. 

“We enjoy being able to offer a simple bowl of pinto beans and cornbread for $2.95 as well as the higher-end $28 Fresh Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes made from Alabama wild caught jumbo lump crab meat when in season,” says Rogers. Starting with a hand-written menu, Rogers “put it all out there” for his customers to decide on what to include on the final printed version. And decide they did. If you poll visitors, you’ll immediately start a serious discussion over what to order.

Included on that must-order list are BLTs, fried green tomatoes, the Greek pork chop and the cheeseburger, to name a few. But hands-down, the catfish tops the charts. Green Leaf serves its farm-fresh catfish three ways — Southern fried, blackened or grilled — techniques that named Rogers’ catfish as Bama’s Best Catfish in 2018, a contest sponsored by the Alabama Catfish Producers that included over 200 entries.

A staple side-item, the fried green tomatoes are high on the list of “do not miss” recommendations.

“It was an honor to be a finalist, but winning is just a dream come true,” says Rogers. “I was born and raised eating catfish. It’s always been on my menu, and it’s our best-seller.”

And the awards keep rolling in. In 2019 Green Leaf Grill was named Best Restaurant in DeKalb County.  In a recent issue, People magazine listed the Green Leaf’s Bama Grown Fried Catfish Sandwich — served on sourdough bread with tartar sauce, lettuce and tomato — as the best sandwich in the state of Alabama. “We take pride in offering well-prepared traditional American comfort food that brings folks back,” Rogers says.

Rogers maintains a cozy atmosphere in the historic log cabin by keeping the fires spiked on a chilly day.

Speaking of bringing folks back, Rogers reports that at any given time, not only do you find a good number of locals, but visitors drop in from all over the world. He is constantly amazed at the “variety of people our little town attracts” and as an example tells of a diner from Redding, Calif., who shook Rogers’ hand upon leaving, thanked him for his meal and said that was the best trout he had ever eaten. “That’s Rainbow Trout fresh from North Carolina,” Rogers told him, thrilled that yet another customer made the trip to Green Leaf and was pleased with his find. Reportedly the Rainbow Trout is a close contender to the top-spot catfish. 

Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday and during the day on Sunday, Green Leaf — a member of Sand Mountain Electric Cooperative — serves guests outside on the dog-friendly porch with a shaded view of the local shops, or inside where diners can enjoy the coziness of a traditional log cabin. Rogers keeps four fireplaces stoked during the cooler months. Drinks — family-friendly in a non-alcoholic way — are served in Mason jars.

Fresh from North Carolina, Rogers’ Rainbow Trout is a customer favorite.

And within the tight-knit eclectic community of Mentone, Rogers is somewhat of a hero. Firemen and policemen — regardless of where they serve — always get a 20 percent discount. Veterans eat free on Veterans Day, as well as the widows of veterans. 

When asked about the typical high-stress life of a chef, Rogers maintains that the rewards far outweigh the challenges of running a busy restaurant six days a week. “It makes me happy to see folks enjoy a meal made as fresh and as local as I can get it. Seeing smiles on customers’ faces when they take that first bite — that’s what it’s all about.”

And with a wink Rogers added, “And honestly, this is my social life. My customers are my connection. I wouldn’t live life any other way.” No doubt that an outing to Green Leaf Grill might just make you a friend of Jimmy Rogers for life.

Crockin’ it | Home cooks show off Crock Pot skills

Margaret Goins of Montgomery got an extra special birthday present this year.

Goins won first place in Alabama Living’s annual “Crockin’ It” cooking contest at the Alabama National Fair last fall. The competition just so happened to fall on her birthday.

The judges loved her Crock Pot Pecan Pie recipe, which features Alaga syrup (one of the rules of the contest is that each recipe must feature at least one Alabama-made ingredient).

Goins has been entering cooking contests at the Fair since 2004, and each year she enters nearly all the contests held at the Creative Living Center. She says she has a wall in her home that’s full of ribbons, and the last time she counted she was up to 53.

From left: The “Crockin’ It” contest third-place winner Felicia Moore; Lenore Vickrey, editor of Alabama Living magazine; second-place winner Tif Smith; Deborah Paul, director of the Creative Living Center; first-place winner Margaret Goins; and Huey Thornton, 2019 Alabama National Fair president.
Photo by Allison Law

She’d heard a friend talk some time ago about a Crock Pot dessert and decided to try one this year. (Desserts aren’t new to the competition; in fact, the 2016 winning dish was called Rocky Road Dessert.)

Goins says she plans basically all year for the recipes she’ll enter in the fair competitions, since she enters so many. “I’ve got plenty of testers around,” she says. No doubt that makes her friends and family happy! – Allison Law

1st Place: Margaret Goins, Montgomery

Crock Pot Pecan Pie

1 uncooked pie crust

3 eggs

1 cup sugar

2/3 cup Alaga dark syrup

1 cup chopped pecans

1/2 cup margarine, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla

Spray Crock Pot with nonstick cooking spray. Place pie crust in Crock Pot and press the edges about a half-inch up the sides of the pot. In a mixing bowl, stir the remaining ingredients until well mixed. Pour on top of the pie crust. Cover and cook on high for 2-3 hours.

2nd Place: Tif Smith, Montgomery

Slow Cooker Oxtail Stew

4 pounds oxtail

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

2 medium leeks, sliced white and light green parts only

1 onion, chopped

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 cup red wine

1 can stewed tomatoes

5 tablespoons tomato paste

3 cups beef stock

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 bay leaves

4 medium carrots, sliced

2 sticks celery, diced

4 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 cup frozen peas

1 can corn

8 shakes Alaga hot sauce

¼ cup Alaga dark syrup

Freshly chopped parsley to garnish

Clean the oxtail by rinsing them and let them sit in water with the apple cider vinegar for about 30 minutes. Take out of water and let drain, then run them under water again.

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper the oxtail and add to the skillet and sear on each side for 2-3 minutes. Transfer beef to the slow cooker. Add leeks, onion, garlic, red wine, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, 3 cups beef stock, Worcestershire sauce, thyme, rosemary and bay leaves. Cover and cook on low for 4 to 6 hours or high for 2 to 3 hours or until the meat falls off the bone. Strip the meat from the bones and discard bones and any excess fat. Add carrots, celery and potatoes. Cover and cook on high for 3 hours or until the vegetables are fork-tender. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. 

In a small bowl, whisk together flour and 1/2 cup stew broth. Stir flour mixture into the slow cooker along with the frozen peas, corn, hot sauce and syrup. Cover and cook on high heat for an additional 30 minutes or until thickened. Serve immediately with parsley garnish.

3rd Place: Felicia Moore, Hope Hull

Slow Cooker Oxtail Stew

2 racks pork ribs

Salt and pepper

1 13-ounce jar apricot preserves

1 cup ketchup

½ cup yellow mustard

½ cup soy sauce

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 canned chipotle peppers in adobo, finely chopped

Alaga hot sauce, to taste

3 tablespoons corn starch

Cut the ribs into two rib pieces, season with salt and pepper and put in the slow cooker. In a bowl, mix the preserves, ketchup, mustard, soy sauce, garlic, chipotle peppers and hot sauce. Pour over the ribs. Cook on low for 6 to 8 hours or 3 to 4 hours on high. When the ribs are cooked, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove ribs from the slow cooker to an oven pan. Remove the meat juices to a skillet on medium heat; add corn starch and cook until thickened. Brush the ribs with the sauce every 10-15 minutes, until the ribs are glazed and sticky, about 45 minutes. Serve with extra sauce.

What’s in a Name?

Most of us use “slow cooker” and “Crock Pot” interchangeably, but not all slow cookers are Crock Pots; it is the brand name of the first slow cooker on the market. Invented in the 1940s and first introduced in the 1950s under another name, it became the Crock Pot when the company Rival bought the invention and re-introduced it in the 1970s. Crock Pots proved instantly popular, but then, in the 1980s, sales waned when microwaves became the latest kitchen rage. Now they’re back in style. In the last decade, all brands of slow cookers have enjoyed a surge in sales. Some figures state an increase in overall sales of more than 65 percent since 2008.

—Jennifer Kornegay

Social Security benefits increase in 2020

Social Security Cards for identification and retirment USA

Each year, we announce the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). By law, federal benefits increase when the cost of living rises, as measured by the Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). Usually, there is an increase in the benefit amount people will receive each month, starting the following January.

Nearly 69 million Americans will see a 1.6 percent increase in their Social Security benefits and SSI payments in 2020. 

Other changes that will happen in January 2020 reflect the increase in the national average wage index. For example, the maximum amount of earnings subject to Social Security payroll tax will increase to $137,700 from $132,900. The earnings limit for workers who are younger than “full” retirement age (age 66 for people born in 1943 through 1954) will increase to $18,240. (We deduct $1 from benefits for each $2 earned over $18,240.)

The earnings limit for people turning 66 in 2020 will increase to $48,600. (We deduct $1 from benefits for each $3 earned over $48,600 until the month the worker turns age 66.)

In December 2019, we posted Social Security COLA notices online for retirement, survivors, and disability beneficiaries who have a my Social Security account. You will be able to view and save future COLA notices via the Message Center inside my Social Security. 

You can log in to or sign up for a my Social Security account today at to get more information about your new benefit amount. You can choose to receive an electronic notification by email, text, or both ways under “Message Center Preferences.” Our notification will let you know that a new message is waiting for you. We will not send any personal information in the notification. The Message Center also allows you to go paperless by opting out of receiving agency notices by mail that you can get online, including annual cost-of-living adjustments and the income-related monthly adjustment amount increases. The Message Center is a secure portal where you can conveniently receive sensitive communications that we don’t send through email or text.

More information about the 2020 COLA is available at

Cultivating your garden’s story: Think character, setting and plot

Every garden has a story. Each gardener helps write that story, one chapter at a time. 

I know this because, after more than four decades of tinkering in and writing about gardens, I have observed one universal truth: Gardens don’t just grow plants, they grow stories.

Think about it. No matter its age, size, style or purpose, every garden has a backstory, and, regardless of their horticultural skills or intentions, everyone who tends a garden shapes its narrative. 

  I’m not alone is noticing this connection, either. As Eudora Welty once said, “Gardening is akin to writing stories. No experience could have taught me more about grief or flowers, about achieving survival by going, your fingers in the ground, the limit of physical exhaustion.” 

With that in mind, here’s an idea to get this new gardening year (and decade) off to a storied start: Be the author of your garden’s story, even if it’s just one chapter in a never-ending story. 

And whether your garden’s story is rooted in just-the-facts history or in imagination-run-wild whimsy, you can create or influence its arc by focusing on three essential story-crafting elements: character, setting and plot.   

Start by making a list of all the characters that play a role in your garden. The humans, wildlife, pets, plants and even the structures, physical features or microclimates that inhabit or impact your garden will be your story’s heroes, villains or bit players. 

The setting, of course, is the place where your story occurs, so describe your garden as it exists in the present — its size, terrain, plants, soils, landmarks, temperature ranges, lighting, view and the like. You may also want to describe the way it looked in the past, especially if you’re writing a garden history, but you definitely want to describe how you hope the setting will change as your story progresses. 

The plot (as in plotline, not garden plot) is the general premise of your garden’s story, the structure that outlines the story’s arc and timeline from beginning to middle to end.  It’s also the place to establish two other vital parts of any good story structure — conflict and resolution. Figure out what problem needs to be solved and how your characters will resolve it.

If all this seems daunting, don’t succumb to gardener’s block. Just start filling up a page with your dreams, concerns and ideas. Whether your “page” is a cocktail napkin, notebook, computer file or a mobile device app, the important thing is to collect concepts, images, aspirations, inspirations or even random thoughts into one central, easily accessible location. 

Need inspiration for your garden story? Take a stroll through a public garden, the woods or around your neighborhood, or browse through books, catalogues, magazines and websites for ideas. If you need further inspiration or structure for your ideas, consider focusing on a specific theme for all or part of your garden story and use that theme to influence your setting and characters (choice of design, plants, containers, accents and garden art). 

And always remember this writing truth — everything is material!

Garden story prompts

Need a prompt for your garden story? Here are a few themes that may trigger your imagination and can influence choice of plants, design, accents and other garden elements.

  • The Bard: focus on Shakespeare’s stories or his era
  • Wild Things: focus on wildflowers and wildlife, including pollinators and beneficial insects
  • Story Time: focus on a beloved book or tale
  • Good Sporting: focus on specific foods and drinks such as pizza, salad, tea or lemonade
  • Kids’ Play: focus on educational or imagination or imagination-provoking topics like alphabets, numbers, dinosaurs, fairies and zoo animals

January Tips

  • Start a new garden journal and revisit last year’s notes.
  • Order seeds and bulbs for spring planting.
  • Plant bare-root trees and shrubs.
  • Water newly planted trees and shrubs and other established plants if winter rainfall is scarce.
  • Prune most trees and shrubs except early spring bloomers such as forsythia and quince.
  • Start seed for early early spring crops.
  • Plants hardy, cold-tolerant vegetables and cool-season flowers such as pan sleds and snapdragons.
  • Keep bird feeders and baths clean and full.
  • Pullweeds as they emerge.
  • Add compost and other amendments to garden beds.
  • Sign up for gardening classes or Master Gardener programs.