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Ted Kennedy, John Sparkman and Bobby Kennedy Jr. at the John Sparkman Day celebration Dec. 6, 1979.
Daily file photo by Gary Lloyd
Ted Kennedy, John Sparkman and Bobby Kennedy Jr. at the John Sparkman Day celebration Dec. 6, 1979.

Sparkman Day nightmare
Kennedy, Carter’s mother attend Hartselle event to honor senator

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com · 340-2469

HARTSELLE — What would you do if the White House called and said the president needed two patrol vehicles to escort his mother into your city?

Would hanging up the telephone be an option?

“It was the only option,” Glenda Greene said with a smile, recalling the day in 1979 when the Secret Service called her business in Hartselle.

The telephone hang-up is just one of a list of bizarre incidents that took place when Hartselle honored Sen. John Sparkman on Dec. 6, 1979.

Barely a week goes by that Greene said she doesn’t talk with someone about “John Sparkman Day.”

Memories won’t fade

Seems strange that more than 25 years after an event people still talk about it. Then, you listen to what happened behind the scenes, and you understand why memories of that day won’t fade.

What started with a $500 budget from the City Council to honor a hometown boy, who had served in the U.S. Senate for 42 years, turned into a platform for Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy to promote his presidential candidacy.

Not to be upstaged, President Jimmy Carter, who was seeking a second term on the Democratic ticket, decided to send his mother as a representative.

The Jaycees, who organized the event, agree that without Kennedy it would have been a small-town celebration.

But, there’s still debate among the Jaycees about who is responsible for the national attention the event garnered.

“I guess I’ll have to take the blame,” said Bob Schofield, who was an officer in the Jaycees.

He invited Kennedy, which led to the White House sending Lillian Carter, the president’s mother.

‘I guess I’m responsible’

Laughing as he recalled the event with Greene, Schofield said, “I guess I’m responsible to bringing that hell to Hartselle. If Kennedy and Miss Lillian had not been here, there would have been no need for the Secret Service.”

Initially, the White House turned down Hartselle’s request to send someone to the event.

“But when they found out Kennedy was coming, they were not going to let him speak in the South without a response,” Schofield said.

Greene, who was state chaplain and vice president of the local Jaycees, agreed to let one of her business lines serve as a contact number.

This is when a man identifying himself as a representative for the White House called.

Greene said the voice on the phone said he was with the White House and needed to speak with someone about the Sparkman Day.

“I said I don’t have time to talk with you and hung up,” she recalled. “I guess I thought it was a joke.

The man called back and this is when Greene took him seriously. The White House wanted two Hartselle patrol vehicles to meet Miss Lillian between Decatur and Hartselle to escort her into the city.

“I told the man Hartselle had only three patrol cars and only two of them were working and they were going to be used in the parade for Sen. Sparkman,” Greene said.

Greene said then-Gov. Fob James provided Alcohol Beverage Control Board agents to escort Miss Lillian and Kennedy.

Raid

“To justify the agents being in the area, the Secret Service told me the agents did a raid the night before the event,” she said.

Greene rode to the airport with agents to get Kennedy.

“They took all the whiskey they had seized the night before then left it on the runway until they got back,” she said. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

Greene said young Bobby Kennedy Jr. was with the Kennedy campaign. On the ride from the airport, she said he talked about the Tennessee Valley Authority and all the good things the Democrats had done for Alabama.

Schofield and Greene said FBI and Secret Service agents were in Hartselle weeks before Kennedy and Miss Lillian arrived.

About a month before Sparkman Day, Greene said, a salesman from Tennessee came to her business, complaining about the Secret Service questioning him at the interstate.

“These agents stayed in the old Hartselle hotel, and they were very visible,” she said.

Very demanding

Greene said Kennedy’s campaign was the most demanding. They planned everything, down to the food he was to eat.

For the luncheon at Hartselle Junior High, the Jaycees had to provide Kennedy eight ounces of American cheese, one Granny Smith apple and a Diet Pepsi.

“He was dieting,” Greene explained.

Kennedy’s plate was at the Civic Center. Ironically, Sparkman, who arrived early, didn’t know why the plate was there and ate the food.

“By then, we didn’t care what Kennedy had to eat,” Greene said.

Preparing for the day of the event, Hartselle had to install 16 telephone lines at the civic center and junior high school. Larry Orr, a Jaycee who worked for the telephone company, installed the lines.

“These were for the media pool,” Greene explained. “Most of the reporters were traveling with Kennedy.”

One of the lines was called “death watch” because there had been threats on Kennedy’s life, she said.

“If Kennedy got shot in Hartselle, they wanted to get the story out quickly,” she said.

On the day of the event, the Secret Service instructed Greene to point out anyone entering the building she didn’t know.

“There was a very distinguished black gentleman who walked up, and I didn’t know him,” Greene said. “He was carrying a gun.”

The Secret Service apprehended the guy. He turned out to be the first elected black sheriff of Greene County, who was a Kennedy admirer.

Schofield was aware that Sparkman had endorsed President Carter’s re-election, but he was not aware that the retired senator and Kennedy were enemies in the U.S. Senate.

Sparkman and Kennedy didn’t speak on stage, he said.

Heckler

Greene and Schofield said the funniest thing of the day happened when Kennedy stood to speak and a heckler started screaming.

“I thought we were going to get shot,” Schofield said.

The late Joe Berry, who integrated the Jaycees in Hartselle and was president in 1979, moved behind Sparkman.

“He told us he was not going to be killed for a white man from Massachusetts, even if he was a Democrat,” Greene said.

Kennedy, ignoring Sparkman’s support for Carter, praised the retired senator.

“History will honor him for his wisdom as one of the principal architects of American foreign policy in the post-war world,” he said in 1979.

Trouble with the bust

The bust of Sparkman, which is housed in a case at the entrance of the civic center, is a reminder of the day’s chaos.

Greene said the artist refused to ship the bust in a crate.

“We had to purchase a plane ticket to get it here,” she said.

Looking back, Greene and Schofield said, the event was a nightmare at the time.

“But, we’d probably do it all over again,” Schofield said.

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