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Dr. Nelson (center) with fellow Hall of Pride inductees: Dr. Thomas Taylor (left) and Col. Bobby Smart.

THS Hall of Pride member dies at 87

By Michael Butler

Like his father before him, Dr. Byron B. Nelson, Jr. served in education. The 1953 Tallassee High School graduate and member of the THS Hall of Pride died on Thursday, April 8. He was 87.

Nelson was inducted to the Hall of Pride in 2018. His father, the longtime Tallassee City Schools superintendent, preceded him with a posthumous induction in 2016.

Bill Goss nomintated both men.


"Byron and his father, Byron Sr., were two of my treasured, respected and beloved friends," Goss said, who was also inducted into the second Hall of Pride class with the elder Nelson. "Both were outstanding educators, THS graduates and superb gentlemen."

Nelson served in the U.S. Naval Academy but transferred to Auburn after a football injury. He graduated with a B.S. in Education in 1957 and was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in the U.S. Army. In '59 he received a MS in Education at Auburn.

Nelson taught in Wetumpka and Montgomery. He attended Peabody College at Vanderbilt earning his EdD in school administration.

He worked as a high school principal in Richmond, Va. and junior high principal in Brevard County, Fla. He also served as a school superintendent in Decatur, Homewood and Arab.

"He’s the kind of guy people aspire to be," said Arab City Councilman Alan Miller in a column by Mike Tankersley. "You just can’t say enough good things about Dr. Nelson. He was so distinguished. He was very eloquent in speech and demeanor."

Nelson was a member of the Arab Rotary Club and lived by the motto, "Service Above Self," former club president Steve West added. "Byron Nelson was truly the man of the hour. He has lived and breathed the "Service above Self" with all of his life as an educator, community leader and Rotarian."

A memorial service was held on Sunday, April 11 at the Arab First United Methodist Church.

Photo courtesy, Mike Tankersley (Arab Tribune)

Mike Tankersley "Tank Column" from the Arab Tribune (2012)

Byron Nelson recalls special gesture, special year

I remember Dr. Byron Nelson from a bygone era, when he was the superintendent of Arab City Schools back in the early 1970s.

Even though I was just in the sixth grade at Arab Junior High when he took the superintendent’s job in January of 1971, his name is one you don’t forget, seeing as how he shares it with a famous golfer.

So when I ran into him and his wife Carolyn at Cherokee Ridge’s 20th anniversary party a week ago Saturday, I made sure to go up and speak to him.

And I was curious. Had Dr. Byron Nelson of Alabama ever met the Byron Nelson of Texas, the one with 52 PGA Tour wins, including 18 in 1945, when he won 11 consecutive tournaments, the one who has a tournament named after him?

Funny I should ask.

The story, as told by the late Birmingham News golf writer Jim Martin in a Jan. 16, 1994, column, goes like this. In late 1993, the attorney for the Homewood City Board of Education, Donald Sweeney, saw an opportunity to give a special holiday gift to Dr. Nelson, who Sweeney admired and knew was rapidly approaching retirement.

Sweeney, also president of The Country Club of Birmingham at the time, read about a new book just written by the golfer Byron Nelson, entitled “How I Played the Game.”

Sweeney tracked down Nelson’s sister in Roanoke, Texas, sent her a copy of the book with a letter explaining that he wanted her brother to autograph the book and return it so he could present it to the Byron Nelson he knew in Birmingham.

Dr. Nelson (center) with fellow Hall of Pride inductees: Dr. Thomas Taylor (left) and Col. Bobby Smart.

The Texan Nelson did that and more. He wrote a short message with his autograph in the front of the book, but he also sent a personal, hand-written note that praised Dr. Nelson for his “lifetime of dedicated service to public education in Alabama.”

Sweeney presented all this to his friend at the next school board meeting.

“It all came as a surprise to me,” said Nelson, who has the book, the note, the newspaper article and an old picture of the golfer Byron Nelson on display together at his home in Cherokee Ridge.

That’s what I went to see last week, this autographed book and personal note, and I had the pleasure of bringing along my dad, who actually was doing me a favor since my car was in the shop.

My dad knew Nelson and his golfing buddies, including Sid McDonald, Clayton McGee and Dr. Jan Davis, during all of their time at the Arab Country Club years ago. Dad also attended a special ceremony on Dec. 27, 1992, when McDonald dedicated the second hole at Cherokee Ridge to his longtime friend, McGee, who had died the year before.

My dad, like those guys, once was an avid golfer, and I knew he’d enjoy listening to the story about Nelson’s connection with the legendary golfer.

But we heard so much more. For starters, I learned the Alabama Nelson grew up in Tallassee, and his father (also named Byron) knew the high school football coach, J.E. “Hot” O’Brien. The football stadium in Tallassee bears O’Brien’s name.

Nelson and his family at the 2018 Hall of Pride induction ceremony

I knew all about Hot O’Brien. I did a radio show based in Tallassee last year and still participate in station owner Michael Butler’s college football show every Saturday morning during the season, as I have for more than a decade. The Alabama Nelson knew Michael’s grandfather, Ned, who founded the Tallassee station, WTLS.

Nelson told of a trip he took with his dad and O’Brien in late 1945. It was to see the 1946 Sugar Bowl between undefeated Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) and St. Mary’s of California (no, I didn’t believe it, either, until I looked it up).

Nelson remembers them getting to their hotel late on New Year’s Eve because of car trouble.

“When we checked in, the clerk asked my dad, ‘Are you playing golf or here for the game?’” Nelson recalls.

That memory must have stuck in Nelson’s mind because, years later, while on a trip to California with his wife, he found a rolled up portrait of the golfing Byron Nelson in a book store in Sausalito.

“I told Carolyn, why don’t we just get it,” Nelson said. “And we did.”

The portrait hangs framed next to the book and note on Nelson’s wall display honoring his namesake.

But other than the name, there is no connection between the golfing legend and either Byron or Byron Jr. in Alabama. Byron Nelson the golfer died on Sept. 26, 2006.

BB Nelson Sr.

“My dad played, but he was a lot better bird hunter than he was a golfer,” Nelson says. “And I’m just a duffer. I never was any good at it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it when I was able to play.”

He really enjoyed golf when he won a trip to Scotland in a MasterCard contest in 1988. He and his wife stayed at a hotel next to the 17th hole on the Old Course at St Andrews, known as the “home of golf,” and Nelson played several area courses, including the two at St. Andrews.

Carolyn walked the courses every day,” Nelson says. “I think she enjoyed it as much as I did.”

As we get ready to leave, Nelson shows us more memorabilia, like the golf ball that’s signed by his namesake, a program from the 1946 Sugar Bowl and a baseball with the Birmingham Barons logo on it.

“He was asked to throw out the (ceremonial) first pitch at a Barons game,” Carolyn interjects. “And that was the year (1994) Michael Jordan played for the Barons.

“So, Byron was on the same field with Michael Jordan that night.”

It was just another brush with greatness for Nelson in 1994.

And I could only marvel at the richness of his life.