Library namesake finds truth in his business
By Erin Coggins
Journalist, novelist, editor, television host, author, lecturer and veteran. All are facets of Hartselle native and library namesake William Bradford Huie – and one cannot forget storyteller.
Mary Ben Heflin, Huie’s stepdaughter, said it is difficult to describe Huie to people not familiar with him.
“My mom said when people wrote about Bill, it was like the fable ‘Four Blind Men and an Elephant.’ The blind men each grab a portion of the elephant, but in the end, they still do not know who the real elephant is,” Heflin said. “It is hard to see the real Bill Huie.”
Heflin said she remembers Huie saying he was in the truth business. In fact, the University of Alabama produced a documentary titled “I’m in the Truth Business” for PBS’ Alabama Experience, detailing Huie’s career as an investigative journalist.
The irony in this is Huie was banned from the university in the 1930s after writing an article on the football team titled “How to Keep Football Stars in College.” As a tutor for the team, Huie used his inside information to out a player being given grades.
“I never asked my stepfather why he wrote it. I wish I had, especially since he would have surely expected the backlash he received from exposing Alabama’s football recruiting and retention ‘secrets,’” Heflin said. “I did ask my mother at one point why he wrote it. According to my notes, my mother said, ‘He wrote it to attract attention and truth – just writing something that no one else would dare to write. Was true of every school – not just the University of Alabama – and no one else had ever written about it.’
Huie was not officially welcomed back on campus until 1976. Heflin was a student there at the time.
“Bill was invited back to the University before 1976 by the student journalist association, but when officials found out about it, they denied his invitation. The group moved the meeting off campus, and Bill went to speak. They offered him $100 for speaking, but he gave it back. He loved that they broke the rules,” Heflin said. “It was really fun for me as a student when he was officially invited in 1976.”
Heflin said Huie wrote the story because he also needed the money. The article was a turning point for Huie, who planned to be a doctor.
“He actually graduated with a degree in biology,” Heflin said. “With this article, he discovered that he was good at writing and that he could make money doing it.”
Huie served in the Navy during World War II as a lieutenant and war correspondent, where he became the official storyteller of the United States Seabees Construction Battalion.
“The typical Seabee was 32 years old, educated, an engineer and joined the fight out of patriotism. Vice Admiral of the Seabees Ben Moreell hired Bill to be the public relations department for the Seabees,” Heflin said.
Huie went on to write both fiction and non-fiction pieces on World War II, including “The Execution of Private Slovik,” an intense account of the only American solider executed for desertion in World War II. Huie also penned a fictional account in “The Americanization of Emily” which was adapted into a movie starring James Garner and Julia Andrews.
“Bill always said his characters were not real people—that they were a combination of many people. On the other hand, he would say, ‘You write about what you know,’” Heflin said. “He would say things were not autobiographical, but Garner’s character is based on Bill’s experience.”
When Huie moved back to Hartselle with his wife, Ruth, his focus changed again. Along with moving back to his favorite hometown, Heflin said Huie also moved back to the “sleepy, small town” to write in peace.
“Bill loved Hartselle, and he loved his family,” Heflin said. “Ruth was homesick, so he took her back home and built her a house.”
The irony, she said, is that moving back to Hartselle started up another busy writing career. The Civil Rights Movement was just getting started, and Huie was called on to chronicle it. Magazine editors needed a Southern white man to get the stories, and they called on Huie to do so.
Heflin said the Civil Rights Movement gave Huie the story he considered his most sensational piece.
After the acquittal of two men in the murder trial of Emmett Till, Look Magazine hired Huie to get their story. With a bag of cash, Huie paid the two men for their stories, resulting in the country finally knowing the real story of how Till died.
“The two men knew they could not be tried again for the murder, so they told their story,” Heflin said. “He received death threats, and the KKK burned a cross in his yard, for his stories on the Civil Rights Movement. He always kept a gun by the door during this time for safety.”
Heflin, who oversees Huie’s literary property, works to get his books back in circulation. “The Execution of Private Slovik” was recently updated with new material for the 75th anniversary. “The Fascination of Martin Luther King” has also been updated and released for the 50th anniversary.
“He was a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Dr. King got started, he was not from Alabama and did not have much money,” Heflin said. “Bill gave him money and attended church with him. In fact, Dr. King wrote the introduction to Bill’s ‘Three Lives for Mississippi.’ It was the only introduction he wrote for anyone.”
Heflin is working to get four more of his 23 books in print again.
Since passing in 2006, Huie has been given much recognition. He was added to the Southern Literary Trail and recognized by the University of Alabama’s Honors College with a month-long celebration for the 100th year anniversary of his birth in 2010. Even the Navy took the time to commend Huie on his literary accomplishments.
“When Bill died, Mom received a letter from the Navy stating how important the work he did on them during the war was, and that it was still appreciated,” Heflin said.
In 2018 Huie was inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame. Asked to accept the award in his behalf, Heflin was faced with a difficult task: describing her multi-faceted stepfather.
“I didn’t know how to do this, so I just asked myself: how would Bill describe himself?” Heflin said. “The answer was he was a magnificent storyteller who was in the truth business.”