By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
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.
The Changing Face of Cullman County
In the early 1960s, an energetic young U.S. Congressman by the name of Tom Bevil began talking about a lake near Cullman. “I was campaigning and going to school at the time,” Drake said. “Congressman Bevil would stop for gas while campaigning and ask people about the possibility of a lake going in.”
“When they finally got the lake started it was a huge boon for Cullman County. They projected that it would take three years to fill in. After about two years of working on the dam and lake, it started raining one Sunday. It was coming down so fast that they rushed and tried to cut a trench around the dam to prevent it washing away, but finally, they had to drive a lot of expensive, heavy equipment down to the bottom to keep the dam from caving in,” he recalled. “Its all still down there, too, as far as I know, sitting there under tons of water.”
“That lake has been a real plus for people in Cullman County,” he said sagely. “When I first ran for office there were just some chicken houses and a few rough farms out that way. Now, there is a beautiful lake, nice roads out around Cold Springs High School and Brushy Pond, built with millions of dollars worth of road bonds, and lots of million dollar houses — and they all have phones,” he chuckled.
According to Drake, Governor Wallace passed road bonds in which 25 percent of the funds were earmarked for the hill country of North Alabama. “We tried to pave 100 miles of roadway per year, and sometimes we did get that much done, but we paved at least some roads every year for all the 32 years that I was there,” he said proudly. “That’s one thing people are serious about — their roads — which had always been a problem even way back to the creation of the county.”
He can remember when schools in some areas would be out for five or six weeks at a time due to the fact that buses couldn’t get past the muddy inclines. “We didn’t have the materials locally to build roads, no rock crushers or anything, so it was a real feat to get that done,” he pointed out.
Over at the southwest end of Cullman County there was little industry in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, with the exception of one business that hired many Cullman residents. That business was Hired Hand, headed by Grant Crider. It manufactured equipment that modernized the poultry industry. You still see their equipment in poultry houses everywhere.
However, that deficit of industry changed when the Trade School and Junior College program came along, “It’s much different now than it was then,” smiled Drake. “Trade schools and industry go hand in hand. When they started training people and had locals ready to work, the jobs came because the work force was here.”
Tom Drake has the ability to empathize with people who work hard for what little they have. He was born into a family of tenant farmers on Dec. 5, 1930. The family lived on the edge of Cullman County in a small sharecropper’s house in the midst of copious fields of cotton.
He often heard the story of a horrible event that occurred in his family before his birth. A midwife accidently damaged his older sibling’s head during delivery. “That will never happen to us again,” vowed his grief-stricken father, Thomas Douglas Drake.
When it came time for Tom to be born, his father took his mother to Falkville so that the baby could be delivered by Dr. A.W.White of Hartselle.
Tom had two younger brothers and had just become a big brother to a little five-day-old sister when tragedy struck the family again.
“One morning my dad took a piece of brown wrapping paper and drew an impression of all of our bare feet,” he recalled. “He took those little pieces of paper, folded them into a paper poke, and placed them in his pocket along with $25 he had earned by selling his share of a bale of cotton. He kept coming back to play with his baby girl and it made him late, but finally, he left to catch the train for Cullman to buy new shoes for us.”
He missed the “Accommodation” train, so he set off walking and got as far as the edge of Cullman County when, for some reason, he stepped across the tracks after the passing of one train, right straight into the oncoming engine of another.
“They found the paper with the drawings of our feet, but no one ever returned the money for the shoes,” Tom said. “My Grandfather Drake let us have a log cabin. I can remember the men coming to load up everything we had on a wagon,” he said. Along with their belongings, lots of rutabaga turnips were loaded onto that wagon. To this day, when Tom thinks of those times, he can recall the taste of those rutabagas because the family ate them for quite a while. “We put them in a little hill and covered them with straw, dirt and leaves and we ate them when times were rough.”
After the farmers’ harvested their fields, Tom, his mother and brothers would scurry over the fields picking up corn left behind so they could boil it for hominy. “My early years were spent trying to get something to ‘wad my gut’ because we were always hungry,” he recalls.
Gracie Powell Drake worked as a waitress for a small salary and tips, and they continued to eat rutabagas and whippoorwill peas until they ran out.
The year 1935 found Tom, his mother and siblings living in a log cabin on the Drake property. In 1937, two years after his father was killed, Tom’s paternal grandmother, Laura Wilhite Drake, died of pneumonia. His grandfather took the children and his daughter-in-law in to live with him in North Vinemont. His farm was located just outside Falkville, near where I-65 crosses U.S. Highway 31, close to where the Stuckey’s restaurant is today.
Old documents and land deeds belonging to the Drake family indicate that James B. Drake, Tom’s great-great-great-grandfather, filed claim in Huntsville in 1855 on 320 acres of land in the west half of section II township 9, range 3 west. He purchased the land for twelve-and-a-half cents per acre; total price of the property came to $40.05. This property was near Flint Creek Church.
Over the years, the Drake acreage increased to over 1,000 acres, much of which remains in the family to this day.
Jack Wilhite, Tom’s great-grandfather, lived in a community known as Wilhite Station. Many of Tom’s ancestors are buried there in the Wilhite Cemetery, near I-65.
Tom loved living on his grandfather’s farm. He tagged along in the footsteps of the man who would be a central figure and role model for him, working in the fields, around the barn and when his grandpa went to town. “He did the cooking, but he never really learned to cook,” laughed Tom. “Every day we would come home for a simple dinner of boiled potatoes.”
Early each morning Tom milked the one cow, a job he hated. His Grandpa Drake would take that milk and what butter they had made, put it in a slender metal container and lower it down in the well. “When we came in for lunch we would have that cold, fresh milk and butter on our potatoes,” he recalled.
Grandpa Drake often told Tom the story of his father, Thomas Washington “Rafe” Drake, who was an excellent marksman, depended on to feed the family with the wild game he shot.
During the Civil War, Rafe marched into Shiloh, then Kentucky and Tennessee with General Nathan Bedford Forrest. It was at Shiloh, where he was seriously wounded and very nearly blinded in 1862. In a bizarre happenstance, a Minie ball passed through the bridge of Rafe’s nose, exiting the other side of it and killing his captain, who was, unfortunately, standing right beside him.
Later, Rafe began to loose his eyesight. Rev. J.D. McClanahan found him sitting on a log near Iuka, Miss., his eyes almost completely white. Rafe came home on medical leave, but near the end of the war, when things became desperate for the Confederates, army scouts came through looking for anyone they could find who could stand up and fight. An unsuccessful attempt was made to press Rafe back into service. It made no difference to them that the man was practically blind, as long as he had breath in his body and could hold a gun.
Rafe tried to report to his unit which was under attack on the banks of the Tennessee River in Decatur. He managed to elude the drafters who were intent on arresting him for a bounty before taking him back to his commander, but Rafe, familiar with the backwoods, cut down Cotaco Creek in a little inlet to get to the river.
Both the Yankees and Rebels fired at Rafe as he made his way toward his unit. According to family legend, Rafe and the friend with him were captured by Union forces and accused of being spies. They were threatened with death by hanging unless they turned-coat and joined the Union Army. They refused.
Somehow, they managed to slip away in the night and meet up with Rafe’s company.
Four years before his death, Rafe applied for and was granted a Confederate pension. At that time he lived on 120 acres near Lacon valued at $600.
A Family of Lawyers
Tom’s mother, Gracie Gertrude Powell Drake, was born into a family of well-known lawyers in Morgan County. For years, the Powells were a force to contend with, having first made their name known during the infamous Scottsboro Boy’s trial.
Gracie’s father, J.N. “Butler” Powell, was a Methodist preacher and a country lawyer. Known for his expertise in choosing jurors, he was first of the lawyers chosen to represent the group of young Negro boys accused of raping a white woman on a train near Scottsboro, Alabama in 1933. “He was sought by both the prosecution and the defense because of his uncanny ability to ‘read’ people,” said Tom. “But he chose to work for the defense.”
His Drake ancestors fought with the South during the Civil War. As a result, Tom’s Grandfather Powell was against his son marrying into the family, as his sympathies were with the North. People were known to have feuds about this very thing for decades after the war was over. In the end, it was his Grandfather Powell who took them in and helped to raise them, with the exception of Tom, who loved his Grandpa Drake and wanted to stay on the farm with him.
Gracie Drake didn’t like farm life, so she went to work at a restaurant called the “Why Not Café” on Moulton Street in downtown Decatur. “She did everything she could, she worked so hard,” recalled Tom. “Later, she went up north to work in an Ypsilanti, Michigan, car factory that had been changed over to making bomber parts. She sent home whatever she could.” Gracie earned about $100 per week at the Ypsilanti Bomber Plant, which was a small fortune at that time. She stayed there for about two years before rejoining her family in Alabama.
Tom and his brothers went to live with Gracie for a couple of years. When he was only ten, Tom had a job in a bowling alley setting up pens. When Tom was olde, the family moved to the North Vinemont community in Cullman County.
There were only two teachers in the two-room school. One room was partitioned off for grades 1-3 and the other was for grades 4-6. He can remember having box suppers there. Every fall, school let out five or six weeks to allow farm children to pick cotton. Sometimes, when the weather was bad, school would let out for another five to six weeks at a time because the children had no way to get there; buses couldn’t make it down those muddy, winding country roads. In many spots, the roads would wash completely away. Later in his life, because of these memories, he would be instrumental in getting something done about those roads.
Tom attended Vinemont Junior High School, where he played both baseball and basketball. In his junior year, he was selected to play on the first all-county team during the 1945-46 seasons. “That gave me the incentive to want to be somebody in life — to achieve something,” he said.
Growing up and Moving On
Sometimes on Saturday nights, Tom and his friends would stand outside Walgreen’s Drug Store in Cullman watching wrestling on a little black and white television set in the window of the store. Many nights the street would be full of people crowded around the window, watching the fights.
From the very first time he saw the sport, Tom determined that someday he would try it. “I could tell that they had to have good balance to wrestle, and I knew that I had good balance,” he said. Later he would wrestle some of those very men he once watched on the little television. One of them was Tarzan White.
Along about this age he started hearing rumors about a man by the name of Bear Bryant. He would later come to worship the man, but at that time Tom had no idea of how the coach would affect his own life in just a few years.
Tom worked summers as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool. One day while he was on duty he had a visitor. Coach Tilrow Morrison was about to change Tom’s life. “I want you to come and play for me at Cullman High School,” Wilson told the young man. “If you will come I’ll see to it that you get a football scholarship.”
That was all Tom, who had always wanted to go to college, had to hear. “Yes, sir, Coach, I’d come if you can get me in college,” he said eagerly.
“Just one thing, Tom, about those Lucky Strikes there in your pocket, my players don’t smoke,” he said pointedly. Tom immediately removed the unfiltered cigarettes from his pocket and threw them in a nearby ditch. He has never smoked another cigarette.
In his senior year, Tom transferred to Cullman County High School, where he played baseball, and was the first-string quarterback on the CCHS football team. That year the county turned the high school over to the city. “It was the best thing they ever did,” Drake declared. “They had more capital to operate with.”
After Tom’s uncle, Sherman Powell, earned a scholarship to the University of Alabama, Tom was determined to get a scholarship, too. He was sure that if he could just play for a winning team he would attract the attention of the college scouts. Following his graduation from CCHS, the 18-year-old hitchhiked all over Alabama and Tennessee trying out for college football teams in hopes of getting a good scholarship. The University of Chattanooga made him the best offer.
He played guard on the freshman football team there in 1949. It was during this time that Tom became interested in what was to become a life long passion, and his claim to fame — wrestling.
Wrestling and Football
After football season, Tom took over the wrestling team at Chattanooga. Classified as a heavyweight, Tom was looked upon as a strong contender for heavyweight championship of the Southeastern Independent Wrestling Association during his freshman year. In his first year, he won third place in the Southeastern Conference. For the following three years, he held the title of light-heavyweight (191.5 pound division) champion of the Southeastern Wrestling Conference. This conference was made up of Chattanooga, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Maryville, Emory, and Middle Tennessee State universities.
In 1952, he qualified as Southern Olympic Finalist in wrestling and would go on to the U.S. Olympic Finals in Ames, Iowa, traveling by train to get there. He did well, but was beaten by Dale Thomas, a assistant coach at Michigan State (who would later become volleyball and wrestling coach at Michigan State). Thomas beat Tom by one point. Thomas went on to Helsinki and did well at the Olympics, but did not win. Tom jumped a train and came back home. He went on to serve as captain of the University of Chattanooga Wrestling Team in 1950-51 and co-captain in the ’52 season.
He would continue playing football, serving as the captain of the University of Chattanooga Football Team in 1953. It was during this time that he was tapped for the “all-opponent” team by several schools, including the University of Alabama, the University of Tennessee, and Mississippi Southern.
In 1953, his senior year, Tom played against the University of Alabama. It is one of his most cherished accomplishments in the field of athletics that he was selected as the Most Outstanding Player on the field at Denny Stadium. He was presented the game ball by the late Coach Harold “Red” Drew and the late Coach Frank Thomas, both of Alabama.
Because of this honor, and in light of his record as an outstanding football player, Tom holds the distinction of being the first player from the University of Chattanooga to play in two college all-star games, the 1953 Blue and Gray game in Montgomery, and the 1954 Senior Bowl in Mobile. He was the starting right guard in both games. It was at this period that Tom met two of the most revered coaches of the day — Coach Steve Owen of the New York Giants was his coach in the Senior Bowl, and Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant in the Blue and Gray game. In a fluke set of circumstances, Tom was the first Alabamian to play ball for Coach Bear Bryant. “He was going out to Texas A&M for a coaching position there when he stopped long enough to coach the Blue and Gray game,” Tom explained.
His star continued to rise as he became the 15th draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in his senior year. He signed with the team shortly after graduating from college.
In 1951-52, Tom received the Templeton Trophy for “Best All-Around Athlete” at the University of Chattanooga, in honor of his participation in football, wrestling and track. In 1953, he would be recognized by both the UPI and AP for his outstanding accomplishments on the football field, as well as by a number of All-Southern and All-American Teams.
He would continue to wrestle all over the Southeast for close to 50 years, holding numerous titles such as Mid-America Champion, one half of the World’s Tag Team Championship, and various honors. He wrestled for the World Heavyweight Championship against Lou Thesz in Huntsville in the early ‘60s, where Tom barley missed lifting the crown from Thesz.
His memorabilia wall is filled with pictures of matches where he took the ring with some of the greatest names in the professional wrestling world. Names and faces like Gorgeous George, Wild Red Berry, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, Tarzan White, Danny McShane, Freddie Blassie, “Mr. America” Gene Stanlee, Irish Mike Clancy, Bull Curry, Demon Jack O’Brien, Jackie Nichols, Eddie Gossett, Art Neilson, Dr. Jerry Graham, George Bolas, Sputnick Monroe, and was a tag team partner with Len Rossi and Argentina Rocco.
Drake is honored in every Wrestling Hall of Fame in the country, except for one. A few of the ones whose walls bear his name include Iowa, Chattanooga, and Oklahoma. In 2008, he was inducted into the Amsterdam, N.Y., Wrestling Hall of Fame along with Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
Uncle Sam Came Knocking and Tom falls in love
Ten days after graduating from the University of Chattanooga (now the University of Tennessee) with a bachelor of science degree in physical education and recreation degree, his career in wrestling already firmly established, Tom was drafted into the U.S. Army.
He headed to Ft. Gordon, Ga., for basic training, then on to Ft. Benning, Ga., where he was stationed the remainder of his time in the service. Fortunately for Tom, the Korean war was nearing its end, so he never had to see the horrors of war. Instead, he played and coached football with the Ft. Benning Football Team, the Special Troop Command team, along with Tennessee’s great All-American fullback, Andy Kozar, in 1954-55.
His first sergeant let him off on weekends to wrestle in nearby Georgia towns. Once, in Columbus, he wrestled Gorgeous George at the Front Street Arena.
This greatly supplemented Tom’s monthly army pay of $58. On some nights he made as much as $2,000 in the ring.
It was while he was at Ft. Benning that he met someone who would change his life forever…
Home in Cullman on leave one weekend, Tom was hanging out with a group of people on a Saturday night, doing what high school and college kids did back then — riding down the strip and stopping to socialize at The Globe, a popular restaurant/gathering place.
Tom was by this time, noticeable in every crowd. With a stocky build, a wrestler’s muscled and compact body, and the clean-shaven, starched and pressed look required by the military, he caught the eye of someone in the crowd.
As he walked across the parking lot, a friend pulled up and started chatting. The young girl in the car with Edigna Edwards drew his attention immediately. He’d never seen her before, but he sure noticed her now. One of the girls saw the Ft. Benning sticker on his car and asked if he knew someone there. Tom retorted that there were 65,000 soldiers on that base and it would be hard for him to know them all. They thought he was a smart aleck.
It was not Edwards, but his cousin, Patsy Duncan, who called Tom the day after the meeting at The Globe. She wanted him to know that the other girl, the one with Edigna, thought he was awfully cute.
Patsy and Tom put their heads together and agreed to double-date that night, but there was a problem. Tom had a wrestling match in Hogansville, Ga., near Atlanta. Patsy, who was dating Soupy Carr, planned that they would all go to the match.
Her name was Christine McKoy. Tom remembers thinking that she was very beautiful and extremely intelligent, but when he discovered that she was only 15, he was astonished. “I remember thinking ‘How in the world can a 15-year-old be so smart?’” he laughed. “Her conversation was way ahead of any of the girls I knew, but I did think she looked like a baby. I was afraid of being accused of robbing the cradle.”
In fact, she was smarter than he even realized at the time. Several of the CHS teachers relied on Christine to conduct their classes if they had to be absent for a while. She was a whiz at typing and shorthand, which would later qualify her for several top level jobs.
After that first date, and from then on, they considered themselves a couple. Tom, at 23, was just about to get his discharge.
The day he got out of the Army he went to see a friend who was a diamond broker. He bought her the prettiest ring the guy had, which was a full carat.
That night, Tom took Christine to Boots Restaurant in Huntsville. It was a swanky place, owned by former Alabama football player Boots Elliott. On the way home he pulled over at the Decatur Boat Harbor and there near the river, with the twinkling lights of Decatur shining out over water like glass, he proposed to her.
“We’ve been dating for a while now and we need to start talking about getting married,” he said, pulling the ring out of his pocket. “She stuck her hand out and said ‘Yes!’ and I was the happiest man in the world,” he smiled.
When they first got engaged, Tom lived in Albany, Georgia. Christine was still in high school. Their wedding engagement was announcement in “The Hi Lights”, the CHS newspaper.
In a few months, they were married at the Episcopal church, although both were Baptists. She weighed 88 pounds, and was a vision coming down the aisle in a long white chiffon gown. Tom beamed as he took her hand.
They spent the first night of their honeymoon at a cozy cabin motel just outside Montgomery, and then went on to Florida the next day, where Tom was scheduled for a wrestling match. The following day they went Mobile, where they got an apartment for a few weeks before moving into a duplex where they would live until they decided to return to Tuscaloosa for Tom to finish college.
During the first years of their marriage, Tom wrestled all over the Southern parts of several states while Christine worked. “When I came home from the Army, one of the first things I had done was to go right back to Atlanta, Georgia to sign a professional wrestling contract with promoters Don McIntyre and Paul Jones,” he said.
Technically, Tom was still considered the property of the Pittsburg Steelers at the time, but he knew that he could make a lot of money wrestling. The Steelers started out at around $6,000 a year, but he was making twice that in the ring. He tried to convince his coach that he could do both, but the coach was adamant that he only play football. Tom simply forfeited his position on the team by not showing up.
It was the heyday of wrestling in Georgia. Tom, now in his element, wrestled in cities like Savannah, Augusta, Atlanta, Columbus and Macon, just to name a few. “If you were a television star and were seen a lot on TV, people would come from all over to watch you wrestle,” he explained. “I will never forget the time I was in Macon and was scheduled to wrestle as a tag team partnered with my good friend, Arthur, ‘Tarzan’ White, who was a football player for the University of Alabama,” Tom said. “He had gone with Bear Bryant and some other players to the Rose Bowl in 1934 when they won the National Championship.”
The University of Alabama, Bear Bryant, Wrestling and Miz Lillian Carter
In Tuscaloosa, the young couple lived in an old barracks that had been converted into cheap veteran’s apartments. A two-bedroom unit costs them $22 a month. Uncle Sam was paying Tom a whopping $38 a month stipend. He still wrestled every chance he got.
Bear Bryant had just returned to the University of Alabama. Tom was appointed as the University’s first wrestling coach and also served as a student assistant football coach. Somehow, while wrestling, coaching, and maintaining his marriage, he managed to complete his Master’s in Physical Education, as well as earning a degree in the School of Law.
But toward the end of his senior year, Tom’s grades started falling and the Assistant Dean of the University of Alabama School of Law, Sam Beatty (later on the Supreme Court of Alabama) called Tom on the carpet. In no uncertain terms, he told Tom that he should seriously consider quitting the sport of wrestling, because if he didn’t stop wrestling and bring his grades up, he was in jeopardy of failing. Tom was accustomed to making some serious money by this time, so he never really quit the ring, but he did bring his grades up to par.
Tom skipped his last year of law school to run for office. He finished his last semester in law school after he was elected to the House of Representatives from Cullman County, where he served continuously from that time up until 1998, with the exception of a four-year hiatus. He won over eleven other candidates because, he says, of his “gimmick” of being a wrestler. He has always believed that his role as a wrestler contributed to his success as a politician. Just like Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and Abraham Lincoln, Tom Drake was a politician and a wrestler, and proud of it!
In the mid-50s, Bear Bryant’s student coaches didn’t make much money. Bryant often slipped Tom enough to help the young couple make it through the month.
Tom continued to wrestle professionally. According to Tom, Tarzan White was a great All-American football player and wrestler. The two were often billed as a tag-team and became good friends over the years. White was also a friend of Bear Bryant, and both White and Bryant were members of the 1934 SEC team that went to the Rose Bowl.
On one memorable occasion, Tom and Tarzan were scheduled to wrestle as a tag team match against Ginger The Bear. (Tarzan was one of the wrestlers Tom had watched on the drugstore television all those years before).
“In those days it was not uncommon to have ‘man versus animal’ matches,” he related. “In fact, wrestling a bear is how Bear Bryant got his nickname when he was only 13 years old!” Tom laughed.
Those bears often weighed in excess of 500 pounds. “They could really hurt you with their claws and teeth. Sometimes they would cut the bear’s claws off to the extent that he could not really do a lot of damage,” explained Tom. “Of course, they still had small claws after they cut them. They would put a muzzle over the bear’s mouth, with little holes, so that the bear could breathe.”
“When you wrestled a bear you had to make him mad before you could get him to really fight,” he said. “The bear thought maybe you were just petting him or something unless you pulled his hair a little bit or slapped his face, then he’d come at you!”
Tom says that if you found yourself underneath a 500 pound bear, you knew you’d better know how to get out from under it. “The night I wrestled Ginger, the largest bear I’d ever wrestled, I got my finger caught underneath the muzzle and Ginger nipped it a little bit. Blood started pouring out and they stopped the match,” said Tom. “I wrestled other bears a few times after that, but none who could wrestle like Ginger.”
Tom not only wrestled in Atlanta, but did some promoting of the sport, as well. Few people knew a lot about wrestling in that area, so to bring them the sport, Tom got a few television stations to feature wrestlers live on the air on Saturday nights. “Jimmy Carter’s mother, ‘Miss Lillian’ would come to the matches and pull for me,” Tom grinned. “She really enjoyed it. A lot of the time she would attend matches on Thursday nights and come to the television station in the afternoons when we wrestled outside. That was the first time I met Miss Lillian, and she became a big supporter of mine,” Tom beamed.
The Albany television station covered a lot of area in that part of South Georgia. “I believe we were connected some way with Tallahassee, Florida, too, because we would go into the northern part of that state and wrestle, and we had a good following down there.”
Tom also worked in the main office, assisting Jones and McIntyre in writing all the programs, often writing stories about the wrestlers.
He made a lot of money in Mobile because so many people knew him from his football days. Most of the super heavyweights were in Atlanta at that time. “When they brought me in I made a big hit over there, so they called Atlanta and booked me for a few months. I was happy, I was making money!” he laughed.
Tom’s wrestling career spanned several decades. His son Tommy recalls a rather humorous story that came from a deceased former attorney/friend of his — Bill Hunt of the Winston County Circuit. “Back in the 1970s, Bill's wife kept begging him to take her to a professional wrestling match. Bill would always decline, but finally, his wife somehow put Bill in a bind, and he relented. They attended a match which included as main attractions Mario Glento, Lou Thez, Tojo Yamamoto, Tom Drake and ‘Bearcat’ Brown.”
Later, Bill told Tommy that the crowd at the coliseum in Birmingham was packed to capacity and were going wild as his dad was taking a pretty good whipping from the "Bounty Hunters". “All of a sudden he heard some woman behind him screaming “Tom" at the top of her lungs. Bill turned around to see who the woman was. It turned out to be Circuit Judge Aderholt's wife from Winston County; her husband was sitting next to her in the arena.” Judge Aderholt is Congressman Aderholt's father.
Coaching Days With Bear, Joe Willie and Lee Roy Jordan
Tom coached many familiar names in his college football and wrestling days. One of them was Joe Namath. All of Coach Bryant’s football players were instructed by Bryant to go out for the wrestling team because he knew it would keep them agile and encourage good balance, something Tom had a natural ability for.
Joe Namath and Pat Trimble, says Tom, were great players. “Joe Willie was one of the most talented quarterbacks I’d ever seen,” he said. “We called him ‘The Thing’ because he wore his pants like the boys in Pittsburg, so tight around the bottom that you couldn’t get your legs in them. He really had that Pittsburg brogue, too, and was a big cut-up, you could really tell where he was from!”
According to Tom, Namath made throwing the ball look easy. “He could hit his man every time.”
In Tom’s opinion, Namath (played for Bama from 1961-1965) and Lee Roy Jordan (played for Bama from 1960-62) were the most outstanding players he’s ever known. “I worked with Lee Roy his first year at Alabama. You could tell even that that he was a great football player. He was great even when he was in high school. Scouts all over the United States were watching him.”
Tom and Gene Stallings scouted here in Northwest Alabama and were responsible for recruiting five of the best players that the University of Alabama ever got from Cullman County. “Willoby, Trimble, Kelly, Calvert, Chapel, and Don Hudson were who we came to recruit, but Chapel, who Bear wanted badly, had already made up his mind that he wanted to be a Church of Christ preacher, and was going to attend Abilene Christian,” Tom recalled.
Coach Bryant told Tom, “People think I’m after the quarterback, but the main one I want is Chapel!”
Bear Bryant was often heard saying that he had such good football players because they had good mamas and daddies. Tom isn’t sure what, exactly, that meant, but heard Bear repeat the phrase time after time.
Trimble’s brother played for Bear at Texas A&M. He only had one arm. People referred to him as “Nubby” Trimble. “They were interviewing Nubby Trimble on television after a game against Texas A&M in which Alabama gave the Texans a trampling. The reporter asked Trimble what he thought gave Alabama the edge that day. “It’s because we have good mamas and daddies,” said the player promptly, echoing his coach.
“Oh, no, I wish he hadn’t said that,” said Bear to Tom, rolling his eyes. “Those Texas boys will be waiting for us at the bus!”
Bryant always took a real interest in Tom. “I think it was because he knew that I grew up without a daddy,” mused Tom. “I’ve heard him say over and over about how important it was that the players call home.”
Tom recently saw the famous television commercial featuring Bear Bryant saying, “Have you called your mamma today? I sure wish I could call mine,” for the first time during these interviews. He pointed to the screen and said, “There it is! He said that exact same thing all the time! We heard that all the time!”
After Tom was elected to the Legislature, he and fellow representative, Bert Banks passed a resolution which placed Bryant’s name on the stadium where he brought the Tide to victory so many times. “He would call us every day while it was on the floor, saying that we ought not to be doing that,” recalled Tom. “He was always so humble and didn’t really want the accolade, but he sure deserved it!”
Dude Hennessey, an assistant coach at the University of Alabama was on a recruiting trip in Biloxi, Mississippi, when he walked into a store where two gentlemen were playing checkers. He started up a conversation about Alabama Football and asked the pair if they had heard of Coach “Bear” Bryant. They had not. However, they had heard of Tom Drake from Alabama who was the Gulf Coast Wrestling Champion. “Daddy always liked to kid Coach Bryant about this fact,” laughed his daughter, Mary.
“Mr. Drake was an important part of the program and we all thought a lot of him,” said Athletic Director of the University of Alabama’s Bill Battle, another notable player who Tom helped coach, said recently.
Dancing The Jitterbug
Tom and Christine liked to dance, and they were good. They could jitterbug like the professionals, thanks to CHS dance instructor, Miss Parsons.
“We danced because we enjoyed it,” Tom smiled. “One night on vacation in Parkersburg, near Boston, we took the floor at the Parkersburg Hotel. When we started dancing there were probably about 30 people on the floor,” Tom reminisced. “Everyone started watching us and finally they just all sat down. People thought we were professionals. Everywhere we went people would back off and let us have the floor.”
Years later, their youngest daughter, Christy, would recall that they were one-hundred percent in love, all the way, “All you had to do was see them Jitterbug to know that,” she said.
They were on the floor in Boston one night, having a great time, when someone sprinkled the floor with salt. Tom was wearing cowboy boots and his foot slipped just as the tossed Christine into the air. He managed to break her fall, but she hit her head and was addled for a minute. She had to have an X-ray, but all was well. However, it did curb their dancing from then on.
Young Lawyers in Love
Many people say that Tom Drake wouldn’t be where he is today if not for Chris. Tom is one of them. He will tell you in a heartbeat that she was the smartest one, the most hard-working, and the prettiest one, of their partnership. “I really always loved politics more than the law,” he confessed. “But Chris knew and practiced law with a passion.”
Tommy Drake, Tom’s oldest son, who is also an attorney, recalls his parent’s relationship. “My folks put other people first; quite frankly to the detriment of their own lives to some degree,” he said. “It was just part of their natural make-up, and, I presume, a natural result of public service. They never did anything alone — period. They were always together in doing anything.”
Growing up, there was never any question about getting an education,” Tommy continued. “With both of our parents being attorney's; it was a given that everyone was going to obtain a professional degree. It was not really discussed because an argument along these lines would have been immediately and sternly repulsed. We knew bad grades were not allowed and attendance a must.”
The young couple also loved to travel both privately and professionally. After Tom was elected to the House of Representatives they traveled to Taiwan as guests of that government.
They went on safari in South Africa for five weeks. Later, when the Department of Defense sent him to Central America, they saw the Panama Canal. “It was sad to see what shape the people there were in,” he recalls. He often emptied his pockets to little children who had nothing to eat.
They also went to Guatemala, Honduras and several other South American countries, and also to Mexico on several occasions, where Tom would hunt geese and ducks with Red Haynes, a World War II hero who was shot in South Africa.
The first time Tom Drake ever heard the name George Wallace was from his uncle, Sherman Powell. Wallace and Powell were former college roommates in Tuscaloosa.
“I want you to go over and hear a friend of mine by the name of George Wallace,” said Sherman to Tom. “He is speaking in Grand Bay. I want you to come back and let me know what you think of him.”
Tom and Christine, who was employed as head secretary at the State Docks, took the day off and headed to Grand Bay. Chris was only 20 years old at the time, but had a good understanding of politics.
When Tom got there he liked what he heard. “He always said the same thing in every speech,” Tom laughed. “He had a little note pad and referred to it, but it was always, ‘Them people from up North where they took that Pennsylvania Plus want to come down here and tell us what we can and can’t do!’”
“The crowds loved him,” Tom grinned.
The Drakes later met with Wallace and hit it off right away. Even at her young age, Chris soon became an advisor to Wallace.
Wallace and Tom had a lot in common other than politics. Both knew their way around a ring, Tom in wrestling, Wallace in boxing. “George Wallace was a bantam weight, golden-glove champion,” said Tom. “He asked me to invite him to one of my matches so that I could introduce him to the crowd.”
There was one particular tournament in which the winner would receive a gold Cadillac. “We had been building up momentum for this championship bout and I made the promoters let my candidate in the ring at Ladd Stadium in Montgomery,” said Tom. “The announcer turned the microphone over to me and I gave him a big introduction. As he was talking someone handed some of the visiting Japanese and German wrestlers his card and they would make a big show of tearing them in half and stomping on them. When they did that the crowd would go wild because there was still a lot of animosity against Japanese and Germans because of the war.”
When they came to Cullman, Christine would always deliver big crowds to Wallace. She pulled out all the stops with friends, relatives, and strangers on the street, inviting them to come out and hear Wallace speak.
Along about this time, Tom decided that he should return to college to get his degree — the one he’d put on hold for Uncle Sam and wrestling. “George Wallace asked me what I was going to study and I told him physical education,” recalled Tom. “He told me ‘no’, that I needed to be a lawyer.”
Tom went to talk to the dean of education, who advised him to work for another year to be sure. “He knew that I was making more in one night by wrestling than what the Army had paid me for a whole year!” exclaimed Tom.
When he finally made up his mind, he found that he had a job as assistant coach. Unbeknownst to Tom, Governor Wallace had asked Bear Bryant to hire him.
There was also a job for Christine at the Trade & Industrial Education at the University of Alabama. Later on, Big Jim Folsom helped Christine acquire her job with the Department of Transportation, at the State Docks.
At this point the Drakes’ had no children so it was easy for Christine to work and sometimes go along with Tom, who was still wrestling somewhere almost every night.
“My wife did so much for George Wallace,” said Tom. “We went to every meeting where he spoke.”
Tom became interested in local politics. The first time George Wallace ran for governor, Tom was still in law school. Wallace lost to Governor Tom Patterson, and Tom Drake graduated from law school in 1963.
“Wallace vowed that Patterson would never beat him again,” recalled Tom.
Christine decided that she wanted to go to law school, too. She was an excellent student, and aced it in just three years because her marks were so high.
One morning after the Drakes had been back in Cullman for a couple of years, with a thriving law practice, Christine decided to do something else. “I’m going to talk to George Wallace about that State Board of Education job,” said Chris.
She was determined that she get the job with no help from the Speaker of the House, to whom she just happened to be married. She went to Montgomery and that’s exactly what she did.
Gov. Wallace tried stalling her at first, but she reminded him how hard she had campaigned for him in two elections. “I’ve never asked you for anything before,” she reminded him when he tried to put her off with excuses. Later, Wallace would tell people that hiring her was one of the few things he did while he was in office ‘just because he wanted to’.
At 41 years old, Christine Drake was appointed to the State Board of Education. “After that people began to note that she had influence in Montgomery and she, in turn, was able to help others,” said Tom proudly. “While she was in that job she acquired money for schools, got teachers jobs and helped to seat the President of the Fayette (Baldwin County) Junior College.”
The Drakes were a big presence when Walter Mondale ran for president of the United States on the Democratic ticket. Both were convinced that he would make a great leader, but it was Chris who campaigned for him wholeheartedly. The couple was nominated and served as delegates to the Democratic Convention in San Francisco in 1984. It broke Chris’s heart when the campaign ended in defeat.
In the late 70s, while still in the legislature, Tom got a call one day from a friend in Cullman County to discuss opening a bank in Holly Pond. The friend told Tom, “Gov. Wallace won’t charter the bank unless you or Chris agree to serve on the executive board as legal counsel.”
Tom agreed, and entered a new phase in his long and varied professional career.
Tom’s former law professor at the University of Alabama, Mr. Lamata, who went on to become Head of the U.S. Banking Department during the Carter administration, gave them a Federal charter. Roy Shaw remained chairman of the bank board. He asked Tom to take over the position. Tom declined, but brought in Dwight Scott, the Walker brothers, and Dane Estes. They formed the People’s Bank, which now has 31 branches in North and Central Alabama.
He served on the Board of Directors of Attorney’s Insurance Mutual of Alabama, Inc. for 30 years, and is still a board member emeritus and one of the five owners of People’s Bank of Cullman.
A Family of Lawyers
Tom and Christine Drake were the proud parents of four children, Mary, born in 1960, Tommy in ’63, Whit in ’64 and Christy in 1977. Both Tommy and Whit are, like their parents, great-uncles, and others in their family tree, attorneys. That family tradition of being members of the legal profession which started with Butler Powell and his sons, and continues with Tom and Chris Drake (both Doctors of Jurisprudence), Tommy and Kimberly (both Doctors of Jurisprudence), Whit and Katie Drake (both Doctors of Jurisprudence), and includes other professionals, like Mary Frances Drake Pate (Doctor of Science in Nursing) and Ron Pate (Doctor of Philosophy), son-in-law Benedict Lowe (Doctor of Philosophy) and Christy Lee Drake Lowe (to complete Doctor of Philosophy degree Spring 2014).
Christy and her husband, Ben, live in Denmark. Christy trained under the tutelage of Reggie Foster, who had worked with the last eight popes on their Latin for services. Foster told Christy at one point that she knew as much as he did.
Tom and Christine Drake practiced law in the same office for 45 years. They ate lunch almost every day when they were in town at the All Steak Restaurant.
The couple’s youngest son, Attorney Whit Drake, says that he will never forget how much they relied on one another, for everything.
Their oldest son, Attorney Tommy Drake’s friend, Bill Hunt, told him one time that he had a client that he had been doing free deeds and wills for in the hopes that one day this client would repay the favor. “A few months after performing the free-gratis legal work, Bill's client was involved in a million dollar wreck – something lawyers live for,” said Tommy. “Bill spotted his client at a local store and inquired about the wreck. When Bill asked the client as to whether he would need Bill's services to Bill's utter amazement his client stated, “Well, Bill; I already have a lawyer”. Shocked, Bill said, "Well, just who is that?" His client answered, “I hired Tom Drake". Bill asked, "Well why did you hire Tom Drake?” And the client answered, "He's a wrestler, you know."
Tom’s fame as a wrestler is still talked about among his many fans. Whit recalls this wrestling story: “I was riding in a taxi in Mobile, Alabama a few years ago. For some reason, the driver, an older gentleman, eventually began talking about wrestling. A native of the Gulf Coast region, he watched live wrestling in his teenage years back in the early 60’s. Near the end of the ride, he made special mention of one particular wrestler who was his favorite: a “Mr. Clean” type who wrestled frequently against the “bad guys” around the Mobile area. After he talked about this yet unnamed wrestler for five minutes or so, he paused and said “I’ll never forget his name…Tom Drake.” Imagine his surprise when I, 35 years later, revealed that he was my father!” exclaimed Whit in amusement.
One of Whit’s most comical memories of his father is watching as Tom stood flexing his muscles in front of the Temple of Hercules in Rome, Italy.
All four of Tom and Chris Drake’s children were, from an early age, impressed with the hard work ethic and determination of their parents, who both came from humble backgrounds and earned everything they had by the sweat of their brows and dogged determination. They didn’t hand their children anything on a silver platter, they made them work.
“We worked virtually everyday during the summers assisting our great-uncle, Herrin Drake, farming and hauling upwards ten to fifteen thousand bales of hay each year,” recalls Tommy. “My dad and Charles Jennings (a family friend) would come in after (fresh from) work and help throw the last few loads of hay into a barn loft while telling us what sissy's we were,” he said. “They knew how to make us mad enough to throw a bale to the moon!”
There never was a social option until the jobs were done; meaning, day-light to dark. “This obviously kept us out of trouble because we were too tired to start much trouble,” laughed Tommy. “It is all rather humorous when you think about it; as nothing came easy; and without some effort.”
The boys were ‘directed’ to assist their neighbors across the mountain. “We helped Ode Runge's clan in hauling their hay too,” said Tommy. “They were the hardest working people on the planet. Ode always wore a pair of overhauls and never used a foul word that I can recall. His daughter and son's would work from day light to dark without one complaint. My brother and I were not as polite; and, generally complained to and from the fields with as foul of language as we could think up!”
Both Tom and Chris continued to set examples for their children, long after they were grown. “My Dad did not believe in speaking negatively of other people; and, would generally not hear of it; regardless of the reason assigned,” Tommy recalls. “When he saw a "professor" or principal at school he never failed to remark: "I want these kids to get a whipping everyday; whether they need it or not". If we received break money, we were admonished to give half to any of our friends who needed it. Because of the poor circumstances of his early life, my dad had an affinity and compassion for less fortunate people that became priority number one; which is apparent in his religious and political views to this day.”
A Time of Turmoil and Broken Hearts
Over the decades, Tom Drake has been a rough and tumble wrestler, a brawny football player, a hard-hitting politician, and a savvy lawyer, taking punches from all professions and on the athletic field, but without a doubt the death of his precious wife, Christine, on September 26, 2011, was the hardest blow that Tom Drake has ever received.
The couple, who had done everything together for 57 years, practically grew up together, went to college together, raised a family, attended church, and lived a colorful and exciting life together, dancing away many nights and taking on new adventures including learning to fly and traveling all over the world - together.
Seldom does Tom string two sentences together without her name being in one of them. To say that they were close is an understatement – they were inseparable - until Chris became ill with the diagnosis of cancer.
He would have willingly gone to go to the ends of the earth to save her, but because M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is one of the largest cancer treatment centers in the world, Tom and Chris made the decision to go there for her treatments. “Governor George Wallace assured us that it was the best in the world,” recalled Tom, referring to Wallace’s first wife’s battle with cancer years before.
“At all times I had confidence in her recovery,” he said. However, as the cancer spread, her doctors assured the frightened couple that UAB could continue from that point, so they transferred her treatments there, closer to home, which was less stressful for her. For two-and-a –half years, she fought with him at her side, doing all that they knew of, or that her doctors recommended. There was never a day during her illness that he wasn’t with her, with the exception of a few days when he had to be in Washington, D.C.
They heard news of an impending cure coming from France. Tom continued to hope long after everyone else realized that there was no hope. “I never gave up,” he says sadly. “I had hope until her last breath.”
The day she died, Tom had run home to change clothes. “They called me early that morning and told me that she could go any time,” he remembers. He was back at Woodland in record time. She died in his arms — peacefully — on September 26, 2011.
Reminders of Chris fill every room in his office. She is still a great presence, although she is gone from her earthly life. You can feel the love they shared even now — just by listening to him say her name.
In Recent Years
Among Tom’s many awards, accolades and honors that are too numerous to list here, are some that stand out as a way of showing just how talented he was, and still is, in the various arena’s in which he excelled. In 1989 he was selected Alumnus of the year at the University of Chattanooga in recognition of his many accomplishments. Following his graduation, he was selected as one of the top 100 citizens of Cullman County for the 20th Century. On March 31, 1992, he became the first athlete ever to be tapped for the Hall of Fame at the UTC in two sports, football and wrestling. Prior to that, he was nominated twice to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in Birmingham.
In 1993, Tom and Chris were selected by the wrestler’s Cauliflower Alley Club as its legal advisors, where they served as officers on CAC’s Board of Directors. The professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Amsterdam, New York issued a press release to the media in early December 2007, stating that Tom would be honored at its May 2008 banquet with the Hugh Farley Award, which is given to a wrestler that has brought honor to the sport through other professions and activities. (We have a photo taken at this event of Tom with Jesse Ventura, who was also honored and inducted into the HOF at the same time)
At its annual meeting in Montgomery in 1999, the Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives presented Tom Drake the U.S. Congressman Bill Nichols Award for his many contributions to rural electrification, both in the Legislature and as the Attorney for the Cullman Electric Cooperative for 38 years.
In April of the same year, Tom’s wrestling photo was placed on the ‘Wall of Fame’ at the International Wrestling Hall of Fame in Newton, Iowa for professional, collegiate and amateur wrestlers. In June of 2001 he received the second-ever Frank Gotch Award at first annual banquet held in Newton.
Recently, Tom Drake was awarded his 50-year Alabama Bar Association pin.
In his long years of observing Gov. George Wallace, Tom learned the importance of a politician’s ability to connect with people of every faith, creed, political party and social standing. “I’ve seen Gov. Wallace come here to the courthouse and intentionally find the man who swept the floors and make it a point to speak to him and shake his hand before he even met with the county officials,” said Tom, who is naturally a people person who greets everyone he meets.
Christy, youngest of the four Drake children, recalls that her father taught her to always and say hello to everybody she passed, “And to treat everybody as important as any other, to talk to people no matter their job or lack of one, their wealth or lack of it, whether they were wearing a dirty t-shirt or a suit,” she said. “I remember such a person from the community telling Mom and Dad one time that he thought it was very special that their kids took the time to talk to him, whereas not everybody did. To this day I do not ever pass a human being without looking them in the eye and saying hello.”
“My dad used to give me fifty cents extra every day for ‘break’ at school, and he told me to look around and if I saw anybody who wasn't able to buy themselves a coke or something, that I was to give them the money so they could get something. To this day, if I see somebody asking for money on the street corner or roadside, I always give them whatever is in my pocket regardless of pressure from others not to.”
“My parents both started out poor and they made their own way,” mused Christy. “But no matter what fancy political dinners he went to, or how nice our cars were, my Dad is still a country boy who farms the same land he did when he was little, still goes to the same church, and would rather have a bowl of turnip greens than any fancy restaurant meal. A lot of people change their priorities when they have success in their work, but my Dad has never forgotten where he came from, and has really never left.”
To illustrate her point, Christy used this story from her childhood, “One time a certain issue came up in the legislature that my Dad was going to have to vote on, when Guy Hunt was governor. It was a very hot topic and everybody in Dad's constituency was writing to Dad to say how to vote, and I asked him how he was going to vote. He said, "I am going to do what the people have told me to do." I said, "But Daddy, our family believes the other way." And he said, "I am not voting for me - I am voting for the people who elected me to represent them." I was too young to understand that at the time, but as I have gotten older I of course realize how awesome that was.”
Tom’s work ethic hit home with all of the children, but perhaps Mary sums it up best; “You can rest when you are dead, he would say. Life is a time for living to the fullest, staying engaged, and experiencing everything possible.”
According to Mary, he still goes into the office every day. “Retirement is not in his vocabulary and age is just a number,” she laughed.
She admires the fact that her father came out of the Great Depression with little to nothing and no father, and still managed to obtain an education, and meet all of his life goals.
Sundays meant one thing for the Drakes - church. There was little argument from his children because they all knew the consequences. Around 9:15 on Sunday's, they would inevitably hear the phrase, "Arise Lazarus; slay and eat" or "Arise Peter; kill and eat". “I doubt we ever missed a Sunday; at least for Sunday School,” they all agreed.
“On the funny side; and to illustrate my dad's disciplinarian side, every year we would travel to Swan Creek Management Area to put our duck blinds out prior to the State duck season,” recalls Tommy Drake. “This was a rather difficult task because these blinds were generally 20 feet long and around 15 feet wide; unwieldy; heavy and very difficult to maneuver. One October afternoon, my dad left work and met me in Vinemont to transport these blinds to a spot North of Decatur. After violating every ‘wide load’ run of the road; we finally arrived at Swan Creek around 3:30 p.m.” continued Tommy. “I had not checked the weather, and did not know that a ‘Blue Northerner’ would be coming down the Tennessee River. “
“In any event, we backed the blind into the water and unloaded a small 12 foot aluminum boat to push or propel the blind down Swan Creek in order to place the blind at a previously designated stake. The wind turned out of the North; the temperature plummeted to around 25 degrees - and the wind chill even lower.”
“When we arrived at the sight to put in the blind; the wind kept pushing our blind around. The 20-horse Mercury outboard was having a time of it trying to keep up with the weight and wind,” said Tommy. “When we finally were able to position the blind -in order to fix it in position - we had to drive 20 foot iron poles into sleeves affixed to the blind; which were then driven into the river floor. In order to do this we had to pick up these heavy iron poles, drop them into the sleeve and then hammer the poles into the river bed with sledge hammers.”
“As I was hammering one of the poles; I missed. This caused the hammer to go down past the pole toward the water carrying me with it while still holding on to the hammer; I went head first over the side of the boat into the river. I don't know how deep I went; suffice it to say, I went completely under. As I swam back to the surface; I was shivering violently; and somewhat in shock and paralyzed by the cold water. As I bobbed on the surface, I was after a few moments able to catch my breath and reach out for the gunwale. I pulled myself slowly up over the side (expecting some help by this time) I peered over the gunwale to see my dad sitting on the aluminum bench in the back of the boat with a stern look on his face. He said, "Son, where is my hammer?”
Tom Drake, Cullman’s Living Legend
In summing up these interviews with Tom Drake, it is obvious that what he said at the very beginning is still true today – he loves to help people. This is the reason he still comes into the office every day, the reason he will continue coming in as long as even one person still needs his help and the benefit of his experience.
At one point this past summer Tom was in the All-Steak Restaurant at the same time as Gov. Bentley was visiting and lunching there. It was a case in point that Tom struck up a conversation with his bodyguard before even speaking to the Governor. When he did get around to shaking the hand of Alabama’s current highest political figure, the Governor said, “I know who you are, you are Tom Drake, you did a wonderful job for the people of Alabama when you were in Montgomery, and I wish there were more like you!” Tom beamed…
On another occasion, Tom went to Southern Accents to visit with his old crony, Pat Dye. The two laughed and told stories of when they coached together. They were just two guys, reminiscing about their days of football, the people they knew and the games they played. It was a pleasure to watch them joke and pick at each other a little bit.
Doing these interviews has been a real education and a wonderful history lesson. This man, not big in stature, but huge on personality and experience, has walked through times gone by that our children and grandchildren only read about in their school books.
Tom Drake, dubbed The Cullman Comet, has wrestled all of the great names in the sport. He stood on the football field for many a game with his long-time idol and mentor, Coach Bear Bryant, a man that he was honored to call a friend in admiration and with deepest respect and affection.
Tom campaigned alongside Governor George Wallace, and Vice President Walter Mondale. He once shook the hand of arguably one of America’s most beloved political figures, President John F. Kennedy. He spoke at length with his brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy, who called Tom in his office and closed the door in order to inquire about his former college roommate, Pierre Pelham, also a friend of Tom’s.
Tom Drake has packed more life, more enthusiasm, compassion, joy, and an overwhelming passion for helping his fellowman in his 82 years than most people can ever imagine. He has seen others of his generation come and go in the political arena, has witness the fall of several national political figures with sadness, and has been fortunate enough to have called most people his friend, even though he was in politics, which has often caused other politician’s to make enemy’s on several fronts.
He was once investigated for paving so many roads in the county. When the special prosecutor came to the bench and unloaded his brief case before the judge, Tom stepped up and said, “If you are charging me with paving roads so that the mail could get through, or so that people with illnesses could make it to the hospital, or so that busses could bring kids to and from school, then I’ll plead guilty right now.” The prosecutor looked at the judge, packed up and went back to Montgomery. The case was dismissed.
He loved every minute of it – and continues to serve the people of Cullman County and friends all over the state, in any capacity that he can.
We can all learn valuable lessons from men like Tom Drake. Men who stood up for what is right, who went into public office for the right reasons – not to promote himself and his own agenda, but to serve the people who elected him to the best of his ability. Men and women like Tom and Christine Drake, who made a difference, who stayed away from scandalous activities, who took the oath of office and meant what they swore to uphold, are roles models that other politicians would do well to follow.
In the time I spent with him over the course of many hours of interviews, I never heard him say a harmful word against anyone. Therein is the heart of Tom Drake, Cullman’s living legend.