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Cates honored at birthday breakfast

Not everyone has the governor attend their birthday celebration. Then again, not everyone is Col. Eric Cates Jr.

Cates, retired Alabama National Guard officer, cattleman and supporter of numerous civic concerns, officially turned 99 on Sunday, May 28. Friends and family along with dignitaries on the city, county and, yes, state levels all gathered on Saturday morning, May 27 for a special birthday breakfast at Greenville’s Beeland Park.

Nearly 100 attendees enjoyed an old-fashioned southern country breakfast catered by Rebecca Duncan of Nanny’s Fine Dining.

The event’s program was presided over by none other than the “birthday boy himself,” who rose from his wheelchair at the front table to introduce each of the speakers, including the Rev. Joe Lisenby, Mayor Dexter McLendon, Representative Chris Sells, Governor Kay Ivey and Jerry Perdue.

We come to offer our thanks and appreciation for the long life of a friend, a patriot, a businessman and a civic-minded individual,” said Lisenby during his invocation.

Cates recognized many of those most special to him during the event, asking his family members and fellow members of what is known as the 9:30 Coffee Club to stand.

Lisenby, the unofficial chaplain of the coffee club (which currently meets at Camellia City Bakery downtown) explained that the group does more than solve the world’s problems. It also provides two $500 scholarships to LBW Community College, along with $500 donations to DHR and Safe Harbor each year.

“A company has informed us they want to contribute to our scholarship fund,” said Lisenby. “And we have decided to add a third scholarship in the name of Mr. Eric and to continue this until it becomes a memorial scholarship sometime after his 110th birthday.”

Horace Horn of Power South presented a $500 check to Cates for the new scholarship.

“I’ve known Col. Cates since he was my battalion commander back in the 1960s . . . he’s been a good friend and a mentor to me and it’s a privilege to present this check on Power South’s behalf,” said Horn.

Lisenby admitted there was an ulterior motive for Saturday’s birthday breakfast.

“Each month at the birthday breakfasts, we ask our coffee club members to donate $5,” Lisenby said. “It’s a honor and a privilege for all of us to be here today–and folks, it’s only going to cost you $5 for our scholarship fund . . . we also give to individuals and organizations who have needs during the year and it’s a honor to be able to do so.”

McLendon recalled the time years ago when Cates stepped in to help him, an aspiring business owner.

“I had been turned down by two banks for a loan to get McLendon’s Medical Supply started.  And then this gentleman offered me the money . . . I can’t say enough about how much this man means to my family and me,” McLendon said.  “What this man has done to touch so many lives in the community is incredible.”

Representative Chris Sells said he’d only gotten to know Cates well in the last few years, but discovered the man to be an “absolute treat.”

“If you want to be touched, sit down and just talk to this man for a few minutes and you’ll know what I mean. I think if you looked up ‘wisdom,’ I think you’d see his picture in the dictionary,”

Sells said.

Cates welcomed the governor, describing his long-time friend as a perfect fit for the state’s highest office “like butter and molasses on a warm biscuit.”

“The reason we are all here is Mr. Eric,” said Ivey. “Years ago, he took me under his wing and taught me the legislative process. The more I learned from Mr. Eric, the more I knew of the importance of honesty, integrity, hard work and keeping your word . . . wisdom is  hard to come by. There are very few people who have true wisdom, but Mr. Eric is one of them . . . and he is a blessing to know.”

Governor Ivey presented Cates with a special certificate of recognition signed by her, stating “your life and legacy are a testament to those who come before us and those who hold the key to our future.”

Ivey also took home something special from Butler County—one of the Searcy Volunteer Fire Department’s famed Boston butts presented to the governor by Gene Gibson.

Jerry Perdue, the song leader for the 9:30 Coffee Club, led everyone in singing “Happy Birthday” to Cates.

“If I’d known how nice people were going to be to you when you get old, I would have gotten old a lot faster,” Cates said with a smile. 

“This has been just such an example  . . . it’s been such a great day. If I live another 100 years, I don’t expect to have another such day and I thank you all.”