Feature Column This Father’s Day bittersweet for Senator-Elect Garlan Gudger | The Cullman Tribune

Feature Column

This Father’s Day bittersweet for Senator-Elect Garlan Gudger

Local businessman, Cullman City Council President and Senator-Elect Garlan Gudger, Jr. is first and foremost a husband and father. This year, Father's Day will be bittersweet because of the recent loss of his dad, who was a familiar face in Cullman and a hero to his children and grandchildren. (Loretta Gillespie)

Note: Tribune columnist Loretta Gillespie writes about her friend, Garlan Gudger, Jr.

This Father’s Day will be bittersweet for the Gudger family, especially Garlan, Jr. who recently swept the District 4 Senate race. The news on election night would have been even more cause for celebration if not for the empty chair among family members who gathered to watch the election at the All Steak Restaurant.

Just a few weeks before, the family was devastated by the loss of their husband, father and grandfather, Dr. Garlan Gudger, Sr. who lost his battle with diabetes due to heart complications. As Heather Gudger said, “It was the most unexpected, expected thing…”

Just as the Gudgers were poised to make the final push, Dr. Gudger’s death cast a shadow on what otherwise would have been the happiest of times for the close-knit Cullman family. A coach until the very end, Dr. Gudger was also a counselor, advisor and leader of the cheering section for Team Gudger as Gudger, Jr. neared the end of a long campaign trail.

Both he and his mom, Dot Denning Gudger, had spent tireless hours on the road, visiting with constituents, shaking hands, kissing babies and getting to know the concerns of the people in District 4, which covers Cullman County, most of Lawrence County and parts of Winston and Marion Counties – in other words, that’s a lot of driving and a lot of meeting and greeting.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. Gudger, Jr. has a successful full- time business, two boys who are involved in sports, and a wife who would support him whatever his decision had been. So he prayed about it, talked to friends and family who offered their encouragement, and at the eleventh hour he signed up to qualify for the senate race.

He’s pretty much been in politics his whole life. According to his mother, he won his first race at the age of 5 when he was elected student council representative. The inquisitive child attended his first meeting, listened to the grownups talk and went back to enlist his teacher because he had things he wanted to add, but hadn’t yet learned to write. He so wanted to do things the correct way that he needed her to make sure it was done properly.

Doing things the right way is what Garlan Gudger is all about. Since that first election he has never been defeated for any office, including student council officer and class officer each year through the 12th grade, as well as being elected Mr. Cullman High and four terms as Cullman’s City Council president.

In addition to being socially and civically active, Gudger was also a star athlete. He played football from grades 7-12, and during his last year he continued to hone his leadership role by organizing the football team to attend various churches throughout the county.

Gudger won state awards in swimming competitions and was a member of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) track team which attended the nationals in California.

He also played basketball from the time he was 6, making the all-star teams each year. His father, who coached in Cullman County for years, couldn’t have been prouder. It was from sports that he learned a strong sense of fair play, conduct in a competition and the determination to win.

At Cullman High School, Gudger continued to excel, both academically and on the sports fields, eventually garnering letters for football, basketball, track, swimming and soccer. His success got him a football scholarship to Samford University, where he played for two years while taking all of the courses Samford offered that would allow him to transfer to Auburn University.

He completed the Building Science program, graduating from AU in 1998. He was offered jobs in Dallas and Colorado, but his heart led him home, where he wanted to join his father in what had started out to be a hobby in the family garage. When that hobby outgrew the space Dr. Gudger bought a building in town. Thus, Southern Accents Architectural Antiques was born in 1969. His hobby, refinishing furniture and salvaging treasures from structures about to be torn down, has turned into one of the largest architectural antique salvage business in the United States. At class reunions in his hometown of Salisbury, North Carolina, Dr. Garlan Gudger, Sr. often quipped to his former classmates that he owned a little junk store.  

For years the young boy trailed around after his father, learning the business without actually realizing he was setting the stage for his own career. He absorbed all the wisdom that his father offered in more ways than just business acumen. He watched as his father dealt honestly with his peers, and along the way, he also learned the gift of giving, a gift that would become ingrained into his personality.

The two worked hard to make the business the success story that it has become. Garlan, Jr. knows what work is. He didn’t just sit behind a desk and hire people to deconstruct homes and businesses that had for some reason been condemned – he swung a sledgehammer for years, working in heat, dust and soot from early morning until late in the afternoon. Perhaps you've seen Garlan's handiwork at restaurants, hotels and other businesses and events throughout Alabama and around the Southeast -- from the familiar interior of Carlton’s Italian Restaurant to the rustic quarter sawn oak floors at the famous Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, the light fixtures and old doors at Rosie's Cantina in Huntsville, the custom designed ceiling in the lobby of The Westin Nashville hotel or the backstage artist lounge at the Sloss Music & Arts Festival in Birmingham and even in NYC at Fashion Week, where he created sets for award-winning designer, Billy Reid. He worked alongside his employees, never asking them to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself.

Southern Accents counts among its many clients, country singer Marty Stewart, sports figures Eli and Peyton Manning, designers Billy Reid and Natalie Channing, actor Samuel L. Jackson, Mike Wolfe of “American Pickers” and Mother Angelica. However, people who know him will quickly tell you that Gudger treats all of his customers alike, no matter their station in life.

He has some hard and fast rules when it comes to his business and his faith.  He doesn’t open on Sundays. And he doesn’t buy historic buildings to tear them down for their contents. People may draw the mistaken conclusion that he operates that way, but the fact is, he only deconstructs houses and buildings which have previously been condemned or are about to be torn down by owners. And because he loves history and legends, everywhere he goes, he chronicles the past of the pieces that he and his Southern Accents team salvage in order to keep the history of those mantles, doors, chandeliers and other fixtures alive. He offers that history to future owners so that they will know the provenance of their mantle or beams. To Garlan, the importance of keeping the story with the piece means that it will continue to live on in another home.

That’s what Southern Accents is all about. He and his father found a way of making a living by preserving the past. Looking back, he says that staying in his hometown was the best decision he’s ever made, second to marrying Heather Pierce and having two sons, Tripp, 14 and Pierce, 11.

As important as the family business is to him, he says that being a father and husband are what grounds him. He took a day trip with his sons on his 40th birthday. That night he journaled his thoughts, “I was able to take a moment to reflect on my life, what and who and where I am,” he wrote. “My 40th birthday is one I’ll always cherish. I was able to observe my children and my niece truly playing, without the benefit of electronics and life seemed a million miles away. I thought of all the cool and interesting places, people, and events that I have been able to be associated with, but of my greatest achievements, those little ones in that boat, are by far what make the proudest! For them to call me Daddy, and say their prayers at night with me, while they hug me- well, it makes me swell up inside with pride. By shaping their future with my time and love, and setting boundaries – who cares how big my bank account is, or what position I hold, if I fail to be a part of their life? I have always wondered where I’ll be in life when I reached 40, and I can truly say that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, home with my family. I am blessed.”

Today, at the age of 43, he sees himself still working on his bucket list of goals at 50, still learning and still acquiring precious memories. At 60, he sees himself close to retirement, but still working and focusing on the next generation of Gudgers.

The family has been active in church, civic groups and in education for decades. They came to Cullman when Dr. Gudger was hired as a football coach at West Point, and quickly became part of the community where they would spend their lives working, playing and making a difference in the quality of life in this area.

A Type 1 diabetic, Dr. Gudger struggled with the disease from a young age. In 2007 one of his kidneys failed. In an emergency meeting, his three children, Jill, Joy and Garlan, talked about the best course of action to take. All three were matches. “Look, both of you might have children; I’m going to give him one of my kidney’s and that’s all there is to it,” he told his sisters firmly.

The surgery was successful. In later years, Dr. Gudger would affectionately joke that he let Garlan think he was running the business but the truth was that he was keeping him around for spare parts.

As the business grew, Garlan, Jr. became a driving force in developing the downtown area. People listened to his ideas. He was young but he had a good head on his shoulders and folks realized that he had their best interests at heart. He always knew that if Cullman prospered, his business would, too. Because of his concern for his community, his boundless energy and foresight, Garlan was elected to the Cullman City Council 16 years ago and has served as city council president for the past 12 years.

Jenny Grissom Folsom has served with him for much of that time. “I have served on the Cullman City Council with him for 10 years,” said Folsom. “He was the president and I have been the pro tem that whole time. He has some of the best and most unique talents I have ever seen in one person. He has the love and sincerity of family, community and heritage well beyond his years. I often tell him he is an ‘old soul’ in a young, energetic and visionary body. I have total confidence in Garlan!”

When the tornado struck in 2011, demolishing the downtown area and much of the outlying county, as well, Gudger was one of the key people who quickly put together task forces, helped to organize the massive clean-up effort, and lent his support to all of the others who worked as a team to accomplish the herculean mission at hand. Soon afterward Garlan became involved with Shane Quick, also from Cullman, who produces festivals all over the world. According to Folsom, it was just two months after the devastating tornadoes of April 27, 2011, “Quick got with Garlan and the rest of us and booked Casting Crowns to do a benefit concert at Sportsman Lake in June. By 2012 Garlan, Mayor Max Townsend, and the city council wanted to have an anniversary celebration to honor the recovery, resilience and growth in Cullman. So on April 27, 2012 the first Rock the South (RTS) was held.”

The rest is history. Today, RTS is one of the largest venues of its kind in the Southeast. The two-day festival brings in tens of thousands of people who spend money on food, gas, shopping and lodging while there.

Because of his efforts he was recognized by Southern Living Magazine as one of the “Heroes of the New South.”

He won’t talk about much of what he does for others, or for the city he loves. But Dot will. “After the tornado hit the downtown area the city council came up with a plan to help store owners rebound,” she explained. “That plan included reimbursing them for replacing the façade of their buildings according to guidelines that would make the city look cohesive and give shoppers a pleasant experience because of the continuity throughout the downtown area.” 

Garlan was instrumental in writing the proposal. It stated that any store or building owner who repaired their building according to the guidelines set forth would be repaid for their expenses through the liquor tax fund. Because of his part in writing the proposal Garlan refused to take any reimbursement for the expenses he incurred on the four buildings he owns downtown. “Not many people know that,” Dot pointed out. “He didn’t want people to think that he took advantage by writing a proposal that would benefit him.”  

That kind of selfless integrity inspires confidence and loyalty in his constituents. Those traits recently led to his being elected the new District 4 senator, for Cullman County, which includes parts of Lawrence, Winston and Marion Counties. He won his home county by a landslide. “It’s been a humbling experience,” said his mother.

As the pain from the loss of his father crippled him inside, he forced himself to focus on the task ahead, pushing forward with his campaign and winning votes at every stop because of his engaging personality and his common sense political stance on key issues.

Gudger is a man of his word, one who can sympathize and understand the plight of small businesses, who knows the sting of sweat in his eyes and the ache of sore muscles at the end of a long day. His parents were educators who worked two jobs to make sure their children were provided for. He grew up listening to them talk about what needed fixing in the educational system and has vowed to help retirees of the state school system have a better benefits package. His father was dean of students at Wallace State Community College, and his mother started the first business school there.

But for Gudger the most important job he’s ever had is being a dad. He learned how to be a father by working alongside his own father. He knows that if he puts his heart into raising his sons they will be good men, the same way he knows that if he helps District 4 grow, it will flow over into his business. He has a vision for his first term in office, but knows he has a lot to learn.

Yes, this Father’s Day will be bittersweet, there will be an empty chair at the family table, that familiar laugh is now only a cherished memory, and he can’t go to his hero for advice about this new stage in his life. But he will never forget the best piece of advice his father ever gave him, “Don’t forget where you come from,” and he won’t forget, because there are two boys who now look to him to teach them the same lessons that his father taught; morality, humility, love of God, of his fellow man and his community. He will go into the Senate with all of that in mind, knowing that the same lessons he’s learned in life will apply there: honesty, decency, respect and hard work.

“What difference will it make how big my bank account is or what position I hold if I fail to be a part of my son’s lives?” he once asked himself. Now, for much the same reasons, he seeks to make the world safe for his sons, and by doing so, for the sons and daughters of others. He wants the see the world a better place for them, and by the same token, better for the children of his peers. He wants them to have clean water and air, and safe, healthy food. And in helping to assure those things he will give others those crucial benefits. He wants them to have more opportunities to work and live in the place they grew up, if that’s what they choose to do, and in helping to bring them more opportunity the rest of north Alabama benefits by association. 

His is the generation that can turn things around in Montgomery, Washington and here at home. Home, where your family is, home where your heart can rest…

To those fathers out there who have worked to provide for their families, to those who have lost their fathers, and to all who will celebrate with them this Father’s Day, we wish you a happy and safe Father’s Day!   

Copyright 2018 Humble Roots, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

  • Garlan Gudger, Sr., second from right, with, left to right, daughters Joy Barker and Jill Howell, wife Dot and son Garlan Gudger, Jr. (Courtesy of the Gudger family)
  • Garlan spent some time with his father before the election results started to come in. His victorious bid for the Alabama Senate was overshadowed by the recent loss of his father, but Garlan Gudger, Sr. will live on in the legacy of love and determination he left to his wife, children, grandchildren and many friends and relatives. He was Garlan's biggest fan and champion. (Courtesy of family)
  • Garlan Gudger has never been afraid of hard work. Never one to sit and a desk and delegate work to others, he is a hands-on kind of guy and will bring that same work ethic to the Alabama Senate. (Courtesy of family)
  • Garlan with his wife, Heather, and sons Pierce and Tripp (Courtesy of family)