Each of them owns a key to the city of Anniston.
Hope needs no introduction. Smith, the former NFL player, starred in beer commercials. Bragg is the Calhoun County-born writer lots of people think sits at the right hand of Grisham, if not Faulkner. Rogers founded Waffle House. Nichopoulos ran a Greek restaurant in town.
The others, too many to name, are Anniston natives, favorite sons and daughters, former Freedom Riders, administrators connected to Anniston Army Depot, military combat veterans, motivational speakers, professors and congressmen, members of the clergy and international troops training at the former Fort McClellan.
A parade of Anniston mayors, former and current, has doled out these keys. Claude Dear, from what I can tell, gave them out as often as he tied his shoes. Bill Robison did it. Chip Howell did it. Gene Robinson did it. And, though Vaughn Stewart’s been in office less than a year, the Stewart City Hall hasn’t stopped this tradition.
Getting a key to the city of Anniston isn’t as easy as fogging a mirror, but it’s close.
I fog a mirror.
And I now have my own key to the city.
Admission: I didn’t earn mine. I bought it off eBay for the price of a used CD (the city pays about $45 per key), so this may be the only time I’m mentioned in some quirky way with Bob Hope. Nevertheless, since it arrived a few days ago, I’ve become mildly obsessed with determining its original recipient. Chances are slim.
It’s gold (the color, not the metal) and about the length of my hand. I consider it authentic because, let’s be honest, who has the time to make fake city keys for small Southern towns? Mayor Dear gave this key to someone in the 1960s; his name is engraved on the left side. The right side says, simply, “Anniston, Ala.” It’s scratched, carries a few dents and opens nothing, I presume. It carries no traceable date or ID number.
Archives show that Dear, Anniston’s mayor from 1962-69, was generous with the city’s ceremonial keys. Today, keys to Anniston have been carried around the globe because of Dear’s civic generosity. Two recipients are notable.
In 1965, Dear gave one to Shimon Yallon, the Israeli consul general to the Southeastern United States, who was in town.
In 1967, as the Vietnamese War was reaching its bloody height, Dear gave keys to a unit of female Vietnamese soldiers who were visiting Fort McClellan.
My Claude Dear key could be one of those, though I doubt it.
The best tale surrounding Anniston’s not-so-famous keys surrounds Hope, who in 1987 flew into Anniston’s airport on a private jet to appear at a benefit that raised nearly $50,000 for the Stringfellow Memorial Hospital Foundation. (He stayed at The Victoria Inn.)
“When Mayor Bill Robison admitted he was nervous while handing Hope the city’s key, Hope replied, ‘You’re a new kind of politician!’” The Star’s Randy Troup wrote the next day. “Then Hope asked, ‘You’re not a Democrat, are you?’ adding almost before Robison could respond, ‘I know you’re not, or you’d be running for president.’” Two years later, Robison awarded one to Smith, who spoke at Anniston High School during a drug abuse prevention rally.
Among the many key recipients during Howell’s two City Hall terms were Bragg, who used to write for The Star and later won a Pulitzer Prize, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, President Jimmy Carter, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, Rudy Ruettiger of Notre Dame (and the movie) and well-known Anniston resident Betty Carr, whose downtown presence continues to this day.
Howell estimates that he gave out several dozen during his eight years as mayor. “I took it very seriously,” he said in an email Thursday. “It was one of my honors to have the pleasure of fulfilling it for the city.”
In 2009, Robinson handed one to Master Sgt. Jeffrey Mittman, severely wounded in Iraq, who spoke at Anniston Army Depot. The Robinson City Hall also issued one to Sister Mary Roy in 2010 for her longtime community service at All Saints Interfaith Center of Concern. As many as 30 keys may have been issued since early 2009.
And, just last week, two more Anniston keys were awarded: one each to Freedom Riders Bill Harbour and Charles Person, who were in town for the dedication of a commemorative civil-rights gaslight downtown.
We could play the “Who next should be awarded a key to the city of Anniston?” game until we turn blue, and surely there’d be arguments galore. Visiting dignitaries, sure, but what about Anniston’s best educator? What about those who unselfishly volunteer their time to those in need? Don’t those who, in their own individual ways, make Anniston a better place deserve their own keys to the city?
If Bob Hope deserved one, they do, too.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.