Don Early Class of 1959
by Rick Watson
Don Early is a graduate of the Dora High School Class of 1959 and he has had an interesting life. His parents noticed at a very early age that he was a talented singer. He also learned to play piano during those early years. Don’s mother and father used to take him to various night clubs in Birmingham to let him perform for audiences there.
Don started school earlier than most kids and was always the youngest member of his class. “I sometimes wish that my folks had waited a year and given me a chance to grow up a little before starting to school,” he says “but I guess things worked out O.K.” While he was at Dora, he really didn’t think it was that special, but in retrospect school was a lot more fun than he thought then.
Mr. Gant was the principal back in 1959 and Don says that he was really ahead of his time. He talked to Don about a lot of things, one of which was politics. Mr. Gant told Don that Alabama would move toward a two party system of government. At that time, Alabama was all Democratic. He told Don that we would never move ahead until there was a viable two-party system. Don says that Mr. Gant also foresaw the increasing role of technology. When Don mentioned that he was going to work for the railroad, Mr. Gant told him that one day there would not be depots in every little town and that trains would be operated by machines. Don mused that it took a while, but his vision is now quite true.
Don Early Class of 59
Don knew that he would work for the railroad. He began his training at Frisco during his senior year at Dora. Don learned telegraph and various other functions. The day after he graduated he went to work. It took a few months for him to become “legal” because of his age, but in the fall his seniority began and he spent 28 years there.
“To me, the railroad was just a job,” he says “unlike my father, who was a “railroad man”, the railroad was his life.” Don points to a photograph of his father who was a conductor for many years. “I might have retired from the railroad,” he says, “but I got into the television business and I got so busy doing the TV business that I had to make a decision whether to stay on or quit and do TV. I decided to quit the railroad.”
Don says the adjustment was hard at first because he had always had a job and a job description and the first year after he quit the railroad, he almost lost everything because he didn’t know how to manage himself. He had to teach himself how to get out and be his own boss. “I never had done that before,” he explains.
The Dixie Travelers
Don talked about his years at Dora and he says probably the most fun he had was playing music. Several of the guys from Dora High School started a band called The Dixie Travelers and they played at school functions and all around the state. The band consided of Don, Curtis Ellison, Ralph Raines Jerry Grammer “We played the country club in Jasper and we had a radio show on Saturday night,” he remembers “being in high school and having a rockin’ roll band, that was a lot of fun.”
The band stayed together for three or four years but after graduation the band broke up because we all had jobs and were working and it was just too hard to maintain.
When Don was in school, he was involved with a lot of things. “I think if kids today got involved with school activities, they would enjoy the experience more,” he says.
Don married Susie in 1962 and they had four children. Donnie, Anthony, Vincent, and Nickie. He has seven grand kids. All the boys have worked with Don in the TV business.
The important things that Don learned from school was being around people. Having the ability to interact well with people is a skill that is very important and helps in all aspects of life. He also feels that the skill of typing has also served him well. Mr. Ellenburg did a good job of teaching typing and Don says he has used typing skills in his work at the railroad and his business.
After the railroad, Don started a company called Alabama Cable Network in the early 80’s when cable was in its infancy. He was on the Sumiton City Council and the owner of the cable company came to the council to ask for a franchise to build a cable company. Don was the interface between Don McDowell, the owner of the company and the city. They became friends and Don mentioned to McDowell casually that he was going to buy a camera and record the Dora High School football games for his son Anthony who was a receiver on the Dora squad. McDowell told him that if he would record the games, he would put them on television. That was the first time any high school game had ever been televised in the state of Alabama. It was a fun thing to do, Don remembers. He got Joe Potts because he knew a lot about football to do the play by play and George Sides did the color and commentary. It was an instant success. The next week, Don had advertiser lined up to sponsor the show. One thing let to another and ACN was born. Don soon got his own cable channel and he started airing talk shows hosted by his wife Susie and Glenda Dodd, they did exercise programs hosted by one of the Cantley girls and he got a preacher to do a program too.
ACN quickly grew from a local station that covered Dora and Sumiton to Birmingham. “We grew from a few thousand viewers to over 45,000 over night,” he says.
Don had the channel for several years when a larger company made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He sold ACN and decided to retire. NOT. He took some of the proceeds from the sale of the company and built a Wedding Chapel for his wife Susie and he started collecting trains. I’m not talking about model trains, but REAL TRAINS. Anyone who has driven Highway 78 towards Birmingham can see his collection on Green Top hill. He has converted several railroad cars into functional areas that can be used by the Wedding Chapel. One car is a kitchen that is a fully functional facility that is sanctioned by the health department. There is a dining car, a caboose and an engine that has been converted into a private museum. The museum is full of railroad memorabilia. He says he has never thrown anything away and in browsing through the museum, it’s obvious that he speaks the truth. He has old telephone, telegraphs, lights, crossing signals, pictures, and his dad’s old conductor’s uniform as well as other personal items that belonged to his dad. “I’ve got every pay stub I ever got from the railroad,” he says.
Don says that it’s not just the railroad, he says he loves old things. He’s building an old town on the property near the Wedding Chapel. “I love old stuff,” he says, I have old cars, and all kinds of old stuff.” When he saw that many of the old railroad cars were being destroyed and sold for scrap, he decided to try and do something about it so that people would remember. Don is preserving the railroad cars as a tribute to his father the “railroad man”.
When asked what advice he has for the young kids coming up today, he says it is impossible to give advice to the young folks, because they will simply not listen. “I know, because I didn’t listen when I was their age,” he says smiling. “But if they would really try to learn and apply themselves instead of taking it lightly, they would really benefit.”
Several things have had a impact on the life of Don Early; music, railroads, and the love of collecting "old things." All together they help to make Don Early a remarkable graduate of Dora High School.
City of New Orleans
by Steve Goodman sung by Arlo Guthrie
And the all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
But the steel rails still ain't heard the news
The Conductor sings his song again
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues