Jill Gudger Howell was, as they say, in the right place at the right time.
The place was the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa; the time spanned the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Jill was chosen one of 40 football recruiting hostesses for the athletic program known as the “Bama Belles.” Her duties included acting as guide for prospective athletes and their families, giving tours of the campus and making sure that they arrived for appointments with coaches on time. “It was a real honor to be chosen as a hostess,” said the vivacious Cullman native.
“Recruiting was so different back then,” Jill reminisced. “We didn’t have social media and the Internet recruiting sites like now. Our sponsor, Linda Knowles, had been Coach Bryant’s secretary, she and the position coaches would have us cutting out articles from newspapers about high school athletes so that the staff could choose who they might want to recruit,” Jill explained.
It was about that time that Mrs. Knowles was flown out to Texas by the University of Texas. “She went out there to teach their hostesses how to act like ‘Bama Belles’,” laughed Jill.
At that time, the University of Texas and UA were the top two contributors in the NCAA based on Alumni contributions and membership.
As Jill entered graduate school in 1991, Coach Gene Stallings came to the University of Alabama as head football coach the same year.
“I got a phone call that summer,” Jill recalls. “It was from the one of the older hostesses about the new advisor who was being moved over from another UA sports office to take Mrs. Knowles’ position with the Belles. She thought that ‘she might need some help getting adjusted’ to football, and they asked me to come back during my graduate school year. They only had to ask once!” she laughed.
“They put me with Mrs. Knowles in Coach Stalling’s office. This was around the time that they opened the Bear Bryant Museum. I could stand out in the hall and hear the great Coach Clem Gryska, Tank Connerly (the legendary UA equipment manager) and Coach Mal Moore as they came in from practice every day.”
It was a momentous time to be at the University of Alabama. “I was like a kid in a candy store,” she laughed, her eyes twinkling. “You could hear the gravelly echo of Coach Stallings voice as it preceded him down the halls. He sounded just like Coach Bryant in the videos showcased in the new museum that we would take the recruits to see.’
“That year, one of the top national recruits that we were asked to help promote for the Heisman was Emmitt Smith,” said Jill.
It was into this atmosphere that young John Mark Stallings would come to visit his dad. “I can remember him well,” said Jill, fondly. “He was a young man at the time, and we would sit looking out over the field from his dad’s office window, watching the team practice.
“’There’s my dad!’ he would exclaim, pointing toward Bear Bryant’s famous tower from which Coach Stallings viewed his players.
“I’ll always remember that first connection with him,” she said fondly.
“John Mark was always smiling, ‘Life is good, the sun is shining-everybody’s good,’ was his attitude,” said Jill.
She came in to work one morning to find a stretch limo in her usual parking spot. She was a bit curious as to who the occupant might be. It didn’t take long for that question to be answered, though, as she looked up and saw Gary Busey coming toward her. Busey was there to soak up some “South” in preparation for his part as Bear Bryant in an upcoming movie .
There was something new and exciting going on all the time. It was not unusual for Jill to pick up the phone in Knowles’ office and find someone from Harvard calling. Once the White House called to confirm the team’s travel arrangements to meet the president after the ‘92 National Championship.
She was on the staff when Jay Barker was recruited, and when Eli Gold came on board. She was given the task of wrapping an autographed football for the team for legendary announcer Keith Jackson, whose retirement was during that time.
These were certainly not your normal college experiences. “I was blessed to have been given the opportunity to meet and learn from these people,” she said.
It was partly because of these contacts and experiences that Jill was chosen to serve as one of 22 people on the UA National Alumni Board.
It was in this capacity that she decided that she should do what she could to help re-charter the inactive Cullman County Chapter of the University of Alabama Alumni.
“There I was serving on the National Alumni Board representing three counties, and my own county didn’t even have an active chapter,” she said in amazement. She and her husband, Mike Howell, got the ball rolling by contacting UA to see what the official affiliation process was involved. They had both already been volunteering with the UA National Alumni Association since before 2000-2001.
The Cullman County Bama Chapter was re-dedicated in 2010, with Coach Mal Moore making an appearance at the kickoff meeting, saying to the crowd of almost 400. “In all my years being associated with UA, this is the best reception that I have ever received.”
“In light of Coach Moore’s passing this spring, that means even more,” Jill reflected.
The budding organization was honored to be asked to assist with the inaugural “Bama Bash” in New Orleans, preceding the 2012 National Championship game.
Jill was assigned as the assistant at the pre-Pep Rally dinner to Paul Finebaum and Major Ogilvie, among others. Olgivie is Jill’s longtime favorite UA player. She recalls watching the Tide play on Saturdays as a little girl with her dad, Dr. Garlan Gudger Sr. Jill had the chance to share with Olgilvie that evening that she thought he was great at his position, and that she’d always thought he had the coolest name!
“Michael was assigned to assist Coach Stallings and Jay Barker, which was a huge honor,” explained Jill.
Right in the midst of a beehive of behind-the-scenes preparations for the Pep Rally with the Million Dollar Band downstairs, Jill looked up to see Michael and Coach Stallings coming toward her. “We reconnected in New Orleans after 20 years,” she said.
The courtly gentleman who won the hearts of football fans from every region welcomed Jill with a warm smile and genuine bear hug. She was overjoyed to renew their acquaintance, politely asking after his wife, Ruth Ann.
It wasn’t long after that fortuitous meeting in New Orleans that Cullman dignitaries, like John Hunt, started working on getting Coach Stallings back to Cullman.
Coach Stallings came when the Field of Miracles was originally dedicated.
He made a second trip in February of this year when Kenneth Cornelius, and the Board for the North Alabama Fellowship of Christian Athletes (No Al FCA) invited Coach to be the keynote speaker at their annual banquet.
The NALFCA Board graciously allowed Mike Howell, current BAMA chapter president and named to the NAA Class of 2010 Honorary Alumni, to make the official presentation to Coach Stallings of the Cullman County BAMA Chapter’s certificate recognizing their newly-endowed “John Mark Stallings Memorial Endowed Scholarship” in honor of his beloved son. John Mark passed away in 2008 at the age of 46 due to health problems associated with a congenital heart defect. He was born with Down’s Syndrome.
All of this attention focused on the Cullman County Bama Chapter only helped to interest people in joining the association. “We welcome anyone who is a Bama fan. You don’t have to be an alumni, you can join if you’ve never been to an Alabama game or on campus,” Jill laughed.
The Cullman Bama Chapter continues to develop. “We are here to primarily serve as a liaison for the local alumni, friends and fans in the community to the University, and to raise/endow scholarship funds to assist deserving area students in pursuing their post-secondary studies in Tuscaloosa,” Jill explained.
“Our first officially endowed scholarship was awarded in 2011 by the St. John family in honor of their daughter and niece, Emily,” said Jill. “This year’s Emily Parker St. John Memorial Scholarship was awarded to Bennett Glascock, a St. Bernard Prep School student, who will be entering pre-engineering at UA this fall.
“We are now working on completing the endowment process for the second Chapter award, ‘The John Mark Stallings Memorial’ Endowed Scholarship. As with all local alumni endowed scholarship awards in the state, this one will also be helped to reach full endowment with the proceeds from ‘UA’ car tag sales from each county’s participation in the state, so we always encourage fans to consider purchasing the UA tag during their annual car tag renewal month. A portion of the additional fee is tax-deductible, and you are helping to provide scholarships for students right here in our county,” Jill explained.
“We are honored to have endowed over $82,000, in just three years,” she pointed out. “John Mark overcame a significant life challenge; his spirit has remained a ray of hope and inspiration to those who knew him.”
Jill’s penchant for being in the right place at the right time continues. “There have been a lot of ‘Forrest Gump’ situations in my life,” Jill pointed out with a smile.
Recently, she received an invitation to serve on the Board of Directors for the College of Education at the University of Alabama. It was an honor, and another highlight in a life filled with wonderful memories, many of which involve her alma mater.
Her recommendation was approved by the Dean at UA, and was based on recommendations by College Of Education faculty members and other administrators of the college. They recognized Jill for her outstanding accomplishments in promoting the University of Alabama, both academically and athletically.
Her position as a member of the Board of Directors for the Capstone Education Society covers 16 counties, from Cullman north to the Tennessee line. Her duties will include things like student recruitment, helping to host receptions, networking during alumni events, raising money for new scholarships, and more.
Her goal to make the Cullman Bama Chapter one of the most productive alumni chapters in the nation continues. In a kick-off challenge with a new local campaign called “$15 for 15” to raise more money for scholarships that will run from now through June 1, for UA to match the local contributions for this year. The Cullman County Bama Chapter is asking all Alabama fans (and anyone else who would like to be a part of this cause to help make college more accessible and affordable for local students) to donate $1.00 for every UA Football National Championship. “That’s $15 for 15,” Jill explained. “And we haven’t even included the National Championships from the other UA sports yet.”
“Each donation should go directly through the UA Alumni Scholarship Office and 100 percent of the total proceeds raised will benefit Cullman County high school seniors. We encourage all area fans to consider making this an ongoing donation that is part of their family’s annual budget. The higher the endowment amount for each local scholarship we have, the more money that is available for annual awards to area students, and that’s what we are here to do,” she pointed out.
Donations are tax deductible. Donors will receive a receipt from the University of Alabama recognizing their gift. Deadline for donations is June 17.
For more information and to receive the Cullman County Bama Chapter’s “Crimson Connection” e-newsletter, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or to make a donation to the Chapter’s scholarship endowments, please go online to make a secure contribution at http://alumlive.ua.edu/scholarship-endowments. Simply scroll down to “Cullman County” and make your selection. Interested donors who prefer to make a donation by phone may also contact Lori Baggett, UA National Alumni Scholarship Office Award Specialist, directly at 205-348-5963.