NEXT MEETING: April 20, 2017
Reception at 6:30 p.m. Meeting at 7:00 p.m.
Emmet O’Neal Library, Mountain Brook
SPEAKER: James Lowery
TOPIC: Birmingham Mineral Railroad
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ormer Mountain Brook Mayor Margaret Porter, who held several city offices from 1984–1996, will speak on the city’s progress and transition during her years in City Hall as the society’s January 10 speaker.
She attended Brooke Hill School and graduated with honors from Hollins College, Roanoke, Virginia. She served seven years on the Mountain Brook Parks and Recreation Board before being elected to the Mountain Brook City Council in 1984, where she became president pro-tem and president. She ended her 12 years of public service as mayor.
Ms. Porter currently serves on the boards of The National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions, The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the Eyesight Foundation of Alabama, Inc. and the AmSouth North Central Alabama Advisory Board of Directors. From 1992 to 1997, she served as founding chairman of McWane Center and has been one of its most faithful volunteers and advocates.
McWane Center is a non-profit organization which promotes public understanding of science, technology and the environment and serves as a statewide resource for Alabama schools. Ms. Porter is also the immediate past Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Children’s Health System of Alabama.
very happy and prosperous New Year to everyone. I hope all of you have had a wonderful holiday season and are now looking forward to a year full of new horizons and possibilities as well as great programs from your Historical Association. Vice President/Program Chair Tom Carruthers has again arranged for a marvelous speaker for our January meeting. Margaret Porter, former mayor, will be speaking on history and events of Mountain Brook, mainly from the eighties and nineties.
Since our last newsletter, the JCHA, thanks to the great efforts of Tom West, has erected two more historical markers. The first is a bronze bas-relief inside the Alabama Theatre commemorating the long-time dedicated work of the late Linda and Cecil Whitmire in saving and renovating the theatre. The second one is at Mountain Brook Office Park commemorating the Jackson and Waters families for building what is the first office park in America. Kudos to everyone involved.
Dues are now due for calendar year 2013 and you will notice a separate dues insert and envelope in the newsletter. Once again, it seemed to make no sense to mail both the newsletter and the dues notice on the same day. The board deeply appreciates your dues support as it enables us to carry out our many projects, such as historical markers and a new membership roster, as well as bring you excellent programs each quarter. Prompt payment will help us better plan and afford us the possibility of extra events.
On a board note, the January meeting is our annual meeting and we will be electing officers. I will be stepping down as president, handing over to the excellent hands of Tom Carruthers. Craig Allen will be coming in as vice president and George Jenkins and Harry Bradford will remain in place as secretary and treasurer respectively. It has been a real honor and privilege to serve as your president for these last two years and I have really enjoyed working with and getting to know all of you. I cannot thank the officers and the board enough for the excellent job they have done and I look forward to remaining on the board and working with them this next year.
Many thanks for your great support these past two years. I hope to see you January 10.
— ALICE WILLIAMS, JCHA President
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—by: Tom Badham
illiam Clifford "Billy" MacDonald, Jr. was born in Pratt City, Alabama on 24 May 1906. After becoming a civilian pilot, he joined the Army Air Corps in the late 1920’s or early 30’s as a "Flying Sergeant" in order to keep flying. He was one of the very few pilots who could keep on Claire Lee Chennault’s wing during air acrobatics. He, Chennault and John W. "Luke" Williamson formed the Army Air Corps precision flying acrobatic team in the 1930’s, "The Three Men on The Flying Trapeze."
After their final air show in Miami, Florida, in January, 1936, he, Williamson and Chennault were offered very well paying jobs as civilian flying instructors for the Chinese government’s air force. At that time, MacDonald and John "Luke" Williamson were at loose ends after the Army Air Corps turned down their applications for permanent officers’ commissions. MacDonald and Williamson were not just "pursuit" pilots as fighter pilots were called in those days.
Of all the Air Corps officer candidates, they stood third in total flying time and led the list in flying ability. They both had airline transport pilot ratings. However, they didn’t have four years of college. That disqualified them to be Air Corps officers even though both joined the Air Corps as enlisted pilots in order to fly and the Air Corps gave the very temporary rank of lieutenant when they performed in air shows.
MacDonald, Williamson and a small group of American airplane mechanics arrived in China in the summer of 1936 almost a year before Claire Lee Chennault did in June of 1937. Chennault, too, was at the end of his Air Corps career. An argumentative, if not combative, believer in the place of fighters in aerial warfare at the Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama, he antagonized many of the senior Air Corps brass, including Henry H. "Hap" Arnold. Chennault urged MacDonald and Williamson to buy out the last few months of their enlistment and take the instructor jobs. Due to chronic bronchial infections and increasing deafness, Chennault was medically retired as a captain with twenty years Army service on May 1, 1937. The next day he was on his way to San Francisco to take the Dollar Line’s President Garfield to China.
When the President Garfield docked at Kobe, Japan, MacDonald was on the dock waiting to greet Chennault. Billy had slipped into Japan as the "assistant manager" of a Chinese acrobat troop according to the passport he was carrying. The troop always seemed to perform where there was a Japanese army or navy aviation training field near by. He and his translator/driver took Chennault in an open car on a whirlwind tour of industrial sites and military aviation training fields across Japan. They were the first westerners to see and take notes on the latest Japanese aircraft. Chennault sent in detailed technical reports of what he and Billy observed. The reports were promptly filed somewhere in the War Department, forgotten and never used, even after Pearl Harbor or for the Doolittle Raid.
When they arrived in Shanghai a few days later, MacDonald and Chennault met with Madame Chiang Kai-shek and William H. Donald, the confidential advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. From that meeting onward, both flyers were involved with flying and fighting for China during the next eleven years. While the thunder and lightning of controversy always seemed to swirl around the hot tempered Chennault,
Billy became the quiet, calm professional instructor pilot fading into the background, setting up flying schools and teaching Chinese pilots how to fly, fight and survive.
Because the U.S. was still a neutral country, Billy and Chennault had to keep secret their combat missions over Shanghai after the Japanese attack on the Marco Polo Bridge in Peking on June 6, 1937. While they never admitted it officially, they proved Chennault’s air combat theories by leading the young, green and very undertrained Chinese pilots against the Japanese bombers destroying Shanghai. It was he and Billy who planned the missions. Chennault used that experience in 1941 to teach the American Volunteer Group (AVG), the Flying Tigers, how to shoot down the enemy and survive against overwhelming odds.
Billy always seemed to avoid any publicity or trouble. No reporter ever bothered to interview him; he was always somewhere else flying a transport plane. But, Madame Chiang Kai-shek always requested him as her personal pilot when she had to fly somewhere. Madame’s requests were the word of God as far as China was concerned. China had no radio beacons to guide aircraft, no weather reporting, no real ground radio stations and no accurate maps to help with flying across the vast rugged country.
Yet, Billy helped to set up transport routes all over China for the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) that were usually flown at night using just a clock, compass and airspeed indicator. During the day, a Chinese, British or American transport was dead meat for Japanese fighters. During those years, it always seemed to be Billy MacDonald who was flying in and out of lousy air fields delivering vitally needed supplies to the AVG in unarmed transport planes. Also, who pioneered the air bridge over the "Hump" It was first flown in early 1942 by a CNAC DC-3 threading its way through the Himalayas from India to China. Who would have the skill and courage to do that?
In 1944, Birmingham’s Allan H. "Al" Woodward, Jr. was sent by the Ferry Command to deliver a C-46 Commando to India. By that time his old friends Billy and his wife Margaret "Peggy" Spain from Birmingham were living in Calcutta with Billy in charge of the CNAC headquarters there. Peggy had come to the Far East as a "Red Cross Girl" after the US got into the war. She and Billy were married in Shanghai, China, on 1 May 1944. "Al" recounted how he took a few days to visit with them before hitching a ride back on an Air Transport Command flight to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was based. When asked by Al, Billy said his duties amounted to, "Stealing stuff for Chennault." Now that was an understatement!
The MacDonalds remained in the Far East until 1947 when he became an executive for Trans World Airlines. He was stationed first at Miami, Florida, then Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, until 1950.
Leaving TWA, he opened an automobile dealership in Savannah, Georgia, and lived there until the late 1950’s. Moving back to Birmingham, he became an executive with the Roberts and Son Company. He and Peggy had two children, Cameron MacDonald Vowell and William C. MacDonald, III, who still live in Birmingham.
William C. "Billy" MacDonald, Jr. passed away after a serious stroke on June 11, 1984, in Birmingham.
—by: George Jenkins
he Lyric Theatre on Third Avenue and 18th Street is undergoing preservation as well as the office building next door.
President Alice Williams, Secretary George Jenkins, members, friends enjoyed viewing Lyric stage from upper balcony in a tour December 5.
The Lyric Theatre in downtown Birmingham was built in 1913 as a vaudeville house and is said to have had pindrop acoustics. Entertainment giants of the early 20th century appearing at the Lyric included Rube Goldberg, Buster Keaton, Sophie Tucker, Mae West and the Marx Brothers.
With the advent of movies and the Great Depression, the Lyric began a path of decline and closed in 1958 and remained dormant for much of the next half-century.
Upon entering the lobby one is greeted by once alabaster tone Sylacauga marble and some detailing and figurines. Those features are but a hint of what awaits inside the theatre itself. There one experiences a visual fantasy of beaux arts architecture incorporating French and Classical Revival styles.
Amazingly, the original tapestry-like stage curtain remains in place. Above the stage a huge mural faintly reveals its classical painted figures from mythology. From the vaulted ceiling some of the grand light fixtures still hang. The Lyric’s three levels had a capacity of 1,200 seats while retaining a sense of intimacy with the stage.
Fortunately, a strong effort is underway to restore this historic and beautiful building and return it to its former glory as a theatre for live performances. For more information and photos: www.savethelyric.com.
Birmingham Landmarks, Inc., the non-profit owner of the Alabama Theatre, now owns the Lyric and intends to make it grander than ever as a restored performing arts center. It is the focus of a new fundraising effort to preserve the 100-year-old structure led by a $500,000 donation from the City of Birmingham.