Allen McElroy was around back when this was “Where Highway 3 Meets The Sea”

Allen McElroy was around back when this was “Where Highway 3 Meets The Sea”
By Fran Thompson
Allen McElroy graduated from high school up in York, an 1800’s stage coach stop about 30 miles east of Meridian.
He went to college at Livingston University (now the University of West Alabama), about 15 miles in the other direction.
But the 82 year old ambassador of fun also has local bonafides that run deep.
He was spending summers here as a teen when there was nothing other than what Allen called “palmetto water” available in Ft. Morgan. It wouldn’t kill you. But it was foul tasting, and families would fill 30 gallon tanks from the water line at the cottages his parents owned to tote back to their summer homes on Mobile Bay.
The Beach Road ended at Alabama Point and the West Beach extended only about a mile. Hwy. 59 had yet to be designated as such.
“The catch phrase was ‘Where Hwy. 3 meets The Sea,’’’ Allen said of the road that led to his family’s cottages near Gulf Shores Public Beach.
The McElroys rented six cottages and also operated a small store selling groceries and dry goods
“The rates were $35 a week for the units and $45 for the kitchenettes,’’ Allen said. “Romeo Micelli had a similar operation up the street. He named after his daughter Jeannie, who ran the grocery store.
“Come Labor Day, all you would see were tail lights heading north. It dried up down here.’’
Gulf Shores was so quiet in the 1950’s that Allen and his brother, with their dog Teddy wagging his tail behind them, would walk across the street, sit atop sand dunes at Gulf Shores Public Beach and shoot ducks with 22 caliber rifles.
Allen was too young to vote for Gulf Shores’ first mayor, Johnny Sims, in 1957. But he remembers the election.
Allen said his family kept its grocery store open on weekends during the winter, but its vendors understood that they would not get their invoices paid until summer.
His first boat was an abandoned rowboat he salvaged from Little Lagoon. And he fondly remembers the many hours spent rowing that little skiff around the town’s waterways.
“There was nobody around. I never had any money, but I didn’t realize how good I had it,’’ he said.
One of Allen’s early summer jobs was working for James Goldman at the Little Casino, which was a predecessor to The Hangout that the Blalock brothers opened years later.
During his college years, he worked at The Big Casino at Gulf State Park. He loved to hang there after work to dance, meet tourists and “have a lot of fun.’’
Allen said his favorite dance spot was The Canal Lounge, owned by Howard Hardin. It was located across from the Friendship House, the closest Gulf Shores had to a fancy restaurant back then. The businesses were directly south of the draw bridge crossing the Intracoastal Canal.
Of course, Allen also knew Howard’s brother Max and his wife Mary.
The Canal Lounge was basically a dance hall inside an old WWII barracks. His favorite song to dance to was the Johnny Horton classic, “For The Love Of A Girl.’’ And his dance card competition came from flight students at Naval Air Station, who drove over from Pensacola in their TR-3’s and MG’s.
“I didn’t really need much money. It was maybe 80 cents for a beer. If I had 4 or 5 dollars, that was enough,’’ he said.
After graduating from Livingston, McElroy had a 37 year career in logistics with International Paper.
Before that, he worked for Western Electric in Mobile, car pooling across the Mobile Causeway every morning with two other friends from Gulf Shores.
“Interstate 10 was not even under consideration back then,’’ he said.
Allen traveled the country meeting with International Paper vendors. Often he was wined and dined. But he knew where to draw the line, and he never accepted more than a steak dinner and a Double Malt Scotch or two from company clients.
“Once you take something from somebody, you are obligated to them,’’ he said.
That moral fiber served Allen well when he first stepped into local politics as a member of the Pritchard City Council after being asked to fill a seat that was among those vacated when several Pritchard City Council members were arrested for collecting kickbacks from garbage collection contracts.
It was Allen’s own groundwork that led to the FBI investigation in the first place. He said when the FBI contacted him about his sources, he told them he found all the incriminating evidence he needed on file at city hall. It was available to anybody who took the time to do the research and connect the dots.
He ran for re-election in the next cycle and earned 70 percent of the black vote in a black majority city, even though he was running against a black opponent. “I was just trying to do what was right, and the people recognized that,’’ he said. “I am proud of that.’’
Allen and his wife Diane agreed to what was supposed to be a five year stint with International Paper in Memphis. But he ended up staying in that river town for 12 years before retiring to Orange Beach for good in 1999.
“All I do now is drink and chase women,’’ he joked.
That is actually partly true. But Allen also fills his days with volunteer community service.
In addition to his hands-on involvement with the Coastal Alabama Chamber of Commerce, Allen sits on several Orange Beach and Baldwin County boards. He is the chairman of Orange Beach’s business and industrial development board.
Among the many gems he brings to committee meetings is a rolodex. He is on a first name basis with just about every state official whose influence stretches to Baldwin County.
“I don’t know if I have to words to describe what he’s done for us. He’s done so much good,’’ Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said.
“He is not hesitant to pick up the phone and call the Lieutenant Governor or (ALDOT Director) John Cooper or the Secretary of State or the Attorney General or anybody else in Montgomery on our behalf. And they answer the phone when he calls.’’
Kennon said although they met in Orange Beach, Allen was friends with his aunts and uncles, including an uncle who was the Pritchard police chief, and his sister and Allen’s daughter grew up as best friends.
Kennon said that his City Council’s respect for Allen has reached a point where they know he will be able to make a positive influence anywhere he thinks he can help. And they invite him to do so.
“He just never stops. He makes the Energizer Bunny look lazy,’’ Kennon said. “I just have nothing but positives to say about him at the end of the day, and he couldn’t do it without Diane. They are just great people.’’
Kennon especially appreciated a call from Allen after Orange Beach citizens overwhelmingly voted down a property tax increase to pay for a city school system that the entire Council strongly favored.
“We got a little sideways about the school split, and he came to me after the vote didn’t go the way I was supporting. That was somewhat embarrassing.
“He said you need to humble yourself and let the people know what you learned. Express it publicly and everything will be alright. And I did write an open letter to the community, not exactly apologizing, but saying I didn’t listen like I should have. I recognized that I needed to be a better listener. I probably would not have done that if he didn’t call and it helped me be a better mayor.’’
Allen said he is dedicated to Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, Baldwin County and Alabama in that order.
Former US Congressman Jo Bonner agrees, calling him “a one-man chamber of commerce for Orange Beach, Pleasure Island and South Alabama.’’
Bonner, who is currently the Chief of Staff for Governor Kay Ivey, said Allen was always among the first to arrive and the last to leave any town hall meeting he attended.
“Making certain he had visited with everyone in attendance, he was likely double checking to make sure they had gotten their question answered,’’ Bonner said.
“I used to joke with him that he was the best staff member I had – and the cheapest, because he was always a volunteer – because he knew everyone and everyone knew him. He commands respect from one and all.
“He is like the “Energizer Bunny” in the sense that he is always the first person to show up to volunteer to help, whether it is putting on an art show, a salute to our veterans or a political rally/event,’’ Bonner added.
Allen and Diane are also among the Coastal Alabama Chamber of Commerce’s most active members. They attend every Island Spirit Award presentation and most ribbon cuttings and after hours socials.
“He is great for the island, and he is such a character,’’ said Steve Jones, who has been active in the Chamber since moving here in 1991 and now works for the group.
One of Allen’s duties with the Island Spirit Committee is to place the pin on the lapel on the recipients who win the award.
“He adds a lot of humor and levity. It is not the same when he is not there to place the pin,’’ Jones said. “Everyone knows he is just a flirt and harmless as haint.
“I don’t remember when I met him. I’m sure it was through the Chamber, but once you meet him, you don’t forget him,’’ Jones added. “If you meet him once, you know him forever. It’s like you can’t not know him. He is a force.’’
Allen met former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley during a fundraiser when Riley gave him a campaign sticker for his car. Allen responded by inking his phone number on Riley’s hand and telling him to call him. That led to a friendship that included invitations to inaugural balls, birthday parties in Montgomery and outings on millionaire George Barber’s boat.
The most memorable of his trips to Montgomery for an inauguration ball could have ended badly.
While he and Diane were driving up I-65, the family’s RV broke down in Greenville when the fuel pump blew out.
Never one to miss a party and ever industrious, Allen tied a five gallon bucket on the RV’s windshield, filled it with gas and let gravity feed fuel to the RV’s engine.
“I had to stop a few times to fill up the bucket, but we made it there,’’ he said.
He said Diane lived in his 8-Mile neighborhood and agreed with Mayor Kennon that he could not do what he does without her support. They’ve been married for 35 years. “She is the most wonderful person in the world. And I am serious about that,’’ he said.
Although never a wheeler dealer, Allen said he has bought and sold lots and homes from West Beach to Bear Point over the years and has made a profit on every sale.
He first ventured into home ownership when he bought a lot on West 4th Ave. in Gulf Shores from his boss at Yellow Front Stores when he was still a teenager.
“It was on one of the canals that Mr. Meyer put in. My boss wanted to sell it to me for $450, which I didn’t have,’’ he said. “He sent me over to see a loan officer at the bank, and the banker said he would lend me half only because he knew my parents. My boss lent me the other half.’’
Also active at Orange Beach Methodist Church, Allen said he is thankful daily for his blessings and supports his church accordingly.
In return, OBUMC Pastor Jim Kinder is thankful for the joy Allen brings to the congregation.
“If anybody comes in, whether it is a guest or somebody that has been here all their life, Allen is always there to greet them with a big smile and a great hand shake,’’ Pastor Kinder said. “And he has always been very encouraging to me personally. He is a guy that just loves life and loves the Lord. Just an incredible asset to the church and Orange Beach.’’
The pastor said that too many times to count he will see a group of people standing around with Allen McElroy, and they are always laughing.
“He just makes everybody feel so comfortable and so welcome. He makes them feel like they belong,’’ he said.
Allen thinks it is because of, not despite his never-miss-a-party lifestyle that he still feels great at 82 years old. His three story townhouse on Cotton Bayou has an elevator. But he doesn’t use it. “You gotta keep moving – always,’’ he said. “If you don’t, you will go away.’’
He has no plans to stop attending Orange Beach City Council meetings and letting local, county and state officials know about it when he has issues with their policies. That usually means him calling an official or politician directly and them addressing him by name when they pick up.
“God has been good to me,’’ Allen said. “I’ve had a good time all of my life. My only intent in return is to just try to do some good and help people.’

Pictured: Allen and Bill Jeffries discuss bridges for Orange Beach with ALDOT Director John Cooper; with Diane at the state bicentennial celebration and cleaning up Bird Island; with Governor Kay Ivey.