Shelby Edward Southard
(B) Oct.30, 1914 – (D) Aug. 13, 1990
Written by Rodney B. Huffman, Chairman, ALPL Board of Trustees,
for the Dedication of the Shelby Southard History Room and Portrait Unveiling - January 24, 2015
A life of accomplishment! This is the best one sentence expression of Shelby’s time with us. From an early age he showed great promise. He fulfilled that promise and was a benefactor of his hometown, Athens, Alabama.
Shelby Edward Southard was born on October 30, 1914 to Lorin and Ada Southard. This occurred on the family farm in eastern Limestone County. When Shelby was a child, probably around 1920, the family moved to Athens. His mother’s line, the Davis and Sanderfer families, were among the early settlers of Limestone County. His grand-father Southard moved to Limestone County from Michigan in the late 1870’s. Shelby grew up in Athens with great affection for the community, always referring to it as his home town. Even later in life, living elsewhere, when asked for a home address Shelby would provide his parent’s home address.
During the 1920’s Shelby’s parents added a brother and sister to the family. He loved them dearly all his life. These siblings were Leslie Davis Southard (B. Aug. 19. 1921, D. Sep. 10, 2007; married to Margaret Roath), and sister, Ethel Southard (B. Sep 6, 1925, D. Jan 20, 2011; married to Frank Simmons).
Young Shelby grew up with a keen interest in Athens, the world in general, story-telling, and especially in writing. At a very young age he submitted articles and stories to various newspapers and magazines in hopes of being published. Shelby became so successful at “getting published” that he developed a concern publishers might tire of his numerous submissions. So, he submitted some stories under the name of his brother Les, and many of these were also published. Shelby made money from his writing and frequently won prizes. As a high school student he submitted numerous articles to the “Haversack” magazine, a Methodist Publishing House magazine for boys and he was well known to its readers.
Growing up in Athens in the 1920’s Shelby’s best friend was Jamie Mackey, son of the minister of the First Methodist Church. Mackey in later years became a U.S. Congressman from Georgia. And, during Shelby’s future early years in Washington, D.C., Rep. Mackey would introduce Shelby to other politicians who became friends. In particular, one such friend was the disabled and celebrated Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland, who became Director of the Veterans Administration during the Carter Administration.
The year 1932 was memorable. Shelby won a writing contest jointly sponsored by American Boy’s Life Magazine and the Portland, Oregon Chamber of Commerce. The prize was a trip to Portland, the Canadian Rocky Mountains and the west coast of the United States. Only 17 years old, Shelby was engaged to speak for the Protective Life Insurance Company on WAPJ Radio in Birmingham. The subject of his talk was “foreign correspondence”. That fall Shelby enrolled at Birmingham-Southern College. And, still a freshman, he was awarded a Patriotic Service Medal by the U.S. Flag Association, its highest honor, for a series of articles on national conservation. A Birmingham newspaper wrote about him, “… Southard is the youngest person ever so honored.”
Shelby was a successful student and popular among his classmates. “Busy” is a good description for him. He participated in campus activities and further developed his skills as a writer. During these college years Shelby was a corresponding reporter for various magazines and newspapers across the county. Among his honors were being named editor of “la Revue,” the college’s year book. He was inducted into the national leadership society Omicron Delta Kappa and into Pi Gamma Mu, a social sciences honorary association. History was Shelby’s favorite subject. In 1937 he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and was honored to be a member of Birmingham-Southern’s first class of Phi Beta Kappa graduates. Being a thorough, direct, and energetic young man Shelby had acquired a nick name among fellow students. He was “the colonel.” This nickname stuck with Shelby for at least a few years after graduation.
Next, Shelby was accepted for graduate studies by Vanderbilt University, receiving a Master of Arts Degree in 1938. According to family sources Shelby was offered a Rhodes Scholarship, but decided just before boarding a ship for England that he preferred a different direction. That different direction was accepting a Rosenwald Fellowship, which also involved travel and study. Rosenwald Fellowships, between 1928 and 1948, were given by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, of the Sears Roebuck, Co. These fellowships were awarded to African-American writers, educators, artists, and scholars, and to white Southerners with an interest in race relations.
In 1939 Shelby accepted a position as executive assistant to the president of Alabama College for Women at Montevallo, where he also served as secretary to the Board of Trustees. Shelby remained at Montevallo until 1942. Having started to write short stories for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1938 he continued doing this through 1942. He served as a member of the Joint Department of Stewardship for the National Committee of Religious Leaders for Safety. Throughout his life, Shelby would demonstrate a concern for promoting public safety issues and solutions. Shelby also had a sincere interest in the affairs of the Methodist Church.
During the World War II years, according to a newspaper article, Shelby acquired a reserve commission in the Navy. He traveled throughout the United States on behalf of the War Department (now known as the Department of Defense). He visited and inspected existing and new installations and facilities. Due to the rapid expansion of all types of facilities the Department needed capable people to perform this function, and Shelby was particularly well suited for this type of work. In addition, Shelby found time to write, and in 1944 he was editor of a Guidebook to Alabama, and he authored a book, The Schism in American Methodism.
After the war years Shelby moved to Chicago, Illinois. He was employed as editor of the Methodist Layman Magazine from 1947 to 1959. In the 1950’s Shelby helped to found the Committee of Religious Leaders for Safety of the National Safety Council. And, from 1959 to 1963 he was editor of World Magazine, a Christian issues magazine. During this time he also participated in professional organizations, and served as president from 1962 to 1963 of an editorial cooperative assistance association among US and Canadian editors. In 1963 Shelby's career path changed somewhat when he became Assistant Director for Public Affairs, of the Washington, D.C. office of the Cooperative League. The Cooperative League was an organization with national influence that was created in 1916 to promote the interest of small business and cooperative democratically owned businesses. Among the business organizations affiliated with The Cooperative League were Farmer’s Co-Op’s like those the citizens of Limestone County are quite familiar with. Shelby was employed there until a few years before his death, rising to the position of executive director.
During these Washington, D.C. years Shelby visited many exciting places throughout the world as part of his work and also for government committees. Due to his position with the Cooperative League, his many personal connections, and always having a deep sense of civic duty, Shelby briefed congressional committees on various topics. He also served on several presidential commissions. One of these was as the Coordinator of the President’s Urban Development Committee and the White House Conference on International Cooperation in 1965 – 1966. Shelby was familiar with and friends with many congressmen and senators and assisted them whenever he could. He was known to have had indirect and direct contact with president’s Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Ford, and Reagan. Though Shelby’s personal inclination may have been more toward the policies of the Democratic Party, he once told a nephew “what’s important are issues, not partisanship.” Shelby would, and did, work with anyone regardless of party affiliations to advance issues and solutions he believed in. President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized Shelby for his role as a primary mover behind the creation of the National Commission on Product Safety. And, one of Shelby’s proud achievements was helping to pass the Trucking Regulatory Reform Bill in 1980. President Carter gave Shelby a copy of the bill bearing the president’s original signature.
Shelby accumulated wealth during his life, but he was always unpretentious in his manner and he lived modestly. Tall, and with a slender build, Shelby loved the game of tennis. He is best described as a calm, serious man with a deep voice accompanied by a genuine smile. He was always generous. In 1940, when he was only 27 years old, Shelby purchased a nice brick home in Athens for his parents. In addition to displaying great affection for friends and family members Shelby loved books and learning. He is remembered as a creative person always in pursuit of more knowledge and understanding. Although after his college years Shelby never resided in Athens, he visited each Christmas and often during the summer months. He would play Trivial Pursuit with his young niece and nephews who were always amazed that Uncle Shelby seemed to know everything. Without lecturing, they remember how Uncle Shelby delivered life lessons. One of these lessons was, “Don’t tell me what you are going to do. Tell me what you have done!” Whatever they did, it was obvious that Uncle Shelby expected them to set personal goals. They mostly remember Shelby as a humble man, more interested in others than in him-self. When in conversation Shelby was capable of making the other individual feel they had his total attention. He was “a giver, not a taker,” with a strong sense of “fair play.” Success, in Shelby’s opinion, was a result of diligence, preparation, and hard work. He demonstrated those characteristics throughout his life.
In 1985 Shelby retired from his position with the Cooperative League. His visits home to Athens continued, but he was aware his health was failing. Many years before his retirement Shelby had included in his will a bequest to his home town that was intended to provide for its cultural enrichment. This provision was for a significant portion of his wealth to be used for providing all citizens of the community with library services, without discrimination. And, if a public library did not exist then Shelby’s suggestion was that one should be built. Additionally, Shelby created a scholarship at Birmingham-Southern College to honor his parents, and he funded a lecture series at the Cumberland Law School, Samford University, to teach students about civil liberties and the Bill of Rights.
Shelby Edward Southard died on August 13, 1990. He is buried next to his beloved sister and brother in the old Athens Cemetery, near the intersection of Hobbs Street and South Thomas Street. Though he had many accomplishments the inscription on his tombstone is simply "In loving memory." And, this is indeed Shelby's final message to his hometown. Shelby Southard lovingly provided for the citizens of this community a legacy of culture and knowledge, qualities he cared very much about. In large measure, since 1992, because of Shelby’s generosity, the citizens of Athens and Limestone County received better library services than could have otherwise been provided. The original amount of his bequest to the Athens-Limestone Public Library was $1,887,000. The new public library opened in December 2014. Shelby’s example and his gift had a lot to do with that.
Acknowledgements by the Author:
1. Frank “Bud” Simmons, John Simmons, and Laura Simmons Warren. These individuals are Shelby’s closest living relatives.
2. Heath Simmons, ALPL Research Services
3. Margaret “Maggie” Little, acclaimed landscape and portrait painter