The Sunday Interview: Eddie Lowe on leadership, 'Sin City,' and Paul 'Bear' Bryant

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 22, 2014 

  • Eddie Lowe

    Age: 54

    Jobs: Senior vice president, CB&T East Alabama; oversees operations for three branches. Mayor, Phenix City.

    Education: Central High School-Phenix City, 1978; University of Alabama, degree in finance, 1983.

    Family: Wife Deborah; Children Tomi, Jonathan and Destinee. Grandchildren Jadan and Jasaad.

    Football career: Linebacker at Central High, 1975-1977; University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, 1978; University of Alabama, 1980-1982, permanent captain, 1982; Saskatchewan Roughriders, CFL, 1983-1991, All-CFL linebacker, 1989.

    Advice his father, James Lowe Sr., a brick mason, gave when he ran for mayor in 2012: “He says, ‘Stay straight. Because if you can be bought you can be sold. Stay straight. Tell the truth. Be upright and be wholesome.’ He always says, ‘At the end of the day, what can they do to you?’”

Eddie Lowe is not your typical Phenix City mayor.

He runs on what he calls “Bryant time” — if you’re not 5 minutes early, you’re late. It is something he picked up as a football player for Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama and still practices three decades later.

He is old school in many ways. And he will be the first to tell you that.

At a recent Phenix City Council meeting, Central High state champion track athletes were honored. One young man dressed nicely approached to receive his certificate. The problem was his shirt was untucked. Lowe whispered in the kid’s ear. The athlete quickly started stuffing his shirttail into his pants.

But this old-school guy is leading the way as Phenix City takes a new approach to riverfront development.

Recently, Lowe sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to discuss his vision for Phenix City and a wide range of topics.

Here are excerpts of that interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

How are things going in Phenix City right now?

It is going great. And I will tell you that I am really having a blast. The reason why is I love people and I am not going to change my values. At the end of the day, it is never about you. It is about what you can do for others. When you are in a leadership position, that always has to be the No. 1 rule. No decisions should ever be made based on your own selfish desires or interests. It is always what is best for the people you are responsible for.

Growing up here, did you ever think you would be mayor of Phenix City?

No. In fact, it has never been my ambition, goal or desire. It just happened. Part of the reason why I think it happened is there were a lot of good people coming and asking me to run. When I say good people, I mean salt of the earth people, from all ethnicities. I would say, “No, I am not going to do that because I wouldn’t last because I am going to be straight and tell the truth.” They said that is the kind of person we need.

You are Phenix City’s first black mayor. What does that mean?

It is what it is. I am black. You can’t hide that if you tried. This is what I hope people realize — and sports has always known this — it shouldn’t matter what ethnicity, color or race. What should matter is the quality of the person. I tell people if I die today — and I always tell my wife this — the only thing I want said at my funeral is he loved people and he tried to be fair. That’s it. You can’t deny I’m black. But I want people to focus on my character, integrity and the love I have for people.

Is the job more difficult or easier than you thought it would be?

... I don’t take it lightly because the No. 1 job is you have to take care of the people. I want so badly for Phenix City to continue to rise and be the best it can be. ... There are a lot of challenges. You have to stay consistent and be wholesome, fair and tell the truth.

The city is on the verge of a lot of changes, right?

Yes. Good changes.

A lot of those changes involve the riverfront, right?

Exactly. It is mission-critical to Phenix City. We have to get it right, right now. If we don’t do it now, we probably won’t see this chance again in my lifetime. With that comes responsibilities of how you treat people. How you engage people. How we work with Columbus. I know because I was raised and born here and it has not always been good about what people claim Columbus is doing to us or what we are doing to Columbus. In the grand scheme of things, that is minute. Even if that was true — or is true — I think we are at a point right now, that it is a reciprocity between Columbus and Phenix City because of the river. That river has been transmuted for Phenix City and Columbus. What I mean is Phenix City and Columbus have taken that river that has value, but we are turning it into something of greater value.

When you say greater value, in the past the river has been the bane of Phenix City’s existence because Columbus owned the river. Now, it is about access to the river, right?

Exactly.

What does Phenix City have in the way of access to the river?

Look at what has been created on the riverwalk on both sides — but especially our side. ... I have to say this — and I hope it doesn’t get me in trouble — when you look at our side because of the trees and all that, I think that can give us a little more opportunity. What we talk about — and I mean the council — we have to capitalize on that. We’ve got to make sure we get it right. There are other things we have talked about that hopefully someday we can get on that river. You probably won’t see it in my lifetime, but we could. There is a lot of opportunity as far as putting new businesses on the river, as well as working with the Housing Authority. That is part of it.

You have an outfitter about to build a $400,000 zipline across the river. Did you ever think you would see a zipline across the river?

Nope. That is where we — Columbus and Phenix City — have transmuted that river. We need each other. Phenix City needs Columbus and Columbus needs us. The great thing is the leadership of Columbus and the leadership of Phenix City recognize that.

Why has that not always been the case?

It goes back to leadership. Everything rises and falls on leadership.

You talk about leadership. You played football at Alabama under Coach Bryant. What did Coach Bryant teach you about leadership?

The No. 1 thing that I learned from playing under Coach Bryant — and you know I come from great parents that taught us value. Growing up in our house, if we did not say, “Yes, ma’am,” “no, ma’am” and “yes, sir” and “no, sir,” you deserved whatever you got from my parents. You call it old school, but I still have that habit, and all of my sisters and brothers have that habit. I say that to say this: They taught me those values and not to just think about yourself. ... By us having to say “yes, sir” and “no, sir,” and getting a few licks for not saying that, as a kid growing up you say, “I will be so glad when I don’t have to do that.” Lo and behold, when you get to the University of Alabama it is enforced even more. You follow me?

I got it ...

The greatest thing that I learned from playing for Coach Bryant that I try and bring every day at my job, here and everything I do working with people, is I learned how not to be jealous. It’s all about the team. It’s never about you. I try and practice that with the people here, no matter where I am.

What do you say to the person who doesn’t buy into your philosophy that it is all about the team?

I am kind of a Pollyanna guy — a utopia guy. Some people say I live in la-la land, but I really believe you can teach people how not to think about themselves and how not to be jealous. What I say to people like that is if they don’t want to get on this — you can call it a philosophy or whatever you want — but if you don’t want to get with this leadership style, you probably don’t need to be here... I believe in my heart it brings everybody else up. At the end of the day, it is not about you. It is about raising other people up to surpass you. When you are a leadership position, sometimes you have to realize that you are the sacrificial lamb for the team. And you have to take that responsibility.

You are a part-time mayor. Do you think the mayor will ever be full-time?

I don’t know. But I can tell you that has never come up with this administration. I know in the past there were some things about a full-time mayor as well as an elected school board. ... I was the first person out in front against an elected school board. As far as the mayor being full-time or part-time, that wasn’t important to me then and it is certainly not important to be now.

You mentioned elected school board. Before becoming mayor, you were chairman of the school board, right?

Yes — for several years.

The Board of Education is now embroiled in a controversy with the ouster of the superintendent, Dr. Larry DiChiara. The school board has said it acted in the best interest of the district. Do you believe the board did that?

I have never questioned that, and let me tell you the reason why. The only authority the council has with any of the boards is to appoint. After you appoint, it is an autonomous board — a separate entity — and they have to run their shop. The thing I say to people is sometimes you have to trust the leadership. If the leadership is not doing what is right, it will eventually come out. Sometimes, unfortunately, that may take several months or several years. ... We have gotten a lot of phone calls — I have to admit that — from citizens in Phenix City that are trying to push this council to get involved with that. The message from the council is that is a separate entity and we cannot cross that line.

Obviously, you worked very closely with Dr. DiChiara for a number of years. What is your personal opinion of Dr. DiChiara?

Larry did a lot of good things and I never had any problems with him. The thing is as far as leadership, when he and I had problems, we would get behind closed doors. And we would, quite frankly, hash it out. That is the way to do it. The key is when you come out, you have to be on the same page.

Why didn’t that happen this time?

I can’t answer that. I have no idea.

Let me ask it this way: Dr. DiChiara was a successful high school basketball coach. You were a professional athlete. Were y’all able to talk in a way that coaches and athletes communicate?

We talked to each other that way behind closed er that way behind closed doors. Yes, we did. But the thing we always said is, “When we leave here, I am not going to cut your legs from under you in the public.” When we get behind closed doors, we can have our say.

Is this a black eye for Phenix City?

I am not going to say it is a black eye, but I will tell you that there are a lot of people who have been calling this council. So, it has taken some effect. With the leadership, they are doing right now what they feel they need to do. And I am not going to cross that line, and I am not going to question them.

Have you talked to Larry since it happened?

Yeah, I have talked to Larry after it happened. Like I said, I am not going to get involved in that. But I will tell you, again, that this council has been getting a lot of calls.

Would you like to see it resolved sooner rather than later?

Of course, because it is Phenix City. ... It is still my responsibility to sell Phenix City. If any entity such as the school board or other board are not getting along, it gives the city a black eye.

This could cost the school district $750,000 or more. That’s a lot of money, right?

It is a lot. And to be honest, that is why we are getting a lot of calls. ... People in the community understand. We always tell people we want to tell the truth and people can come see whatever they want to see. I tell you, you are not fooling people. The reason why this council has gotten a lot of calls is because people understand if they have to pay that money it is coming out of the taxpayers’ dollars. They understand that. ... We have gotten calls and I have shared that with some of the board members. Still, that is their organization. That is their business because it is an autonomous board.

Did you develop this stand because under the previous council, when you were chairman of the school board, there was meddling?

Yes. ... You’ve got to trust the leadership. ... The truth will always walk down a lie. Sometimes it takes time. ... What I have learned is if you are trying to fool people, you start trying to fool each other and everybody is living a big lie. Quite frankly, none of us has that kind of time. We need to be putting that kind of time, energy and investment in making things better for our communities.

Your brother, Woodrow, is the head football coach at Central High. Are y’all close?

My entire family is very close. I have three sisters and two brothers and everybody is here now. At one point, we had all scattered. My mom took ill in about 2000 and everybody started coming home. Woodrow was coaching in the pros making a ton of money. But we were raised with the values of family. So, he took a pay cut to go coach in college. After my mom passed and my dad took ill, he said, ‘I have got to get closer to home.’ That is when he ended up in Smiths Station. My dad is still living. He is 90 years old. My oldest brother is president of Bishop State, but he drives back and forth on the weekend.

I saw where Woodrow was selected as one of the 10 greatest players to play at Alabama?

That’s pretty strong. Think about it, the University of Alabama has only had two three-time All-Americans in its history. And Coach Bryant in his history only coaches one — and that was Woodrow.

How has it been being Woodrow’s little brother?

When I was playing football and growing up, I wasn’t that big. I am bigger now than I ever have been. A lot of people probably think because of the success he had it was easier for me. I can tell you that is totally not true. Woodrow could not run one wind sprint for me. Woodrow didn’t have to learn the playbook like I had to. You got to remember I went to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga first.

For one year, right?

One semester. And I started as a freshman. I always wanted to go to the University of Alabama. I went over there in 1978. I signed my scholarship at the Krystal over on Fourth Avenue. I met Coach Joe Lee Dunn, we ate a little hamburger and I signed my scholarship. Alabama said I was too small. At that point I got mad at Alabama and I wanted to go to Auburn to get back at Alabama. Too small.

Going into the eighth game we were 7-0 and had a chance to go to a bowl game. We had a black guy on the team — I am not going to use any names — but he had an outstanding junior year and was projected to go high in the NFL draft. This guy, for some reason his season wasn’t going the way he wanted ... and his stock was dropping. Lo and behold, they had a meeting with all the blacks and said, ‘We don’t have any black coaches, we need some black coaches.’ We may have had one.

When all of these problems started, myself and a guy named Joe Fortson — both of us freshmen — took a stand and said we were not going to do that. I wasn’t raised that way. I came up here to go to school and play football. It got so bad, with us being black, that anywhere we went we were hearing it on both sides — black and white. What it did — and I have to admit this — is it put icing on the cake for me to go to Alabama. Jim Morris was the coach. I went to him, he released me and I walked on at Alabama. I got there in January 1979, and I had to sit out that year. The next year I started, earned a scholarship and wound up being Coach Bryant’s last permanent captain. Football teaches you a lot. You can’t like football, you got to love. Everything I do I try and bring that same love and passion.

Has Phenix City always had an inferiority complex?

I can’t answer that. ... People in Phenix City look down on Columbus and people in Columbus look down on Phenix City. And quite frankly, we shouldn’t be looking down on anyone. What we need to do is take what we have because what affects Phenix City affects Columbus.

What I am talking about when I ask about the inferiority complex is the history of Phenix City — the corruption, the gambling and the prostitution. I have experience through playing football and having a chance to travel all over this country and world, when you first meet guys one of the first questions is going to be, ‘Where are you from?’ When I tell them I am from Phenix City, some guys will start backing up, saying, ‘You are a bad guy.’ Seriously. Because of the history. That is why I want to bust my butt to change it. That is why I have been saying we have come from Sin City to God’s Country.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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