Melton Potter, Honorable Mayor of Scottsboro
May 11, 2012
Dr. Campbell, faculty, staff, parents, relatives, friends,
but most of all to those who will shortly become graduates
of NACC that we are here tonight to recognize, I want to
thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight; I am
truly honored and humbled to be asked to deliver this
Tonight is a night to celebrate and honor Northeast’s class
of 2012. I would like for all the parents, relatives,
friends, faculty and staff to help me to be the first to
congratulate tonight’s graduates.
Class of 2012, I would like for you to show your
appreciation to those who have supported you, taught you and
those who have helped you reach this milestone in your life.
The same group that just congratulated you please show them
I would also like to take this time to congratulate Dr.
Campbell and the staff and faculty for receiving the
prestigious Aspen Institute for College Excellence Program.
This award recognizes Northeast as being among the top 10
percent of the nations community colleges. Northeast is now
eligible for a $1 million prize for being chosen the best
Community College in the US. This is the second year in a
row that Northeast has received this award. Please join me
in recognizing this accomplishment.
I want to congratulate Rainsville and the surrounding area
for having the foresight to build this beautiful facility.
This is the first time I have been here for an event.
Two years ago Jackson County Circuit Judge John Graham stood
before a similar group as the commencement speaker and last
year Tom Kilgore CEO of TVA spoke. Tonight the quality goes
way down. I do not know what you did to make Dr. Campbell
mad, but you are stuck with me. Apparently Forrest Gump was
not available tonight.
I feel a tremendous amount of pressure tonight; I want to go
ahead and apologize to the English Professors for how I
might butcher the English language. Maybe you can use
tonight as an example next year of how important English
Since Dr. Campbell asked me to speak, I have wrestled with
what I need to say to you. Do I need to challenge you, try
to say something profound, or do stand-up comedy? Then I
thought I want you to look ahead. Look ahead 30 years from
tonight, when you will be in your early 50’s. Look straight
ahead at me and you will see what 30 plus years will do to
you. Yesterday I turned 53 years old. When I was your age 53
was ancient. Now it is not that old. But like everything
else age is relative. My mind makes me think I can still do
things that I could when I was 23, my body tells me not so
fast. Last year I played softball in a tournament all day in
the middle of July. I stayed in bed the next two days trying
to recover. I used to laugh when people told me it hurt them
when they got out of bed in the morning. I don’t laugh now.
Sometimes I have to reach and grab the side of the bed just
to pull myself up out of it.
There is one thing that bothers more than anything else
about getting older. There are 16 year olds who can grow
full beards within a few days. At age 53 it still would take
me at least a month for me to grow any resemblance of a
beard. For whatever reason when you get older hair grows in
places that it normally should not. I will leave it at that.
All through your life you will have accomplishments that you
will achieve, and you will have done so with your hard work
and but also with the help of others. Tonight you are at a
milestone in your life. But you are also at a crossroads.
You have received your basic educational foundation in
elementary, middle, junior high, and high school. Now you
have advanced your education at the collegiate level. So
where do you go from here?
Some will continue their education and do so for many years
to come; others will begin careers in the workforce, working
on that long road toward retirement. Some of you may not
know what career path you will choose. Education is just one
career path. But statistics show the more education you have
the more money you make. Whichever road you take I urge you
to strive for good solid, successful life. Some of you may
still not know which career you want to pursue. But that is
OK. I still do not know what I want to be when I grow up. My
latest goal is to win Dancing with The Stars.
I am very proud of my daughter Breanna, but one of the
things I am most proud of is that she resolved in the 10th
grade that she wanted to be a Pharmacist. She did the
necessary work in the classes she needed in high school and
later at Auburn University to reach her goal. Just last week
she completed her first year of Pharmacy School at Auburn.
As she told me a couple of days ago she is 25% a pharmacist.
I certainly hope she uses her degree, at least until the
student loans are paid, but there are many people who have
careers other than the fields they were educated in.
Sometimes life changes your plans, goals, and dreams.
There has been what I think 4 events in my life where
circumstances or decisions set me on my path to become
mayor. So while you look ahead 30 years I want to look back
30 plus years in my life beginning in 1975 when I was 15
I grew up in a great family. My father worked for the
Scottsboro Police Department, my mother had worked outside
the home but was mostly a stay at home mom. There were 3
children: I was the oldest; I have a sister 3 years younger
than I am, and a brother who is 12 years younger than me.
On February 10, 1975, my life changed forever. I was a
sophomore in high school, 15 years old. I came home from
school just like any normal day when around 4PM I heard my
mother scream. She came running through the house and told
me to take my little brother outside. Which I did. I saw my
mother running to a neighbor’s house for help.
I did not know what was going on, but I knew it was not good
and it involved my father. I took my brother to a field just
behind our house and then to our neighbor’s backyard where
we sat on a swing set and I prayed. By this time I heard
sirens of ambulances and police cars coming to our house.
The ambulance came and stayed a little while then left with
sirens blaring headed to the hospital. After they left I
took my little brother back to the house where other
neighbors and relatives had gathered.
After about 45 minutes, I was standing in our living room
when I saw my mother get out of a car; the look on her face
told me everything I needed to know. She came in and told us
that our father had passed away at age 39 of a massive heart
attack. I felt shock, disbelief, sadness, uncertainty, and
anger. Your father dying at such a young age is not supposed
I remember just like it was yesterday, that night my mother
at the age of 36 laid in bed with her arms around her 3
children, ages 15, 12, and 3 and told us that everything was
going to be all right. That with God’s help we would get
through this. She did not say maybe, I hope so, I think so,
or we might, she said we would get through this.
At age 15 I was timid, shy, (I did not want to get called on
in class, did not want to talk to girls or have girls talk
to me) lacked self-confidence, I guess you could say I was
backwards in many ways. Just to show you how shy I was, I
once took a bad grade in the 11th grade because I did not
want to give a speech that all of us was required to do. My
teacher Mrs. Betty Esslinger made us give 5 speeches in
English Class and I refused. She told me if I would just get
up and say my name I would not fail. I did finally give four
of the five speeches but in that first speech I just said my
At home at night I did not want to be the last one in bed
because I would have to turn out the lights, because I was
scared. But that all began to change after my father’s
death. All of a sudden it was my job to make sure the house
was secure at night, that the cars was repaired when needed,
and many other things that were out of my comfort zone.
On February 14, days after my father’s death of grieving and
feeling sorry for myself, I was in the car riding through
town seeing people carrying on as usual, working, playing,
cutting up and I remember thinking why are all these people
so happy, do they not know that my father had just died. And
then it hit me. Time marches on. It was time to start
I am not here to tell you that everything was great, but we
survived. We as kids never did without what we needed. My
mother made sure we had what we needed. Did you hear me? She
made sure we had what we needed, not necessarily what we
wanted. To me, my mother is a real hero, to raise 3 children
on basically social security, and under circumstances she
did not ask for, is nothing short of a miracle.
As I moved toward my senior year in high school, I began to
think about college. I had decided that I wanted to be an
accountant; I had been accepted to Jacksonville State
University, even assigned a dormitory. But I did not go, no
one asked me not to go, I just felt like I needed to stay at
I enrolled at Northeast but only lasted one year. I had some
great teachers, and learned a lot. But I spent too much time
at the student center playing spades. The only real argument
my mother and I have ever had was when I told her I wanted
to quit Northeast and go to work. Finally she relented and
after that first year at Northeast I went to work. I landed
a full-time job with the Ambulance Service at Jackson County
Hospital where I was trained as an EMT-Basic and an EMT-Intermediate
trained through Northeast.
Later in 1982 I went to work with the Scottsboro Fire
Department. A job I truly loved. I loved running up and down
the road with the lights and sirens blaring, I loved the
challenge of fighting fires, running medical calls and
helping people, it was a dream job for a young boy.
After 3 three years of working at the Fire Department I
received a phone call from W.R. Henshaw, a dear man who I
had tremendous respect for. He offered me a job at
Scottsboro Funeral Home. He had been very kind to our family
when my father died. It was not necessarily the job I
wanted, but I thought so much of this man and it meant so
much to me that he asked me to work for him that I accepted.
After about a year and half of working at the funeral home I
realized that I truly loved fire fighting and missed the men
and work. I had kept a connection to the Fire Department by
being a volunteer fire fighter when I left.
A job opened back up at the Fire Department and I was
fortunate enough to be able to go back to work there. One of
the hardest things I ever had to do was go tell W.R. that I
was going to quit my job. In typical fashion of the
gentleman that he was W.R. (who was a former volunteer fire
fighter) said he understood and wished me well. Once I got
back to the Fire Department, I told them they would never
have to worry about me quitting again because I was going to
stay there until retirement.
In late 1990 after about 4 years of pulling shifts, 24 on 24
off, a vacancy came open for the fire inspector position,
which was a M-F 40 hour week job. I had no interest in
applying, because I loved fighting fires and working shifts.
I had a part-time job on my days off like most fire
fighters. I was happy. My wife had another idea; she found
out there was an opening and she wanted me to apply. Earlier
in 1990 our daughter Breanna was born. A child will change
your life, as well as the way you think, a day shift job
would allow me to be at home at night with my family.
I applied for the inspector’s position and was fortunate to
get the job. I held that position for ten years when I was
promoted to assistant chief and two years later I was
promoted to chief. I always said when I got my 25 years of
service in at the Fire Department that I would like to
pursue another career. So after serving as fire chief for 8
years I decided I would run for Mayor.
I shared my story with you to say this. There will be
circumstances and decisions that you make in your life that
at the time they happen will shape your life in ways that
you may not know for years to come.
The first incident to impact my life was the death of my
father, helped me to mature faster than I might normally
have, taught me responsibility, to care for others, to let
people you love know how you feel about them while they are
living, it gave me a reason to stay at home rather than
going out and getting into trouble.
I have heard people say many times that maybe something good
will come out of a bad situation or circumstance. I can tell
you tonight there is truth in that statement. You may not
see it immediately but eventually you will.
Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have my father with me
today. It has been 37 years since he died but I think a lot
about him, I wonder what he might think if he was around.
But his death affected me in so many ways, but not all of
them were bad. My career would probably have taken a
different path had he not passed when I was young.
The second impactful moment in my life was when I left Fire
Department to go to work at the funeral home. I have said
leaving the Fire Department and changing jobs was the best
thing I ever did. You might ask why? Being away from the
Fire Department for that year and a half showed me just how
much I loved and missed it. It made me appreciate my Fire
Fighter job, to see things differently, of what it was like
not to be able to do what I loved. It made me a better
employee when I returned. I looked at my job as something to
appreciate and not take for granted.
The third impactful moment was when my wife Kathy encouraged
me, change that strongly encouraging me to apply for the
fire inspectors job. Applying for and getting that job was
probably the single most important reason that I ended up as
mayor, even though it happened 18 years before I was elected
As an inspector I learned how to interact with business
owners, architects, building contractors, and the public in
general. It allowed me to speak to civic groups, to be an
ambassador for the Fire Department. Had she not encouraged
me to apply for inspector, I never would have been promoted
to chief. As chief I learned how to prepare and administer
budgets, handle personnel issues, work with the mayor and
council, and continued to work with the public.
I felt the Fire Department had prepared me to run for mayor
in so many ways. Being Mayor is similar to being a fire
chief, any department head, or anyone who manages people or
companies, just on a larger level. I went from having 40
employees to over 200 employees. The concept and management
style is the same.
At the time of each of these events I never realized what I
was preparing for. But had any one of these events not
happened my career could have turned out very different. So
how does this apply to you? The decisions today rightly or
wrongly can have far reaching affects, even years down the
road. You may be like me and not even realize it when you
make these decisions how they impact your life.
Oscar Wilde said, “every saint has a past and every sinner
has a future.” We do not need to forget where we came from
nor forget how bright the future is no matter the
circumstances. There is hope for us all no matter what our
As a kid, I never dreamed of being a fire fighter, funeral
director, and certainly not mayor. Like most kids I wanted
to be a big league baseball player or astronaut. Sometimes
careers are planned, sometimes they just happen based on
circumstances beyond your control or decisions you make.
So I go back to my original question, where will you be 30
years from tonight?
Most of all I hope you are happy! I hope you find a career
that you really like. I have always loved going to work at
the Fire Department and as Mayor I have never dreaded going
to work or wished that I was doing something else. Sure I
have always wanted to make more money, but that does not
equate to happiness.
It is human nature to be average. I urge you to challenge
yourself, to get out of your comfort zone. I hope that each
of you is successful, no matter your career.
Webster’s first dictionary published in 1806 listed the
attributes of a successful person: prosperous, fortunate,
happy, and kind. The most recent edition of Webster’s
defines success as attainment of wealth, favor, and
eminence. I like the prosperous, fortunate, happy, and kind
definition the best. That is the type of success that I wish
every one of you to have.
As a commencement speaker I feel compelled to give you some
nuggets of wisdom. I want to be honest and tell you these
are not original. I found them in an article entitled “What
I wished they had told me at my graduation.” I want to share
a couple of these with you.
First, tonight, your graduation night is a happy occasion.
But my job is to tell you that if you are going to do
anything worthwhile, you will face periods of self-doubt and
failures. Life is chocked full of adversity. We will all
face hurdles in life. When we are faced with these hurdles
we have to go over them—nobody can do it for you. It is how
we handle this adversity that defines us. Tonight I am going
over a hurdle in my life that goes back to not giving that
speech in my 11th grade English class.
Second, don’t make the world worse. I know I am supposed to
tell you to aspire to great things. But I am going to lower
the bar just a bit, I am saying don’t use your great talents
to mess things up worse than they already are. Make a
Third, it’s all borrowed time. You shouldn’t take anything
for granted, not even tomorrow. If a bus next week hit you
would you have died doing what you loved?
And the last one, which is my favorite, is marry someone
smarter than you. I have followed this rule and believe me
it really works; it has worked well for me. Don’t live your
life and then look back and ask yourself the question What
if I had only? I want to give you some what ifs to ponder.
What if Ben Franklin never learned to fly a kite as a kid?
What if Elvis Presley never learned how to play a guitar? He
was once told he needed to stick to his truck driver’s job.
What if Bill Gates was not interested in computers as a
teenager? What if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t have a
dream? What if Nick Saban never left Miami Dolphins to go to
the University of Alabama? OK, for the other side, what if
Cam Newton had never gone to Auburn?
My point is do not get years down the road and wonder what
if I had done this, or what if I had done that. Live your
life with no regrets.
I have my own what if moment. During my introduction you may
have noticed that I did not graduate from college and I
often wonder what if I had graduated from college? How would
my life have been different? I would say this is one of my
I hope that you live your life to the fullest, enjoy your
work, love your family, and tell those that you love how you
feel about them while they are alive. Don’t wait until they
are gone to tell them you love them. Do it while they are
alive and can know your feelings.
Winston Churchill once said “To every man, there comes in
his lifetime that special moment when he/she is tapped on
the shoulder and offered the chance to do a special thing,
unique and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that
moment finds them unprepared and unqualified for the work
that would be their finest hour.”
You have prepared and some of you will continue to prepare
for your finest hour. Do not let tonight be your finest
hour. Instead use tonight as the foundation for great things
to come. Be ready when you come upon that hour. Your
challenge is to grow in your personal and professional life.
To effect change for the better, to serve others before
The economy is improving, and jobs are being created. How do
I know? Our sales tax in Scottsboro has increased 5% this
fiscal year over last year. We are on our way to collecting
the most sales tax in our history. In Scottsboro over 200
jobs have been added to the workforce in the last couple of
years. Our unemployment rate in Jackson County has fallen
from 10% 3 years ago to 7.1% today. TVA has announced they
will complete Bellefonte Unit One in the coming years. All
these are positive signs for our area.
You are part of what I call the I generation, you have grown
up with I pods, I phones, and I pads. We live in a
technologically advanced world that is ever changing. You
can buy a computer today and it will be obsolete within a
I want our counties to be known for more than just the jobs
TVA provides. I want us to pursue these high tech and
defense jobs that dominate the Huntsville job market.
My promise to you to is to work with other mayors and
community leaders in Jackson and DeKalb Counties to
aggressively continue our economic development pursuit of
stable, above average and high paying jobs. To improve
quality of life issues, so that you may return to Northeast
Alabama to raise your families and contribute to our
I want to close with two verses of the Bible. First,
“whatsoever you do, do it with all your might.” And “to whom
much is given, much is required.” As you strive for
excellence, give it your all, everything you got. When you
achieve success it comes with a price, a price of sharing
your time, talents, and money, with others. Congratulations
on your graduation, I admire and envy what you have
May God bless each one of you.