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Mon December 11, 2006
A Mansion's Memories
Mary Mathews, wife of University of Alabama president David Mathews, lived in the mansion for eleven years, 1969-1980, and did her research and sought out the stories of the previous presidents and their families. Those stories are collected in this book.
By Don Noble
Mary Mathews, wife of University of Alabama president David Mathews, lived in the mansion for eleven years, 1969-1980, and quite understandably became interested in the history of the building, the lives of the previous occupants, and the role the mansion has played in University life since it was completed in the spring of 1841. As first lady, she did her research and sought out the stories of the previous presidents and their families.
The first edition of this book was published twenty-six years ago and was well received, but the Strode Publishing Co. of Huntsville burned down, and a second edition was never released. Now it is available again, with twenty-five additional pages and a collection of Chip Cooper photographs, many in color, of the mansion, its furnishings, and its inhabitants. Looking at the older portraits and photos, I couldn't help but notice that every president through William S. Wyman (1901-02) has facial hair; there is not one whisker on a president's face from John W. Abercrombie on.
This book is the architectural history of the building, and is also a thumbnail history of the succession of men who have presided over the University's fortunes.
Mrs. Mathews chose to tell the story from the point of view of the mansion, which has charmed many, but which I found too cute by half. When the Manlys plant an oak tree in the front yard, the mansion says, "What a lucky house I am." After the Manly family leaves in 1855, the mansion says, "The Manlys are the only residents I have known. How will I adjust to new people?"
When the Gorgas family leaves, after the death of President Josiah Gorgas, the mansion says, "I . . . wonder whether people who pass me on Huntsville Road can see the sadness in my face . . . ." This device would have worked better in a children's book. Having made that complaint, however, let me say there are lots of interesting bits in this book.
Students under President Manly in 1843 "get into serious trouble in town. They drink too much, steal chickens and throw rocks." More recently, Dr. Barry Mason, acting president in 2002-2003, throws himself into the task of reducing the number of hours per day the local bars are open. No mention of chickens or rocks.
My favorite presidents turn out to be Raymond H. Paty who, in 1943, began the University of Alabama Press, and John M. Gallalee, who, about 1953, began the campus FM radio station. These are real accomplishments. Gallalee also might have had an interest in student drinking since he began the first psychological counseling clinic at the same time.
A crucial event in the mansion's history occurred in l865, when Mrs. Landon C. Garland told the Yankee troops that the mansion was a private residence, not a public building. This little white lie saved the mansion from being burned down.
The mansion observes and listens and sympathizes. Presidents have such a hard time. Dr. Sorensen and his legal team "spend a huge amount of time sorting through documents and interviews" pertaining to NCAA investigations of the football team. Dr. Sayers "finds he has to spend a great deal of time with inquiries from the NCAA." "Some football fans are often not kind to" Coach Bill Curry, and poor Dr. Witt, less than two months after his arrival, has to fire a football coach who "exercised poor judgment and behaved inappropriately." Again, no mention of chickens or rocks.
However it may sound, the bulk of this book is devoted to kitchen improvements, painting, plumbing, drain tiles, balustrades, carpets, plantings, renovation, antiques and decoration, and those many people who contributed?the Warner family, Mrs. Charles Summersell, among others, are mentioned and thanked. The mansion, as it says of itself, continues to be "a symbol for Alabama's citizens" "of their lofty hopes for higher education."
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.