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Z.L. Weatherford: Doctor, banker, farmer, philanthropist, politician – Red Bay legend was all that and more

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It’s hard to say what Zadoc L. Weatherford is most known for in the City of Red Bay. He came to the community briefly in 1917 before leaving to serve in World War I. When he returned in 1924, he was all in on service to his community – although service to his country had ended with being shot in the arm.

“It took all the muscle of his left arm. They were going to take his arm off, and we wouldn’t let them,” said Billy Bolton. “He showed me his lack of muscle on his left side several times.”

Bolton knew Weatherford well, as a doctor with a long medical practice but also through their mutual affiliation with the Bank of Red Bay – today, Community Spirit Bank. “He called the bank his baby,”  said Bolton — a baby Weatherford first committed to in 1926. “He wanted to make sure the bank was taken care of after he was gone and remained an independent bank.”

Weatehrford’s full biography is well documented as an entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, and stories, photos and accolades for the man are abundant in Carl Elliott’s “One Hundred Years of Memories: An Oral History of Red Bay.”

The Encyclopedia entry records Weatherford as “a Democratic U.S. Representative from Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District who briefly filled the seat that was left vacant by the sudden death of William B. Bankhead. Earlier in his career, Weatherford was a general medical practitioner and served during World War I in the U.S. Army as a battalion surgeon in France. After being discharged, Weatherford served in various medical positions and in local and state politics.”

Weatherford was born on a farm in Marion County Feb. 4, 1888. He graduated from the University of Tennessee at Memphis in 1914 with a medical degree and for the next two years served as an intern at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis. He married Ollie F. Barnes of Marion County June 30, 1916.

For his three years of military service, he was awarded a Purple Heart and went on to help fellow veterans as the subdistrict medical officer at the U.S. Veterans’ Bureau in Montgomery.

Back in Red Bay, he served as vice chairman of the Franklin County Democratic Committee from 1933-37 and as president of the Bank of Red Bay beginning in 1938. He was also bank CEO and board chairman and was chairman emeritus when he died.

“He was quite a character, and he loved this community,” said Bolton, who is former president and CEO of the bank and still serves as chairman of the board. He also was co-executor of Weatherford’s estate and helped establish the Weatherford Foundation, following the good doctor’s death in 1983. “He was quite a man. His legacy lives on through the bank, of course. The stock that he owned at that time went into the Foundation, and then the Foundation sold the stock to our ESOP.”

Weatherford was elected to the Alabama State Senate in 1939 and served until 1944. It was in November 1940 that he was elected to the U.S. Congress to fill the vacancy created by the death of Bankhead, and he served in Congress from Nov. 5 until Jan. 3, 1941, the end of Bankhead’s term in the 76th Congress.

Weatherford served as mayor of Red Bay from 1945-1948.

Two buildings in the city bear his name, one being the Weatherford Centre. The building was formerly a bowling alley and theatre and sports store. Bolton explained the bank had a mortgage on it, and when it foreclosed on the building, the bank turned it into what it is today, in 1994. “I think he’d be pleased. It serves the people, and he was always for the people of Red Bay,” said Bolton. He recounted that Weatherford used to say, “A frog’s not much of a frog if he don’t holler for his own pond.”

Franklin County Commissioner David Hester is among many who have taken advantage of the Weatherford Centre and the asset it is for the community. The 200-person banquet room and 30-person garden room, plus community theater, have served many over the decades, from community and civic events to school and church gatherings. The Centre is the home of the Bay Tree Council for the Performing Arts, which stages its shows there, and Hester has attended political events there.

“I remember going and seeing Tommy Tuberville when he was running for office,” Hester said. “The last election, Katie Britt came to the Weatherford Centre as a fundraiser. The Red Bay area did very well for her.”

The other building bearing Weatherford’s name is the public library. Weatherford gave $100,000 to build the library that still serves the community to this day.

“From what I found out, it was actually started by Dr. Dempsey’s wife, Jean Dempsey. She had the heart for books and started a library in that same area, but it was in a house,” Hester said. “They started to outgrow the house and wanted to get the funds up for a library building.” When Dempsey started knocking on doors seeking donations for construction, Weatherford stepped up to the task, donating $100K for the project. The old house was torn down, and the books were housed in Weatherford’s Red Bay Clinic – where many were born at the time, with the lack of a hospital in the community – while the library facility was being built.

“When you go back 30-40 years ago, a library or a newspaper office was your only two means of a source of information, to gather information on anything of the world,” Hester said. “The library was a very important information source. For him to donate $100,000 like that of his own money – I thought that was a big statement.”

“He wanted to make sure the city had a nice library,” Bolton agreed.

Red Bay Mayor Charlene Fancher said Weatehrford, and all those whose names grace local facilities, were “all people of genuine love for the city, and they expected nothing in return.”

“It’s an honor for those people to have a building or park named after them – a sign of appreciation,” Fancher said, noting it honors their legacy in the community and hopefully is meaningful to their families, to see that recognition of their legacy. “It’s a sign to the family of how that person worked very hard a made a difference in the lives of people. I think that’s outstanding.”

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