Profiles of five pivotal leaders in Alabama’s commerce, community and history—from the rolls of the Alabama Business Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame tribute at the Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration at the University of Alabama.
Photo by Caroline Summers
The Alabama Business Hall of Fame honors business leaders each fall who have “certainly left their mark on their community, their state, in fact the world,” says Mike Hardin, dean of the Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration at the University of Alabama.
Inductees range from iconic Alabamians like George Washington Carver and Daniel Pratt to modern leaders of Alabama’s burgeoning technology industries like Roy Nichols.
This year’s class of inductees includes Richard Anthony, T. Michael Goodrich and James S. Holbrook, all of Birmingham, as well as John A. Caddell of Montgomery and Dr. Grace E. Pilot of Mobile. The ceremony for these new inductees is slated for Nov. 1.
“Each inductee has demonstrated hard work and vision in their chosen fields, from banking to finance and insurance to construction and engineering,” Hardin says.
Created in 1973, Alabama’s Hall of Fame honors the names and accomplishments of more than 130 men and women who are some of the state’s most distinguished business leaders.
In addition to business success, nominees are expected to demonstrate a sense of social responsibility and commitment to the community.
Nominations are solicited statewide.
Balpha Lonnie Noojin, Tuscaloosa (inducted 1979)
Sports might have been a first love for Balpha Lonnie “B.L.” Noojin, but the former University of Alabama athletic director left it all behind to pursue a love of commerce and later politics before most living Crimson Tide fans were even born.
Noojin, who earned his bachelor’s degree from the Capstone in 1908, not only served as editor of both the student newspaper and yearbook, but also excelled on the baseball field. Following college, the Attalla native initially signed professionally with the Cincinnati Reds, but spent six years in the minor leagues playing for teams such as the Charlotte Hornets, Greenville Spinners, Augusta Tourists, Chattanooga Lookouts, Columbia Commies and Asheville Mountaineers before retiring in 1913.
Noojin then returned to academia, teaching first at the Agricultural School in Blountsville and Albertville. He met his future wife, Willie Lucille McNaron, while in Albertville, and the pair married in 1916. By that time, however, he had already been named athletic director at Howard University—now Samford University in Birmingham—before returning to his alma mater in 1915.
Never one to shy away from the unexpected, Noojin famously stepped up alongside fellow assistant coach and former Alabama quarterback Farley Moody to coach the final four games of the Alabama Crimson Tide football season that year after head coach Thomas Kelley was hospitalized with typhoid fever. The pair went 2-2 during the interim, and Noojin remained in Tuscaloosa after Kelley recovered, coaching football, basketball and baseball and teaching English, French, Spanish, physics and chemistry until he traded the classroom for the hardware business in 1919.
After four years operating a hardware store, he and his brother then founded Noojin Supply, and in 1926, the former coach bought out his brother’s interest in the company and set his sights on civic involvement.
Throughout his distinguished career, Noojin served on the boards of directors for the American National Bank of Gadsden, Alabama Power Co. and the Gadsden Chamber of Commerce. He also served as president of the National Alumni Association and as a member of the Board of Trustees for the University of Alabama.
He also was active in politics, serving on the Republican State Committee and the Republican National Convention.
Frank Park Samford Jr., Birmingham (inducted 1987)
With his pedigree, it would have been easy for Frank Park Samford Jr. to rest on his laurels and capitalize—literally—on clout and connections alone. Instead, the consummate businessman and philanthropist devoted his life to bettering his community, both economically and civically.
Credited with transforming Birmingham-based Liberty National Life Insurance Co. into a national financial services company, Samford was the son of insurance executive Frank Park Samford Sr. and grandson of former Alabama Gov. William H. Samford.
A 1942 Yale University graduate, Samford served three years as an officer in the U.S. Navy aboard a destroyer that saw action in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific theatres of World War II. He then earned his law degree from the University of Alabama, before joining the family business.
By 1950, the one-time securities analyst had been elected to the company’s board of directors, and he rapidly ascended Liberty National’s corporate ladder to claim the spot as chairman of the board in 1973. Six years later, Samford led the formation of parent company Torchmark, at which he then served as president, chief executive officer and chairman of the board. He was honored in 1984 by the “Wall Street Transcript” as outstanding CEO in the life insurance industry and throughout his distinguished career served on boards of Birmingham Trust National Bank, Golden Enterprises Inc., South Central Bell Telephone Co., Southern Co., Saunders Leasing System Inc., Alabama Great Southern Railroad Co. and the Birmingham branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Community, however, remained central to Samford’s life, guiding him to become a charter member of the Kidney Foundation of Alabama’s board of directors, serve on the Southern Research Institute’s board and remain active in the Rotary Club and the Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. He also played a pivotal role in Birmingham’s ambitious $50 million city bond campaign while helping steer the Shades Valley YMCA and the Alabama Safety Council. His support of local and statewide educational institutions, though, is perhaps his most visible legacy.
In addition to serving three terms as president of the Alabama Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Samford also served as a trustee-at-large of the Independent College Funds of America, as well as on the boards of trustees for the University of Montevallo, Auburn University and Indian Springs School. His commitment to supporting education, though, continues to ripple through the Magic City today, more than 50 years after his family’s name became attached to one of the city’s premiere institutions of higher learning.
In 1974, Samford established a charitable remainder trust for Samford University through a $2 million gift in the name of his wife, Virginia Samford Donovan. According to university officials, when Virginia Samford Donovan passed away in January 2011, the remainder given to the institution represented a more than six-fold increase from the original investment.
Says Samford University President Andrew Westmoreland: “Although their name is perpetually tied to the institution in many ways, this latest gift, established decades ago, is in its fruition going to ensure that their name and influence are carried forward by future generations of students.”
In turn, the board of trustees used the trust to endow the university’s presidential scholars program and rename it the Virginia and Frank Samford Jr. Presidential Scholarships. W. Randall Pittman, Samford’s vice president for advancement, says the trust provided more than $230,000 in scholarships for the 2011-12 academic year, and that amount is expected to increase annually, ensuring “we always have a source to provide scholarships to some of our most deserving and hard-working students.”
William Albert Bellingrath, Montgomery (inducted 1986)
As the summer heat grips the Deep South, often sending the mercury into triple digits, one might be tempted to grab an ice cold Coca-Cola and a little piece of Alabama history to boot. From Tuscaloosa to Dothan and Mobile to Anniston, cities across the state found not just refreshment but commerce and stability thanks to the long-term vision of one man.
In 1901, William Albert Bellingrath noticed how quickly the new beverage sold as he managed the commissaries of the Woodstock Coal and Iron Co. The sweaty, tired workers would guzzle their soda, and he immediately recognized a market. A little research revealed Atlanta-based Coca-Cola had just begun offering franchise opportunities to entrepreneurs who could buy the syrup and then bottle the drink for local sale.
Two years later, Bellingrath and brother Walter, purchased the Montgomery Coca-Cola franchise and a dynasty was born. After paying off the company’s startup debt, the brothers purchased in 1905 the Mobile franchise—where Walter remained—and William continued overseeing the Montgomery plant and the larger company’s operations.
In time, Bellingrath not only instigated store deliveries of the beverage to boost visibility and availability, but he also introduced modern bottling equipment. These steps made the Montgomery plant one of the most innovative of its day—no small feat considering there were nearly 400 such bottling plants in operation by 1909.
By 1916, Bellingrath served as president of the Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Association, the very same year the company introduced a bottle designed by Terre Haute, Ind.-based Root Glass Co. and intended to distinguish the beverage from the bevy of imitators entering the marketplace. He held the post again in 1923 when the subject of standardization commanded a substantial amount of interest, forcing the formation of a joint committee of company officials, bottlers, and parent bottlers to explore the matter.
Bellingrath systematically sealed his legacy as a pioneering and strategic businessman who spent his later life contributing heavily to the growth and civic pride of the Capital City with his wife, Mary Nesbitt Elmore by his side.
Although the family name most readily brings to mind Walter’s namesake gardens in Mobile, William Bellingrath served as a three-term chairman of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and generously supported Huntingdon College and the Presbyterian Home for Orphans in Talladega. He also served as a trustee for Agnes Scott College in Atlanta and an elder in the Presbyterian Church.
Wynton Malcolm “Red” Blount Jr., Montgomery (inducted 1988)
Few individuals shaped the Montgomery landscape—both figuratively and literally—with such finesse and compassion as Wynton Malcolm “Red” Blount Jr.
From the space program and politics to nuclear energy plants and the Bard, Blount’s career and philanthropy not only influenced the way Montgomery does business but improved its curb appeal both within and outside the Capital City’s limits.
The Union Springs native enrolled at the University of Alabama in 1939, before joining the military three years later. Upon returning to the homestead, Blount set about rebuilding his father’s sand and gravel business with his brother, but the pair ultimately ventured into contracting instead. By 1949, Tuskegee-based Blount Brothers Corp.—the precursor to Blount International—was in full swing, and the company relocated to Montgomery the following year.
Over the ensuing decades, Blount would oversee such marquee projects as an atomic energy installation in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the New Orleans Superdome and launch complexes for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. In 1968, he served as president of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce and accepted the post of Postmaster General of the United States the following year. He later served as the U.S. Postal Service’s first chairman of the board, but returned to Alabama and the family business in 1972, unable to escape his drive to close the next big deal.
In time, his company not only delivered the first intercontinental ballistic missile base near Cheyenne, Wyo., but also the $2 billion King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, the largest fixed-price construction contract in history at that time.
Blount’s patronage of the arts, however, was legendary until his death in 2002, and his personal Blount Collection of American Art is considered one of the most extensive, eclectic and eminent corporate collections ever amassed.
The unequivocal crowning jewel of Blount’s benefaction, though, was the creation of the more than 300-acre Blount Cultural Park, home to both the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and the Carolyn Blount Theatre, which houses the world-renowned Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Indeed, a Washington Post drama critic once called the facility “the most beautiful theater building I’ve seen on five continents.”
From symphony concerts and ballet performances to art fairs and even the Scottish Highland games, the park has become an unrivaled cultural destination for locals and tourists alike.
Throughout his career, Blount served or chaired a litany of statewide organizations, including the Alabama State Chamber of Commerce, Alabama Road Builders Association, Business Council of Alabama and the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. Closer to home, he served the United Way, YMCA, First United Methodist Church and Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.
Blount’s professional and philanthropic affiliations and honors extend far beyond his home state, however, having served as a trustee and chairman of the boards of both Rhodes College in Memphis and the University of Alabama. He was also a member of the National Business Council and served on the executive committee of the Young Presidents Organization, the Conference Board, National Association of Manufacturers and the American Management Association. He was also involved throughout the years with the Washington, D.C.-based Folger Shakespeare Library and New York City-based National Actors Theater, as well as Friends of American Art in Religion, President Ronald Reagan’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the Court of Governors for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Southern Center for International Studies and Americans for the Arts.
Blount also was a past chairman of both the national Business Committee for the Arts and the advisory commission of the National Postal Museum, and the National Association of Fund Raising Professionals awarded him the Outstanding Philanthropist Award in 2002.
Gen. John Coffee, Huntsville & Florence (inducted 1986)
Progress is often driven by the unlikeliest of sources, and Gen. John Coffee epitomized not only the spirit of the frontier he loved but the statesmanship early 19th century Alabama required to help some of her most enduring cities find their place on the map.
Born in Virginia and raised in North Carolina, Coffee finally made his way to Tennessee’s Cumberland River following the death of his father, where he began a valiant career as a valued and gifted soldier during the War of 1812 and went on to become Alabama’s surveyor general.
Reports of his heroics can be found throughout American history books recounting his leadership of one of Gen. (and later President) Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee Volunteers cavalry regiments, and his tactical prowess was proven again during both the battles of Horseshoe Bend and New Orleans.
Following his military service, Coffee returned to his frontier roots and took up surveying to help pay his debts with few knowing how instrumental he would become in the founding of the town of Florence and in the establishment of Huntsville as the seat of Madison County.
Most notably, perhaps, Coffee was a key in the organization of the Cyprus Land Co., directly responsible for the promotion of Florence as its own town. The former general quickly developed a determination to help the North Alabama city become a reality and relocated his family there in 1819.
Historical city documents reveal that Coffee, considered one of the city’s co-founders, quickly set about establishing a school to educate his and a neighbor’s children. The school, constructed between the two men’s plantations and paid for out of their own pockets, quickly attracted the children of other company employees and began to thrive. By 1824, however, Coffee began prospecting for a separate facility to house female students, and within two years 13 families were sending their daughters to the Female Academy for about $150 per year.
Of course, Coffee’s friendship with Jackson—whose wife was Coffee’s wife’s aunt—helped him amass regional influence. Because of the friendship and family ties, Jackson actually owned several lots in Florence early in his presidency.
Among the myriad plaques and markers throughout the city honoring Coffee as a founder, the citizens inducted the war hero and frontiersman into the City of Florence Walk of Honor in 2007 with an inscription that reads: “Through his personal and business relationship with Andrew Jackson, Gen. Coffee led Jackson’s cavalry in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and became a celebrated American hero.”
Kelli Dugan is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.