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Mary Harmon Bryant’s Birmingham Ties

—by: Judy Haise


irmingham’s historic and prestigious high rise The Altamont was once home to Mary Harmon Black Bryant, wife of legendary University of Alabama football Coach Paul Bear Bryant. Through the years Mary Harmon had other ties to the Magic City.

Mary Harmon Black

Mary Harmon Black.

Born in Troy in 1915, to Ida Mae Harmon and James Henderson Black, Mary Harmon moved to The Altamont at 2827 Highland Avenue with her mother and stepfather Martin C. Folmar, who was the Canada Life Assurance Company’s southern manager. The family lived in Apartment 201, in the late 1920s and early ‘30s.

The Folmars’ fellow apartment dwellers in 1925 included many prominent names in the history of Birmingham: Mrs. Lillie Sloss, White Woodward, C.W. Drennen, Cunningham Wilson and H.P. Hanna. In 1931 residents included Hollye Sington, J.E. Rains, J.I. Freeman, Joseph Nadler, Julian Loeb, T.J. York, Mark B. Eiseman, Mena Sterne, Sada Pope, R.E. Mitchell and J.H. Ulrick, and in 1932, William Nappi of Nappi’s Orchestra and Leslie E. Wright were residents.

The Altamont’s ground floor lobby during that period was conveniently adjacent to a dining room, deli, beauty salon, florist and cleaners and dyers.

Phillips High School Senior Mary Harmon is pictured as a senior in Birmingham’s Phillips High School’s 1931 yearbook "The Mirror." Football was a popular sport, and it undoubtedly influenced Mary Harmon’s perception of the players. Phillips alumnus and UA’s All American tackle Freddie Sington Sr. wrote the annual’s introduction on the importance of athletics, "a field which sends healthy, intelligent, loyal leaders to take up citizenship cannot be over emphasized too much in this day of self government."

Sington had played football for the Crimson Tide on the 1928, ‘29 and ‘30 teams. His son Fred Sington Jr. played football for Coach Bear Bryant’s first 1958 UA and ‘59 teams. Mary Harmon’s future husband played the "other end" on Coach Frank Thomas’ 1933, ‘34 and ‘35 UA football teams.

Before attending UA, Mary Harmon graduated from Arlington Hall Junior College in Arlington, Va.

At UA Mary Harmon was a Corolla beauty, honorary cadet colonel of the Cadet Corps, member of Alpha Gamma Delta sorority and Bear Bryant’s sponsor at the Jan. 1, 1935 Rose Bowl, where the 1934 UA team beat Stanford.

Bryant once described Mary Harmon as "The best looking gal you or I ever laid eyes on, and she had an automobile."

Secretly Married

Mary Harmon and Bear Bryant secretly married June 2, 1935, in Ozark, so Paul wouldn’t lose his UA football scholarship. She graduated from UA that year, and he graduated in 1936, the year their daughter Mae Martin Bryant was born.

When Bear Bryant returned to UA as head football coach from 1958 to 1982, the home games brought Mary Harmon back to Birmingham as they were played at Legion Field. She always rode on the second bus or third Blue darter bus to the games, so she could talk with the third string players. She was known as the players second mom, as she provided a buffer between them and the fierce disciplinarian coach. She helped them write letters to their families and often entertained them at the Bryant home.

Son Paul William Bryant Jr. was born in 1942 after Bear enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1941. While Bear served during World War II aboard the SS Uruguay in 1943, Mary Harmon and the children lived with her parents.

When Paul was head coach for the University of Maryland football team in 1945, Mary Harmon lived in Birmingham most of the time, but moved with Bear to his head coaching positions at the University of Kentucky in 1946–1953 and Texas A&M University, 1954–1957.

Mary Harmon had lots of friends in the Magic City and was listed in 1976–77 Junior League of Birmingham directory as a sustaining member.

The only wife of the onetime "winningest coach" in collegiate football history with 323 wins passed away in Tuscaloosa in 1984 at a young 68. It was just a year after Bear Bryant died at 69 in Tuscaloosa. Mary Harmon is buried near Bear Bryant in Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery.

The Bryants’ late daughter Mae Martin Tyson’s son Marc Tyson and his wife Lissa are now raising their family in Birmingham.

Britling Cafeteria’s, January 1961, Birmingham News

Britling Cafeteria’s, January 1961, Birmingham News.


The Birmingham Athletic Club Entered New Era of Growth
Part 3

—by: Craig Allen


t last, after years of planning, the wheels were set in motion for the establishment of a new splendid clubhouse following initial financial overtures. Herbert L. Cobbs, again president of the Birmingham Athletic Club in 1925, was the main promoter of the move from the old B.A.C. location on 20th Street to the new location—the corner of 23rd Street and 3rd Avenue North (the site of the present Y.W.C.A.).

With limited funds made available to the B.A.C. from the sale of the former property (most of the proceeds from the sale of the 20th Street location went to paying off debt and mortgages) the B.A.C. organized the Third Avenue Building Corporation and purchased from George Johnston and Associates the northeast corner of 3rd Avenue N. and 23rd Street. After the purchase of the property the B.A.C. had very little money remaining in the coffers to finance the development of a new building.

With no cash reserves (estimated range from $10,000 to $15,000) an $800,000 mortgage was taken out for both the property and costs associated with the design and building of the new facility. G. L. Miller & Company were trustees of the new mortgage in security of a bond issue bearing interest at 7%. Herbert Cobbs was "in the thick" of the negotiations and the financial dealings involving the new mortgage.

The new building on 23rd and 3rd Avenue was completed and first occupied on December 7, 1925. The facility was absolutely a realization of a long and cherished dream among the members of the B.A.C. The building indeed made a statement, and a large reception was held in early 1926. Complete with apartments for members, it was described as "well ventilated and agreeably furnished bachelor apartments, located in the center of the city at a reasonable cost."

Immediately, a major crisis developed. Over-extended, with no cash reserves, obligated to a $ 800,000 mortgage and with few takers among the membership for the new bachelor rooms in the new facility, the Board of the B.A.C. was forced to begin discussions concerning both dues increases and increases in the membership. There were discussions to dramatically increase the membership by 500 new members —this was in direct opposition to the strategy of improving the status of the club by restricting membership and certainly did not "play well" for those in the club who wanted a more exclusive group. Optimism in regards to the B.A.C. was rapidly fading, and many members began to drop their membership.

The Events of February 24, 1926—The Final Straw

Herbert Cobbs Suicide

The position of the B.A.C. in the community was not improved by the events of February 24, 1926. On Wednesday morning, the 24th of February, Herbert L. Cobbs, age 40, president of the Birmingham Athletic Club and assistant paymaster for the Tennessee Coal and Iron and Railroad Company, answered the telephone in his apartment on the sixth floor of the B.A.C. club building where he lived. He spoke to his brother, William (Billy) Cobbs, who also rented a room in the building. Herbert Cobbs stated, "I am dressing now, and will be right down." Billy Cobbs, also a member of the B.A.C., waited a few minutes before leaving the club and traveling to his office. Thirty minutes later a maid entered Herbert Cobb’s apartment and bedroom and found him dead. A bullet had pierced his right temple and he tightly grasped, in his right hand, a revolver from which the bullet had been fired. There was an obvious verdict of suicide returned by the coroner, J.D. Russum.

Birmingham Athletic Club (Y.W.C.A.)

Birmingham Athletic Club (Y.W.C.A.) 23rd Street &
3rd Avenue. It later became the Dixie Carlton Hotel.

Although Herbert L. Cobbs was said to have been in a joyful mood in the recent days prior to his suicide; many believed, as was reported in the newspapers, that the recent financial problems of the Birmingham Athletic Club promoted his "temporary insanity" and led to the event of his death. The Birmingham News reported that: "Mr. Cobbs, who at the time of his death was president of the Birmingham Athletic Club, had long been active in the club, and it was largely due to his efforts that the new clubhouse of the B.A.C. was built." Apparently Mr. Cobbs left no note; however, an official statement by the T.C.I. Company spokesman made following his death expressed the belief that "the anxiety and continued strain incident to the financing and building of the new clubhouse of the Athletic Club was responsible for the temporary mental derangement that let to the deplorable act."

It was shortly after the event of Herbert Cobb’s suicide that the Board of Directors (Governors) of the Birmingham Athletic Club recommended that the affairs of the B.A.C. be turned over to a court appointed receiver (W. D. Nesbitt). The club was to operate under receivership for the next several years.

Herbert Cobb’s obituary, Birmingham News..

Herbert Cobb’s obituary, Birmingham News..


Belk-Hudson February, 1957, Birmingham News.

February, 1957, Birmingham News.


Fundraisers Benefit Museum, Historical Association


he Tom West Memorial Fund has risen to $3,190 with 55 individual donors, Treasurer Harry Bradford reports.

Mr. West, a former JCHA president, died on February 8, 2013. Potential projects are being considered by the association and the West family including a historical marker denoting the old “Racetrack” Commercial District which took in a two-block commercial district of important department and retail stores between 19th and 20th Streets and Third and Fourth Avenues North.

Bradford also reports book sales from the newly published Blach’s Department Store history, Blach’s, the Family, the Store, Their Story, has raised $1,628 for the Birmingham History Center. The sales were made at the last JCHA meeting October 10. Additional funds will come from sales currently being made at Alabama Booksmith in Homewood. The book is sold for $24.95 for signed copies.

Its author, Secretary of State Jim Bennett, is a former JCHA president.

"Thanks to Harold Blach, Jr., Blach’s last president, profits from book sales are dedicated to the history museum," Bennett said. "Mr. Blach has been most gracious with his generous gift to the history center."

Bennett is also author of Historic Birmingham and Jefferson County published by the JCHA. The society sells the book for $50 and it can be ordered through the JCHA web site, www.jeffcohistory.com or by contacting a board member. Copies are also available at Alabama Booksmith. Book profits go to the JCHA.



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