It's the people (not the food) that have defined my career

By John Underwood
Posted 9/13/19

Hello dear readers. As many of you may know, I have received the John Stephenson Distinguished Alabama Community Journalist Award.

So, on Friday, Sept. 13 (yeah, I know), in front of a few family, …

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It's the people (not the food) that have defined my career

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Hello dear readers. As many of you may know, I have received the John Stephenson Distinguished Alabama Community Journalist Award.

So, on Friday, Sept. 13 (yeah, I know), in front of a few family, friends and a whole lot of people I don’t know, I will have to stand up and give a speech.

If you know me, you know that this is probably one of my least favorite activities, but I when I stand up, it is with the knowledge that as a community journalist, the biggest reason I am receiving such an award is because of you, the reader.

I would love to be able to take you all with me, but instead, here is my speech. Enjoy.

I would first like to take the opportunity to thank the Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council for this award. It means a lot to me to be getting this award from the University that has been the source of so much joy through the years, along with the anguish and anxiety that comes from being a fan. And let’s face it, I experienced all three of those emotions just two weeks ago, all within a matter of seconds.

And a special thanks to Cliff McCollum, our adopted son and former coworker. I could think of nobody better to introduce me. I often think of Cliff as a younger, much cooler version of me.

Cliff and I once had a conversation in which I told him if I was ever fortunate enough to receive an award I would stand up and say, “You know what the best part of this job is. It’s the food.”

Someone once asked me if I just showed up where there’s food. I started to protest, but then I realized that we were both members of the local Rotary Club, which meets once a week … where there’s food. And we both regularly attended Chamber of Commerce functions, oftentimes where there would be food, including what in my opinion is the best event ever, Flavors of the South, a food tasting which for me basically means 5 minutes of walking around taking pictures, followed by 35 minutes of sampling everything I can get my hands on until I can barely walk out the door.

Full disclosure, the person who asked me that question is a Methodist minister, so I’m pretty sure he is no stranger to his profession requiring him to show up where there’s food, although I’m pretty sure that’s not what defines who he is, and neither does it define me.

First and foremost, I believe I am defined by the people who have influenced my life through the years.

First by family, teachers and adults who taught me to respect others, to those who have served as mentors and peers throughout my 30-year career.

I wish I had time to mention all of them, but I cannot leave here without mentioning a few, beginning with two of my mentors.

First, Paul Keane. When I came back to Alabama from North Carolina in 1997 he was the sports coordinator for Gulf Coast Newspapers. We had a long conversation, sitting in his car after a softball tournament, about me wanting to work sports full time and without him, that never would have happened. It was a job I did for more than 7 years, the last three as sports coordinator myself.

In our short time working together, just three years, it never ceased to amaze me how he always had my back.

He once told me that there are no bad experiences, just good stories to tell later. He told me this while sitting in a hotel room after a state softball tournament in Montgomery. Hours earlier, he had totaled his car by running into the back of an 18-wheeler. When we got back to the hotel, we had to track down my luggage, that I had dropped off earlier that day, because of a mix-up with the room. We ordered pizza that was cold when it arrived two hours later, and “mild” hot wings that were hot enough to melt the rust off a car bumper. Not to mention the fact that both of our teams had made early exits from the tournament.

I looked at him and said, “man this has been a crappy weekend,” to which he responded, “there are no bad experiences, just good stories to tell later,” which I suppose is true because you have to admit, even in condensed form, it’s a pretty good story.

The other is Sherri Killam-Albee, a former co-worker, editor and executive editor. While her contributions to my journalism career are many, her biggest contribution to my life was setting me up on a date to a Mardi Gras ball with a co-worker, on Valentine’s Day no less. But it worked out. We’ve been together now for 21 years, married for the last 18.

My wife Linda is my best friend and biggest champion and none of that would have been possible without Sherri.

And yes, Paul and Sherri were my best man and her matron of honor, respectively.

In my life, I have, seemingly all too many, guardian angels. Again, while there are too many to mention, I have to talk about three.

First is my dad’s mother, Emma Margarethe Bauer Underwood.

She outlived her husband and all three of her sons, but she had a spirit that was undeniable. I was born on her 60th birthday. The story I’ve heard is that she was visiting her sister in Chicago when she got the news.

For 28 years, we shared a birthday. When I started working for The Independent, grandma, who was already a subscriber to The Onlooker, got an extra subscription just so she could keep up with me (I think her daughter, my dad’s sister Fran, has taken up this mantle, because every time something is in the newspaper about me, including winning an award from Auburn University, I get an email from her). The first thing grandma would always do when I walked through the door of her house is to tell me how many stories I had in the paper that week.

Next, my mother’s father, the Rev. Albert Willis “A.W.” Saffold. He was more than my grandfather. Growing up, he was my best friend. A Southern Baptist minister, he retired from preaching when I was 9 years old and they moved back to Baldwin County.

Not long after, my grandmother had to be moved to a nursing home for health reasons and my grandfather moved in with us. He went to see her every day and took her a Tab (she was a diabetic) and Graham crackers.

Since all my brothers had pretty much moved out by that time, my grandfather and I shared the downstairs of our house, staying up late (which for him meant after 8 p.m.) watching Monday Night Baseball, and I got an earful every time one of those preachers came on TV.

In his retirement, grandpa accepted a position as “interim” pastor of Shellbanks Baptist Church on Fort Morgan Road, a 45-minute drive one way. It was a position he would hold for more than a decade.

He also had a huge garden behind our house and sold vegetables out of his 1966 Chevy pickup truck along Highway 59 in Summerdale. And he was a master carpenter, making some of the best furniture ever, in my humble opinion.

He had a shop set up in our barn. One day, I decided to go to town (which was about 10 miles away) so I went to tell him. He said, “well you better keep your eyes open.”

“Why do I need to keep my eyes open Grandpa.”

“If you don’t, you won’t be able to see where you’re going.”

I have used that many times in my writing. In its own way it says a lot about the philosophy I’ve developed throughout my career.

Finally, there’s my mom, Mary Frances Saffold Underwood. When I was 14, my father died, making my mom a single parent.

It wasn’t always easy, but we did the best we could.

While grandma may have been my biggest fan, my mom was my biggest supporter in my early career. When I got my first job at the newspaper, she took me to Gayfer’s and bought my entire wardrobe, about 10 sportscoats, 15 shirts and dress pants, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 ties.

She not only bought all of it, but she had me try everything on, asking me what I thought of it before we decided together what to get.

While the sportscoats, pants, and shirts haven’t fit for quite some time and are all long gone, I still have most of the ties. I’m wearing one of them.

I know I’ve been up here way too long, but I have to say one last thing. The best advice I’ve ever received wasn’t given to me. It was given to a group of fifth graders attending a drug education program.

He said, “the best thing you can ever do for somebody is to simply show up for them. Not show up with an attitude that you have some kind of obligation and have to be there, but show up with an attitude that you will always be there for them, no matter what.”

I realized in that moment that he had summed up who I had always strived to be in my career. I may not be the best writer or the best investigative reporter around, but what I can do is always show up with an attitude that I care for people and want to do my best to help them.

That to me is what it’s all about. Thank you.