THE WORDSMITH: Till To Retire After 34 Years Of Telling Farmers' Stories
By Jeff Helms
It's been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the hands of a skilled wordsmith, a single phrase can have as much value as a shoebox of images.
|Till, center, looks forward to spending more time with his five grandchildren, clockwise from left, Griffin (7), Jake (10), Harrison (8), Anna Grace (6) and Natalie (18 months).|
This ability to paint a picture with language is part of the legacy J. Paul Till will leave behind when he retires this fall after 34 years with the Alabama Farmers Federation.
Neighbors, the Cultivator, Friends & Family and "Farming Feeds Alabama" -- these are but a few of the publications and public relations campaigns Till created during a career that saw the Federation's award-winning Public Relations and Communications Department mature into one of the best in the land. Today, his work lives on, not only as popular magazines, newsletters and slogans, but also as words that embody the character, values and determination of farm families.
"Paul has a talent to put a huge message in a few short words," said Federation Executive Director Mike Kilgore in announcing Till's retirement. "Our organization would not be what it is today without the dedicated and loyal efforts of Paul Till. He has been an agent for positive change and improvement. We are all better for Paul having been in our lives."
Till's path to the Federation began on a 40-acre farm in Butler County, where cash from a tobacco crop plus garden vegetables and plenty of meat in the freezer insulated Till and his three siblings from the reality of their poverty.
"I didn't know we were poor until President Lyndon B. Johnson came out with his war on poverty, and I read what the poverty level was," Till recalled.
Despite the relative comfort provided by the family farm, Till's father, Hurley Lewis Till, knew the small tract could not support another generation.
"My daddy didn't say much, but he told me, 'Son, get a good education and don't come back to the farm. You can't make a living on the farm,'" Till said.
That advice, combined with the encouragement of teachers and 4-H Club leader Ralph Thompson, led Till to Auburn University where a journalism professor set him on a new career path.
"When I went to Auburn, I took Journalism 101 as an elective my freshman year, which was very unusual," Till said. "Mickey Logue was my professor, and he was very insistent that I needed to pursue writing and take more journalism courses."
By his sophomore year, Till had changed his major to journalism and was working his way through college with the help of scholarships and grants. He graduated in 1972 and was immediately hired by The Associated Press. After a brief stint in the Atlanta bureau, Till returned to Montgomery with AP, where he developed a professional relationship with former Federation Information Director Charles McKay.
In 1975, McKay hired Till as publications director and challenged him to upgrade the Federation's newspaper. The result was Neighbors, a quarterly, newsprint magazine featuring uplifting stories about rural life as well as agricultural news, organization highlights and food and gardening columns.
Neighbors quickly developed a loyal following, but true to the ambition and tenacity that would become hallmarks of his career, the young editor was not content with the status quo.
"I have always wanted to improve on whatever we did previously," Till said.
As a result, Till redesigned Neighbors in 1978 and expanded it to a monthly magazine printed on slick paper. Later, he developed the Cultivator newsletter for Federation leaders and the two-color Alfa News publication for associate members, which was replaced by Friends & Family magazine in 1998.
Till's influence on the Federation's communication's efforts, however, was not limited to publications. In 1981, he was named head of the Department of Information, which he transformed into a full-service public relations shop for the Federation and Alfa family of companies.
Under his guidance, the broadcast division was upgraded to computer-edited videotape; the Federation's Web site was launched; cookbooks and the children's book, Can a Rooster Drive a Tractor?, were published; a year-long 75th anniversary celebration for the organization was held; and the award-winning "Farming Feeds Alabama" public relations campaign was developed.
Meanwhile, Till worked on political campaigns including developing the slogans and signage that helped defeat Amendment One. He also coordinated the annual meeting and Federation Tour and served as chairman of the Alabama Farm-City Committee. Till even wrote a biography of Alfa Insurance Executive Vice President of Marketing Boyd Christenberry titled Achieving Balance: Successfully Making a Life and a Living.
Through it all, Till has been supported and encouraged by his wife of 36 years, Barb.
"It's impossible for me to have succeeded in my career without the support of Barb," he said. "She's always been my cheerleader and always was there to fill in the gaps or take up the slack when I was working late, and she did it without fussing or complaining."
Till says his greatest accomplishments are building an outstanding communications department by recruiting talented professionals, and developing the "Farming Feeds Alabama" campaign from concept to production. His strategic thinking and organizational skills, however, were put to use in other ways beginning in 2003, when Till was promoted to administrator for the Federation.
In that capacity he reorganized the Alfa Health operation and launched Alfa Dental, which has grown to include more than 6,000 policies in just two years.
These efforts -- along with Till's work in public relations -- provide needed services to rural families while strengthening the organization that safeguards their way of life.
"You don't find any better people than rural, farm people. Everybody says that, but you know it's really true when you've worked with them your entire career," Till said. "There's also no better organization than the Alabama Farmers Federation. It has the same values as those rural people."
In fact, Till often compares the Federation to a church. He notes that it's one of the few organizations that still opens meetings with the pledge of allegiance and prayer. Ministers are also invited to lead devotionals for members and employees.
Till's own Christian values can be traced to his mother, Era Johnson Till, whom he called "the spiritual anchor" of the family. Although she was killed in an automobile accident when Till was 15, he has carried on her legacy of service as a deacon at First Baptist Church in Montgomery where the Tills lead a class for engaged couples and newlyweds.
"We are committed to our marriage, and we're committed to helping other couples in their marriages," Till said. "We feel this our calling in Christian service."
After retirement, the Tills plan to spend more time with their children, Scott and Susanne Estes and Scotty and Jessica Tice, and their five grandchildren. Till is especially excited about taking the grandkids on an overnight train ride to Washington, D.C., -- a trip that will retrace his own youthful adventure as one of four
4-H club members from Alabama selected to attend Washington Conference more than 40 years ago.
As for his legacy, the man known for being able to tell a story with just a few words said he hopes J. Paul Till's career can be summarized in a simple phrase.
"I want people to say that he was honest, that he was a man of integrity, that he was fair, and that he did his best to live by the Book."