Sally Sears and archives from Alabama

By David Pendered

MONTEVALLO, ALA. – MAY 19 – Sally Sears’ latest project is the preservation of an important segment of history in her birthplace, a college town an hour south of Birmingham.

Sears, a longtime Atlanta journalist and civic leader, has established an ongoing effort to preserve and share some of her parents’ local Alabama news reports from the 1950s into 1970s. Items range from stories about Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and renown organist Porter Putnam, to the local school board navigating court-ordered integration and the young men who played on Montevallo High School’s football team, the Bulldogs.

The Ralph and Marcia Sears Media Archive chronicles the life and times of Montevallo, Ala., where the couple published WBYE-AM radio and the ‘Shelby County Reporter.’ (Credit: University of Montevallo)

Members of the Montevallo Historical Society who came to hear Sears’ presentation filled all the chairs and some improvised seats on the floor of the Parnell Memorial Library. On a sunny Spring afternoon on April 28, they came to hear the compilation of reports about lives lived in Montevallo during a challenging time in the nation’s history.

Sears began her presentation with her trademark coat hook that helps listeners orient themselves to the topic of her report. She opened with a comparison to the movie “Forrest Gump” and the famous box of chocolates.

“You remember the quote from the movie ‘Forrest Gump?’ ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get,’” Sears said. “Remember? Well, today, this program is going to sample the candy collection of the new addition to the Milner Archives. It’s called the Ralph and Marcia Sears Media Archive. How’s that for truth in labeling?”

Through the effort Sally Sears has led, these chocolates are available on a searchable database housed at the University of Montevallo’s Carmichael Library’s Anna Crawford Milner Archives and Special Collections. The Ralph and Marcia Sears Media Archive houses materials that capture everyday life in a small town in still-rural Shelby County during one of the nation’s turbulent eras.

Sears’ parents published the accounts on their radio station, WBYE-AM, and newspaper, Shelby County Reporter. The couple sold the news organizations in 1984.

By the time the couple sold the media properties, Ralph Sears had already been elected to Montevallo City Council and as the town’s mayor. He served 24 years as mayor, from 1972 to his death in 1996. Marcia Sears was named the first woman to head the Alabama Press Association, which gave her its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, 11 years before she passed in 2014.

Sally Sears, standing here with her brother, Steve Sears, presented the Ralph and Marcia Sears Media Archive to the Montevallo (Ala.) Historical Society. (Credit: David Pendered)

Sears wove a half-hour program that hit highlights of the archive in her crisp approach to storytelling.

“Let’s start with the early 1960s,” Sears began. “The tension between Washington and Moscow? Nothing new to Montevallo. U.S. President John Kennedy chose Montevallo’s Walter McConaughy U.S. ambassador to help with some of the world’s hottest hot spots, including Pakistan. McConaughy was a player on the world’s stage.”

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was the subject of one of Ralph Sears’ daily commentaries, Between the Lines. Sears played a snippet and then offered her insights.

Ralph Sears: “The Soviet premier, Khrushchev, may not be ‘hep’ to the American art form known as jazz. But he is a whiz at the game of power. He and his wife gave Benny Goodman’s troupe a personal nod of approval a few days ago. The Kremlin leader said he enjoyed the rhythm although he did not understand it. He excused himself in a note to Goodman after the intermission, saying he had a lot of state business to work on. Now, no one know what this state business was, but one can guess. It most likely had to do with tightening the leash on this or that neck in the government.”

Sally Sears: “Can you believe that? I love that – ‘tightening the leash’ on a neck of somebody. Imagine saying that today on WBYE radio. Worse is imaging your own father saying someone is not ‘hep.’”

The overall image that emerges from the collection is of the hits and misses of life in a small town. This one is centered around a town with a college for which the Olmsted Brothers company designed much of the original campus, which opened in 1896 as a technical school for girls and later became a liberal arts college that began admitting men in 1956.

Today, Montevallo is a place where members of the Montevallo Historical Society remember the boys and young men pictured in their football uniforms. It’s a place where some of these members may remember the accounts in the Shelby County Reporter of the school board’s initial refusal, but ultimate acceptance, of integration of students and teachers, in 1967 – but only after courts sided with the federal government for saying it would withhold a half-million dollars a year in education funding in schools were not integrated.

The paper published a story about the first day of integration and reported no incidents occurred. Photos showed smiling boys and girls and teachers and the account in the archive concludes with this sentence: “None of them were Black.”

The travel bug bit the Sears couple early in their marriage and remained a lifelong passion. They are pictured here in Los Angeles, in 1949. (Credit: University of Montevallo)

Sears herself left town after graduation from Montevallo High School to attend Princeton University, from which she was graduated magna cum laude. She never returned to reside permanently in Montevallo.

Sears has served as a journalist in cities including Memphis and Dallas before planting roots in Atlanta. Along the way, Sears has served as the founding executive director of the South Fork Conservancy, Inc., a non-profit that has greatly improved access to, and the experience of, a segment of the Peachtree Creek corridor. She’s traveled all around the world and told those stories in a book she wrote to ease boredom during the Covid Pandemic, A Wealthy Man on the Roof of the World, and Other Stories.

Sears closed out her presentation at the Montevallo Historical Society with an observation based on her father’s closing comments in a radio segment available in the archive. He had observed: “Remember, things go better with books.”

“Things go better with books,” Sears said. “Things go better when you remember some of the fun professors at the college, whose performance, I don’t know, were recorded in other ways. But hearing Dr. Chichester again and hearing that diction was just a treat for me.  Finally, the Ralph and Marcia Sears Archives invites you to take a look … and listen as you can. … Thank you folks. You’ve been a wonderful audience.”

Editor’s note:

Read more of Sears’ works:

Sears’ YouTube presentation on the Ralph and Marcia Sears Digital Media Archive

Ralph and Marcia Sears Media Archive

A Wealthy Man on the Roof of the World and Other Stories