Senior Spotlight: Baileyton’s Gene Sumner

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Gene Sumner and his chiweenie, Abby (contributed)

Baileyton Town Council member Gene Sumner recently celebrated his 90th birthday. He sat down with The Tribune to talk about his life and how he came to be a beloved member of the Baileyton community.

Sumner was born in Marion County, Alabama and went to Phillips High School in Bear Creek, where he was on the basketball team. His father passed away when Gene was just 6 months old. He and his mother moved into his grandparent’s home and his mom never remarried.

He said, “That might be the only thing I held against my mom. I think if you lose a mate it’s OK to find someone else, but she never did.”

When Sumner finished school, he went to Birmingham for work but was drafted into the Army in 1950. He trained at Ft. Benning, Georgia and was a member of the 4th Infantry Division. Sumner spent 17 months in Germany throughout the Korean War. With the Soviet Union supporting North Korea and the United States supporting South Korea, Sumner was placed on border patrol in Germany to protect against possible Russian aggression. 

When Sumner returned to the United States, he went back to work in Birmingham for a short time before taking a job with General Motors in Pontiac, Michigan. He met his wife Becky, who is originally from Ardmore, Alabama, while working in Michigan. The Sumners lived in Michigan until Gene’s retirement from GM after 35 1/2 years. They raised three children in Pontiac: Debbie Jean, Dewayne and Michelle. 

The Sumners enjoyed their life in Michigan. For fun, they loved to go snowmobiling.

Gene recalled, “There was a gang of us, other couples, who would ride snow mobiles together. We could ride on land owned by Chrysler and we’d go out there. We would build bonfires and sit around it.” 

Sumner was offered retirement when he turned 62.

He said, “GM was good to me until I turned 62, but they wanted to buy me out. I wouldn’t take the buyout and took retirement instead.”

Shortly after, Gene and Becky moved back to Alabama. Initially, they went to Marion County, but Gene didn’t want to be there.

He explained, “I said to my wife, why don’t we go to the Fairview area down in Cullman. I used to vacation here growing up. My aunt and uncle lived here. I don’t know why, I guess it was the city of Cullman and the wide streets, but I just fell in love with Cullman.”

They looked for a house to buy, and after getting a list from a realtor, they found a home behind Baileyton Mayor Johnny Dyar’s house that had a “for sale by owner” sign. The Sumners loved it and bought the home from the Jones family.

Said Gene, “I don’t know another place that I could have retired and been as happy as me and my wife are than here.” 

Sumner began attending the Baileyton Town Council meeting’s regularly. Gene, who is described by Baileyton Town Clerk Patricia Gilbert as “too nice to say no,” admits that he also likes everybody.

He said, “If you have a little problem with somebody, just put them on the back burner. They’ll come around and you’ll get used to them.”

This positive attitude and love for the Baileyton community motivated him to help whomever and however he could. 

These attributes didn’t go unnoticed when the town needed to fill the council seat left vacant after the passing of Walter Mead.

Sumner said, “Johnny Dyar had mentioned the vacancy and I thought that it would be best for Mead’s son to take it. His job wouldn’t allow him the time off for meetings. Next thing I know, the council voted and put me on the council.”

Sumner was sworn in on April 6, 2017 and said he will serve until the term ends. He then plans to retire yet again. 

Gene and Becky love living in Baileyton. Their children Dewayne and Michelle live nearby. Their older daughter, Debbie Jean, passed away in July 2017 after a battle with Multiple Sclerosis. The Sumners give back to the town they now call home in many ways. Most recently they bought all the drinks and bags of fruit for the town’s Christmas party. Each person who attended took home bags of apples and oranges. They opted to do this for their friends and neighbors rather than exchanging gifts at home. 

Gene likes to laugh and enjoys being at the town’s senior center with friends.

When asked about regrets or advice, he joked, “I married too young! I got married at 26!”

As for advice, still laughing, he said, “Well, those fellows in the service would get tattoos of their girlfriends’ names on their arm and then it wouldn't work out. I always thought people probably ought not do that.” 

After a good laugh, Gene smiled, “I love Baileyton. I do anything I can to help because the people here have done the same for me and my family.”

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