By Steve Flowers
A legend in Alabama newspaper, educational and political lore, Jim Oakley Jr. of Centreville turned 87 last month.
Oakley is known statewide as the legendary owner, publisher and editor of the Centreville Press newspaper. However, he has also been intertwined with Alabama politics for over six decades. If you only counted Oakley’s service to his city, Centreville, and his county, Bibb, he would be an icon. In addition, when you add his 33 years as an assistant dean and head of placement services at the University of Alabama, it qualifies him in my book — and a good many Alabamians’ minds — as one of our state’s institutional legends.
Oakley grew up in the newspaper business. Around 1915, his grandfather bought two local papers and combined them into the Centreville Press. His father, Jim Oakley Sr., eventually took over the paper, having been groomed for the job. Oakley always planned to follow his father. He went to the University of Alabama and, of course, majored in journalism. He met and married his wife, Shirley Ann Naramore of Prattville, at the university, and after graduation he came back home to Centreville to run the family newspaper.
Gov. George Wallace appointed Oakley to the Alabama Commission of Higher Education (ACHE) where he served as chairman for 14 years. He was serving in this role when Kay Ivey was hired as executive director of ACHE. The person Ivey looked to for help in her first campaign for state treasurer was Oakley. He has been her go-to person for Bibb County for all her campaigns for treasurer, lieutenant governor and governor, including this last race this year.
Oakley sold the Centreville Press in 1985 but continued to write his marvelous column. Less than two months later Joab Thomas, president of the University of Alabama and a longtime friend, called to ask him what he was planning on doing. Oakley replied, “I thought I would take up fishing.” Thomas told him he had been thinking that if he could find someone who had worked in the real world and really knew the newspaper business to come and teach students, it would be an asset to the journalism department.
That began a career at the University of Alabama that would last 33 years. He started off teaching journalism, then became the director of freshman orientation of all University of Alabama students and culminated with being head of placement services for the College of Communications. He helped hundreds of Alabama graduates find their first jobs in communications, TV, radio, digital and print media. Many are famous, and most point to Oakley as their mentor.
The post where he had the most impact was as director of freshman orientation. He greeted and made to feel at home thousands of freshman students. He welcomed each and every one of them as though he was their grandfather. He amazingly remembered them all by name, where they were from and their parents’ names.
I will never forget the day I first met Oakley. I knew who he was. He was legendary. He knew me from the legislature. I was taking my younger daughter to register and move into the famous Tutwiler dormitory. There was Oakley waiting in the parking lot, greeting every student. He gave me a warm handshake and hugged Allyson and made her feel at home. He looked after her like a grandfather for the next four years. Another young lady from Enterprise named Katie Boyd arrived that same day to move into Tutwiler. Oakley took her under his wing the same way; she has just been elected as our next U.S. senator. The first person she sought in Bibb County when she began her race was Oakley. There are a thousand more stories like those of Britt and Allyson. Oakley loved and cared for each of them like they were his own.
He has three children of his own: Mike, Bill and Melanie Kay. His oldest son, Mike, is the mayor of Centreville, as was his grandfather, Jim Oakley Sr.
For over 60 years now, all candidates for major statewide offices have come to Bibb County to kiss the ring of Oakley and cultivate his friendship and support. Oakley has been friends and confidantes to every governor, including Wallace and Ivey. He has been close friends with many of our U.S. senators, especially Jim Allen and Richard Shelby. He has mentored and helped almost every state representative and state senator who have represented Bibb County over the years. His current Bibb County senator, April Weaver, is one of his favorites.
Oakley has a lot of friends in Alabama.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.