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Longtime editor, community leader passes away at 94

A man who stood tall in his community in a myriad of ways has died. William Eugene “Gene” Hardin, Jr., longtime Greenville Advocate editor and prominent civic leader, died on June 14. He was 94.  A native of Bessemer, the proud WWII veteran leaves behind a legacy of service during his many years in the Camellia City, a legacy that extended to county, state and country.

A former radio announcer, Hardin’s deep and mellifluous voice was unforgettable. The wit and wisdom he shared were equally memorable for those who knew the man and valued his company.

Greenville attorney Richard Hartley of Hartley and Hickman describes Hardin as “one of a kind.”

“His personality and sense of humor were unique. He was a tireless supporter of Greenville, Butler County and Alabama.”

Hardin was also a great mentor, Hartley said.

“When I was a young lawyer, he took me under his wing and provided support and guidance to me until his death. I will always be grateful to him and I cherish the many memories of being and working with him.”

Hardin, who served in Burma and India as part of the Army Air Corps, attended the University of Alabama where he studied writing and provided color commentary for UA sports. As it turned out, those writing courses would serve him well. After marrying Marianne “Nonnie” Stanley of Greenville in 1949 and putting in a stint as a radio announcer in Mobile, the couple returned to the Camellia City. In 1951, Hardin joined the staff of The Greenville Advocate, founded by his wife’s grandfather, General James B. Stanley.  He and “Miss” Nonnie raised four children together—a son, Bill and three daughters, Laurie, Mollie and Jean.

Although he started out selling advertising for the paper, Hardin soon found himself assigned to the “Up and Down Commerce St.” column and some front page news stories by Advocate editor Glenn Stanley.

As Hardin himself said of his time with the newspaper, “I did a little bit of it all.”

Following Stanley’s passing in 1967, Hardin became the editor of the newspaper and served in that capacity until 1994, when The Greenville Advocate was sold to Greenville Newspapers, LLC, part of Tuscaloosa based Boone Newspapers.

A respected newspaperman, Hardin was instrumental in the founding of the Hall School of Journalism at Troy University. He also served as president of the Alabama Press Association—the fourth person at the helm of The Greenville Advocate to hold that office, setting a record for newspapers in the state. Hardin was honored in 2004 by the APA with its highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, for his extraordinary 43-year career as newspaper staffer, editor and publisher. In his customary humorous and self-deprecating fashion, Hardin simply chuckled when he heard about winning the award, saying, “I think they made a terrible mistake. I don’t know what they must have had in mind.”

Former Advocate staffer Gregg Fuller of Greenville Parks and Recreation definitely thinks the APA made the right choice.

“Years ago, Mr. Hardin took a chance on me when I was a young guy without any actual journalism experience and I was very appreciative of it,” says Fuller, who describes his time working under Hardin as “some of the best years of my entire working life.”

“I’d had journalism courses, but let me tell you, a lot of what you need to know to work on a newspaper, they don’t teach. I learned so much of what I did need to know from Mr. Gene. He was one of the smartest people I ever met.

“When he was talking, you knew to just shut up and listen. He really knew how to get his point across. And he was absolutely one of the best photographers we had just using that old-fashioned camera, when the rest of us were toting around thousands of dollars in cameras and lenses.”

Fuller recalls a good working atmosphere at the newspaper, “a family atmosphere where everyone got their hands dirty” in the process of getting out that weekly edition.

“One of my most vivid memories is watching Mr. Gene pushing that cart up the sidewalk every Wednesday at 5 p.m. There was only one paper box in town in those days, and everybody would be there waiting on it. It was a town tradition.”

Fuller says Hardin taught him more than just the ropes of putting out a paper. His mentor also provided sound lessons on dealing with the public that Fuller has carried with him ever since.

“He was so pleasant to be around and he was always willing to listen.  And Mr. Gene had other ventures outside the newspaper. Actually, he is responsible for many good things we now have in Greenville.”

Realtor Susan Rhodes of First Realty also has many fond memories of her 13 years working at The Greenville Advocate.

“The Greenville Advocate was published once a week on Wednesdays back in the day. Those days could prove quite stressful and challenging. Everyone rolled up their sleeves and went to work putting newspapers together and getting them ready for the mail delivery,” Rhodes recalled.

“I was usually Mr. Hardin’s assistant in labeling the newspapers for mail delivery. I think it was because the others were a little scared of him. He and I had a great time talking, but I had to work very hard at keeping pace with him. Every once in a while I would get off track and he would put two labels on one paper–but he never lost his patience with me.”

Rhodes describes Hardin as something of a “gentle giant,” someone you respected and maybe even feared a little; a man who worked hard for Butler County in a number of ways and showed compassion for those dealing with life’s hard times.

“Mr. Hardin was very stoic but he also had a very soft side. He was very good to me when my mother was battling cancer,” Rhodes says.

“He came in one day and said, ‘I am not going to ask you every day how things are going because I know you are trying to keep going, but if you need anything just let me know.’ That meant a great deal to me. I appreciated his compassion and kindness in what was a very difficult time. I value my time at The Greenville Advocate and all the friendships that I made there.”

Allen Stephenson, former clerk for Butler County, recalls Hardin as a “wonderful mentor and a gift to the community.”

“Mr. Gene was a driving force in the development and growth of Greenville,” said Stephenson.

When Hardin took over editorship of the paper from Glenn Stanley, he ended up taking over directorship of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, which met in the newspaper office’s basement in those days.

“Since I was the newest kid on the block, I was it,” he said of his time helming the chamber.

Hardin also served for eight years on the city council, with four of those years as mayor pro tem. During his tenure on the council, he helped spearhead the construction and expansion of Greenville’s airport.

Hardin spent eight years in the Alabama legislature, serving House District 90 under Governors Lurleen B. Wallace, Albert Brewer and George C. Wallace. During his time in the legislature, he introduced a bill that ended up having a significant impact on Greenville. It changed ownership of Sherling Lake from the state to the city of Greenville—a move that would later lead to Greenville being chosen as one of the sites for the acclaimed Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and the construction of Cambrian Ridge.

Seeing Greenville and Butler County grow and prosper was definitely one of Hardin’s goals, and he spent many years on the Greenville Industrial Board, serving as its chair for more than 15 years. Hardin was both president and secretary for the Butler County Manufacturers Association and as interim manager for the Butler County Commission for Economic Development.

In early 2011, Hardin was feted by his fellow Lions Club members for an amazing 60 years as an active member of the civic organization.  At the time, fellow Lion Frank Hickman shared his observations about Lion Gene.

“I have watched 31 years of his participation and he is always present, willing and more than able,” Hickman said. “He’s been involved in selling everything from brooms to light bulbs to giant coloring books, and helping organize the Lions Christmas Dance, which was the social event of the season in its day, the Ladies Cook-Out, and helped establish the OG Holley Scholarship. Lions was fun–and Lion Gene was in the middle of it.”

Hardin, along with the late Herbert Morton, also spearheaded the project that resulted in the Lions WWII Memorial now standing in front of Greenville’s City Hall, remembering all those from Butler County who sacrificed their lives in service to their country.

Hickman went on to describe Hardin as “a wonderful family man, a faithful member of his church and good friend to me.”

Richard Hartley looks on his mentor and friend as “irreplaceable,” saying, “Our community will miss him, his selflessness and his many talents. I thank God for placing him in my life.”

Funeral services for Hardin are set for 3 p.m. Saturday, June 17 at Woodland Heights Methodist Church. The family will receive visitors at the church beginning at 2 p.m. Burial will follow at Magnolia Cemetery.