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In Remembrance of My Grandmother, Barbara Coffey

My Grandmother, the Honorable Barbara Ann Coffey, 91, went to her eternal home on May 10, 2024, from her beloved hometown of Moulton, AL. She was first elected Mayor of Moulton in 1988, an office he held for 16 years. A true visionary and lifelong public servant, she was the first and only female Mayor in the city’s history. No one loved the city of Moulton more than she did.

She was born January 2, 1933, in Moulton, AL, the youngest child of Lee and Ethel (Reeves) Berryman. Her birth came when the United States was at the height of the Great Depression. It was a time when one-quarter of American men were out of work. Those who did have work had their wages cut in half from 1929 to 1933. Things were tough in Alabama long before the Depression hit - as Randy Owens sang, “Somebody told us Wall Street fell, but we were so poor that we couldn’t tell.” That was the world into which Barbara Ann Berryman was born. At an early age, she learned frugality and self-sufficiency, traits that would serve her well throughout her life, both publicly and privately.

The 1950s were an important decade for my grandmother. She fell in love with the Captain of the Football team, Jimmy Coffey. The two married in 1952, and my mother was born in 1954. A year later, my grandmother embarked on a career path that she would follow for the next 50 years: public service in the city of Moulton, AL. She made a whopping sum of $35 a week in 1955. There were only two city employees, herself and the city clerk, who handled the business for every department in the city.

She became the city clerk in 1968. Twenty years later, in 1988, as Mayor H.A. Alexander finished his career in public service, some suggested that she run for office. I was 12 at the time and very close to my grandmother - I didn’t think of her as a city employee; to me, she was a fishing buddy. She taught me how to bait a hook and cast a line. And we spent countless hours sitting on the bank of ponds and lakes, pulling in catfish.

I wasn’t sure what was involved in being Mayor, but it sounded like it might cut into our fishing time. Besides, I had been to the city hall many times. I always enjoyed looking at the portraits of the city's former Mayors; in fact, I studied those portraits one by one, and it occurred to me that not a single one of those mayors were female. I mentioned it to my grandmother, who just smiled and said, “Well, there’s about to be one.”

There’s an old saying that all politics is local. That was never truer than politics in Moulton, AL. Running for office was more than yard signs and newspaper ads; it had to be done door to door. Each night, she and my dad would review the ground they had covered that day and count the votes.

That first election was running pretty tight since the former Mayor’s son threw his hat into the race. But the scale began to tip in favor of my grandmother when her team began to work down Byler Road and Pinhook Road, the historically black section of town.

For many years, as City Clerk, my grandmother dealt with every household in the city. The people of color in our community knew that she had a track record of fairness and equity and that she had been a friend to them through the years. They were also a friend to her; for the next 16 years, the black vote put her over the top each election cycle.

I don’t remember her ever lecturing me about racial reconciliation, but I remember that many of her friends were people of color till the day she died. As a little boy, I remember driving through downtown, and men in long white robes and tall hoods were standing around the square collecting money in KFC buckets. I vividly remember her rolling her window down, calling one of the men by name, and telling him, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself; you know I don’t contribute to things like that.” He said, “Yes, mam, Mrs Coffey,” and she kept driving.

That’s the kind of impact she made, not through sermons and lessons but in deed and action. She taught me the value of the marriage covenant as, through many long nights, I saw her weep as she dealt with a husband who had a struggle with the bottle. But she stuck with him for 48 years, till death parted them. Her approach was a lot like Ruth Graham’s, who said, “I never considered divorce; it wasn’t a part of my vocabulary. I thought about murder many times, but never divorce”.

She loved the political process, especially when women were elected. She found inspiration in strong women leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Texas Governor Ann Richards.

I loved discussing politics with her, although we saw several things differently. She was a lifelong Democrat, while I tended to vote the other way. It was so much fun to pick at her about politics. In one of our last conversations, while she was in palliative care, she was frail, but she never lost her sense of humor. I said, “You are going to have to get your strength up.” she said, “Why?” to which I replied, “Because I need you to be able to get out of here by November so you can go help me get Trump re-elected.” She told me she had no intention of helping me with that!

She was the definition of a public servant, willingly assisting citizens with issues ranging from attracting the Walmart Superstore to Moulton to answering the phone in the middle of the night to address a citizen’s concern over a dog that would not stop barking.

As Mayor, her accomplishments are too numerous to detail fully. She was proud of each project that moved Moulton, AL, forward. She celebrated the growth of businesses and improvements in infrastructure, all while maintaining a balanced budget and keeping the city fiscally sound.

During her retirement years, she immensely enjoyed the opportunities to invest in the community's young people. Whether of children at an Elementary School or being interviewed about her experience as a government official, she truly believed that the key to Moulton’s future lay in the next generation of leaders.

It was fitting that she died on the same day that her husband of 48 years, Jimmy Coffey, passed away 25 years prior.

She set the standard of leadership and influence for all of us, and she truly did leave this world a better place.

Zach Terry

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