What can you say about a man like Curtis Cole? That he was a wonderful husband to Joyce, a true friend to scores of people, a model citizen if ever there was one, and a hard worker, trustworthy, kind and he loved animals. But Curtis Cole was so much more…
His wit, charm and willingness to help others was ingrained in his DNA, and he was famous for his ability to keep a straight face even when pulling off the best of gags. Like the time when his friend Jack Coffey’s neighbor was having a problem with some pesky armadillos. According to his friend, James Pinion, Curtis found a fake armadillo somewhere. He waited for cover of darkness and placed the offensive replica of the ugliest animal ever conceived in a cage Jack had put in his neighbor’s yard. A few days later he was outside talking with another neighbor and the man pointed and said that there was an armadillo in Jack’s cage. Jack quickly went inside and got his gun, blew it to kingdom come. His wife, Pat, later told Joyce that he swaggered back inside saying, “I shot that son of a gun! He won’t be getting in anyone else’s yard!” Pat, shaking with laughter, said, “Can’t you tell that’s a fake?”
The joke didn’t end there, though. The next week Curtis put a classified ad in The Moulton Advertiser touting Jack as an armadillo removal expert, offering Jack’s phone number. “Daddy got quite a few calls about it,” laughed Jack’s daughter, Brenda Delashaw. “He finally told them to contact Curtis, but they would tell him that they couldn’t get hold of Curtis, in which case, Jack was happy to provide them with Curtis’ number."
Then Joyce got in on the act, putting another fake armadillo inside a cage in Curtis’ truck. She was against corporal punishment, so she instructed him to take the offensive animal up in the mountain and turn it loose, which he proceeded to do. The tables were turned, and Jack got the last laugh on that one.
But that was Curtis, he was one of a kind. If you knew him, you liked him, it couldn’t be helped. He was a pillar of the community, always with Joyce by his side; he helped to make Moulton a better place to live for all of us.
If you knew Curtis Cole you will remember some of the following stories, and if you didn’t have the great fortune of having known him, here are some things about him that will make you wish you had.
Curtis was born and raised on a farm in the Aldridge Grove Community in the shadow of the Bankhead Forest, part of the vast Appalachian Foothill Chain. It was still cold enough to see your breath in the morning, as is often the case in an Alabama February. The fickle Alabama weather had already began to break, bringing buttercups and the promise of an early spring in 1943, when Curtis made his appearance on this earth, the fifth of six children. Weighing 13 pounds when he was delivered at home by Dr. Willard Irwin, he was paid for with a check in the amount of $25.
His dad, Lowell, raised cotton while his grandfather, William A. Melson, ran a country store, which was located a hundred feet or so from the house.
Curtis began school at Speake, graduating in 1961. He was among a close-knit group of students and faculty who remained friends throughout their lives. Joyce Vincent Berryman was one of them. “Curtis would do anyone in the world a favor if he could,” she said of her elementary school friend. According to his wife, Joyce Stewart Cole, a few years ago, he and a classmate, Charlie Prater, decided the school needed a meeting place/museum so they worked diligently to establish one in what was once the vocational workshop at the school. After breakfast each morning, sometimes six to seven days a week, they’d disappear into the old building and go to work. On completion, Speake School Museum houses trophies, memorabilia and photos from each graduating class from 1936 through 2009, the year the school was closed. It provides space for gatherings like the Speake School Reunion, which is held each August, a project that Curtis oversaw for a number of years.
Curtis and Joyce were like catsup and mustard, or RC Colas and Moonpies, when you thought of one of them you thought of the other. They met, like most couples before the internet, through mutual friends and family.
“One of my best friends dated Curtis' brother,” recalls Joyce. “Another best friend dated him so one or more of the Cole boys were always around. Curtis said the reason I (Joyce) agreed to date him was that he'd just bought himself a pretty new Ford. He was making the magnificent sum of $1.70 an hour at Chemstrand and could afford to buy his first new car,” she said. “Whatever the reason I began dating him, I knew right away he was a keeper. He was kind and courteous, honest and caring and told me numerous times a day he loved me. He refused to argue with me because he'd grown up in a household where his parents all too often didn't see eye to eye and he was determined to have a happy marriage. He insisted on carrying everything. It was embarrassing to walk out of the grocery store empty handed while he walked beside me like a weighted down pack mule. He opened doors for me and everyone else until his illness prevented it.”
“Above all else, he was a Democrat!” she laughed. “As I said, early on I recognized him as the perfect lifelong mate. I was exceedingly blessed to have him as the love of my life for 57 years,” she said.
The couple married on the spur of the moment, on December 12, 1963. She was nineteen and he was twenty.
“We had planned a late December wedding date and had rented a house in Moulton that we furnished with purchases from another young couple who'd decided to move into a furnished mobile home,” Joyce explained. “While talking by phone one afternoon, it occurred to us there was no reason to wait. He came to Moulton to get me but we didn't leave until he wrote my parents a message that read, “Gone as two, back as one.”
Her mother kept that note for the rest of her life and Joyce still has it.
Curtis' parents, Lowell and Rena, lived across Highway 36 from Probate Judge Isaac Johnson. “We tapped on his door at a little before 7:00 p.m. Mrs. Johnson invited us in but told us the judge had already gone to bed. She offered to wake him, however, and a few minutes later he came into the living room wearing a nice white shirt through which we could see his red paisley pajamas. The judge tied a strong knot, though, and we never regretted our elopement.”
After Curtis graduated from high school, he continued working for Harvey Elliott at Elliott Funeral Home in Moulton. He followed his two older brothers in what would become a family tradition of working for Harvey Elliott.
In 1962, he became a proud employee of the Chemstrand Corporation, arriving for the first day of work a good hour early. He took the opportunities offered him to move from a machine operator to foreman in several areas and finally the site coordinator when he retired in 1998, after 35 years seven months of service to the company.
Curtis was one of a few employees who could say they worked for Chemstrand, then Monsanto and finally Solutia before the plant was sold to Ascend.
Anyone who knew Curtis Cole will tell you that he was a collector of just about everything. He tried to keep things in order…most of the time. He began collecting Chemstrand memorabilia the day he began his career with them, says Joyce. When Solutia bigwigs began to plan its 50th anniversary celebration at the Decatur plant, retiree Jim Gray, who was chosen to head the historic display committee, knew just who to call.
He and Curtis began a close working relationship that lasted until Jim’s death a few years later. Together they compiled a history of Chemstrand, Monsanto and Solutia Decatur that begins when The Decatur Daily announced the choice of Decatur as the site for its newest plant. When the celebration ended and there was no place to store the display, Curtis volunteered to keep it in his workshop as a museum. Drivers on East Street may catch a glimpse of a building with huge red lettering on the front, reading “Monsanto” that stood at Monsanto’s front gate until the name was changed to Solutia.
Joyce recalls how proud her husband was of his second museum project and how he encouraged visitors to spend some time there. Most former employees will find their photos somewhere in there, painstakingly alphabetically indexed. Several children of those employees have spent time there learning about where their parents worked. The museum will eventually be dismantled, hopefully moved to a suitable space in Decatur, and Curtis’ wife, Joyce, invites anyone interested in seeing it as it is, to call her at 256-565-5891 so a tour can be arranged.
His third museum project began just about the time that the Jesse Owens Museum and Park began taking shape.
His association with the Park came about when Joyce worked with the Jesse Owens 10K race committee and recruited him as a volunteer. Eventually Curtis became race director for a few years. Any task he began had to be perfect, in his eyes, so he spent months each year planning the race. “It may have been overkill but that was his modus operandi,” Joyce chuckled. “He worked with Jesse Owens 10K until his interest in the future Jesse Owens Park consumed him.”
Curtis’ in-laws, Joyce’s parents, died in 1987 when a Colorado highway department employee carried a boulder across a highway in a frontend loader and dropped it, expecting it to stop rolling before it reached the switchback below. Bill and Gladys Stewart were riding on a tour bus that was struck by the 14-ton rock and were killed instantly.
In their memory, Curtis and Joyce bought a gazebo for the mini-park next to Moulton’s First United Methodist Church. That began a years-long crusade to spruce up downtown. With the blessings of Mayor Barbara Coffey, they planted trees, erected street lamps in the park and around the square and, with the help of volunteers, “prettied up” the downtown area. They also asked that ugly concrete trash containers and parking meter posts be removed from around the square. When someone came to town selling unsightly concrete benches that would contain advertising, they led the successful fight against them. They also fought and lost the battle to keep the electric company from cutting down oak trees along the streets that were planted by CCC workers during the Depression.
Curtis and Joyce were always thinking of ways to improve Moulton and Lawrence County. They did almost all of the work themselves, although you’d never hear them say that. But people who notice things like that can tell you flat out, the Coles were part of what makes Moulton such a wonderful place to live, they helped shape the heart of this community for many years.
Next week, read more about the Coles and how they have contributed to the essence of our town...