Politician wanted career as pilot

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Hammett: Sometimes you’d rather be lucky than smart

But for a back problem that kept him from a career as a pilot, Seth Hammett likely would never have moved home to Covington County and spent a lifetime in politics, much of it in one of the most powerful positions in Alabama, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

On Monday, Hammett shared some of the “back stories” of his life with members of the Andalusia Kiwanis Club.

SethHammett“John Henry Smith was my childhood hero,” the Rose Hill native said. “He was the son of Sara Smith who taught sixth grade at Rose Hill. John Henry was a pilot working for Eastern Airlines.”

Hammett first pursued the same career as his hero.

“In 1971, I was out of graduate school, and out of the Air Force, just in the right time. Eastern was hiring,” he said.

Hammett went to Florida for a physical, but was diagnosed with spondylosis, a spinal condition.

“The same thing that had gotten me out of the Air Force precluded me from being precleared to fly for Eastern,” he said. “I thought my world had ended, but exactly 18 years later, Eastern went belly-up.”

He also considered other job opportunities before deciding to work in Andalusia.

“Jim Williams had just come over from Opp to start WAAO radio,” Hammett recalled. “He had this idea for ‘Guest Digest’ that was going to make him rich and famous.”

Hammett went to work with him, and also took a teaching job at the new LBW Junior College.


Chamber of Commerce start

Through his work, he met Jim Radcliff, then president of the Chamber of Commerce.

“He was a great mentor to me,” Hammett said. “He told me, ‘I want you to be the next president of the Chamber of Commerce.’ ”

At his first Chamber meeting, the annual banquet, Hammett was introduced as the next organization president. He and his wife, Nancy, were newlyweds at the time.

“Nancy always says she dated Mr. Carefree, but ended up married to Mr. Chamber of Commerce,” he said.

During his two-year presidency, he worked with others in the community on an economic development plan. The community didn’t have an industrial park.

“Jerry Andrews and I flew over, then drove over, then walked property,” Hammett said. “The best parcel in Andalusia was where Shaw is now located.”

Hammett said he convinced the owner, James Sutton, who then lived in Montgomery, to give them an option on it for $1.

“We wrote it on a napkin,” Hammett recalled.

“We bought it back to Andy Floyd, who was on the Industrial Development Board,” he said.

The board borrowed the money, bought the property, and raised money to pay off the debt.


A $1 option pays off

“In 1979 or 80, here comes a guy named Roy Reeves, from Andalusia, working in Roanoke. A guy walks into his office – Don Maynard Sr. – and says, ‘I’m in charge of finding another Roanoke.’ ”

Maynard was employed by Amoco, and was looking for a location for another plant.

Reeves, who was a banker, connected Maynard with Boots Deal in Andalusia.

“And doggone if they didn’t locate here,” Hammett said. The company – now known as Shaw Industries – employs 1,100 people here.

“Sometimes you’d rather be lucky than good,” Hammett said.

After his time at the Chamber, Hammett said he’d take on whatever community project he could. He moved into administration at the college, working hand in hand with Dr. Bill McWhorter, another mentor.

Hammett said it was Harold Albritton, the Andalusia attorney who went on to become a federal district judge, who introduced him to politics when he invited him to a state Republican meeting and encouraged him to run for the legislature.


No Republicans around here

Hammett said he came home and talked with his Uncle Jess Merrill, his granddaddy’s brother, who had served three terms as chairman of the county commission. When he shared the idea with him – adding that he planned to run as a Republican – he got a bit of a dressing down.

“He asked me, ‘How many Republicans do you actually know?’ ”

Hammett said the only one he could name was Bill Dickinson, then the Congressman for the 2nd District of Alabama.

He made the decision to pursue the legislative seat in a split second after receiving a phone call from John Alwyn Burgess, then editor of The Opp News.

“It was Wednesday night, back when all the papers went to press once a week,” Hammett said. “He said, ‘I just talked to (Rep.) Frank Jackson and Frank’s not going to run. I’m calling to ask you, are you gonna run?’

“I said, ‘I sure am,’ ” Hammett recalled. “When I hung up the phone in the kitchen, I figured I might better go back in the bedroom and tell Nancy.”


Good advice

Hammett said he received good advice from many, including then-Probate Judge Leland Enzor.

“He told me, ‘You go into businesses, you always speak to everybody the but the business owner first. Speak to everybody you see, and ask people for their vote. They like to be asked. And you need to be where two or more are gathered together.’ ”

As a result of Uncle Jess’s advice, he said, his children grew up thinking all daddies went somewhere almost every night.

Many weekends were spent at fundraisers for volunteer fire departments, he said.


Long-term goal

On his first official day in the House of Representatives, he watched then-Speaker Joe McCorquodale and decided he wanted to be speaker one day.

“He became a great mentor,” Hammett said. “Every day, when the session would adjourn, I’d go ask him questions. He took me under his wing.

“He told me, ‘Find out some way you can help your people. Always return every phone call and answer every letter you get.’

“I found out the Forestry Commission had some money to support volunteer fire departments,” he said. “So I got money and would go around and give them money for buying equipment.”


Starting a bank

In 1983, Hammett was approached by Carroll Pierce of Opp, who was president and principal owner of First National Bank in Opp, and wanted to open a bank in Andalusia.

At the time, Hammett said, Earl Johnson was Pierce’s attorney.

“I told him, “Carroll, that’s real nice, but I have zero experience in that.

“He said, ‘I’m going to gamble some money on the success of this thing,’ ” Hammett recalled.

After a charter was secured, Hammett said he and Johnson “went around peddling stock.”

He recalled doing a presentation for Solon and Martha Dixon.

“We’re out there in their kitchen – Earl and I and Carroll Pierce – and we’ve done our presentation. Mr. Solon looked at Martha and said, ‘Sugar, do you want none of it, some of it, or all of it.’

“That was key,” Hammett said. “People figured out if it was good enough for the Dixons, it was good enough for them.”

Another investor was Bob Smith, then general manager at Southeast Gas.

“Bob liked the idea,” Hammett said. “So, the day we opened, he transferred $15 million to us. And that kind of got us started.”

That and other unforeseen events helped get the bank going. In 1987, Southtrust Bank bought it out.


Hunt administration

After Guy Hunt’s election as governor in 1986, Hunt and his chief of staff tapped Hammett as their candidate for speaker.

“I told them, ‘Jimmy Clark already has the votes for speaker and you can’t beat him.’ ”

Instead, Hammett was floor leader for Hunt’s first administration. Hunt liked to reward people who helped him, and that helped get a number of highway projects going in Covington County.

In 1990, with Hunt’s help and support, Hammett was preparing to run for speaker. At home, his neighbor, Ricky Jones, was helping him raise money. But Hammett decided against the race, and had to tell the governor he was withdrawing.

Meanwhile, he began working with then-Speaker Clark, and later became Speaker Pro Tem.


LBW president

In 1991, he said, when McWhorter left LBW, he was encouraged to apply for the presidency.

“I applied for it and got it,” he said. “The college was in pretty bad shape because of some financial problems.”

With the help of LBW Vice President Jim Krudop, and the support of the Dixon Foundation, he said, the college completed more than $3 million in projects.

Hammett said he and Krudop had a great working relationship.

“He did all the work and I got all the credit,” he said.


Becoming speaker

In 1998, Hammett reached the goal he’d set himself as a newcomer in the House of Representatives – being elected Speaker.

“People will tell you in state government, the Speaker’s job is the most powerful or second most powerful in the state,” he said.

Remembering his early days in the House, when opposing then-Gov. George Wallace spelled trouble, Hammett decided to work with all sides.

“We did things a little differently than they’ve been doing recently,” he said. “We met with the majority leader and the minority leader. We met with the leadership in the Senate. Sometimes, we’d have four or five of these meetings in a week.

“Compromise, in my humble opinion, was never a bad word,” he said.

Hammett said being Speaker gives one a real ability to look after a given area.

“It’s been a good run,” he said. “I’m not through, but I’m through running.”

He currently works with PowerSouth in economic development.

Hammett had asked a number of people who helped him through the years to attend Monday’s meeting, including his wife, Nancy; Ricky Jones; Phillip Jones; Johnson; and Krudop.

In January, Hammett was inducted into the Andalusia Leadership Hall of Fame during the Chamber of Commerce banquet.