Navigate / search

Rolling billboards

By Emmet Burnett

There was a time when automobile tags were little more than car-displayed registration information, basically metallic oatmeal with digits. You’ve come a long way, baby. The humble car tag is now as unique as its Alabama driver.

Officially, the state classification is “distinctive plates.” Each is an artistic canvas, supporting a cause, stating beliefs, or singing to the heavens, “I Gotta Be Me.”

Currently, approximately 140 tag types are available, including those expressing love for ducks, playing tennis, supporting the arts, and pledging allegiance to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Categories include: 44 specialty license plates (honoring nurses, barbers, wildlife, etc.), 27 collegiate, 26 military-related, 18 generic specialty plates, and 15 generic (automobile) race plates.

Another popular feature with Alabama car owners are personal messages, letter-number combinations spelling out unique and creative communication – sometimes too creative.

“I have to give them credit, we receive some interesting (sometimes hilarious) personalized tag requests,” says Jay Starling, director of the Alabama Department of Revenue’s Motor Vehicle Division. His agency holds the auto tag program in the road.

“We review hundreds of requests, daily,” Starling says. “It is amazing the creativity Alabamians have in stringing number and letter combinations for messages.” It is also amazing what some people try to get away with.

In the never ending battle against dirty words on metal rectangles, proposed car tag messages are computer scrutinized. “Our program looks for symbols, letters, numbers, or combinations that may be objectionable,” he says. Additionally, screeners check urban dictionaries, the internet, and other sources for updates on potentially offensive phrases or words.

Any letter-number string with the letters ‘F’ and ‘U’ are carefully examined. Messages are turned sideways and upside down. Occasionally, when viewed from different angles, naughty names are detected. Nice try.

But try as they may to catch offenders, some slip by and hit the streets. One Auburn University tag sported a message to Alabama football’s Nick Saban, suggesting the coach do something that defied human anatomy. The tag is no longer on the road.

“Even if originally approved, a message can be recalled,” Starling says. “We will offer a chance to replace the message (at no charge), or you can appeal our decision.” But if the state wins, the message can be revoked.

For the most part, specialty tags are a win-win for everybody. One typically costs about $50, in addition to all applicable automobile registration fees. The state receives a small portion of the 50 bucks. The tag sponsor receives about $45-$47.

“It is a drive around billboard,” says Jennifer Crozier, executive director of The U.S. Space and Rocket Center Foundation in Huntsville. Since 2003, the center’s “Save the Saturn V” specialty plate sales total 36,391. “Of the $50, we receive $41.25,” Crozier says. “The money funds our Saturn V museum exhibits.”

Tag sales are impressive for Huntsville’s space center, and out of this world for two prominent colleges. In 2015, The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa campus, sold 103,321 plates, followed by Auburn University at 68,067.

Other state contenders include firefighters at 39,921; the Alabama Wildlife Federation with 19,643; and Fight Breast Cancer, 17,244. But the most popular requested customized vehicle tag, with a whopping 1,168,000 orders, proclaims “God Bless America.”

Larger sponsors enjoy decent profits, where smaller groups go more for publicity. “We applied for tag sponsorship to advertise our group,” says Elaine Wheeler, President of Alabama Square and Round Dancers Association in Odenville, Ala. “We haven’t made much money, but people see the tag and ask about us.”

Most tags are available to the general public, but others have stipulations, such as the “Pearl Harbor survivor” plate, only available to such survivors. Last year 25 were sold.

But it does not necessarily mean 25 Pearl Harbor survivors, now in their 90s, are driving. These brave men survived a Japanese air attack. They should not tempt fate on a Birmingham freeway.

“Alabama does not require a driver’s license to own and register a vehicle,” Starling says. “But he-she must be a living survivor of Pearl Harbor to buy the tag and it is not transferable.” Other tags, especially military ones, have similar stipulations.

“We do not have data on how our sales compare with other states,” says Starling, “but I believe Alabama has more varieties, and I suspect we sell more.” Reasons for purchase are as varied as the tags. “Many are passionate about the cause,” notes the director. “But we see people order plates because the colors match their car.”

Plate sponsors meet rigid state guidelines as well. From a good idea to a Buick’s back bumper is a long journey. Most themes go before the Alabama Legislative Oversight Committee on License Plates (LOC). Candidates cannot submit tag ideas promoting or advertising private businesses or business organizations, certain types of schools, unions, political and religious organizations, groups that promote racial or social disharmony, public officials, and other standards.

In addition, the tag must be for an organization or cause that benefits the entire state, and money raised cannot pay salaries.

Specialty messages must be original, not duplicated, and that can be a problem. “Everyone competes to be first for a new message,” notes Starling. Having said that, here’s a tip: ‘Roll Tide’ is taken. Try again.

After all requirements are met, a prototype made, and everyone’s signed off, the order is placed with the Alabama Department of Corrections. Holman Prison in Atmore “is literally a manufacturing warehouse, within a state prison,” says Alabama Correctional Industries Director Andy Farquhar. “We look at last year’s orders to determine demand for this year’s.”

The end product is an automobile registration record, recorded in metal and a work of art. It is a rare example of a state tax that participants volunteer and gladly pay for.

More detailed information on tag varieties, ordering, and requirements is available at the Alabama Department of Revenue, Motor Vehicle Division website:


Runway to success

By Jennifer Kornegay

Alabama designers make their mark in the fashion world.

All through its history, Alabama has produced an abundance of artists. Our state’s rural landscapes, city streets, past, present and potential have inspired painters, photographers, writers, musicians and craftsmen to share ideas and weave stories in color, words, melodies and other materials.

So it should come as no surprise that within Alabama’s borders there are quite a few artists who express themselves with wearable works, a.k.a. fashion designers. And they range from the famous looks of Natalie Chanin and Billy Reid to brand new up-and-comers whose names could soon be hanging in your closet.

Say “yes” to these dresses

Heidi Elnora Baker

Today, Heidi Elnora Baker is the creative force behind one of the most sought-after labels in wedding gowns – heidi elnora – and she’s living a dream she’s harbored since childhood. From dressing up in her grandma’s clothes as a youngster and sketching her own styles as a teen to buying her first sewing machine with high school graduation money, she’s always known she wanted to work in fashion.

But how she was going to make it from her tiny rural hometown of Morris, Ala., into the fashion industry was something she wasn’t as sure of. As she was nearing graduation from Central Alabama Community College, she found herself at a crossroads.

“I was there on a softball scholarship,” she says. “And I didn’t know what I was going to do next. Money for moving forward to study fashion was an issue.” A full scholarship to the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design provided the answer and a hands-on education in the basics like sketching, sewing and pattern making.

“That’s where it all took off,” she says.

Heidi Elnora Baker has created some of the most sought-after designs in wedding gowns today.

When she graduated in 2002, she went to Atlanta to work for Carter’s designing baby clothes, where she stayed for four years. While there, she was chosen to be on the Bravo TV show “Project Runway.” After an accident brought her back home to Alabama to recover, she met a boy, fell in love and ended up marrying him and staying in her home state.

She was enjoying nuptial bliss, but not her job.

“We got married, and I was answering phones at his family’s roofing company and realized, ‘Wait. This is not what I want to do,’” she says. “I decided I wanted to design and make wedding gowns, and I contacted this non-profit called Central Alabama Women’s Business Organization and told them my vision.”

The group, which is no longer around, helped Heidi craft a business plan, which got her a loan, and at age 26 she made a dress from scratch for her first bride. She hired the head pattern maker at Carter’s to help her, and her company has continued to grow. Nordstrom picked up her line in 2011.

Her reality show “Bride by Design” aired on TLC in 2015, and she is in talks for another project with the network. Her gowns are in stores across the country and as far away as London.

But her business is still based in Alabama, in Birmingham, where she recently opened her first heidi elnora Atelier boutique in a renovated historic building downtown. It’s the spot where brides from all over come to choose from Heidi’s three distinct wedding dress lines to find what they’ll wear on one of the most special days of their lives.

And that’s what Heidi really loves about what she does – being a part of such meaningful moments.

“I love making women feel empowered and beautiful in their own skin, and I think the most beautiful any woman feels is on her wedding day,” she says. “Getting to be a part of that day and journey is humbling and amazing to me.”

Two to watch

Megan Dean

Dothan born and bred Megan Dean was raised in a creative family environment where art was pushed as a valuable endeavor. Her grandmother taught her to draw and then to sew. She made her first dress at age 13 and discovered it was its own form of artistic articulation.

After studying apparel design at the University of Alabama, and transferring to Auburn to major in business, she ended up working in a bank. It didn’t take long for her to make the move back to fashion, and she started with a longtime hobby.

“Textiles have always been my first love when it comes to fashion. My mom and I have collected vintage fabrics for years, so I decided to open a fabric store in downtown Dothan in 2012,” she says.

Megan Dean’s fashions (far left) have a bohemian look. Photo by Dury Shamsi-Basha

Sales at the store were slow, but the experience rekindled Megan’s interest in finding beautiful fabrics and shaping them into clothes. She made herself a few pairs of high-waisted, wide-legged pants using bold ikat prints, and suddenly, everyone else wanted a pair too.

She closed the shop and focused on selling her soft, flowing pants at markets and shows. She had enough success to create an entire line of clothing and show it at New Orleans fashion week in 2016, and she just launched her new Megan Dean line at a show in Birmingham in April.

“My clothes have a very high-street bohemian look, in silks and 100-percent cottons that I source from the South,” she says. “I try to keep everything local as possible.”

Sustainability is key to Megan too, so her cottons are also organic. She’s even developed her own colors that she uses to hand-dye some of her fabrics.

Her studio is in Taylor, right outside of Dothan, and it’s where she does most of her design work, but she’s considering finding a space in Birmingham as well. No matter where they’re conceptualized, Megan’s works will continue to be made in Alabama.

“I want to support our local economy, so my clothes will be made here,” she says. “I’m not just going to pack my bags and move to New York City. Alabama is who I am, and so that is the part of the identity of my clothes and my brand. I’m inspired and influenced by home and by the culture here.”


Destani Hoffman

Destani Hoffman describes her style aesthetic as “a little outrageous but still pleasing to the eye.” Her designs certainly pleased the judges at Charleston Fashion Week in 2016, where she was named the year’s Emerging Designer for her highly conceptual, striking, almost sculptural eveningwear brand called DH Designs.

The young designer was born in Missouri, but moved to Mobile with her family at age 14, and now lives and works in Fairhope. Like Megan, she was surrounded by “artsy” family members who encouraged her self-expression and experimentation, but it took a while before she believed it could be a career.

“I started making dresses out of different materials, like paper cups and plates, and it was for fun,” she says. “And then I made a pair of pants out of a pillow case in home economics class at school, and I realized, this is something I could do.”

She got a coveted scholarship to Parsons School for Design in New York City, where she went for two years before transferring to and graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design.

Destani Hoffman, who lives and works in Fairhope, describes her style aesthetic as “a little outrageous but still pleasing to the eye.”

The award in Charleston gave her a big boost and the confidence to stick with her original plan. “As a young designer, it’s more common to design ready-to-wear clothes, but I don’t want to go that route, so I’m working on building my portfolio so I can gain more custom clients and design specifically for them,” she says.

That means she’s still working a day job at a marketing firm to support building her brand while also designing and creating prom dresses and wedding dresses for local clients. She was a featured designer at the 2017 Charleston Fashion Week and is prepping now for New York Fashion Week coming up in September.

The shows serve as “live portfolios” for Destani, where viewers can get a real sense of her philosophy.

“It’s not just clothing,” she says. “I’m evoking emotion. And that’s why I do this. I love stirring feelings in those who see my work and those who want to wear it.”

Her goal is to have her own studio and workshop to continue her custom work on a larger scale, and she hopes to do it in Fairhope. “People think you need to be in New York or Los Angeles to be successful in fashion, but I’ve been in New York, and it doesn’t inspire me, so I don’t think that is true. You should be where you are inspired. I think I’d open my space where I am now.”

It’s only natural

Sarah Conklin’s textiles, like the one used for this potholder, are pretty but utilitarian.

When Sarah Conklin of Feather Wild in Huntsville first started printing fabrics, it was just for personal use. “I was screen-printing fabrics and using them to make clothes for my daughter and for myself,” she says. “People starting asking to buy pieces, but I didn’t feel like I could sell them because, while the printed fabrics were mine, the patterns I used for the clothing weren’t.”

But their interest was primarily in her nature-inspired, minimalist prints, so she started making pieces like scarves, hand towels, napkins, coasters, pouches and tote bags out of her fabrics to meet the demand.

“It was something I could do and still be with my kids,” she says.

She creates her designs at home and prints them on fabrics sourced from thrift stores and old stock racks at fabric stores using equipment at Green Pea Press in the Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment complex, where she’s a member artist.

Conklin’s Feather Wild brand pouch is inspired by the natural world.

Sarah even recycles pieces of her husband’s worn-out dress shirts, hand-dying them and using them as linings for her pouches. Giving old things new purpose by transforming them into items that will be used and loved is a large part of her motivation.

“My textiles are pretty but are mainly utilitarian,” she says. “I want to make things that are useful and durable and beautiful and can be used over and over.”

Her prints are rooted in the natural world but are not representational. “They’re my stylized interpretation of things in the outside world, often the woods and creeks I grew up playing in,” she says.




These designers also have Alabama connections, either by being from here, studying apparel design here, currently designing and creating clothes here and/or all three.

Natalie Chanin

Billy Reid

Gina Locklear, Zkano and Little River Sock Mill

William Bradley

Bradford Billingsly

Ellen LeJeune

Heather Simmons, Tallulah Faire

Hunter Bell

Shan Latris

Lauryn Tankersley

Smith Sinrod, bySmith


Healthy Living: What is Alabama’s long-term health care strategy?

By Dale Quinney

Health care in Alabama faces uncertain and challenging times. Our health care system consists of many operating parts vital to the smooth operation of the entire system. This system is like the human body. If one or more parts are not operating properly, the entire system can be impaired or even threatened.

There continues to be debate over the effectiveness of the Affordable Care Act (or Obama Care) and the impact of changes to this program. While this program has resulted in more people having health insurance, it has also resulted in more people being underinsured because of the high deductible amounts that apply to this coverage. It must be expected that the eventual solution will be viewed as positive in many ways and negative in many ways.

One thing is certain: This issue will not be the last that our health care system will face. The health care needs of Alabama today are different from those in the past and will be different from those in the future.

The scrutiny of health care access that this issue is creating provides an opportunity to look for better ways to provide and receive health care. Rural Alabama is experiencing chronic shortages in health care access. Our goal is to keep the doors of hospitals and clinics open tomorrow.  We are so involved in survival that we have not developed a long-term plan.

Our health care industry is subject to the laws of supply and demand. We tend to concentrate on the supply side. To meet the needs of health care today, we must keep our hospitals and clinics open and attract more health care providers to practice where the needs are greatest. Alabama has seven rural counties with no hospital. The majority of our rural hospitals are operating at a loss with many facing threats of closing. Only two of Alabama’s rural counties (Pike and Coffee) are considered to have the minimal primary care practitioner service needed.

What about the other side of the supply-demand issue? What can be done to decrease the demand for health care over the long-term? An obvious answer is that prevention must be given greater emphasis. A second strategy should be the promotion of a better educated population. There is a strong relationship between education, income, and health status. Better education results in a potential to earn a higher income and practice better health behavior.

This relationship exists for diverse causes of death. For all causes, the death rate for those with less than a 9th grade education is more than twice the rate for those with a high school education. Those with a high school education have a death rate more than twice that for those with any college.

Having a better educated population should be a long-term health care strategy!

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

Social Security: Your contributions make our nation stronger

By Kylee’ McKinney

On Memorial Day, we honor the soldiers and service members who have given their lives for our nation. Social Security respects the heroism and courage of our military service members, and we remember those who have given their lives in defense of freedom. Part of how we honor service members is the way we provide Social Security benefits.

The unexpected loss of a family member is a difficult experience for anyone. Social Security helps by providing benefits to protect service members’ dependents. Widows, widowers, and their dependent children may be eligible for Social Security survivors benefits. You can learn more about Social Security survivors benefits at

It’s also important to recognize those service members who are still with us, especially those who have been wounded. Just as they served us, we have the obligation to serve them. Social Security has benefits to assist veterans when an injury prevents them from returning to active duty.

Wounded military service members can also receive expedited processing of their Social Security disability claims. For example, Social Security will provide expedited processing of disability claims filed by veterans who have a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Compensation rating of 100 percent Permanent & Total (P&T). Depending on the situation, some family members of military personnel, including dependent children and, in some cases, spouses, may be eligible to receive benefits. You can get answers to commonly asked questions and find useful information about the application process at

Service members can also receive Social Security in addition to military retirement benefits. The good news is that your military retirement benefit does not reduce your Social Security retirement benefit. Learn more about Social Security retirement benefits at You may also want to visit the Military Service page of our Retirement Planner, available at

Service members are also eligible for Medicare at age 65. If you have health insurance from the VA or under the TRICARE or CHAMPVA programs, your health benefits may change, or end, when you become eligible for Medicare. Learn more about Medicare benefits at

In acknowledgment of those who died for our country, those who served, and those who serve today, we at Social Security honor and thank you.

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