George Wallace Jr. Reflects on Father in New Book

A man whose very name is synonymous with Alabama politics has made his last run for office, and has entered a new chapter in his professional life -- that of a self-published author.

George Wallace Jr. has been busy lately, mailing off copies of his new book, "Governor George Wallace: The Man You Never Knew," which is available on his website, www.georgewallacejr.com, for $34.95.

The book is a memoir, written in first person, that winds through a very wide array of topics: His once controversial father, the four-time governor and presidential hopeful, at one time a symbol of racism but later apologetic and forgiven; his beloved mother, also a former governor, who lost her battle with cancer; and his own life, growing up in the governor's mansion and in the public eye, learning to come to terms with the Wallace legacy.

Wallace is sort of an accidental author. He started writing a few years ago, he said, early in the mornings, reflecting on his early life and his family -- just for the pleasure of it.

"I didn't intend to write a book," he said. "I just started writing about memories, events, perceptions. The more I wrote, the more I realized, in many ways, there was a man in my father that many people never knew."

Most people's perceptions of his father, who died in 1998, have been shaped by dramatic moments -- the "stand in the schoolhouse door" at the University of Alabama in 1963, as one example. "But there's so much more to him they didn't know," Wallace said.

His writings, penned over the last few years, continued to grow.

"The more I wrote, friends and family would look it over and say, 'You need to put this in a book.'"

It's 430 pages, but many are filled with more than 300 photographs, some never before published, that Wallace hopes will give insight into his family's public and private lives.

Pulling it all together -- trying to come up with descriptions of the life he remembered -- was a challenge.

"I'm not that good a writer at all," he said, but "no one could do it but me."

Wallace, the son

The book is less a structured biography and more of a free-flowing recollection of Wallace's father. But several sections focus on his mother and his three sisters, who he said are pleased with the book. There are pages devoted to them, as well as to his sons.

His son, Robby, is the general manager at the Tallapoosa Lakes golf course, who will soon get his PGA card to teach. Wallace says his son has "kind of a quiet temperament and is a great teacher of golf. He's found his niche, and I'm so proud that he has."

His son, Corey, took his own life in May 2009 at age 25.

"Corey had a lot of struggles," Wallace said. "He drifted into a world of drugs. He'd been to rehab a couple of times. We thought he was doing well, but he got off course, and one night, he lost hope."

His wife, Elizabeth, whom he married in 2000, is an accomplished artist. Interestingly, Elizabeth's father, when he was at the University of Florida law school, debated George Wallace Sr., who went to the University of Alabama law school.

"They debated each other and got to know each other," Wallace said.

Sixty years later, the son and daughter of those two law students would be married.

The younger Wallace had his own political career, serving two terms as state treasurer and two terms on the Public Service Commission. He's also worked in higher education, at Troy University and the Auburn Montgomery Center for Governmental Affairs.

After his unsuccessful run in 2010 for the Republican nomination for state treasurer, he is done with running for office, he said. Now, he's focused on promoting the book and time with his family. He and his wife divide their time between their Shelby County home and Palmetto, Fla.

But he returns to Montgomery periodically to visit his son as well as friends he's made through the years, having grown up mostly in Montgomery. He graduated from Sidney Lanier High School in 1970 and Huntingdon College in 1976, with a couple of early years spent as a country musician, signed to MGM Records.

He did two tours with country star Hank Williams Jr., and Wallace said the two shared a bond as the sons of famous fathers.

Wallace says he still plays music today, mostly in Florida, at the studio of his friend, Del Couch. Their home there offers a refuge, he says -- a nice respite from the public eye he's endured since he was a child.

He still gets recognized here. "That's why I like Florida so much."

But he understands that people feel a connection to him, because they feel a connection to his father.

"People tend to have a story," he said. "You hear about something he did for a family member, those kinds of things."

Wallace Jr. understands -- it's one of the many lessons he learned from his father.

"He told me one time, he said, 'Son, you need to remember, because of our family's prominence in Alabama, their encounter with you, if they meet you or say hello, will stand out in their mind much longer than yours. Give them your undivided attention. Be genuine.'"

Sound advice from a political icon.

His father's legacy

Wallace feels that young people today only know of his father from black-and-white footage of a time in history they can't even imagine.

Wallace Sr. was born in 1919.

"As a child, they were taught that segregation is in the best interest of both races. They believed it, and it's what they grew up with, and they accepted that."

Younger people tend to equate his father's early positions with hate or racism, but Wallace said that wasn't the case.

There are certainly people who had "hate in their hearts," but "generally, people in the South didn't. But to suggest they did because they accepted that institution, as wrong as it was, condemns the entire moral compass of a people, and that's not fair."

Wallace feels his father made a bargain to win political office. Segregation was the issue that stirred the voters in the late 1950s, and in 1958 John Patterson won the governor's race as the hardliner on that issue. Wallace lost as the moderate.

In 1962, he used segregation to propel him into the governor's office, a bargain which "went against what he felt in his heart about helping all people, black and white."

Wallace said his father regretted those decisions for decades afterward, and eventually apologized and earned the forgiveness of many blacks. He won his final term as governor, in 1982, with the support of black voters.

"I like to think if he was the leader in the Old South, he was a leader in the New South when he said he was wrong," Wallace said.

His father's many years of paralysis after he was shot by Arthur Bremer in 1972 gave him a rare glimpse into suffering, his son said.

"People don't realize -- they saw my father in a wheelchair, (but) he had constant, chronic pain from the bullets. The bullets had caused nerve ending damage that nothing could alleviate other than heavy narcotics, which he didn't want because they dulled his brain.

"I do know that the suffering he had to endure for so long, until the day he died, really, allowed him to understand the suffering of others in a way I'll never know."

To the end, his father was firm in his faith in God, Wallace said, and father and son would talk about that in his later years.

"He said more than once, 'I used to think politics was the most important thing in the world. Clearly, it's a way to help people enhance their quality of life.

'But Son, it's the relationship with the Lord that really matters.'"

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