There are many places in Alabama we fondly describe as “you can’t get there from here.” One that certainly fits this observation is Phil Campbell, a community of about 1,000 kindly souls tucked into the southeast corner of Franklin County.
I became familiar with Phil Campbell nearly 10 years ago when I was involved with a study of 10 high-performing, high-poverty elementary schools. Jackie Ergle was principal of this K-6 school then, and she still is. I have made a number of visits to Phil Campbell. And any time I think of the community, I think of the now-gone Chat & Chew hamburger joint and “dismalites.”
Actually, the “dismalites” are a few miles out of town. They are tiny flying insects that are only found in Alabama in Franklin County’s Dismals Canyon. And though I’ve never seen one, I believe they are there.
For the most part, the pace of life in Phil Campbell will never be confused with downtown Atlanta or even Muscle Shoals just 50 miles up the road. And when someone singles them out, well, it is a big deal. Like a really big deal.
So when Secretary of State John Merrill called Ergle the week before Thanksgiving and invited her 4th graders to come to Montgomery to tour the state capitol and decorate a Christmas tree in the rotunda, it was a big deal for certain. Which is why a yellow school bus rolled out of Phil Campbell at 6:45 on the last day of November loaded with more than 40 excited youngsters and a handful of others. They were accompanied by several carloads of mothers, well-armed with cameras.
“We were super excited to get the invitation,” said Ergle. “both teachers and students. You know, something like this doesn’t happen every day for our little school.”
The bus rolled up to the back side of the capitol about 10:30 and the students, neatly outfitted in Christmas-themed T-shirts, unloaded to be met by a tour guide who spent the next hour taking them from room to room and explaining the significance of things that have happened in each. They saw where Governor Kay Ivey was sworn into office earlier this year and where delegates met to form the Confederacy more than 150 years ago. Students were attentive and asked many questions while mamas took pictures.
Then it was time for the main event–decorating the tree. Teachers and students had made an assortment of decorations and one by one students went to the tree and placed their ornament just so.
It’s about 185 miles from Phil Campbell to downtown Montgomery. So round trip in a school bus makes for a very long day. But for these young people, most who had never seen the capitol or even been to Montgomery, it was a very worthwhile trip. And they left the best of what Phil Campbell has behind to brighten the spirits of other visitors.
And Jackie Ergle smiled every step of the journey.