By Ann Cipperly
Stacks of paper are neatly arranged on Barbara Patton’s desk at the Opelika Chamber of Commerce office. A stunning photo of the historic Searcy home, now the Chamber office, hangs behind her desk. As president of the Chamber, Barbara has a love of Opelika that has been the driving force behind her years of involvement in the town since the early 1970s. While she feels it is a great place to live, she has worked for years on making it better and served as the city’s first woman mayor for eight years.
Barbara has always believed if you want to see change, you have to get involved to make a difference. “You can’t sit on the sidelines wishing for changes,” says Barbara, who has lived what she believes. She has been the executive director of Envision Opelika since 2005 and is the executive director of the Community Foundation of East Alabama, Inc.
Over the years she has served as president of numerous civic organizations, including the Opelika Arts Association and the Historic Preservation Society, among others.
Being active in the community is something she grew up believing “was just something you did.”
Her mother was a social worker after college before she married. Once she had a family, she no longer worked, but was very involved in the community.
Growing up in Pensacola, Fla., Barbara remembers her mother taking her and her brother to visit an orphanage and having the children come to their home during summer for swimming and games.
Her mother was involved in the church and civic events. “I always thought it was a part of life,” says Barbara. “It was just part of who you are. You need to have a purpose and make a difference.”
When Barbara was in the 11th grade, she attended a girls’ school for two years in Long Beach, Miss. After graduation she enrolled in Emory University.
In high school Barbara thought she wanted to be a language interpreter. She went to college with the idea she would be a French major, but while in language lab, she realized she could write the language, but was not good at speaking it.
She asked her father, who was an attorney, what he thought about her majoring in business. “My dad didn’t think that was a good idea,” remembers Barbara. “He thought I would probably marry somebody who knew all about business. He thought I should do something I would enjoy.”
After two years at Emory University, Barbara thought about being a marine biologist. She transferred to the University of Alabama and majored in biology.
While at Alabama, Barbara met her husband Bob. They married in June 1963 after she graduated. She went to work at Southern Research Institute while Bob was employed at the Hayes Aircraft in Birmingham. He entered medical school in the fall that year.
Two years later Barbara went to work at the University of Alabama Birmingham Renal Lab, and their first son, Michael, was born. When he was four months, the Pattons moved to Mobile for Bob to complete his internship at Mobile General.
The family moved several times in the next few years as Bob served in the Air Force. They lived in Warren Robbins, Ga., where their second child, Richard, was born.
After Bob’s tour in Vietnam, the family moved to Shreveport, La. Once his military service ended, Bob returned to Mobile General for his residency.
In 1973, Dr. James Matthews, who also completed his residency at Mobile General, encouraged Bob to visit Opelika and meet Dr. Jim Himmelwright at Internal Medicine Clinic in Opelika. The Pattons moved to Opelika, and three years later their son Forrest was born.
Barbara became involved in church and PTA. She volunteered with the Arts Association of East Alabama and Medical Auxiliary, serving as president for both organizations. When the Performance Series began, she became chairman.
Barbara went back to college in 1978 for accounting classes. She worked part-time with Jim Levins and Associations and Scott Land Co. while continuing her civic volunteer work.
In 1993, Barbara purchased the Heritage House and was in the process of turning it into a bed and breakfast with son Richard when she was asked to run for mayor.
At first she said no, but then was approached by several others. “They knew I cared about Opelika,” says Barbara, “because I had been involved in many civic organizations and have a love for the community.”
Barbara became Opelika’s first woman mayor in 1996, serving two terms, with the second term ending in 2004.
“As mayor,” says Barbara, “we targeted retail, commercial and industrial sectors to create jobs.” Housing was another priority. She worked with the OIDA, Economic Development and the state to develop the Northeast Industrial Park. When prepared, Wal-Mart Distribution Center, Mando and Benteler came to Opelika.
“People used to say that I only cared about beautification,” says Barbara, “but that is not true. I think it is just a part of economic development.”
Along with others she worked on getting Tiger Town, streetscapes in downtown Opelika, the Depot, Railroad Park and the beginning of Sportsplex.
Other areas included installing the street by EAMC that connects to Waverly Parkway and ties into Thompson, as well as the road to the Mann Museum.
In 2004, she sold the bed and breakfast and moved Heritage Gifts to downtown Opelika.
When Barbara left the mayor’s office in 2004, she became the executive director of Envision Opelika, a program she started.
In 2010, she was asked to apply for president of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce. “I didn’t really seek it,” says Barbara. “Several asked me to consider it. I applied and was hired.”
Since she has been the president, many new programs began: a Young Leaders program headed by Dinah Motley, a Total Resource Campaign under Jill Robinson, a Young Entrepreneurs Academy and a Chamber Foundation. Recently, the Chamber assumed the “20 under 40” program started in 2006 by Mayor Gary Fuller and Lucinda Cannon. Leadership Lee County is under the auspices of both Auburn and Opelika Chambers.
“I have a vision for Opelika,” says Barbara, “but you can’t get everything done you would like, and people have different ideas how money should be spent. I would like to see underground poles on First Ave. and down Pepperell Parkway.”
Another area she would like to see improved is at exit 60 off I-85 to provide an attractive entrance coming into Opelika.
Barbara is pleased with the Carver-Jeter plan that Jimmy Wright initiated and is encouraged to see young people coming along that care about people and improving the area.
The Chamber arranged intercity trips to see how others have improved downtown areas. “We saw underground parking lots in Cincinnati, OH, that I hope will spur a plan,” says Barbara, “because I think Opelika needs to start planning for parking. We need a master plan, so we know how we want to expand downtown and look at the future.
“This is a great place to live. People go to other places and want to come back. One reason we came to Opelika was because there was so much here, and a university town brings a lot to the area.
“Opelika has been good to us,” adds Barbara. “It has a good school system. All of our children went through the school system and have done well.”
Other good things she sees in Opelika include EAMC, Sportsplex, Southern Union, Performance Series, the Museum of East Alabama, the Cultural Center, Tiger Town, the downtown area and many nonprofits working to help others. “Foundations are important,” says Barbara, “and everyone builds on what others have done.”
Church and her faith are significant parts of her life. She currently serves as a trustee at First United Methodist Church. Family is also important to Barbara.
As the Christmas season approaches she looks forward to having their son, Dr. Michael Patton and wife Amy with their four children visit. Amy will be in charge of Christmas at their house. The children will help cook and make goodies for gifts.
Barbara remembers as a child Christmas was special since her two grandmothers visited. One grandmother was a businesswoman from Chicago, Ill., while the other one lived in Birmingham.
Attending Christmas Eve service at church and having dinner afterwards has been a family tradition along with opening gifts Christmas morning before a festive brunch.
When the new year starts, Barbara will continue working to fulfill her dreams for the community she loves and striving to making it better for future generations.
Barbara Patton’s Community Involvement, Honors
President, Opelika Chamber of Commerce
Mayor, City of Opelika: 1996-2004
- Darden Foundation Board, Treasurer
Main Street Alabama, Board Chair
Arts Association of East Alabama Board, Asst. Treasurer
Opelika Main Street Board Ex-Officio Board Member
Keep Opelika Beautiful Ex-Officio Board Member
Character Council of Alabama, Treasurer
Trustee, First United Methodist Church
Genealogical Society of East Alabama Board Chair
United Way. Division Chairman
John Knox Manor Board of Directors
Museum of East Alabama, Treasurer
Opelika Arts Association. President; Treasurer
Opelika Historic Preservation Society, President
Opelika Chamber of Commerce Board
Farmers National Bank, First American Bank, RBC Bank Board
Auburn/Opelika Airport Advisory Board
Auburn/Opelika Convention and Visitors Board
American Heart Association, Local Board and State Affiliate Board
Red Cross, Chairman Heroes Campaign
NSCDA, Local President, State Registrar
First United Methodist Church, Administrative Chair
Child Care Resource Center, Chair,Vice Chair
Kiwanis Club Secretary, Treasurer, Vice Chair, Chair
Boys and Girls Club, Treasurer, Finance Chair
Historic Chattahoochee Commission, Board Chair
Advanced Certified Municipal Official
Graduate of Leadership Alabama
Graduate of Opelika Police Citizens Police Academy
Institute of Organizational Management Graduate
Opelika Professional Business Woman of the Year
Civitan International Citizen of the Year
American Hometown Leadership Award National
Center for Small Communities/Wal-Mart Foundation
Grand Marshall of the City of Opelika Christmas Parade
Women of Achievement- Girl Scouts of Concharty Council
Paul Harris Fellow/Rotary Foundation of Rotary International
Distinguished Service Award-Opelika-Auburn Jaycees
Dream Achiever Award
Boy Scouts Distinguished Citizen
Col Hal Decker Heroes Award, Service to Community