In Honor of Charles F. Zukoski, Founding Member

A year or so ago, Frank Young asked me to present a short biographical sketch of the founder of the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations, Charles F. Zukoski. I gladly accepted. I accepted because of the fond memories I had of him as a young member of this organization which met then at the Relay House. Charles was always in attendance, along with General Henry Graham and Alex Lacy, smartly dressed and truly on top of the issues of the moment. Even though he was over 75 years of age, we could always count on him to ask thought provoking questions of our speakers. As Shorty Williams will attest later, he was never loath to speak his mind on issues, however controversial!

As I researched his life, I ran across an 88-page book entitled "Voice In The Storm" the Button Gwinnett Columns written during the Civil Rights Struggles and other writings. It is to be found in the Birmingham Public Library and was published in 1990, six years before his death at age 97. In a foreward to the book his friend and archivist Marion Yeomans Whitley wrote in part and I quote:

"Charles F. Zukoski, Jr. is a remarkable individual. His history includes a successful career as a senior officer of Birmingham, Alabama’s First National Bank; as the first mayor, and as a four-term mayor, of the City of Mountain Brook; as one of the area’s civic leaders, serving as chairman of the Shades Valley High School Advisory Committee; as one of the organizers, committee members, and early president and long board member of the Birmingham Civic Symphony Association (now the Alabama Symphony Association); for many years a member of the board of the Birmingham Music Club; as organizer and for twenty years the secretary of the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations; and as president of the Jefferson County Coordinating Council of Social Forces, which was for years the planning agency of the community for health, recreation and welfare.

Although this history bespeaks the “remarkable,” as does the work which he and his wife Bernadine undertook, following his retirement from the bank, in behalf of family planning and birth control both locally and in many countries on all the continents, to my mind, Charles deserves the appellation principally because he is an individual who has never been afraid to think, to explore ideas and issues, and to speak his mind when the occasion is appropriate. In a culture crowded with people who are either not trained to the life of the mind, or who, although once trained, find the pursuit of ideas too demanding, Charles has remained wedded to the discipline.

There is, however, another quality in Charles which I find remarkable. When he has explored an idea or an issue and has come to a conclusion about it, he will stand up for what he then believes. To quote a phrase my grandfather was wont to use, Charles has the “conviction of conscience.” These two qualities, a willingness to think and the courage to argue for what one comes to believe, are clearly evident in The Columns which Charles authored in the 1940s and 1950s, The Columns published under the pseudonym “Button Gwinnett” in the Shades Valley Sun. Whatever the issue-McCarthyism, race in education, the U.S. Supreme Court, racially-motivated bombings, death, fraternities and sororities in a local high school -- the writing always reflects careful forethought, the capacity to live with ideas, and precise afterthought, the ability to reach conclusions, to present them cogently, and to offer arguments in their behalf. 

In an era of growing social hysteria, when the word "race" more than often, among Southerners, provoked the "knee-jerk reaction" and not the reasoned response, when it was often easier, among Americans, to hurl the word communist than to endure thinking that differed from the norm -- in the mist of a growing storm of voices speaking in defense of a status quo, the voice of "Button Gwinnett" was remarkable, for it spoke of inevitable change, of the need to adjust to that change, of restrained and decent adjustment; of the value of ideas, of the need for a sense of the ethical, of the worth of the individual. For the age in which it spoke and the place from which it spoke, the voice was indeed remarkable, as was the man who spoke through it: Charles F. Zukoski, Jr.”

Dearly beloved, we have come together on life’s road until now, and it has been good. There have been trials and there have been gratifications. For a moment you and I have had a part in mankind’s endless procession. I am saddened over your going, but your memory will have meaning for me all along the remainder of my journey. I bid you good-bye.