Both were months in the making. Both have kept me awake at all hours of the night, and both mean more to me than words can express.
Journey Stories is associated with a traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibit of the same name that opens at the Bankhead House on Saturday.
While the exhibit is national in scope, the special section focuses on local people both past and present who have had interesting “journey stories” of their own.
They include two professional ballplayers, an astronaut, an American hero, several successful businessmen, a thru-hiker and a woman who administered polygraph tests in several high-profile cases.
The purpose of Journey Stories is to show that Walker County has contributed more to the world than meth labs and hit men.
Those of us who grew up in this area have heard our hometowns be the butt of so many jokes that the punch lines are predictable by now.
A small percent of the population provides the national media with 95 percent of their material, leaving good people embarrassed and outsiders with a poor impression of our county, state and region.
This problem is not new.
In the 1960s, Emory Cunningham of Kansas, Alabama grew tired of the media’s consistently negative portrayal of the South.
He didn’t dispute the bad stories. He just provided some better ones in a new publication called Southern Living.
“No one was saying the good things. We thought the timing was right for a magazine to say in a quiet way, it’s okay to be a Southerner...to uphold the very best of Southern living in the very highest standards imaginable...very good people doing good things,” Cunningham once said.
My message in every line on every page of Journey Stories is the same — it’s okay to be Southern. It’s okay to be from Walker County.
A secondary goal of the section is to share some stories from our local history that have been lost over the years.
When I was at UAB, for example, Southern Progress was at the top of almost every journalism student’s internship wish list. My professors never bothered to tell me that a Walker County native had been instrumental in the company’s success.
One of the profiles I am most excited about in Journey Stories is of Dan Bankhead.
Bankhead, a native of Empire, broke baseball’s color barrier the same year as Jackie Robinson and became the first black pitcher to play in the major leagues.
As far as I can tell, he has never received his rightful place in baseball history, much less his hometown paper.
At the heart of Journey Stories is another man who deserves much more honor than he has been given.
John Taylor “Jack” Julian was born in Sipsey and was killed in action on Jan. 1, 1945 in the Battle of the Bulge.
He served in Easy Company, which is the subject of a popular book and HBO miniseries called “Band of Brothers.” His death is included in the episode titled “Bastogne,” which I am told is one of the best and most emotional episodes in the series.
I hate to think of how many Walker Countians have watched that episode without knowing the young man they see dying for their freedom is one of their own.
Because John Julian didn’t make it home to tell his story, most people don’t know about him. Even Paul Kennedy, whom I have often referred to as a human Rolodex, could not provide me with contact information for anyone I could talk to about him.
Thankfully, I found a Wikipedia entry that led me to a book that led me to an author who led me to Julian’s great nephew who led me to his brother, a resident of Jasper.
I am humbled and honored that Bobby Julian allowed me to share his brother’s American journey story in this special section.
If we don’t tell these stories, we will lose them. I almost did earlier this month.
Almost all of my interviews for Journey Stories were on a digital recorder that accidentally got dropped into a glass of sweet tea on June 5.
When I pulled it out and turned it on, I heard only sickening silence. None of the articles had been written yet, and my notes were woefully inadequate.
I immediately prayed for a miracle, and God granted it. The recorder started working again about an hour after the accident. Not one interview was lost.
One of the first files I turned to was the interview with Dr. Carey Gwin, who passed away several weeks after telling me stories about his famous New York Yankees brother-in-law, Ivy Paul Andrews.
Dr. Gwin especially seemed to enjoy telling me about the day he and a cousin, both teenagers, were caught smoking cigars in the lobby of a hotel with Dizzy Dean.
“My Dizzy Dean story’s a good one,” he said with a chuckle near the end of the interview.
I think every story in the special section is a good one, and I hope you will too.