Community leaders struggled Monday to absorb the sudden death of Alexander City Mayor Jim Nabors but said his strong leadership will continue to guide and inspire the community for years to come.
Many spoke of Nabors while choking back tears. His administrative assistant, Dana Fuller, closed the door to his second-floor office at city hall and would not go in.
“Maybe later on, not today,” Fuller said while crying.
In fact, council president Tommy Spraggins, who ascended to the mayorship upon Nabors’ death, will temporarily occupy an office on the ground floor of city hall and said he would not sit in Nabors’ seat at the next council meeting Monday. Instead, a white ribbon will mark the chair at one end of the council table where Nabors often quietly observed meetings.
While normally reserved at council meetings, Nabors was the unquestioned leader of the city and how it operated, those who knew him said.
“Jim was not a man of many words but when he spoke you listened,” said Russell Medical CEO Jim Peace, who said the hospital system benefited from Nabors’ long service as Russell Medical’s board chairman. “Sometimes I wasn’t so sure he knew a lot about what I was talking about but it didn’t take me long to learn he knew a lot more than I did.”
Alexander City Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ed Collari said the city was fortunate to have someone of Nabors’ qualifications serve as mayor.
“We were so blessed to have the chief financial officer of a Fortune 500 company to serve as mayor and do it without taking a salary,” Collari said. “That shows what kind of passion he had. You always felt he was the smartest person in the room. You knew he would give you good advice. It’s a big loss. It’s a tough day.”
Alexander City police chief Jay Turner said most citizens probably didn’t realize changes Nabors made behind the scenes improved the services they receive.
“What a lot of people didn’t see was what he brought to the city internally,” Turner said. “We were dysfunctional when he came in and he brought it together. We’ve been able to accomplish so much. His leadership will be truly missed.”
Spraggins, who will serve the remainder of Nabors’ term, which expires in October 2020, said he and Nabors had known each other for 45 years and made a deal to run for office in 2016 while talking in a hallway at Russell Medical.
“I tried to talk him into running,” Spraggins said. “I remember a conversation with him and he said, ‘If I run for mayor, are you going to run for council?’ We made a deal right there in the hallway.”
Spraggins, 67, who will likely be ceremonially sworn in at the May 13 council meeting, said he was stunned to learn of Nabors’ death after emergency surgery early Monday morning to remove an intestinal blockage.
“I knew he had surgery and was in intensive care but we all anticipated him being fine and recovering,” he said.
The city council will fill Spraggins’ seat either by appointment or by special election of someone from his district and Spraggins said he prefers an appointment. But he is unsure of his future plans, including running for mayor in 2020.
“A lot of people have encouraged me to run for mayor if Jim didn’t run again,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll do. I guess this will be a trial test. I’m retired and the mayor’s role is a full-time job. I love Alexander City and I want to see it succeed and grow and bring more jobs here. I’ll fight hard to do that.”
Councilmember Scott Hardy said Nabors’ character and good reputation helped quickly repair Alexander City’s image once Nabors was elected in 2016.
“I think he’ll be known more for bringing the pride back to Alexander City,” Hardy said. “We were a laughingstock in the political arena and he commanded a different kind of attention as only a few leaders can do. He was a great leader.”
Rev. Steve King, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Alexander City where Nabors was a member, acknowledged the late mayor had numerous health issues but faced them courageously.
“I know he was not afraid of death,” King said. “His wife passed four or five years ago and he missed her so much. He said he couldn’t wait to see her again. I don’t think he knew he was this sick.”
King said it will be hard getting accustomed to Nabors’ absence in church.
“I grew up in this church and he was always there,” King said. “I have never known First Baptist Church without him. I am very sad and very shocked. He was a friend to his pastor. He put a father figure in my life and I will miss our conversations. It wasn’t just what he said, it was his presence, you just enjoyed the time you had with him. Just not having him here, he’s irreplaceable. There is a huge void.”
Former Alex City mayor Don McClellan, who now serves as the executive director of the Lake Martin Area Economic Development Alliance, said Nabors’ loss was difficult to accept.
“I’ve been in shock all morning,” McClellan said. “He was my friend. We had a lot of good conversations. When I was mayor, he was the superintendent of education. I coached one of his sons and one of my sons in baseball when they were 6 or 7. We’ve been friends for well over 40 years and I am deeply saddened.
“He was such a giving person and a great leader. We discussed leadership many times. You can’t be a great leader unless you are a good person and he is and was.”
Hardy said Nabors had made a difference in his life since he was in kindergarten when Nabors was the superintendent of Alexander City Schools.
“When I was in kindergarten, there was a misunderstanding with a bus driver,” Hardy said. “For several days when I got on the bus, the bus driver would sling me back and my dad saw it and he was not happy. He went to Mr. Nabors about it and he assured my dad it wouldn’t happen again and it didn’t. I’ve been around him since I was 5 or 6 years old. He was a great mentor, a Godly man, a compassionate man.”
Hardy said he thinks the new municipal complex should be named in honor of Nabors.
“I think he warrants that,” he said. “It was his vision and it was his financial expertise that put us in position to get it done.”
City finance director Sandy Stanbrough, who worked closely with Nabors to organize the city’s books and get audits done, said she would dedicate herself to doing her job the way he wanted.
“I know his vision and it’s my mission to pursue that vision,” she said. “Those are big shoes to fill, bigger shoes to fill than anybody’s got feet. His integrity, his ethics, his goodness is unparalleled. He was beyond qualified. I am certain very, very, very many times I’ll get to the point where I will say, ‘If I could ask the mayor, what would he tell me?’”
Alexander City fire chief Reese McAlister said Nabors was instrumental in modernizing the department’s billing for ambulance calls and adding another person per shift.
“It’s a big loss,” McAlister said. “He wasn’t just my boss; he was my friend. It breaks my heart. I’m shocked and I think the whole city should be shocked. We’re hurting. He’s going to be hard to replace.”
Turner said Nabors helped modernize the police department’s aging fleet.
“We were so far behind, especially our fleet, and he worked with us to get the fleet back up where we didn’t have 300,000 miles on them and wondering if they were going to crank when we got in them,” Turner said. “One of the biggest attributes he had was putting people in position to run a department. He had faith in you to run it. He supported you and gave you the tools you needed to do your job. He let you do your job.”
Peace said Nabors’ wisdom will stay with him the rest of his life and his accomplishments cannot simply be summed up.
“It’s the loss of a friend and a great man in my eyes,” Peace said. “He was such a caring and compassionate person. I don’t know if this community can appreciate the void he leaves. We don’t know how many lives he touched. He was a man you could call on the phone or go visit and he would listen. He always had such good wisdom. I respected him a lot.
“One of the things I will always remember is when he hired someone, he would say, ‘You don’t have to earn my trust; you can only lose it.’ That has resonated with me through the years.”
Nabors contributed to the community in profound ways long after retiring.
“You’re looking at a man who spent his entire career in this community and he left a legacy in everything he did — from working at Russell Corp. to being the chairman of the Roberta Russell Foundation, awarding no telling how many scholarships to kids, to superintendent and as chairman of our hospital board and mayor. He has left his mark,” Peace said.
Collari said Nabors’ unassuming personality belied the emotions the mayor often felt and the best way to memorialize Nabors is to continue the work he started in economic development.
“He took things personally,” Collari said. “He was an emotional person. It falls on all of us now to carry on for him. He set the blueprint and it’s up to us to carry on his legacy. He knew you have to invest in the community to move forward. He felt this community was the best and he wanted it to have the best.”
Collari said he was left with an enduring memory of his last meeting with Nabors several weeks ago.
“We worked closely together,” Collari said. “We’d meet once a week and we would always hug each other and say, ‘I love you’ at the end of every meeting. I take solace in that today.”