WHAT’S IN A NAME? Fob James Drive

Published 6:00 pm Saturday, February 25, 2023

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VALLEY — In the 1970s, a four-lane road was built from Highway 29 in Langdale to what’s now Exit 77 on I-85. It provided residents of the Langdale, Fairfax and River View communities a better way to get to the interstate than going all the way up Highway 29 to Exit 79 between Shawmut and Lanett. It didn’t have a formal name at the time, just a Chambers County road designation.

In the fall of 1978, a Langdale pastor had an idea for that permanent name. He wanted to call it Fob James Drive after a man who had just been elected governor of Alabama.

At the Monday, Nov. 27 meeting of the Chambers County Commission, the Rev. Brown O’Quinn of the Langdale First United Methodist Church asked the commissioners to consider naming that new four-lane connector Fob James Drive, after the state’s governor-elect. Fob James Jr. was the first person born in Chambers County to be elected governor in Alabama.

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The commissioners liked the idea and approved it in a unanimous vote.

O’Quinn told the commissioners that giving the road this name would send a strong message to the youth of Chambers County. 

“It will show that any young person in the county can make it anywhere in this state, even to the governor’s office,” he said.

Fob James Jr. was elected governor as a Democrat on Nov. 7, 1978. He had defeated Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley in the Democratic Primary and Republican Guy Hunt in the general election. In that November election, James got more than 90 percent of the vote in Chambers County, where he was born, and 88 percent of the vote in Lee County, where he lived.

James was born September 15, 1934, in Lanett. His dad, Fob Sr., was a football coach at Lanett High and later worked as a recreation director for West Point Manufacturing Company. Fob grew up in the family home on South 4th Street across from a teacher’s dormitory and a short walk away from the present site of W.O. Lance Elementary School.

Fob’s dad had played college football at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn). One of his teammates was Bob Harding, who has a school named after him in Valley.

Like his dad, Fob Jr. was an excellent athlete. He finished high school at Baylor Prep in Chattanooga and signed a scholarship to Auburn, his dad’s alma mater. Playing for legendary Coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan, Fob Jr. was an All-American running back in 1955. He received a degree in civil engineering at Auburn and played pro football in Canada with the Montreal Alouettes before joining the U.S. Army and serving as a lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. In 1962, he founded Diversified Products (DP) in Opelika. 

His company manufactured athletic equipment, specializing in a unique kind of barbell filled with a patented product known as Orbatron. In addition to the physical fitness equipment, DP also manufactured ballasts and counterweights for farming, industry and trucking.

At one time, Diversified Products employed over 1,500 people in Opelika, Los Angeles and Toronto and had sales of approximately $1 billion a year.

James served as the company CEO until 1977, when DP was purchased by the Liggett Group.

One of James’ sons, Gregory, died of cystic fibrosis at age eight. The James family was very supportive of efforts to treat children suffering from this disease and to find a cure for it. The Gregory Fleming James Cystic Fibrosis Research Center at UAB is named in honor of the James child. 

In 1994, James was elected governor a second time, this time as a Republican. He defeated incumbent Democrat Jim Folsom Jr. by a narrow margin to become the first candidate in state history to serve one term as governor as a Democrat and one term as a Republican.

In recent years, Fob and wife, Bobbie, have been living in the Miami, Florida area. Fob has been staying in an independent living apartment near the nursing facility where his wife has been residing. The couple had four sons, Gregory, who died in the 1960s; Tim, a businessman who has run for governor several times; Fob III, a trial lawyer, and Patrick.

A year-and-a-half after Fob James Drive was named, the mill villages of Shawmut, Langdale, Fairfax and River View came together to form the new city of Valley, and Fob James Drive became an important road in the heart of a new city. A city hall complex and a city park were built off its east end, and a host of businesses are now along both sides of the road closer to the interstate.