June 2016
Homeplace & Community

A Statesman ... a Patriot ... and a Farmer

Greenville’s Eric Cates Jr. is respected and admired across the state for his many years of leadership and service.

  Eric Cates Jr. in a pensive mood at an assisted-living facility in Greenville.

Mention Eric Cates Jr. anywhere in Alabama and chances are his name is held in high regard by farmers, military officials and political leaders.

He’s never been known as a self-promoter or someone given to mounting soap boxes to issue pronouncements on daily issues.

He’s just done his job in a quiet, measured way without making waves – the mark of a true leader.

His numerous accomplishments have been thoroughly documented. They speak for themselves and those who know him gladly step forward to honor him.

Cates’ personal scorecard is amazing and, at the age of 98, he’s enjoying his deep twilight years reading to his heart’s content in an assisted-living facility in Greenville.

Farming was his main contribution to Alabama through the decades, but he put that aside when duty called during World War II and Korea. He saw his share of combat.

He’s also been a respected political leader and that’s saying a lot considering the career-ending embarrassments of those without the honor and integrity he possesses.

Cates’ leadership abilities are what set him apart from so many others who aspire to higher callings, but who lack a key ingredient to lasting popularity. It’s called respect.

"Eric has always been a straight arrow, a statesman and someone I could rely on for counsel when we were in the Legislature at the same time," said John McMillan, commissioner of Alabama’s Department of Agriculture and Industries.

One of the many honors he’s received in recent years has been his induction into the Alabama Agriculture Hall of Honor, a coveted award announced by the Auburn University Agricultural Alumni Association.

Cates’ family operates a Century Farm that has gradually grown from a few hundred acres to nearly 2,000 since its inception in 1818 – one year before statehood was bestowed on Alabama. That means it won’t be long before the family can claim double-century recognition.

In addition to his agriculture accomplishments, Cates also became known throughout the state for his service in the Alabama House of Representatives.

One of his most important pieces of legislation was co-sponsoring current use property tax valuation. It was one of several bills he either introduced himself or joined in with other House colleagues.

Born in the Searcy community 7 miles north of Greenville, Cates learned the importance of farming at an early age – handling mules, as well as corn and cotton production.

By the time he was 14, he had become a full-fledged farm hand, as he likes to point out. His family farm included four mules. One pair named Jim and George. The other two were Amos and Andy. Amos was his personal responsibility.

Lt. Eric Cates Jr. during World War II.  

World War II began in Europe in 1939 and, as America prepared for its eventual involvement, Cates had already enlisted in the Army. His military specialty was field artillery and forward observer duties.

After the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, Cates’ unit participated in the Aleutian Island campaign. Japanese troops had taken control of the U.S. territory after Dec. 7, 1941, but few survived once the United States entered the war and soldiers confronted them.

"They chose to die rather than surrender," said Cates, who entered the Army as a private and retired as a full colonel by the time he completed his active duty and National Guard careers.

As WWII was drawing to a close, Cates’ artillery unit boarded a ship headed for Japan in what was anticipated to be a bloody invasion. Then, the news broke that Japan had surrendered unconditionally.

"Our ship had just gone under the Golden Gate Bridge when we heard about the dropping of the atomic bomb," he said.

His war experiences were not over yet. Five years later, he was headed for Korea where another war raged.

His artillery unit was called up in 1951 and Cates has never forgotten that tour of duty because every day was a combat day.

"We relieved a unit that had been there for a while," he recalled.

His unit was lucky. It didn’t lose anybody at the bloody Punch Bowl campaign.

  Eric and Louise Cates were married in 1945 shortly after the end of WWII. Louise died in 2013.

Fate stepped into his life in a good way during WWII when his artillery unit was transferred to Fort Bragg and Cates learned about a Saturday night reception and decided to go.

There she was – a stunning beauty named Louise Braswell who had been serving as a hostess. He couldn’t get her out of his mind after they met.

"I just knew she was the one for me," he said, breaking into a big smile as he relaxed in an easy chair. "We had to be introduced first and that was no problem."

They exchanged vows on May 6, 1945, just as WWII was ending. Their marriage lasted nearly 69 years. Louise died three years ago.

By the time he had completed the military phase of his public service, he had two wars under his belt and had served 35 years with the National Guard and the regular Army. When he appeared in uniform, he proudly wore the insignia of a bird colonel.

Cates was happy to get back to his farm in Butler County where, over the years, he managed a big operation focusing on row crops, hogs, cattle, hay and timber. At one point, he also served as ASCS County Executive Director for 15 years.

Politics came next and he easily proved his abilities in that arena as he shifted from one job to another without missing a beat.

He hadn’t planned to run, but, when the incumbent announced he wasn’t going to run for a third term in the State House, Cates pitched his hat into the ring and was elected to the first of two terms.

"I thought politics would be interesting and it was," he said. "I knew I could still run the farm without much of a problem since I had been doing it for most of my life."

His legislative career was filled with accomplishments. His many responsibilities included chairmanship of the House Military Affairs Committee and service on the Banking Committee’s Ways and Means Committee.

Two of the bills he introduced or supported included transferring education support personnel, including bus drivers and lunchroom workers, into the Alabama Retirement System so they could be eligible for cost-of-living pay increases.

Another important bill was to change the timing of corporation tax payments, something that increased education revenues by millions of dollars.

Eric Cates Jr., 98, with his daughter Jean Blackmon.  

Education has been the glue that’s held the Cates family together. The patriarch may not have gone to college but his descendants have. They have earned more than 20 advanced degrees through the years.

"Dad’s always valued a college education," said daughter Jean Blackmon, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Auburn University. "He is well-read and has never stopped learning."

Eric Cates III is constantly amazed at his father’s accomplishments and is happy to talk about him and his sterling example of fatherhood.

"Early on he set realistic goals he wanted to achieve in his life and he’s been able to accomplish all of them," said his son, who is a commercial banker. "He’s proud of what he’s been able to do, but not nearly as proud as his children and grandchildren are of him."

At last count, he’s doted on four children, 11 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. He’s happy to point out that there’s also one on the way.

He’s been president, director or member of numerous altruistic organizations including the Kiwanis Club, 4-H Foundation Hall of Fame, Butler County Historical Society and the Greenville-Butler County Chamber of Commerce.

In 1977, Cates was named Greenville’s Man of the Year, received a Spirit of Greenville Award and was grand marshal of the Greenville Christmas Parade. He also was honored with selection as a Paul Harris Fellow.

When he was able to get around a lot easier than he can today, he couldn’t get his day started without attending a session of the Greenville Coffee Club. He joined in 1958 and rarely missed a meeting.

"We’d have birthday parties and provide breakfast at that time for members," he said. "The honoree would be responsible for buying the breakfast."

All in all, Eric Cates Jr. has had quite a life and whenever he reflects about it he makes sure he includes wonderful in it.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.