And tonight, his name will be one of the ones called out by members of the Alabama Preservation Conference as a recipient of a Preservation Service Award for his leadership and dedication to preservation in Talladega and the state of Alabama.
The awards will be presented during the Alabama Preservation Conference being held in at ArchitectureWorks on 19th Street South.
McGehee, who is president of the board of directors for Antique Talladega and The Ritz Theatre, had a family trip planned out of the country at the time of tonight’s presentation, and asked that his son, Boyd McGehee, who is on the Antique Talladega Board, accept the award on his behalf.
“This is certainly a thrill for me in terms of showing what our community has done,” McGehee said.
Prior to the presentation, McGehee said he’s always been interested in “older things,” and he also has a family history in the Talladega that covers six generations now.
The elder McGehee, founder of Antique Talladega, and owner of Talladega Insurance Company which was founded in the 1920s by his grandfather, now oversees operations of The Ritz Theatre, and said the story of obtaining and restoring the circa 1936 theatre changed and evolved through its transformation.
“We started out thinking of using the theatre as a place for holding antique auctions and things like that, it was about 1992,” he said.
“But that wasn’t really feasible, we realized that, and then along came George Culver as our executive director, who got us on track providing world class entertainment with the theatre and we have a strong commitment to providing arts in education opportunities for our youth.”
Antique Talladega formed under the auspices of Talladega First, another nonprofit entity formed that really focused upon beautification more than historic preservation, McGehee said.
“That’s a good thing, too, but my focus really was on economic development and our historic buildings, although having the beautification element was important, too.”
So Antique Talladega was born and a whole new era began. The city bought the building, and the rebirth began.
The theatre reopened in 1999 with a grand performance from the National Symphony.
And since then, names like Diahann Carroll and Mickey Rooney, Hal Holbrook and Judy Collins have appeared on stage at The Ritz, not to mention touring Broadway shows and professional dance companies and just about any aspect of entertainment there is.
McGehee is happy with the outcome, but still hopes for more preservation of the city’s historic buildings.
But as he’s said, the effort is one of providing top rate entertainment, but also urging others to take on similar projects that would bring economic development along with it.
“What we would like to do is both economic development as well as aesthetics,” he said.
All said and done, McGehee said he just wants to help make Talladega a better place for everyone.
He says a lot of the credit goes to his wife, Evelyn, who really works behind the scenes to support historic preservation in Talladega.
Mrs. McGehee oversaw this year’s April in Talladega event, lining up the historic homes on the tour and all the events that accompanied the yearly occasion, hosted by the Talladega Pilgrimage Council.
“What an inspiration to have worked with Bill McGehee for so many years in our community’s efforts to revitalize Courthouse Square and the historic Ritz Theatre,” Culver said. “I was so excited to learn that the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation will award Bill the 2012 Preservation Service Award, because he is genuinely deserving of this statewide recognition. For over three decades, Bill has tirelessly fueled awareness among everyone he meets that Talladega must preserve its historic assets. Our historical structures are what gives any community its unique identity, and better helps up embrace our future with pride and confidence. Bill has been a passionate trench warrior in the battle to save, restore and rebrand our rich historic assets, and the Talladega will always be the better for it. Kudos indeed,” Culver said. “This award is going to be very good for Talladega and Bill McGehee brought it home.”
Talladega has a large number of restored historic homes and buildings, and McGehee said he always likes to see more.
He and his wife made the decision to take on a restoration themselves on South Street in 1984.
Known as Dogwood, the McGehee’s home includes wood reclaimed from the old plantation mansion known as Mt. Ida in Talladega that burned years ago.
For National Preservation Month, the 2012 Alabama Preservation Conference will engage, educate and excite those who gather in Birmingham to experience the program, “Lighting the Way for Preservation: Saving Historic Icons.”
The honor bestowed upon McGehee brings Talladega into the many iconic places of historical significance that interpret the cultural landscape of Alabama, defining what it was and what it will be, just as the preservation of historic and iconic places throughout Alabama tell the stories of its people. The Alabama Preservation Conference is a program of the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation, Alabama Historical Commission, and the Black Heritage Council of Alabama. Local partners are the Birmingham Historical Society, Main Street Birmingham, Operation New Birmingham, and the Vulcan Park Foundation.
During the events this weekend, historic theatres take center stage as the restored Alabama, Carver, and Virginia Samford theatres applaud Birmingham’s historic entertainment districts of Birmingham and provide the backdrop for a discussion on preservation and historic theatres as venues for economic development.
And such is the hope of McGehee, and all who have supported the effort to bring back The Ritz.