If you’ve ever had a hobby that you wished you could turn into a job, this story will resonate with you on many levels. So it was with Tom Bailey, who started a small publishing company because he dreamed of writing books for kids that would bring history to life for them, more than just words on pages, he said.
His fascination with books probably started when he learned to read, but they coalesced into a solid idea about the time he took over the book and magazine section of the Birmingham News back in 1990.
Bailey had been in the newsroom as managing editor since the late 70s and had done about every job at the paper. He went to his publisher and sold him on the idea of creating a book and magazine section and it was while working in this area of the news business as manager that he discovered he missed writing.
Tom and his wife, Janice, traveled to the coast for his job, and in doing so met some wonderful people in the course of working with the news magazines for the paper that he decided to write a book about their travels. This kicked off what would later become Seacoast Publishing.
The Bailey’s had met a lot of wonderful people in the time they spent on the coast, so it was natural that his first book, A Travel Guide to the Alabama-Florida Gulf Coast, was sold from the trunk of their car as they traveled, and at book fairs and various other outlets. And wouldn’t you just know it, lo and behold, they sold 10,000 copies! Seacoast Publishing was born in the late 70s and the book debuted in 1980s.
The idea of writing took more shape and form one day when he spoke to a teacher’s class in Trace Crossing, where he had the pleasure of meeting one of the teachers, Crystal Walton, who told him about a project she was working on called, “Novel in The Classroom.” It seemed that she wanted her students to write a novel in a year. She approached Bailey with the idea, hoping that he could help her with the publication of the novel when completed. “The catch was that her students were fourth-graders,” said Bailey. “I told her that I had doubts about the project because the children were so young, but that if she got it finished she should bring it to me and I’d see what I could do with it.”
Walton surprised him. She and her students worked hard and brought him a novel that was really quite good. True to his promise, he helped to get it published. Crystal Walton was invited to speak at the Alabama Reading Association (ARA) trade show. After the presentation, the group walked around looking at book vendor stalls and discovered that the only thing pertaining to Alabama was a state map. “What in the world do y’all use when you teach history?” he asked them. The question prompted him to consider history as a collaboration between the teachers and Seacoast Publishing.
Bailey says that there was one magic moment when he realized that this would be his passion; plus it just seemed like a cool thing to do, so he got together with other teachers and all agreed that history was usually too dull to engage young minds, that it should read more like a novel.
Crystal Walton had moved on, but fortunately he’d found a like-minded Shades Mountain teacher by the name of Roz Morris who worked at the school his children attended. She was interested in the Novel in the Classroom concept and agreed to work on it with her third grade class. Morris took Walton’s brainchild and turned it into another successful project. Bailey continued to be involved by speaking to the class from time to time about things like character development and story lines.
Their book, “Shades of Grey” was about a fictional family by the name of Grey which was set during the depression. “It was long before the novel people associate with that name now,” she laughed. The little project book, written by third graders, went to print with an ambitious order of 300 books. Eventually it sold 10,000 copies. At one point they were approached by Time/Warner about buying the rights, but since each child would be due a royalty check it got too complicated and the offer was dropped.
“It was just an act of God that things came together so beautifully,” said Morris. “It was a novelty at the time. The kids were featured on news shows, and on Good Morning, Alabama.”
Then Bailey convinced Roz Morris to help in enlisting a group of teachers to write biographies of famous Alabamians, and the group chose 50 people out of about 700 nominated by teachers around the state. The top 50 would become their projects over the next couple of years. It would be called “The Alabama Roots Series.”
Beginning with Julia Tutwiler, Roz Morris wrote several interesting books, including other famous Alabamians such as Hugo Black, Winton Blount, Rosa Parks and Harper Lee, but perhaps the one dearest to her heart was the book about the legendary Hank Aaron.
“At the time I was doing the book on Hank Aaron my son, Drew, was 14, and a baseball player,” she explained. “It thrilled him that I knew Hank Aaron. Once Hank left a message on our phone and asked me to call him back at this number,” she laughed. “My son took the message and was astonished that I now had Hank Aaron’s phone number.”
Once when Drew accompanied her to an interview with Aaron, the youngster was asked by the man he held in such esteem if he had any superstitions. “Yes, sir,” replied the boy shyly. “I wear a t-shirt that belonged to my grandfather. He never got to see me play.”
Aaron invited Drew to bring the shirt the next time he came so that he could sign it for him. “It is one of his prize possessions,” said his mother.
When Roz inquired about his childhood, Aaron referred her to his mother. She and Miss Estella became fast friends. It was one of the perks of her job.
When Bailey approached Hoover track coach Devon Hind about doing a biography on Jesse Owens for the Alabama Roots series, Hind hardly knew who Owens was. “I knew he ran track but not much else,” said Hind, who was 45 years old at the time and coaching middle school kids. In order to learn more about his subject he spent a lot of time at the Jesse Owens Museum in Oakville, the go-to place for all information on the four-time Olympic gold medalist from Lawrence County. “I talked to the people, it’s a great place, and I bought some books and went home and studied,” he recalls.
He enlisted the help of one of his eighth-grade students, Kate Burgstresser, to keep him on track, pardon the pun, as he wrote for kids her age to help them capture the spirit of the man who ran like the wind.
He would catch himself thinking of things to add to his book in faculty meetings, in the middle of the night, and after several months he came up with a great tribute to the man who defied all odds, coming from a sharecroppers shack to making headlines all over the world. “When I turned it in to Bailey, he edited it and I was a little unhappy, but he knew what he was doing and I thought it turned out well.”
Not long after the book was published he was transferred to high school athletics and everything changed, the only thing he had time to write was wonderful letters of encouragement to his runners. Someone suggested he compile the letters into a book, which he did, calling it, “Run for Your Life; A Labor of Love for a Coach’s Athletes.” He was coach of the year, and had had little time to do much else. He brings his runners here for the Jesse Owens Run, and always makes a point of having them tour the museum, telling them much about the humble man from Oakville as they travel.
And now the books, always intended to fascinate fourth graders and make Alabama History fun and interesting, come to East Lawrence, as a group of fourth graders in Mrs. Marshela Segars class bring several of them to life on December 3, as a part of Alabama’s Bicentennial Celebration.
And the people you’ve just read about, the authors and the Birmingham newsman who started it all will be there to see it happen again, after all these years.
According to ELMS Principal, Mrs. Tameka Madden, Segars came to her with the idea of having a living history program in connection with the Alabama 200 Bicentennial. It seems that Segars got inspired by some workshops she attended. She credits Carol Fretwell as her ‘go-to’ person for all things Al200.
The program begins at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, December 3, and the public is encouraged to attend. There is no admission fee, this is intended to help the students learn about the people who came from their state and left their mark on the world. It is also intended to showcase their own organizational skills, and artwork will be on display from Pre-K through grade 4 students, and the project actually has evolved to include the entire school.
Both Madden and Segars hope to see this project turn into a traveling map, showcasing the wide variety of talented and brave people who helped to form our state.
Special guest for the event is Ms. Pearl Jackson Green, LCHS teacher extraordinaire, who will tell of her experiences in the 50s and 60s with such renowned people as Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Ralph Abernathy, who was her own history teacher in college.
Please call ELMS for more information.
Tom Bailey’s books in the series are:
Daniel Pratt, Sam Dale, A.G. Gaston, Jennifer Chandler, Satchel Paige, Hank Williams, Sr. Tuskalusa, Sequoyah, Red Eagle, John M. Patterson, William C. Gorgas, Raphael Semmes, and Bienville.