Not Forgotten: Alabama’s COVID Dead

Longtime Clanton Mayor Billy Joe Driver Would Have Done Just About Anything for His Little City

Longtime Clanton Mayor Billy Joe Driver (Official city portrait)

If you were in Clanton on Monday, you might have noticed signs of a celebration dedicated to the city’s late mayor, Billy Joe Driver, who died July 9 of COVID-19.

There might have been a few people raising a glass to him on what should have been his 85th birthday.

It would be entirely appropriate, although Driver was a teetotaler.

You see, much of the prosperity around you in this peach capital of Alabama came as a result of Driver’s laser-focused absorption with making Clanton a better place to live and work, and part of that came down to alcohol sales.

Not long after he was elected to the city’s top job in 1984, Driver started trying to unravel the fiscal troubles he had inherited. Driver had served 12 years on the Clanton City Council, so he knew a bit about municipal law, and he had a career with the Chilton County Engineering Office to draw on, as well.

One day a visiting reporter found Driver in his office standing over a credenza where maps of census tracts were spread out, each one adjacent to the city limits. At that time, all of Chilton County was dry, and the nearest place a thirsty person could pick up a case of beer was Montevallo, just across the county line in Shelby County.

Chilton auto tags begin with the number 14, and, on most weekends, plenty of those could be found in the parking lots of Montevallo’s two supermarkets. Folks would be loading the trunks with a week’s worth of groceries, as well as some beer.

Alabama law allowed cities of more than 7,000 population to hold a wet/dry vote without having to conduct a countywide election. Driver knew all of this, and it so happens that the population in those census tracts, if added to the city’s existing population, would total a few more than 7,000.

Once he had the council’s support, Driver arranged an annexation vote. When Clanton had become a city of 7,000-plus, it was time for the wet/dry vote, and Clanton was ready to allow retail sales of beer in grocery stores once voters realized how much of their tax money was going to Shelby County.

That new tax money meant parks, a senior center, an industrial park, nice restaurants and smoother streets. Driver was on the hunt for industry and jobs. He was entirely devoted to the little city, and his devotion was returned daily. The Big Peach water tower on the city’s northern end, a branch of Jefferson State Community College, a new St. Vincent’s Hospital to replace the closed and outdated Chilton County Hospital, a new city hall — the list goes on.

Driver’s legacy still is unfolding as work continues on the Alabama Farm Center in Alfa Centennial Park near the Interstate 65 exit 212. The Alabama Farmers Agriculture Foundation is partnering with Clanton and Chilton County to develop a $100 million Alabama Farm Center expected to create up to 400 jobs and have an economic impact of as much as $55 million annually.

Indoor show rings, a 5,000-seat air-conditioned arena, a 150,000 square foot exhibition building, a 400-stall horse barn and 400 RV hookups will cater to two of Alabama’s biggest economic sectors: agriculture and tourism. Driver and his broad and deep contacts across the state enabled Clanton and Chilton County to emerge victorious from among a dozen competitors.

Debbie Orange, city clerk, spent more than 34 years working with Driver, and she wrote a heartfelt account of his dedication to his city for a Clanton Advertiser special edition memorializing the mayor.

“I miss him terribly,” Orange wrote, “especially his sense of humor. You never knew what he would come up with.”

For instance, not long after Driver became mayor, then-Chilton County Sheriff James Earl Johnson’s officers made one of the biggest drug busts in the city’s history: a huge marijuana farm with plants the size of Christmas trees waiting for harvest.

Once county jail inmates had cut the plants and loaded them onto several county trucks, the vast pile of marijuana was stacked in the city shop’s lot, weighted with old tires, soaked in fuel oil and set afire.

As the flames rose high overhead, Driver and Johnson stood side-by-side talking about the case.

“James Earl, I just don’t understand it,” Driver said, shaking his head in mock distress, “when we finally get a money-making business in this town, you have to go and tear it all up.”