Denton to retire in 2010
State Sen. Bobby Denton, who was born during the Great Depression in a sharecropper's house with no electricity and briefly was a 1950s rock 'n' roll star, is retiring in 2010 as Alabama's longest-serving senator.
Denton, 70, announced Saturday in his hometown of Cherokee that he won't run for an unprecedented 10th election in 2010.
"Just within the past year, I realized it's time for me to retire," said Denton, of Muscle Shoals.
Denton's decision is partly influenced by a two-year fight to control a spinal fluid condition that affects his balance.
"I feel I'll fully recover, but I'm not right now," Denton said. "I don't think it's fair if I'm not able to do it to the best of my ability."
He and wife, Barbara, also have a great-grandchild, born in April.
"I've always been told when it's time to retire you'll know it," Denton said.
Denton came from humble beginnings, picked cotton, hitched to town, found Christ at a young age, married as a teenager to an even younger teenager and started a family.
First elected in 1976 to the Colbert County Commission, Denton won the first of nine Senate elections two years later. Among the victories was an off-year contest in 1983.
His district has shifted and now it contains all of Lauderdale County and part of Colbert County.
Denton became dean of the Senate in 2002, an honorary title bestowed on the Senate's senior member. He kept it in perspective, saying the benefit of it was an office closest to the Senate chamber.
Much of Denton's service corresponds with the three lieutenant governor terms and one gubernatorial term of Jim Folsom Jr., who as a young man first met Denton while working at the Reynolds plant in Colbert County.
Folsom, now serving as lieutenant governor, said the soft-spoken Denton is a model of decorum who rarely gets riled.
"He's always been on a very even keel," Folsom said. "He's been a positive influence down here over the years and has been the voice of reason."
"His word is good," said Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, who shares representation of Colbert County with Denton.
Denton has served during the transition of the Legislature from a nearly all-white institution to one that includes the nation's greatest black legislative representation.
He's also seen the transition from an all-Democratic Senate to one with a significant Republican minority.
Denton also has seen the transition from a Senate dominated by a powerful lieutenant governor to a Senate that runs itself, a transition that Denton helped instigate in 1998 when Republican Steve Windom became lieutenant governor.
Denton said Republicans may not be able to pass bills but they can block Democrat initiatives, which forces cooperation.
"Things are improving this session," Denton said. "Both sides are going to have to work together."
Denton is admired across the political aisle. Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, said he and Denton share common bonds.
"We both attend the Church of Christ," Waggoner said. "We have that bond that not many people have. He lost a son and I lost a son."
Denton's final bill could be the one passed last week requiring health care facilities to report infection statistics. Denton's son, Mike, died from a staph infection after knee surgery at age 42.
"When Mike died, I lost a lot inside," Denton said.
Denton's retirement will leave a void in the Senate, but it's unlikely the seat will be turned over to a Republican. In local elections, the Shoals is still considered a Democrat stronghold, a legacy of the Tennessee Valley Authority that President Franklin Roosevelt used to provide jobs in the Depression-era South that Denton was born into in 1938.
A lifelong Democrat influenced by the rural farm and labor culture of northwest Alabama, Denton has never strayed from his roots even when touring as a rising rock 'n' roll star in the 1950s.
Denton came from a musical family and began learning a few chords on a borrowed Sears Silvertone acoustic guitar.
A gifted musician who still records gospel and pop tunes, he started playing with a band for money in 1956 or 1957 after meeting a yet-to-be discovered Elvis Presley, who would be a star with Sun Records and the Shoals' Sam Phillips.
Denton won a Grand Ole Opry contest. His recording of "Fallen Star" climbed the pop charts.
At 19, he appeared live on what was then the height of music stardom, Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," in New York on Sept. 6, 1958. He sang "Back to School."
He said he dreamed of becoming a star until the responsibilities of raising a young family ended a career he regrets not pursuing.
"I always was ashamed I didn't make it, but I knew I couldn't do it and make a living," Denton said.
That didn't stop his music making. Denton still records gospel and older pop songs on CDs in a home studio.
Denton legislatively helped create two Shoals landmarks: the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, recognizing the Muscle Shoals Sound, and the Tennessee Valley Exhibit Commission that lives on in the Renaissance Tower, which overlooks Wilson Dam.
Denton writes in his autobiography "Love Lifted Me," self-published this year, that he considers being a great-grandparent to be an amazing feat.
Along the way the Dentons have known tragedy, the mangling of their son, Roger, under a riding lawn mower (he recovered and is the grandfather of the Dentons' great-grandson) to son Mike's death.
Mike's death led Denton to sponsor and pass the infection reporting bill named for his son. It passed last week in a tear-filled ceremony in the House.
Out of respect, House Republican Minority Leader Mike Hubbard, of Auburn, paused a filibuster to allow Denton's bill to pass. Denton left the chamber to a standing ovation.
"You can only imagine losing a son or a daughter," said Rep. Mike Curtis, D-Greenhill. "This is a closure for him and his wife."
Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, has served with Denton since his own election in 1990.
"All of you should have a relationship with a senator like the relationship that Sen. Denton and I have," Black told fellow House members. "He's the most accommodating person I know."
Senate historian Jon Morgan said Denton has served longer continuously than any senator in Alabama history.
"His hallmark has been his honesty and integrity," Bedford said.
"His faith in the Lord and his closeness to his family has helped him get through tragedies his family has experienced and medical challenges himself."
In his book, Denton said while growing up he wasn't particularly the best churchgoer, but he later he felt the tug of a great force and he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.
Denton's minister, Highland Park Church of Christ pulpit Minister John McMath said Denton is a kind, compassionate and caring person. "He's really interested in the people he serves," McMath said. "He just loves the people of the Shoals area."
Although McMath has been the Dentons' minister for only two years, there was a Denton connection when the McMaths lived in Texas for 10 years.
"One of the interesting ties to Bobby and Barbara was the former minister of the (Dentons' former church) Fourth Street Church of Christ lived in the same town in Texas," McMath said.
"In a church service if Bobby leads a prayer, it's very heartfelt and comes from deep within his heart and he means what he says," McMath said.
"Most folks see Bobby as a senator, but we've been blessed to see him from a human standpoint. He's just Bobby, and that's the way he likes it."
Black put his thoughts in perspective.
"Bobby Denton, there's not a finer person that ever served in the state Senate," Black said. "You can talk about politicians - this is a real statesman."