Jean O’Connor-Snyder intern Patrick Dutton reflects on how two Walker County natives found new opportunities to better serve their hometown.
“It was comfortable coming back. It was like coming back to your parent’s house.”
Brack Bradley, a freelance visual creator, spoke over the phone on his commute from Birmingham to Jasper after a long day of filming for a new A&E show in Birmingham. A Walker High School graduate and University of Alabama alum, Bradley spent over a decade in Los Angeles, California filming pilots, shows, movies, commercials, and just about anything else he could. And then one day, he and his wife packed up and moved to his hometown, nearly 2,000 miles away. Bradley said that he and his wife eventually came to the realization that they could both work from anywhere, and Bradley’s hometown of Jasper seemed like the perfect place for the next part of their life.
Bradley’s wife now works remotely for the commercial real estate development company she was working for in L.A. For Bradley, the shift was not as easy. “[At first], it was a lot of ‘one-man band’ gigs: corporate videos and schedule shooting,” he said, “It gave me a chance to diversify the type of work I did.” After a few years, he was able to break into the Atlanta market and get back to the film and production work he was doing in L.A.
“People look at me like I have five heads when I tell them I don’t know where the next paycheck comes from.”
And he is right. I stared at my phone, picturing the creative professional with five heads that had somehow managed to flourish in the Walker County area.
I’m in Walker County to participate in the David Mathews Center’s Jean O’Connor Snyder Internship program, in partnership with UA’s New College and the Walker Area Community Foundation. Unlike my fellow interns, I grew up here. Coming home to attempt to improve the place where I grew up has evoked complex feelings. As I work with Jasper Main Street, whose mission is to revitalize Jasper’s downtown, I see the structures forming to keep young professionals, to stem the exodus of young people from Walker County. However, I still wonder: Do I return to my hometown?
“I always knew I wanted to get back to this area and teach English.”
Gunter Wisdom, a high school English teacher and soccer coach, spoke to me in the back room at Lavish Coffee Bar. Another Walker High graduate, Wisdom bounced around between Faulkner University and Bevill State before finishing up a degree in English and a master’s in education at UAB. Since then, he taught and coached at Shades Valley High School and is currently at Jasper High. For Wisdom, he had known since he was a freshman in high school that he wanted to return to his hometown to teach English.
Wisdom and his wife orbited each other all throughout their youth, but it was not until he moved off to Faulkner and eventually came back to Bevill that he really connected with her. In a way, all roads seemed to lead back to Walker County. It was where his dream job was, as well as where he – and his now wife – grew up.
“There’s an element of drudgery about being in the area you grew up in,” Wisdom says. Moving off to Faulkner evoked complex feeling about his home. “I started reflecting back and thinking, ‘wow, it really wasn’t that bad. Maybe it was what I was looking for this entire time… There’s a familial closeness in this county that I think is unlike anywhere else.”
Despite taking different paths, both Bradley and Wisdom ended up right here, back in Walker County. As someone who grew up in Walker County (and who was excited to go off to college), I was struck by the familiarity of what Bradley and Wisdom felt. Gunter chose Faulkner, in part, because of its relative closeness to Walker County (just under two hours from his hometown of Cordova). Brack, like me, chose The University of Alabama. While I did not ask Brack why he chose UA, I know the relative closeness to Jasper (only about an hour) was a major factor for me. I wanted to live away from my hometown, to “get out,” but I also loved the convenience of coming home when I felt like it. The familial bond that Wisdom mentions he feels toward the people of this county is a common thread that Bradley hinted at in his reasoning for returning to the Southeast, and it is something that I am becoming more conscious of as I consider where to go once I finish college.
While Bradley and Wisdom make for feel-good stories about “coming home,” in many places across the rural landscape of the US, and especially the Southeast, young professionals are leaving their hometowns and never returning. This can be for a variety of reasons, from lack of career opportunities to a lack of a social scene for young people, to simply wanting to experience something new. “Brain drain” is when highly trained, intelligent, and skilled people move away from a particular area to another, opting to continue their career somewhere more appealing, and Walker County is no different than all the other areas of the nation suffering from brain drain. While every angsty teen wants to “get out” of their hometown, no matter how big or small, brain drain is the loss of an entire age group of professionals.
In the case of places like Jasper and Walker County at large, this happens largely among young professionals. Kids who graduate high school and are lucky enough to earn college scholarships often pursue degrees that simply are not in demand in their home counties. In Walker County, for example, it has been hard, if not impossible for Brack Bradley to find work in Creative Media – or for Gunter Wisdom to finally find a position teaching English. And as for me, I worry how much demand there might be for my skills in Music Composition.
Despite all that, Bradley and Wisdom are successful professionals. They can support their families using the degrees they pursued in college, even if their fields do not drive Walker County’s economy. As I near the end of my tenure in college, I feel split. Or do I strike out somewhere new in search of a more well-rounded world experience. I still do not know the answer to that question, but like Bradley, I know that I will eventually end up back in the Southeast, if not in Walker County. Maybe the love for where we came from, the love for our home, or the love for those who raised us is enough to overcome the logistical difficulties of being a creative professional in a rural county.
Or maybe the real answer is that Bradley and Wisdom are simply outliers, and I can only hope to make my luck the way they have theirs.
Patrick Dutton is a University of Alabama senior majoring in Music Composition, as well as an MBA Candidate on the CREATE Path to the MBA through the Honors College and the Manderson Graduate School of Business.