As I took in the scene at a lively reunion in an elegant Fairhope living room, I noted laughter coming up from a group of storytellers. Snippets of tales from the early ’60s rose from another cluster. The hosts, Anne and Champ Meyercord (both Birmingham-Southern College class of ’62), had assembled this 30-strong group of fellow graduates, Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) alumni and their wives – including my husband Howell (class of ’63) and me. As a guest, I was determined to track down the truth about a decades-long prank that still lingered in the minds of these accomplished silver-haired gentlemen: the theft of a prized, gold-painted mascot.
Staking Claim to a Statue
I had first heard about the practical joke a few weeks earlier at the Saenger Theatre, where I ran into Kimi Oaks, a 1965 graduate. I confirmed the following. One night in 1960, the majestic stone statue was stolen off the lawn of the SAE house. For years, there was speculation about who pilfered it and where it may have been hidden. Veiled threats and ridicule circulated, but there was no confession. Even so, the young men worked with might and mane to retrieve their symbol of brotherhood. Classmates recalled a comical mission led by the late Marshall Gaillard Burden (class of ’63) of Mobile. He believed the effigy to be tucked away in a residential basement in Anniston, but, according to chapter lore, homeowners called police when he showed up to search the premises.
Finally, just last year, at a 50th reunion, Lamar Odom (BSC ’63), a former student body president and the leader of across-the-street rivals Alpha Tau Omega (ATO), ceremoniously returned the beast to its owners. It was wheeled out with much fanfare, and the 70-year-old SAEs could hold their heads high again. Though the lion’s long-awaited return made for a humorous anecdote, as I dug a little deeper, the plot got murkier.
As it turns out, the lion may not have belonged to the aggrieved SAEs in the first place. Two sources, who wish to remain anonymous, confirmed that, in fact, it actually hailed from the home of one of Alabama’s most infamous judges, Walter B. Jones, who had served as national president of the fraternity. By one account, the statue was taken from Judge Jones’ lawn in Montgomery without permission. The other rendition held that Judge Jones had given his tacit authorization. “How do you know this?” I pressed one source.
“I was there, ” he shouted over the raucous table. “Or let me rephrase it.” Ever a lawyer, he caught himself. “I may or may not have been there, ” he finished with youthful laughter.
After college graduation, the mischievous young frat boys dispersed, embarking on no-nonsense careers all over the world. Doctors, lawyers, business leaders, a New York financier, a legendary civil rights preacher, a writer and a sprinkle of historians. Cases won, lives saved, fortunes and houses built, doctoral dissertations written, young scholars tutored. Toss in the Harvard Law Review, a Pulitzer and surviving the hijacking of a Pan Am flight by Syrian fighter jets. Full chapters behind them, they have not slowed down. Yet now, all roads lead to Fairhope, where the majority of this group have ascended for the winters of their lives: volunteering, writing the next novel, playing the best game of tennis, perfecting their golf swing, sharing platters of fresh Gulf oysters and happily rekindling treasured friendships, reminiscing over bourbon and wine in a charming bayside locale. Though many of them graduated before I was born, here I was ensconced in the corner of the Meyercord den, beguiled by lions in winter.
Why We Live in Fairhope
A few BSC SAEs share why they chose to retire on Mobile Bay.
“Fairhope has everything – culture, shopping, healthcare, proximity to Orange Beach – but it still possesses a small town feel, ” says Andy Cromer (BSC ’64) who, after 42 years of practicing law, moved to Fairhope from Camden in 2011 with his wife, Jo (BSC ’65). One of the biggest draws for the Comers was the renewal of camaraderie with friends from their college days.
“After living in Summit, N.J. and New York City, Anne and I were looking for a getaway place in 2005. We were ready for a location in Alabama with a sense of community, ” Champ Meyercord says. “We have been delighted with our move. Our bayside town is welcoming, engaged and lively, with a cohort of bright people whose interests range from writing, music, fishing, hunting, dining, golf and having fun. And it’s certainly a lagniappe to sit down to a table at Wintzell’s and joke around with buddies you’ve known for 50 years.”
“Most people chose to come here rather than having been transferred by a job, ” explains Pat Haley, who moved from Selma to Fairhope with wife Shirley 10 years ago. “That makes a big difference in the happiness level. The enormous amount of art and education choices keep us boredom free.” The Haleys are also the ring leaders of many of the informal SAE alumni get-togethers.
text by Krystyna Raines