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November 30, 2012

Former first lady Jamelle Folsom remembered (Updated with 2004 Times interview)

CULLMAN — 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.

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