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Lifestyle

December 1, 2013

Tom Drake: Cullman’s living legend

Tom Drake served nine terms in the Alabama House of Representatives, two of which he was Speaker of the House, elected by the entire body of the House. For eight years he served as chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, as well as other committees, and as floor leader for Govs. George Wallace, Lurleen Wallace, Albert Brewer, Fob James, Guy Hunt and Jim Folsom.

Tom retired from the House of Representative in 1998. He continues to practice law in the personal injury area, as well as Workmen's Compensation cases. He also serves as vice chairman of the board of directors of the Peoples Bank of North Alabama. He was a member of the Alabama Space and Rocket Science Exhibit Commission until his retirement in 2000.

Tom and his wife lived on a working farm and enjoy traveling and being legal advisors to the Cauliflower Alley Club, an international club whose membership is made up of retired professional wrestlers and boxers.

But this is only part of the story of Cullman’s living legend, Tom Drake. In an upcoming in-depth story on the man and his many accomplishments you will read about an amazing man from humble beginnings who went on to excel in various and varied fields of politics, sports and as a member of the Cullman community. You will learn of his many friendships, not only with the governors listed above, but with such celebrities as Hulk Hogan, Ten Kennedy, and the late Coach Bear Bryant, who Tom credits as being a major influence in his life and his career.

 

Meet Miss Gracie

A soft tinkling sound greets you as you enter the door of Tom Drake’s law office in downtown Cullman, Alabama.

That’s Miss Minnie coming to welcome you, just as she does every single person who visits this office. She never seems to get tired; she just pops right up and escorts you in, guiding you back to the receptionist’s window, and then resuming her position near the entrance, waiting for her next guest.

Miss Minnie is an eleven-year-old miniature Dachshund. Her owner, Cullman attorney, Tom Drake, will quickly tell you that she is a miracle, pieced back together by a good veterinarian after being attacked by a pitbull.

Drake inherited Miss Minnie from his late wife, legal partner and biggest fan, Christine, who passed away September 26, 2011.

The walls of the office are covered in memorabilia, pictures, framed newspaper clippings, art from wrestling programs, plaques which include everything from honors bestowed by the city, county and state for legal victories to fliers for wrestling matches and football programs.

To say that this is Tom Drake’s “wall of fame” is putting it mildly. If all of his accomplishments were placed side by side on these walls, the building would stretch from Highway 31 all the way down to Interstate 65, and that’s not much of an exaggeration.

After telling the story of most of the photos, Drake had to ponder a moment to decide which of them he was most proud of. “That’s not on here,” he said after short deliberation. “There are no pictures of that.” He went on to tell the story of how he went all over southwest Cullman County in his first campaign for the Democratic seat in Alabama’s House of Representatives, asking what people needed or would like to see done. “At that time southwest Cullman County was a sparsely populated area,” he explained. “This was in 1962, there was nothing there, the roads were bad, the houses were miles apart, and those folks were sort of forgotten.”

Drake went to every little country store in the area. Sometimes the greeting he got was less than pleasant. These were farmers, coal miners, and railroad workers — they’d seen their share of politicians who came around glad-handing them every four years then disappearing after Election Day.

“I went in one store and the lady who owned it, Lorene Marcum, just looked at me and finally she said that if I really wanted to know something that they needed, well, that would be telephones,” he recalled. The disgruntled proprietor explained to the young candidate that the community had no telephones, and this was 1962, mind you. “If we need a doctor we have to drive miles just to reach someone who has a phone,” she said.

“Ma’am, if I get elected, I’m going to do everything I can to get you folks some phones out here,” he promised. When he left, she probably commented to the people sitting on the porch of the store that they’d seen the last of him. If so, she got fooled.

Because they wanted to help him keep his promise, people in the community who had mail routes, like Marcum’s brother, G.C. Florence, and Donald Freeman, and community leaders like Gary Dooley, made sure that his card was hand-delivered to everyone in the area, and that people knew that he had vowed to help them if he was elected.

Tom Drake did win that election, and not only that, later in his career he would be nominated for and win the prestigious role as the Alabama Speaker of the House of Representatives.

When the time came to vote on that little phone problem in southwest Cullman County, South Central Bell called him up and asked him to hold off until they could take care of the situation themselves. Drake agreed, perfectly willing to give them time if they would just come through with those phone lines. But time went on and nothing happened. Drake never forgot his promise to those constituents, though, and he began the process of pushing the bill through the House for the second time. Drake had a good ally in the Speaker of the House, Rankin Fite, who advised him to draw up a bill saying that if any area of his district did not have phones, another service could be contracted to come in and supply them.

This put South Central Bell in between a rock and a hard place. They didn’t want any competitors coming into their territory; so once again South Central Bell contacted Rep. Drake, pleading for more time. Their argument was that there weren’t enough people there to make it feasible for them to invest the time and equipment, but Drake quickly let them know that he was not giving up.

Finally, the day before the bill went before the House for a vote, South Central Bell agreed to run lines in the southwest district of Cullman County. From then on, Tom Drake was a golden boy to those folks who never believed that it could be done.

“Within two years there was a phone in every home in that area that wanted one,” he said, smiling like the Cheshire cat.

Roads were another sore point among the rural citizens of Drake’s district. Even the main roads and highways in Southwest Cullman County were often rough, and mostly two lanes even going into some of the larger cities. It took over two hours of traveling on these roads for Drake to make it from Cullman to Montgomery two days each week.

At that point, he was still practicing law in Cullman, and would have to drive home to meet with clients after a full day of committee meetings in the state capitol. “We contacted the L&N Railroad requesting that they schedule a train stop here to pick up commuters and bring them back,” said Drake. They never responded.

Speaker Fite once again advised the young representative from Cullman County to draw up a bill saying the railroad would be taxed $10 for every cross tie on the line. “That got the railroad folks really excited when we started talking about taxes,” laughed Drake. “They finally agreed and were exceedingly nice about it. They even arranged for the finest breakfast to be served to their passengers free of charge.”

Drake would board the train before sunup and ride to Montgomery, take care of business, then catch the 5 p.m. train back to Cullman and be home by 7 p.m., without having to make the tedious drive. Not only did he benefit from this change in L&N’s schedule, but the senator from Blount and Winston counties rode that train with him, along with other citizens who needed to get to Birmingham, Montgomery and points in between. It was a win-win situation for many people.

Drake saw lots of other changes over the 32 years he was in Montgomery. “I don’t believe that there has ever been a more active and productive legislature than during the George Wallace years,” he mused. “At that time there were only two junior colleges in the state, one in Decatur and one in Dothan. We passed a bill through bond issues that granted hundreds of millions of dollars and provided the people of Alabama with 23 junior colleges and trade schools located throughout the state, with busses to get students to and from school.”

Tom’s daughter, Mary Pate, admires the fact that when her father was Speaker of the House, his door was open to everyone. “There were those in the House of Representatives who remarked about this, as there were speakers in the past who would only allow those with like political agendas entrance into the speaker’s office, but he allowed everyone to be at the table for discussions and allowed all alternative and divergent viewpoints to be heard,” she said with pride.

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