Overcoming hardships, Garlan Gudger Sr. led through hard work, quiet wisdom

Reprinted with permission by The Cullman Times

By David Palmer
The Cullman Times

Garlan Gudger Sr. influenced thousands of students enrolling in Wallace State Community College, encouraging them to succeed and move forward into careers and rewarding lives.

At the age of 75, Gudger Sr. died at his Cullman home Monday afternoon.

During his lifetime, Gudger Sr. was recipient of several prestigious recognitions, which included an award from the Joslin Diabetes Center at Harvard University in Boston for surviving 62 years of Type 1 juvenile diabetes. He was diagnosed at the age of 10, and credited a lifelong regimen of exercise, participation in sports, and faith in God for the productive life he lived. He was also inducted into the Cullman County Sports Hall of Fame and was named as one of the Top 5 Outstanding Alumni from Tennessee Tech University in Cookville, Tennessee.

Many will always remember him for his investment in students. Wallace State President Dr. Vicki Karolewics issued a statement Tuesday honoring Gudger Sr.’s contributions to education and to the community.

“The Gudger family has been a large part of the history of Wallace State,” Dr. Karolewics said. “Dot Gudger was one of the first business faculty and department chairs, and Dr. Garlan Gudger Sr. served as Dean of Students for more than 20 years. Dr. Gudger garnered the respect and admiration of everyone with whom he worked, and he was a wonderful role model for developing a strong work ethic in Wallace State’s student body.”

From the perspective of a former student, Jennifer Hill, now the interim Dean of Students at Wallace State, said Gudger Sr. was always encouraging students to succeed with practical advice.

“He was instrumental in my enrolling at Wallace State instead of going directly off to a university,” Hill said. “The experience was great and he was always there for the students. I came back later, in 1993, to come to work.”

Hill said Gudger Sr. was remembered by many for the large intramural sports program he put together with students, involving hundreds in basketball and flag football in an early initiative at the college to raise involvement and awareness in health.

“It was incredible how he got so many people involved,” Hill said. “A lot of us still talk about that. But what you remember most is that he was the steady, positive person encouraging you forward and making sure you did your work. He was so proud of the college and what it offered to students and the community.”

Hill said she recalled Gudger helping to gain funding for the Tom Drake coliseum on campus.

“He was a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of person,” Hill said. “He would work alongside you and was always talking practical advice. A reminder to do what was expected and succeed.”

That work ethic and enthusiasm for life was also reflected through a hobby, which turned into a highly recognized business now owned by his son.

Southern Accents Architectural Antiques came about through Gudger Sr.’s knack for salvaging architectural items from old buildings and homes set for demolition. He would restore the items, converting them into works of art that were highly prized for the skill and care he put into the preservation.

By 1969, he was working out of a two-car garage with the fledgling business.

And that business became a pioneer for architectural salvage in Alabama, said Garlan Gudger Jr., Cullman City Council president and a candidate for the Alabama Senate, who took over leadership of the store in 1999.

“My earliest memories with my dad were going to flea markets and antique stores and places where buildings were torn down,” Gudger Jr. said. “I know it started as a hobby, but it was a passion and he became a pioneer in this industry in Alabama. He learned a lot from a man in New Orleans, Pete Ricca. Even on vacation we would leave with a trailer behind us to collect items. That’s just what we did — and we had a lot of fun.”

Recalling his work ethic and desire to help other people, Gudger Jr. said his father grew up poor and was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at 13, with doctors advising him he wouldn’t live past the age of 55.

“At that point he started working out and playing sports, and he worked out the rest of his life. He was amazingly strong and went on to play college football and coached teams,” Gudger Jr. said.

“Even when he was on scholarship at Tennessee Tech and had time to make a little money, he often sent it home to his family. They grew up on what was called Mill Hill in Salisbury, North Carolina, and from what we know about those years, it was tough.”

From his upbringing to the success he found through sports and education, Gudger Sr. brought to Cullman a desire to help others as he became a teacher and coach, and eventually the first Dean of Students at Wallace State.

“He always enjoyed working and was amazing with what he could do with his hands. He told me never to think you’re too good to get your hands dirty and I always remember that,” Gudger Jr. said. “He wasn’t much on talking, but he was a listener and a doer. And one thing we all saw was his love of kids and the community and wanting people to do well in whatever they tried.”

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At the age of 75, Gudger Sr. died at his Cullman home Monday afternoon.

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Garlan Gudger Sr. at the 2014 Cullman County Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

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Garlan Gudger Sr.received a football scholarship to Tennessee Tech.