Wednesday, January 24, 2018—John Sledge
“These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War” 

John Sledge will tell the story of Alabama’s extraordinary military saga during our nation’s most dramatic trial—the American Civil War which left indelible marks on Alabama’s land, culture, economy, and people. Alabama’s role in the Civil War—told largely through the lens of battlefield experiences in Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee with few details of the state’s Civil War battles—has generally assured Alabamians that what happened in the state’s borders was inconsequential or rather forgettable. After decades of study, Sledge’s riveting account of Alabama’s Civil War offers information on  obscure figures and forgotten landscapes where war was waged— a profound spectacle of combat on Alabama soil and waters. Ken Burns, Emmy Award-winning producer and director of The Civil War documentary said, “If all politics is local then history is more so—and John Sledge’s story is edifying, well written and revealing.”

John Sledge is senior architectural historian for Mobile Historic Development Commission and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He is author of Cities of Silence: A Guide to Mobile’s Historic Cemeteries; The Mobile River; and These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War. John is the son of Eugene Sledge, author of a memoir of his World War II service with the Marine Corps, With the Old Breed: At Pelelui and Okinawa.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018—John M. Williams
“Village Life: A Memoir of People and Places”

John Williams grew up in Auburn, Alabama, but his stories about the people and places that
impacted him there are universal, transporting people back to a simpler time and providing  a snapshot of history. John’s stories have appeal for anyone who has ever lived in a small town with a childhood that was once real, but is “now a topic of conversation in the head.” Football players are included in his latest stories, but a majority of them are about teachers, band directors, preservationists, businessmen, a dance instructor, and even a place called Toomer’s Corner. Rheta Grimsley Johnson who wrote the foreword for his unusual memoir, Village People, said “[John] makes us see the things he saw, from a perspective that is not old but wise—his perspective—that of a boy who has grown up, with the characters in this beautiful book having much to do with it.”

John M. Williams was a Professor of English at LaGrange College for twenty-six years. He has an MA in English Language and Literature from Auburn University and a PhD in English Language and Literature from Georgia State University. Known as a master storyteller and essayist, Williams has written musical plays, played in a series of bands, published several novels, and enjoyed searching for and writing about unusual people like the fortune teller, Mrs. Rena Teel.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018—Rheta Grimsley Johnson
“The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge: Metaphors for Love, Loss and Life”

Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a writer/columnist, uses a parade of beloved dogs to take us on the colorful journey of her life. Rheta begins the story with her starry-eyed
newlywed status on St. Simons Island and carries us through her stints at various Southern newspapers, finally settling down to a writing life and a dateline for her column in the remote and dog-friendly Fishtrap Hollow, Mississippi—a place that the renowned writer has called home for thirty years! Along the way, Rheta talks about her eccentric neighbors, her friends, her three husbands, and —best of all—the dogs she buried in the sad little cemetery over the bridge! Rheta’s dogs—with names like Monster, Mabel, Humphrey, Pogo, Albert and more—helped shape her life, made her a better person, and taught her lessons in unconditional love.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s brilliant career as a writer included serving as an award-winning reporter and columnist to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and then as a columnist for the King Features Syndicate, appearing in 50 newspapers nationwide.Rheta grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, studied journalism at Auburn University
and lived in the South for all of her career. She runs a gallery/shop—Faraway Places—in Luka, Mississippi, and writes for an online publication,  Bay St. Louis Shoofly. Rheta has written several books, including Hank Hung the Moon…and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts and The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018—Talladega College Choir Ensemble
“Inspirational Songs From the Heart” 

The renowned Talladega College Choir—formed in 1877—has a history that spans 140 years. The students who make up the almost 100 member Choir have had
amazing opportunities to perform at such venues as the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC; the Kennedy Center; the Tabernacle Baptist Church in
Birmingham; and UNCF’s An Evening of Stars! The Choir’s performances have brought accolades to Talladega College and uplifted countless listeners. The
students are well rehearsed in the rudiments of music and all enjoy representing Talladega College through song as they travel and perform for the enjoyment of others. An ensemble of twenty Choir members will sing gospel songs for the SouthFirst Lecture series at the Comer Library on Valentine’s Day—offering a lovely, spiritual experience on this special day.

Dr. William S. Mitchell began his professional career in 1966 at J.N. Erwin High School in Dallas, Texas, as the instructor of Class Piano and Band, and for fifty-one years, he touched the lives of high school students through music education. He moved to Tyler, Texas, in 2005 to become the Director of Choral Music for Texas College. In 2013, Dr. Mitchell moved to Talladega, Alabama, and became the Director of the renowned Talladega College Choir. Dr. Mitchell holds a Master of Art and Music Education from A & M College in Prairie View, Texas, and he has conducted music workshops in churches in Texas and Alabama. He is member of an array of prestigious musical and educational  professional organizations.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018—Terry Robbins
“George Jones: The Crown Prince of Country Music”

George Jones—American musician, singer and songwriter—had a sixty year recording/performing career that influenced modern country music and a younger generation of singers, including Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Tim McGraw, and Trace Atkins. The George Jones tale of rags to riches began with his birth in a small town in East Texas where his formal education ended early. Despite the turmoil of George’s hard drinking way of life, his distinctive voice and his gift for phrasing gained him international fame and a long list of
hit records. Admirers of George included Merle Haggard who called his voice “one of the greatest instruments ever made” and Waylon Jennings who said that if country singers could choose, they would all sound like George Jones. Tammy Wynette was the most famous of George’s four wives and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was his best known song—but
there is much more to the story of one of Nashville’s most celebrated honky-tonk singers.

Terry Robbins—an award winning songwriter/singer/musician from Clay County, Alabama—will relate some of the personal travails and the amazing successes of George Jones, and he will sing some of the country singer’s songs. Terry—a member of the Sylacauga Songwriter’s Association and a frequent performer at various venues—has enjoyed success with this own song writing. Terry’s 2015 CD—Long Live the Fiddle and Steel, won the  traditional Country CD of the Year from the National Traditional Country Music Association and his CD, New Memories, won the same award for 2017.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018—Ruth Cook
“Camp Aliceville: German Prisoner of War Camp—1942-1945”

Ruth Cook’s story will give a glimpse into the secret history of a lesser-known aspect of World War II as she recreates the world of Aliceville, Alabama, where as many as 6,000 German
prisoners-of-war (POWs) and 1,000 military guards set up camp and stayed for almost three years. Based on her book, Guests Behind the Barbed Wire, the author will discuss how residents helped build, operate, and supply the camp, becoming intertwined with camp life and the soldiers being held there. Decades later, former POWs and guards, and family members continue to return to the isolated location in Pickens County to search out landmarks and validate memories of humane treatment and hope in the midst of a world war. Cook’s fascinating story—which won a Bronze Medal for outstanding history writing from Independent Publishers—uncovers what being treated well by the enemy meant in the lives of these German prisoners of war and how future generations were impacted.

Ruth Beaumont Cook holds a degree in English and German Education from The Ohio State University, but she and her family have made their home in Alabama since 1970. She is the
author of numerous feature articles for local and regional publications and has served on the boards of the Writing Today conference and the Alabama Writers’ Forum. Ruth’s first book, North Across the River, told the true story of the arrest and deportation of several hundred Georgia cotton mill workers during the Civil War. Her forthcoming  book about Sylacauga’s marble history will be published in the coming year.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018—Dolores Hydock
“It Could Happen! Stories of Hope and Possibility

Dolores promised to tell stories about hope and possibility! The stories may be about the larger than life or the seemingly insignificant, but you don’t have to hope that she will tell a good story and there is no possibility that she will tell a bad story! Almost as good as hearing her story will be watching her body language and marveling at her total recall as she relates whatever stories she decides to tell! She may share stories about the junk in the basement, the blissful distraction of an unexpected sunny day, or the dreamy childhood summers when anything seemed possible. Only one thing is certain about listening to a story from Dolores—you won’t be disappointed!

Hydock, originally from Pennsylvania, is an actress and story performer whose work has been featured in a variety of concerts, festivals, and special events throughout the United States. She is a touring artist for the Alabama State Council on the Arts, a speaker with the Alabama Humanities Foundation, and a member of the Southern Order of Storytellers. The gifted storyteller has been to the Comer Library’s brown bag lecture series countless times over the last two decades. Dolores lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and in her spare time,teaches Cajun and zydeco dancing, and searches for wonderful stories to tell!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018—Buddy Simpkins & Friends
“Our Stories in Music and Song”

Retired Sylacauga High School Band Director, Buddy Simpkins, has gathered noted musicians to play for the enjoyment of the Comer Library’s brown bag audience. Simpkins, a legend in church music, shares his time and talents by playing with the Heritage Hall Band and other groups. Drawing on songs from musical history, Buddy and his musician friends will play their favorite jazz, rhythm and blues, pop, swing, and more for those who enjoy stories through music and song.
Joining Buddy will be renowned jazz double bassist, Cleve Eaton, who spent seventeen years with the Count Basie Orchestra and is in the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame as well as the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Talented trumpeter, Bo Berry, who played with such greats as Wynton Marsalis and Count Basie, was inducted in 1993 to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. Other artists will include Choko Aiken on keys and Tena Wilson on vocals. Choko, born and raised in Japan, began studying classical piano at the age of three—later adding jazz, salsa, gospel, and pop to her incredible repertoire of beautiful music. Tena, a noted singer and vocal instructor, has performed on stage and at concerts throughout the United States using her beautiful voice to “make people happy” at venues ranging from the Alabama Symphony Orchestra to Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf.