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Dr. Mary Alan Jolley and Melissa Clark from Academic Affairs at the University of Alabama celebrate Carl Elliott and the National Defense Education Act.

Anniversary event honors Carl Elliott

By María Camp / maria-camp@outlook.com

An event at the University of North Alabama’s Guillot Center Aug. 20 commemorated the signing of the National Defense Education Act and remembered Carl Elliott for his role in its creation and passage.

Sept. 2 will mark 60 years since the passing of the bill. The NDEA was sponsored by Elliott, a Vina native, attorney and eight-term congressman – Democrat, representing Walker County – along with former senator Lister Hill, a native of Montgomery.

The NDEA established student financial aid without restrictions on gender, race or nationality. More than 20 million have attended college under this act. An allocation of $900 million was made for educational institutions at all levels, and this helped improve the general educational infrastructure. Low-interest loans, vocational training and graduate fellowships are among the services made available as a result of the legislation.

Elliott had a dream of bringing higher education to all Americans, without regard to their financial situations.

He also wrote and sponsored the Library Services Act, which brought library services – including bookmobiles – to millions of rural Americans. He is known to have read two books every week.

The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, which was created in 1989 by members of Kennedy’s family to recognize the type of political courage he admired most, honors a person who has suffered for his or her stand in civil service. Elliott was selected as the first to be awarded this distinction out of more than 5,000 nominees from all over the country.

Among many participants in the Aug. 20 program were Julian Butler, a lawyer from Huntsville, and Dr. Mary Alan Jolley. Butler and Jolley both served as congressional aides on Elliott’s staff, and each has a long history of distinguished service in those roles, as well as many others.

A number of members of the Elliott family, as well as several current students from Vina High School, also attended the event.

Alabama State Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow helped coordinate the event and served as moderator. He named Elliott as one of three men who were influential in his life.

Morrow recalled that as a 6-year-old in 1948, he would run out to Elliott’s car when it pulled into their driveway. His father had known Elliott all his life. His father would go out to the car to talk to Elliott, and Morrow would sneak into the back seat and listen to the conversation.

“That’s where I learned to appreciate politics, and I learned some very important things listening to Carl Elliott,” Morrow said. “The first was to make sure you’re right before you get into a fight – evaluate it, look at it – and after you make sure that you are right, don’t give up. Carl Elliott never gave up, and that’s the reason we have the National Defense Education Act.

“The other thing I learned from him was not to be afraid to work across the aisle with other people. He always felt that once you are elected, you do what’s best for the people you serve regardless of whether they voted for you.”

Butler spoke of meeting Elliott in 1960 while a student at the University of Alabama. “I was privileged to work for him, and I was privileged to be associated with him,” said Butler.

Jolley met Elliott at an all-night singing in the winter of 1948 while she was teaching school in Cold Springs – one of the few activities for that area during this time. She went on to be called to be his legislative aide.

“He was a master teacher; a great, great, mentor; and he really worked at trying to make us be smart and help him get his job done,” Jolley said. “There are three points I want to make about the content of the National Defense Education Act. The first is that Carl Elliott knew what he wanted to do and exactly what he wanted to achieve. The second is that the religious climate would rear its ugly head. The third point is that race was always an issue. That’s why it did require considerable political courage to take on the issues.

“He knew what he wanted to do. He was passionate about it,” Jolley added. “Good leaders have a passion for something, and they lead. He was anchored by values and principles. He had the ability to do away with ingrained habits or prejudices and cultural preferences. He was as loyal as, and worked harder than, anybody.

“Young people, remember this. If you can imagine it, you can do it. So make your imagination work.”

Butler also shared the comments made by Elliott as he received the Profile in Courage Award:

“As long as we have overcrowded classrooms, underpaid teachers, schools with inadequate libraries and young men and women who are denied an education because they do not have the resources, our work is not finished.

“John F. Kennedy’s vision for America will not be fully accomplished until all our young people have the opportunity to obtain the quality of education which is their birthright. Such educated young people, engaged in public service, are essential to meet the challenges of each key frontier.

“There are those who said that I was ahead of my time, but they were wrong. I believe that I was always behind the times that ought to be.”