Paul Ray Hubbert was born on Christmas Day in 1935 in the small rural crossroads of Hubbertville in Fayette County. The community was named for his family, the town’s original and primary settlers. He died in October in Montgomery.
Dr. Hubbert left an indelible mark on Alabama political history. The most enduring political giant in Alabama political history in my lifetime was George Wallace. Next to Wallace would be Sen. Richard Shelby and Dr. Paul Hubbert.
Ironically, Dr. Hubbert made his mark as a political icon by defeating George Wallace in a pivotal legislative battle at the height of Wallace’s power and popularity. Wallace was asking his legislature to divert education retirement dollars to mental health to avoid a federal takeover. Wallace called the young head of the AEA to his office to inform him of his plans. Hubbert looked Wallace directly in the eye and told him over my dead body you will.
Hubbert beat Wallace. The vote was 90 to 11. He earned his spurs in that legendary Western gun battle. That built his reputation. He went on to become the fastest draw on Goat Hill. He was an icon for more than 42 years, and was so powerful that he was commonly referred to as “Governor.”
Hubbert left Hubbertville in the 1950s with the idea that education would be his ticket away from picking cotton for the rest of his life. Similar to when Bear Bryant was asked during the pinnacle of his career what motivated him to become the greatest college football coach of all time, he said, “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life plowing cotton behind a mule.” Regardless of what motivated Hubbert, he became the greatest educator in Alabama history.
In the course of his journey, Hubbert made the life of every Alabama educator better by his achievements. Over four decades (from 1969 to 2011), Paul Hubbert was the best friend every schoolteacher in Alabama ever had.
He was superintendent of the Troy City System in 1969. He was only 34 with a brilliant future ahead of him. The Alabama Education Association was a fledgling, toothless, social club run by the school superintendents in the state. Over 30 applicants applied for the vacancy as head of the association. Hubbert had not been one of the applicants – they came to him. He had been fishing with his friend and neighbor, Pike County Tax Collector Fred Dykes, when they called. At first, he turned them down.
Eventually, he acquiesced and took over the reins of the low-key AEA. He immediately merged the all white teachers’ organization with its black counterpart. He and Joe Reed were on course to make that union one of the greatest powers in Alabama politics. At that time in 1969 there were 30,000 members. When Hubbert retired in 2011, there were 100,000 members of the AEA.
Hubbert became a political kingmaker over the years. He would pump close to $10 million into legislative races throughout the state. By virtue of this largesse, he controlled the Legislature during the 70s, 80s and 90s, the way George Wallace did during the 60s.
Hubbert and the AEA elected so many members of the Legislature during that reign that many, if not most of them, owed their seat to him. Hubbert would boldly and brashly sit in the Capitol balcony and direct legislators’ votes by pointing to his eye for a yes and to his nose for a no.
Hubbert was easily the most powerful lobbyist in state political history. Even though people facetiously called him “Governor,” he yearned to be the real Governor. He was the Democratic candidate for Governor in 1990, but lost to Republican incumbent Guy Hunt. He ran again in 1994 and lost the Democratic nomination to incumbent Jim Folsom
Dr. Hubbert was first diagnosed with a liver problem in 1972. In 1989, it was widely publicized when he was flown to Pittsburgh for a liver transplant. He was one of the longest surviving liver transplant recipients in the world. He was hospitalized in October following a fall. He died 12 days later at age 78.
Dr. Paul Hubbert was a man of integrity. He grew up in an era when your word was your bond. These qualities were his trademark and what made him so effective. He was a devoted husband and he and his wife Ann were a team. He was also a beloved father and grandfather. He loved his family and fishing. He obviously loved public education and educators. He will go down in Alabama political history as a giant.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in over 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.