Coming back home

Published 4:43 pm Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Maddox family, from left, Stephanie, Robin and Walt, take time to try out the oversized rocking chair at David’s Catfish House. Next week, Walt, mayor of Tuscaloosa, will speak at the 2013 Chamber Banquet.

The Maddox family, from left, Stephanie, Taylor and Walt, take time to try out the oversized rocking chair at David’s Catfish House. Next week, Walt, mayor of Tuscaloosa, will speak at the 2013 Chamber Banquet.

Next Thursday Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox will visit Atmore as the keynote speaker for the city’s annual Chamber Banquet. In his second term as mayor, Maddox has already dealt with more than most city leaders see in decades of service. So why is a man who has traversed difficulty and spoken all over the country a little nervous about his upcoming speaking engagement?

“He actually comes to Atmore quite a bit, but he’s actually nervous,” Maddox’s wife Stephanie, an Atmore native, said with a chuckle. “He feels like there is a higher expectation, but he’s really excited.”

Stephanie, a 1999 graduate of Escambia County High School, said she and her husband visit Atmore often on trips to see her family, but are especially excited about the upcoming speaking engagement.

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Dubbed by many as the first lady of Tuscaloosa, Stephanie said day-to-day life in the mayor’s mansion is more reserved than most might think, but can be hectic at times, making her upcoming trip home all the more enticing.

“I actually don’t see myself as the title of first lady of Tuscaloosa,” Stephanie said. “I embrace Tuscaloosa and the people of Tuscaloosa. They are so great to me and I love them. But I feel like my important role is to stand behind Walt. He’s the one that is on the ballot. He’s the one that is elected. So I feel like he’s the one that needs to be out there. I do go to certain events, but I feel like I help him more by being a supporter at home. I feel like that’s my strongest thing.”

Stephanie said her journey with Walt actually began through her former job, a position she has since moved on from in order to better handle her new responsibilities.

“I was working in sports marketing and public relations for the Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports Commission, which is actually how I met Walt,” Stephanie said. “We would host events and partner with the city.”

Following the devastating tornados that rocked Tuscaloosa in 2011, Stephanie said things began to change.

“I actually went part time after the tornados,” she said. “That totally changed our lives.”

Stephanie said she recently decided to, at least temporarily, stop working outside of the home altogether because of another life-changing event.

“I actually don’t work part time anymore,” she said. “I gave my notice two weeks ago. We are expecting.”

Stephanie said, while she and her husband are delighted by the addition to their family, they know busy times are ahead.

“Our baby is actually due three weeks before his election,” she said laughing. “There’s going to be no sleep.”

But a lack of R&R isn’t anything new for the couple. Stephanie and Walt had been married less than a year when they were thrust into the national spotlight as Walt and his administration struggled to pick up the pieces after the deadly tornado.

“That was a really hard time for us,” she said. “But it was hard on everyone in Tuscaloosa. He was home maybe two hours a night. He would get a shower and maybe sleep two hours.”

Despite describing her role as being set more behind the scenes, Stephanie said the devastation left by the storm was something everyone, herself included, was forced to deal with first hand.

“I went touring with him and got to see the damage,” she said. “I cannot describe to you how horrible it was. Everything was gone. There were just piles of rubble. It was heartbreaking.”

Stephanie said seeing the people of Tuscaloosa suffer through so much pain has certainly been the hardest part of life in a leadership position.

“I volunteered at a local Red Cross shelter,” she said. “There were phone calls about missing people and people were having to crowd together in a big gym and it was just devastating. It was a very dark time.”

Years removed from the disaster, Stephanie said the effects of the tornado still impact their lives, but added the Tuscaloosa family is working everyday to move on.

Today, Stephanie said things are much brighter in the city.

“There have been lots of great times,” she said. “I stay so much behind the scenes that when I do go out with (Walt), people come up and introduce themselves to me. They are so kind and they think so much of me just because they love him. That is just so humbling.”

And as their family expands, Stephanie said she is looking forward to many more years of sharing the ups and downs of life with both the mayor and the people of Tuscaloosa.

“We have his daughter every Monday and Wednesday and every other weekend, so I get her from school and help with her homework and things like that,” she said. “I’ve gotten to see places I wouldn’t have gotten to see otherwise. I’ve been to Germany where we have a sister city. Walt goes over there a few times a year for economic recruitment. I try to travel with him when I can, but of course, we have to pay for my travel. But, it’s fun.”

As much as she loves her new home in Tuscaloosa, Stephanie said Walt also feels a sense of kinship with the people of her hometown here in Atmore and, nervous or not, is as excited as she is to visit next week.

The 2013 Chamber Banquet is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. at The Club on U.S. Highway 21.