The past week, the city of Opelika lost a giant.
To many, he was the proverbial man, myth and legend, but to those of us who really knew him, we’ll just say that two out of three ain’t bad. Earl Sumners was no myth, but he was certainly a man, and a legendary one at that.
When I say legend, I mean it. He was and expert marksman and competed in countless pistol matches and even beat Buford Pusser of “Walking Tall” fame. I’m sure others did, too, but I don’t know who they are.
His first name was Marion. That might sound funny to some. The name doesn’t exactly ring “manly man.” Neither does Jody, but I gotta go with what I got — not saying he cared what anyone thought, but he was quick to tell you that John Wayne’s real name was Marion, too.
To me, he was grandpa. Now we weren’t actually related, but for over half my life, that’s what he was to me, and he’d even introduce me to people as his grandson. That was special. We met in the Opelika Exchange Club, where he served for 35 years.
In spite of his affection for the University of Alabama, I loved him dearly. One night at a club meeting at the Lee County Fairgrounds, someone made a joke about Bear Bryant. I believe it was the late, great Paul Jackson. I loved him, too.
They were the best of friends, but that made Earl so dadgum mad that he grabbed his hat and his cane and commenced to walking home, and that’s just what he did. He just didn’t think anyone should be saying anything bad about a dead man. He was a man of principle. Of that, there is no doubt.
He walked because he couldn’t see and wasn’t supposed to drive. That didn’t stop him and Ileta, his wife of 66 years, from hitting the local roads. She’d steer while he operated the pedals. I’m not saying that was the right thing to do or how often this was done, but they did it. I saw it.
They didn’t have to, though. There were countless folks in the community who took them places. I can’t tell you how many times I took them to the pharmacy and commissary at Fort Benning.
You see, Earl was retired military. Although most of his time serving under Uncle Sam was in the Army Reserves, he served in the US Navy during WWII. After his initial training and a brief stop in Hawaii, he boarded the USS Chicago (CA 136) for Shanghai, China. There, the 1,200-man crew awaited orders to attack Tokyo.
Just days following the bombing of Nagasaki, his ship made it all the way to Tokyo Bay, but due to Japan’s unconditional surrender, the invasion never took place. Based out of Yokosuka, he and his fellow sailors would go on to occupy Japan for the next 18 months.
Upon his return to Opelika, he held several positions at Big Apple, a local supermarket, before moving on to become a route driver for Opelika Creamery.
In 1956, Chief Floyd Mann convinced him to join the Opelika Police Department. Shortly thereafter, he helped organize the Safety Patrol Program, a program designed for 5th and 6th grade boys to help their fellow students cross the road safely.
In 1958, he escorted the safety patrol to Washington D.C., and Lt. Earl Sumners continued to do so each year until 1966. He took a brief hiatus from the OPD, but returned a few years later and retired in 1985.
Whether it was the Exchange Club, the military or the PD, he served. He always served. He was a public servant. That’s just who he was.
Above all else, he faithfully served God and his wife. For several years prior to her passing, Ileta was at a local nursing home, yet that didn’t prevent him from visiting her three hours a day, every single day of the week — even as Alzheimer ‘s set in, he was there at her side.
Rain, sleet, snow or shine, he was there. I’m telling you he was more reliable than the mailman.
When I received my commission after Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, he was the second person to pop into my mind when I was thinking about who I wanted to pin on my bars.
It didn’t take but a second to figure it out. It was Earl and my mamma. Paul Jackson was there, too. He held mamma’s purse. Uncle Wayde was also there on “campus.” That’s an inside joke.
I had the honor of being a pall bearer at his funeral. Not only that, I got to say a few words. I appreciate his sweet family — particularly his granddaughter Tanya — asking me to do so.
I told a few funny stories and let everyone know what he meant to me. I could have gone a little deeper, but I wanted to lighten the mood and certainly didn’t want to cry myself. I could have. Trust me.
Marion Earl Sumners was one of a kind. That expression is used a little too frequently, but he was. There’ll never be another.
I’m a better man for knowing great men like him. I don’t know that I’d ever be in a room with anyone that would want to say anything bad about him, but if they did, let me just tell you, that I’d grab my stuff and walk home, too.
Rest in peace, grandpa. You will never be forgotten.