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Gathering Momentum

The retreat gatherings of Leadership Alabama — the state’s premier community leadership initiative — have been the center of many hard-won advances since 1990. Seven graduates share their insights.

Judge Sue Bell Cobb calls Leadership Alabama “one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Judge Sue Bell Cobb calls Leadership Alabama “one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Photo by Robert Fouts

It is the ultimate power weekend — 50 influential state citizens gathered in a search for answers. Experts in their fields, they meet to help communities. The old class has graduated and a new one begins, but it requires leadership. It requires Leadership Alabama.

The group meets in sessions over a nine-month period, examining such issues as education, politics and government, business and economics and quality of life. 

“They go to a community and work on it,” said Leadership Alabama’s Executive Director Barbara Larson. “It is a continuous journey.”  

Since 1990, more than 800 members have made the journey, using skills obtained through expertise or talents they may never have recognized before. 

All have a vision. Here are some of their stories.

Judge Sue Bell Cobb

“I was reluctant,” Judge Sue Bell Cobb, 29th chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, recalls about joining. “I had won a statewide race for Court of Criminal Appeals in 1995 and wanted to spend time with family.” She made room for both with no regret, adding, “Leadership Alabama was one of the best decisions I have ever made.”

After a 2007-2011 term as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, the Montgomery area resident is now president of Next Generation Consulting Inc. She also teaches law and devotes time to her passion for child advocacy.

“Juvenile court is the feeder system for adult court,” she says. Her philosophy focuses on keeping children out of the legal system from the beginning to make them less likely to be criminals when adults. Leadership Alabama agreed.

In the mid-1990s, the group rallied with the judge and her work with the Children First Foundation. “Almost every organized lobbyist in Alabama opposed us,” Cobb recalls, “but we prevailed.” 

As a result, the nonprofit bipartisan foundation spearheaded the state legislative effort in creating the Children First Trust Fund. Today the foundation ensures the trust fund’s National Tobacco Settlement revenues are spent for Alabama children and families. The Foundation itself receives none of the money. 

And Cobb’s passion for keeping children out of the legal system was another focus for the Foundation, which in 2008, successfully pushed for passage of the Alabama Juvenile Justice Act, which, among other provisions, strengthened the authority of courts to divert nondangerous children from the juvenile justice system.

Cobb notes, “The CFF believes that when we meet the needs of needy children, we are ultimately meeting the needs of our own.”

Mike Schmitz

Owner of Mike Schmitz Automotive Group and
Mayor of Dothan

“I was more follower than leader,” recalls Mike Schmitz, automotive dealer and Dothan mayor, about his Leadership Alabama experiences. But from following the leader, he became one. 

He learned from Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day. “I got to know him during my time at Leadership Alabama,” says Schmitz. “He was doing great things for Thomasville, bringing in industry and boosting the economy. It made me wonder, why can’t we do that in Dothan?” It planted a seed and won him an election.

Schmitz became mayor of Dothan in 2009, winning 86 percent of the vote. He still is a leader in the state’s automotive industry but credits the beginnings of his political success to Leadership Alabama. 

Michael Patterson

Vice President, Legal Services, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama

With 28 years at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama, Michael Patterson knows a few things about state needs.  He has seen Alabama’s challenges, success stories and problems. Bad news receives plenty of coverage, according to Patterson. The positive deserves equal time.

“Two things I learned from my days at Leadership Alabama,” the 2012 program graduate says. “One — this state has an abundance of talented people. They make a difference in people’s lives every day. Two — working together, we can and do make a difference.”

Patterson’s Leadership Alabama team assisted teachers and students through a 21st Century Summer Learning Program in Perry County. They introduced computer, social media and software solutions classrooms, starting with about 10 teachers and 30 students. “On day one, they had little computer experience,” Patterson recalls. “On day five, they were high tech.” 

Jim Rotch

Partner, Bradley Arant Boult & Cummings

Birmingham attorney Jim Rotch attended the Class of ’97-98. “Few were lawyers,” he recalls. “I learned from meeting people outside my circle.” 

Rotch had a revelation.

“It occurred to me that most issues we deal with come down to race relations,” says Rotch, who also serves as chairman of the board of National Cement Co. Inc. “If we settle race relations, lots of time and energy could be devoted to other issues.” After a session in Mobile, Leadership Alabama challenged members to address diversity. 

Pondering the assignment while driving home, Rotch conceptualized the “Birmingham Pledge,” a statement of principles addressing racism and prejudice with the promise to fight both. Today more than 120,000 people have signed the pledge conceived on Interstate 65.

“If everyone woke up tomorrow in our society and said ‘No more cancer,’ unfortunately there would still be cancer,” says Rotch. “But if everyone woke up in the morning and said ‘No more racism,’ racism would go away.”

Racecar driver Bobby Allison agreed. He signed the pledge, handed it to Rotch and commented, “Jim, our souls are all the same color.” 

The attorney beamed, “I didn’t hit a home run. I hit a grand slam.”

Caroline Novak

President of A+ Education Partnership

Caroline Novak is a charter member, on board when Leadership Alabama was an untested vision, concept and theory. 

“Back then it was basically a good idea,” says the former president of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. She adds modestly, “I was with 50 of the state’s most distinctive leaders and felt a bit intimidated.”

Not for long.

Novak was exposed to issues previously little considered by the art executive. One changed her life. After hearing a
presentation for the Leadership group about Kentucky’s best practices in education, she vowed to bring similar reforms to Alabama. 

In 1991, working with class colleagues, including another Leadership Alabama charter member, Bill Smith, the A+ Education Partnership was formed. Its mission statement: “A non-partisan organization that works for great schools for every child — and a bright future for Alabama.” Today the nonprofit works for 744,000 Alabama school children, K-12.

Novak credits ideas generated from Leadership Alabama. “I challenged my class, if we are going to be leaders and if we want to see progress in this state, then we must approach public education.” She adds, “Back then there were no nonprofits of this type, for education.” 

There is now.

Bill Smith

CEO, Royal Cup Coffee

Jefferson County’s Bill Smith cofounded and attended the first Leadership Alabama session. He was frustrated, saying that for 20 years, Gov. George Wallace stood over
the state like a giant tree, shading out growth for other leaders. It was time to give others a chance.

“We wanted to reach well-established leaders,” says Smith, “and we did. Our classes have included heads of Alabama Power Co., Bell South, Regions Bank and the NAACP.” 

Smith celebrates program accomplishments and embraces education reform. He is proud of the group’s
accomplishments, but admits, “Sometimes good things take time, but Leadership Alabama has been a center of many good things that have happened in this state.”

Congressman Bradley Byrne

District 1, U.S. House of Representatives

A practicing attorney during his 1993 Leadership Alabama tenure, Mobile’s Bradley Byrne had an initial apprehension. “I was concerned about the time commitment required,” he says. “But I knew some of the people in the program, good people. I could learn from them. Membership was and still is good for me.”

He had no political aspirations during his time on board but says principles of Leadership Alabama apply to leadership in Washington. “We had people with intense disagreements and debate but were respectful and productive,” Byrne notes.  “I realized if we could replicate that spirit of cooperation, we could solve anything.”

Byrne’s passion for education was kindled during a session on public schools in a Huntsville session. Others noticed and urged him to run for a seat on the Alabama State Board of Education in 1994. He won.

“It was my first entry into public life,” says Byrne. “And it started in part when some Leadership Alabama members suggested I run for office.”

After serving in the Alabama State Senate, Byrne was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives representing the state’s First District in 2013.

Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.

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