One of the New South’s most memorable First Ladies died Friday.
Jamelle Moore Folsom, widow of iconic two-term Alabama governor James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, passed away in Cullman at approximately 2:30 p.m. Friday after a brief cancer-related illness. She was 85.
A Fayette County native who married Folsom during his first gubernatorial term in 1948, Jamelle moved to Cullman with her new family in 1951. She was locally regarded as an icon in her own right long after her famous husband’s death in 1987. The only Alabama woman to have both married and given birth to a governor, Folsom remained an avid follower of state politics throughout her later life.
“We’re very sad at her passing, but she passed peacefully,” said her son, Jim Folsom Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps as an Alabama governor.
“She was a very caring person. She epitomized a Christian person. She was an angel and everyone loved her. She came to Cullman in 1951 and she always loved Cullman and Cullman County,” Folsom said.
Beloved by friends and relatives for an inborn ability to move comfortably across the social spectrum, Folsom entered a watershed period in Alabama history at a young age, learning about politics while learning life skills as the mother of seven children — and stepmother of two more.
“She lived in that era of the ‘50s, which were glamorous days,” recalled daughter in-law Jenny Folsom.
“She would tell stories about when they rode the Queen Mary to Brussels, or of going to governors’ conventions and meeting movie stars. But just as much, she was down-to-earth, with nine kids running around, driving them around in a station wagon and hauling them everywhere. She was so very kind; the most perfect Southern lady ever. She was as nice to someone working on the streets as she’d be when she visited the President in the White House.”
“She was always growing — finding joy in her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren,” added stepdaughter Melissa Boyen Friday. “She never lived in the past. She loved to tell stories about the past, but I don’t think she looked back. She never let the peaks affect who she was, and she never let the valleys affect her, either. She was just carrying on everything she had learned about life over the years, and she took every hardship in stride.”
“Big Jim” Folsom met Jamelle Moore — 20 years his junior — in 1946 as a recent widower with two children. The story of their first meeting has been retold many times, and has grown to assume the improbable aura of a Southern fairy tale.
“She used to tell the story that Jim was standing on the back of a flatbed truck, doing a campaign speech in Berry, Alabama — which was Jamelle’s home town,” Jenny Folsom explained. “She was in the crowd and caught his eye, and he went over to her and asked her if he could buy her a Coke over at the drug store.”
Boyen picks up the tale.
“He looked over and saw this gorgeous girl standing with her father, and he winked at her. He went over and introduced himself, and invited mama [Jamelle] to go with him to this after-speech kind of party. Grandma Moore didn’t want her to, but granddaddy said she could. So they went, and when she walked in and, when somebody asked her what she wanted to have to drink, she said, ‘Chocolate milk.’ Isn’t that funny!”
The couple eloped in 1948 after a two-year courtship. Jamelle carried out the role of First Lady for the remainder of Folsom’s first term, then moved to Cullman, where “Big Jim” had already taken up residence in the name of claiming North Alabama as a political foothold. State law at the time forbade consecutive runs at the governor’s office, but the couple was back in Montgomery after Folsom won his second and final term in 1955.
Boyen — one of two children “Big Jim” had with his first wife Sarah, who died in 1944 from complications related to pregnancy — said her stepmother embodied and embraced many of the contradictions that characterized the governor’s mansion during the years between World War II and the Civil Rights era.
“The difference in their ages was big, but she learned from Pa how to deal with everyone. Pa was one of the top 10 most-desirable bachelors in the U.S., and one of the top 10 best-dressed men according to Life magazine, and I used to ask her, ‘How did you take that — to know you were dating someone that popular?’ And she was always just so gracious about it, and always had a great sense of humor. She was this girl from a small town in Fayette County, but she just moved right into the mansion and took over. She became a wonderful hostess — and here were me and [sister] Rachel, a four year-old and an eight year-old, who just had this wonderful woman in our lives.
“She danced beautifully, and she always — and this is something I remember more from Montgomery than here — but she always entertained beautifully. She was always very much at ease entertaining, whether it was the British ambassador or talking with regular people. She was a gracious woman, but this was a tough woman who absolutely wanted everybody to do the right thing.
“She and Pa — they were an extraordinary couple...and they were fun parents.”
Moss-Service Funeral Home in Cullman is in charge of funeral arrangements. A visitation is scheduled at Moss on Sunday, from 1-4 p.m. The funeral will be at 2 p.m. Monday at First Baptist Church in Cullman.
* David Palmer of The Times contributed to this report.
Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.
Editor’s note: The following article first published in The Cullman Times on February 8, 2004.
Cullman’s first First Lady
Jamelle Folsom: First lady, first mom of county
By Gail Crutchfield
Jamelle Moore Folsom was 17 years old when she met Jim Folsom. She can recall the day as if it happened last week, from what she was wearing to how she styled her hair. It was a hot May afternoon in 1946 and the man 20 years her senior was on the campaign trail, trying to drum up support in his bid as governor. It was on that day she began the journey to becoming Cullman County's first first lady of Alabama.
"In 1946 the Strawberry Pickers and Big Jim were going to speak at the Berry Bank," Folsom said. Her father, E.M. Moore, owned a general store and was the Folsom campaign manager in Berry.
"He said, 'Honey, I want you to get dressed and come down to the bank,'" Folsom said. "I called several girlfriends. We had one of those phones that you crank up, you know. And l called three of my friends and I said, 'Be sure to be at the bank at three. My daddy said [Folsom's] going to be the next governor of the state of Alabama and we want to meet him and listen to the Strawberry Pickers.'"
As she stood in the crowd with her friends, dressed in a white seersucker dress and her black hair hanging to her shoulders, she drew the attention of the tall man speaking to the crowd that filled the streets of Berry. "Daddy had the whole town just covered," she said. People were sitting on top of railroad trains to get a look at Folsom. "I was in the crowd with my girl friends and we were just all around and giggling and acting our age," she said. "And he looked over and winked and he said, ‘You folks in Berry sure have some good-looking younguns here.’ I was attracted to him because I had never seen such a giant of a man. He was so tall, 6 foot 8, and handsome."
About halfway through the speech, Folsom said Big Jim told the band to play "Back in the Saddle" and "Oh, Suzanna" so he could go into the crowd and meet some of the people.
"So he goes around shaking hands and... he came over and he said, ‘Honey, you want to get married?' I said, 'Some day.' But I said, 'You're married, you have two children.' I saw a campaign picture with him holding the two little girls and he said, 'No, I'm a widower. My wife passed away.’ And he said, 'I want to meet your folks.'"
"And of course I look up at this giant of a man and I said — well, he didn't know where I lived — and I said, 'Well I'm walking back to the house and we live right in town.' And he said, 'Well I'm gonna go over there and meet your mama and daddy.'"
Mr. and Mrs. Moore were sitting in a swing on the wrap-around porch of the white house on the corner, when thier only child walked up with Jim Folsom.
“Daddy jumped up just thrilled to pieces because he’d already been campaigning and working for him,” Folsom said.
“Jim said, ‘Mr. amd Mrs. moore, I’m big Jim Folsom and I want to take your daughter to the courthouse tonight.'"
Mrs. Moore wasn't too thrilled with the idea. "Mother said, 'Oh baby can't go,'" Folsom said. "Daddy said, 'Well I don't see anything wrong with her going.' He then asked Jim Folsom what time she should be ready and was told his driver would come and pick her up at 6 p.m. “So, I ran back into the house and tried to figure out what to wear and finally decided a green suit would be good for the courthouse, tailored,” Folsom said.
Folsom's driver, Bill Lowery, also was attracted to the 17-year-old. "He said, 'Now look, Miss Moore, if you don't want the governor to bring you back, I'll drive you back from the courthouse.' He said, 'He's much older than you.' I said, 'No, I want to get to know him. I think he's real fascinating and I'm attracted to him.'"
At the courthouse, Folsom and Lowery sat in the balcony while Big Jim gave his speech. Afterward, he motioned for the two to join him on the main floor. They then attended a reception hosted by the owner of the local hospital.
"So when we get to Dr. Robison's house all these beautiful girls were lined up in front," Folsom said. "He was known as 'Kissing Jim’. He kissed all the older people on the forehead and cheek and the young girls he'd kiss them on the cheek and the hand, too. And I thought, 'Oh lord, these beautiful Fayette County girls, I will never see him again.' I said, 'I guess Bill you'll be taking me home.'"
But it wasn't those Fayette County girls Big Jim was smitten with, it was the petite girl from Berry. It was Jim Folsom who carried her home that night and asked for permission to get to know her better.
"I fell in love with him the first night I was with him and he said he would call me every Sunday because the campaign was real scheduled, like six stops a day. By Sunday he could rest. So he'd always come to Berry on Sundays and pick me up and we courted and after two years we got married.
"I prayed every night that he would get elected governor." When he was elected, the Moores attended the inauguration. "I went kind of quietly with my parents," she said. Folsom's sister, Ruby, served as first lady until he carried Jamelle over the threshold of the governor's mansion in 1948.
In the governor’s mansion
Along with Jim Folsom’s two daughters from his first marriage to Sarah Carnley, they raised seven other children.
“With our seven children — we have three sons and four daughters —and then two by his first wife, he said it was like a poker game, to have seven and raise two,” Folsom said. “That was the way he always joked about it.”
All three of the boys were born in the governor’s mansion. A week after the birth of Joshua Folsom in the new mansion Jim Folsom had the state buy before the end of the first term as governor, he called his wife to say that photographers from National Geographic were coming to take their picture. The first lady and new mother had less than an hour to dress in a gown and meet the governor at the bottom of the grand staircase.
“And I was so mad at him when I first started down those steps,” she said. “But when I saw how handsome he was and he reached out his hand for me and he said, ‘I love you,’ I forgot about being mad.”
As first lady, Folsom said she attended a lot of teas and receptions.
“Jim, he liked entertaining,” she said. “We’d entertain the supreme court members. He’d want everybody to put on tuxedoes and the ladies to put on long dresses and just really have a formal dinner for them.”
One time, they hosted the national tennis champion and his new wife at the governor’s mansion. Folsom put on an impromptu tennis match between the champion and Grover Hall, editor of The Montgomery Advertiser. “He called up the Advertiser editor and said, ‘I want you to come over here and come have a game with the champion.’ And he said, ‘Governor, you must be joking.’ And so Grover came over on a Sunday morning and played tennis with the champion. Jim had got on the phone the day before and called all the cabinet members and their wives and children, everybody and put bleachers out in the back yard.”
Folsom said she felt humbled to have served the state as first lady. “I come from a real small town, just 750 people, and I felt so proud that he was elected by the whole state of Alabama.”
She was also proud when her oldest son and Jim Folsom’s namesake, Jim Folsom Jr., entered politics and became lieutenant governor and eventually, governor.
“I think Jim really accomplished more in his terms as lieutenant governor and governor than some governors that stayed in 20 years,” she said.
If she could change anything, it might be the way her son got to be governor. He took over the governorship from Gov. Guy Hunt, who was removed for ethics violations.
“I didn’t like that a bit, because I wanted my son to be elected governor, just like his pa,” she said.
Because he was named governor in the midst of such a trying time, Folsom said she wasn’t able to enjoy it as she would have an electoral victory.
“He called me and said George McMinn and Freddie Day — they were state bodyguards for Jim, state troopers — and he said, ‘Mama, George is going to send a trooper up to pick up you and Marsha,’ and I said, ‘What for?’” Folsom said. “He said, ‘Well the court had told Gov. Hunt that he won’t come back in office and that automatically makes me governor.’
“He said, ‘Now, Mama, I want you to know, I know you’re proud, but come down here like you’re going to church, because you can’t come down here like you’re going to celebrate because a lot of people are real upset over it and a lot of people are losing their jobs.’
“So boy, when I went to that capital and two patrolmen, one behind me and one if front and Marsha in front of them, we joined Jim. And we went into the capital for him to be sworn in and I stood there and I thought, ‘I am so proud my buttons are about to bust off.’ But I couldn’t afford to feel emotion other than just watch the ceremony.”
Folsom, 76, who believes she’s the only first lady of Alabama to have both married and produced a governor, said she wouldn’t mind seeing her son run for office again.
“Well, before I die, I would love to see him put his name on the ballot, whatever he wants to run for. And I’ve told him that,” she said.
After Big Jim
Big Jim Folsom died in 1987. Not wanting to be a burden on her children, Jamelle Folsom decided to go to work.
“Since I’ve come back to Cullman, I wanted the children to know that I could work and didn’t want them to think I had to depend on them when Jim died,” she said.
Agriculture and Industry Commissioner A.W. Todd hired Folsom as an executive to the Commission of Agriculture and Industry. For 11 years, she traveled the state for the office. She and her associates attended state fairs or inspected grocery stores. “I enjoyed that job,” she said. “I even rode an elephant in Mobile at one of the fairs.”
She would travel to farmers’ markets to make sure the vendors had the proper permits. In grocery stores, she and her assistant would check to make sure no expired products were sold. “There’s just a lot of things I never dreamed you had to do in the agriculture department,” she said.
Folsom is also active in the local chapter of the Alabama Retired State Employees Association, with local charities and at her church, First Baptist of Cullman. She still attends events as a former first lady. Several years ago she got to attend the dedication of a local nursing home named in honor of her husband and son. The Folsom Center is the second piece of property named after a Folsom. She said she can still remember the day when Cullman County’s airport was named after her husband. “He was so proud,” she said.
“I’ve enjoyed lately being in the Elk’s Club,” she said. “I have two or three things every day that I do. But my daddy always said, ‘Baby, if you help somebody every day, you’ll always be happy.” I wake up every morning thinking what can I do to help somebody. I should have been a social worker, I think. Jack said, ‘Well at least, Mama, you would have been paid for that.”
* Vinemont native Gail Crutchfield is Community News Editor for the Mountain Press in Sevierville, Tenn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.