Pierre Pelham (1929-2009):
The passing of a political legend
By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Pierre Pelham's voice commanded attention, but is now silent, and the floor surrendered to those who knew Mobile's unique political figure.
Pelham, 80, died last week unexpectedly a couple of weeks after a fall busted five ribs. The two-term state senator and political ally of the Kennedys and George Wallace will be buried in his native birthplace of Chatom, Ala., Tuesday. The family will receive visitors at 10 a.m. Services will follow at 11 a.m. at Chatom United Methodist Church, 20 School Street in Chatom, with burial at Chatom Cemetery.
To say he was one of Washington County's few cum laude graduates of the Harvard Law School is the barest start.
Mobile Bay Times called on a number of Pelham's contemporaries and his political friends and foes, some qualifying variously in either column, for their recollections.
Mobile attorney and Democratic political greybeard John Tyson Sr. recalls Pelham as a fraternity brother, law partner, political ally and political adversary and friend.
"He succeeded me in the state senate (where Pelham served two terms from 1966-74). I was the last of the single senators from Mobile. I was replaced by three (in reapportionment). Mylan Engel, Bob Edington and Pierre.
He and I were both in the same SAE fraternity (at the University of Alabama). I was the E.A. or president. It's the largest fraternity in the country and founded there. Pierre came out of Chatom, a country boy. He had gone to Marion Institute and then the university and when he graduated he went on to Harvard Law School. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa at the university and cum laude from Harvard Law School.
Tyson recalled that both he and Pelham were involved in losing campaigns when John Patterson was elected governor. They saw each other regularly at the Cawthon Hotel in the comings and goings of the campaign season. Tyson said it occurred to them that their respective strengths may complement one and other in a law partnership -- Tyson's contacts throughout the county wedded to Pelham's Harvard legal credentials.
While brilliant, Pelham had an eccentric streak as a lawyer, Tyson recalled.
"He had unusual tastes," said Tyson. "He would take cases that no one else wanted. He didn't want run-of-the-mill business. But he was brilliant. He was single. He had quite a time with his Jaguar. We lasted not too long. He had different ways to go and I did, too."
One case came their way that stands out, said Tyson. They represented Aristotle Onassis' wife in her divorce from the extremely wealthy Greek shipping magnate.
At the time, Alabama was known as a haven for quickie divorces, though not so much Mobile where Judge Herndon Inge ran a tighter court. But Tyson said he got a call from Nick Hare who was chief assistant to Mac Gallion in the office of the state's Attorney General. Hare referred Tina Onassis' plight to Tyson. According to Tyson, Mrs. Onassis was probably wealthier than her soon-to-be ex-husband.
"I said let's give it to Pierre; he's single and this is the type thing that he likes," said Tyson. "He had to go to France and get with her and her lawyer. Before long, the Onassis' were divorced in Washington County, Ala.," Pelham's ancestral stomping grounds. Another day in Chatom.
"They're all dead now, but she was better off than Aristotle, hard to believe as that might be," Tyson said. "Pierre took care of that (legal matter). That was the kind of case he loved to do. Lots of twists, canon law and all that jazz."
"We stayed friends, though he went his way and decided to run for the Democratic National Committee to go to the convention," Tyson said. "Of course, there weren't any Republicans then. There was no two-party system in Alabama. Everybody was a Democrat but it really wasn't even a one-party system, more a no-party system. I said, 'I thought you were going to do the law and I was going to do the politics.' He got hooked up with the Kennedys. He ended up running against (longtime Congressman) Frank Boykin (losing a close race). That was 1962."
Ultimately, Pelham wound up in the state Senate and became president pro tem in his second term (1970-74).
"He was Wallace's guy," said Tyson. "Of course, I wasn't (a Wallace guy)."
Pelham drifted away from a public role in the political arena, Tyson said.
"Pierre was an independent guy," said Tyson. "He would go to all kinds of places. He got in with Bart (Chamberlain) and moved to the Bahamas. The deal where to get to his house he had to go through Bart's property. I lost track of Pierre."
"But he had a mind so acute, you didn't want to light matches around him," Tyson said.
Longtime friend, political colleague and ex-state legislator Bill Roberts said Pelham was instrumental years ago in passage of air pollution legislation that Roberts was sponsoring. The bill passed the House but was expected to meet a dismal fate in the Senate because that's where bills went to die.
"Pierre was president pro tem of the Senate and he walked over to Jimmy Clark who was chairman of rules," said Roberts. "He came back and said 'yeah, we'll pass it,' and he got it passed. The Association of Industries of Alabama, really the steel mills in Birmingham, didn't want it and they usually got their way. Pierre had a big populist streak and he didn't much care for the steel industry. As pro tem, he was in position to pass legislation that otherwise wouldn't get through."
Pelham "worshipped at the altar of rationality," said Roberts, citing as an example Pelham's possibly misplaced deference to Roberts on the question of life after death.
Roberts, with lifelong ties to the nursing home business, told Pelham that he did believe in life after death. Pelham allowed that "being around dying all your life" Roberts was in better position to have a valid opinion.
"Like I know more about life after death than the next guy," Roberts said. "In his mind, it was rational that I would know something about life after death based on that (proximity to the experience). With Pierre, everything had to be rational."
Pelham prided himself on his honesty and truthfulness, according to Roberts, and he sometimes exercised it to a fault, speaking his mind at the expense of longtime friendships.
"He pissed off more friends than I've ever had," Roberts said.
"Pierre didn't like pressing the flesh," Roberts said. "He was really a private person. There are a lot of introverts in politics. I'm one of them. He just didn't like that aspect of it. He didn't suffer fools very well. I'm going to miss him. He was a hell of a guy. Smart, attractive, articulate, educated, one of the best minds I've ever met."
Though he made a bold bid to unseat legendary U.S. Rep. Frank Boykin, Pelham would've been miserable in Congress, said Roberts.
"Pierre wouldn't have liked Congress, sitting in hearings all day; long, boring meetings; no power; running again every two years," said Roberts. "Every night, there is something. If you don't go, people start bad-mouthing you. Every night there's something. Every day there are hearings. Pierre was too large of an intellect to be placed in the confines of that arena. It's a grind, a real grind."
Pelham followed John Kennedy's political dictum as did, later on, Roberts himself: Go up or get out.
With Pelham, his withdrawal may have had as much to do with disgust at the process as any ambition for personal advancement, according to Roberts.
"I would say he had as good a brain as anybody I've ever known, a very able person," Roberts said. "He had a great ability to perceive the truth. He really retired from public life because he became so disgusted with certain areas of it. He just had a keen sense of right and wrong."
He became frustrated and decided not to be a part of it anymore, said Roberts.
Pelham made a mark though; the legislation establishing the medical school at the University of South Alabama notably being one and the stir created in the Capitol when Pelham addressed the assembly.
"When Pierre was going to make a speech, word spread like wildfire," Roberts said. "The gallery would fill up with people. House members would come across the floor to the Senate because he made one hell of a speech. He was extraordinarily articulate and had great command of the English language. He had a distinctive voice as well."
"He was a great guy; I was one of his biggest admirers," said Roberts.
Veteran, politically active Mobile attorney Jim Atchison said he delighted in conversing with Pelham. They were involved politically in 1970's in the campaigns of the late ex-Mobile County Commissioner Dan Wiley and former Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley.
"Some of the most entertaining conversations I've had were with him because he was one of the brightest minds I've ever come across," said Atchison. "On any subject."
"He was the best speaker in the Senate and I think he was voted that a number of years," said Atchison. "There really wasn't anybody up there to compare him to. Pierre helped me on Jere Beasley's lieutenant governor campaign. Pierre was just quick. Joe Fine and Beasley ran the Senate when Beasley was lieutenant governor and Fine was president pro tem."
"What I can say for sure is he was one of the brightest people you'll ever meet," Atchison said. "I don't know what his IQ was, but whatever they say it was, I would add 30 or 40 points. He had a steel trap mind."
"I haven't seen Pierre in many years, but I will always remember him as a very bright guy who was interested in politics. I recall that he gave former Congressman Frank Boykin a close race for Congress along towards the end of Frank's career. In my early years as a Congressman my campaign committee was always nervous that I would have Pierre as an opponent, but fortunately that never happened. Pierre had a colorful life style and his name is still remembered, and yet he seemed to really enjoy being out of the limelight in his later years. I extend my sympathy to his family."
-- Jack Edwards,
U.S. Congress, 1964-84
"I'm reminded of Yogi Berra's classic remark: 'I always go to my friends' funerals -- if I don't they won't come to mine.'
Pierre had reached that stage where there was no one left who knew him. What I could say is fairly obvious: The improbability of a Harvard Law graduate serving as George Wallace's Senate floor leader.
Of course we know that there was a huge vacuum in state leadership -- the state was all but leaderless while George relentlessly pursued the presidency -- and Pierre tried to fill it where he could and as best he could.
That said, I think he liked George. I didn't like or dislike him -- I mainly just got bored with his inveterate narcissism.
All I can say is, Pierre was among the most scintillating personalities I ever met -- and I have met them all."
-- Ray Jenkins,
longtime Alabama journalist, now semi-retired
"Pierre was truly one of a kind. He was very bright. The ability to suffer fools was not one of his virtues."
-- Champ Lyons,
Justice, State Supreme Court
"I knew of Pierre Pelham long before I met him. Being from Mobile and interested in politics Pierre's name was easily remembered.
I finally met Pierre when I was President of the Student Government at the University of Alabama. Pierre was a State Senator. As I addressed the Alabama Senate about lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, Pierre leaned back in his chair, put his alligator tasseled loafers on his desk and began asking me tough questions that I remember even today as making me feel inadequate, unsure and put me on the defensive. In later years he became a supporter and gave sage advice in several of my races.
He was quite a man, politician and friend."
-- Don Siegelman,
"Pierre Pelham was an incredible friend. He was thoughtful and a positive influence. His political instincts were legendary. He was well known and well respected throughout the State and nationally. Pierre loved his family and his friends. In Montgomery, as President Pro Tem of the Alabama State Senate, Pierre was a master at bringing the different factions together. He always, always thought of Mobile and south Alabama counties first. He instilled these values in me at an impressionable age and I have never forgotten. Mobile and South Alabama counties are TOP PRIORITY, always!"
-- David Cooper,
"Pierre was extremely helpful to me when I was city editor. I guess I probably knew him pretty much my whole life. He was very bright and very connected in national politics.
-- Eddie Menton,
former city editor, Mobile Press Register