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Decorated vet passes away at 99

A life-long Butler County resident described as a “true gentleman” and a “great American” who faithfully served God, family, country and community during his long and remarkable lifetime, has passed away.

Colonel Eric O. Cates Jr., 99, died April 7 in Greenville. Born and reared in the Searcy community in northern Butler County which he always called home, “Mr. Eric” enjoyed being involved in the county’s agricultural community through his own farm, Persimmon Ridge and through the Farm Bureau, later reorganized as Alabama Farmers Federation.

Steve Rogers, who operates a family farm near Greenville, said it was Cates who led to his own involvement in the Butler County Farmers Federation.

“He called me one day and asked if I would, as a full-time farmer, like to become part of the organization. And I always have enjoyed it, especially when Mr. Eric was an active part of it.”

Cates was a former director of the BCFF, an officer with the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association and was inducted into the Alabama State Agriculture Hall of Honor in 2015.

A few months ago, Rogers and Percy Thompson, representing the BCFF, presented Cates with a special certificate designating him as a director emeritus of the Alabama Farmers Federation. Cates had actually attended the first organizational meeting of the Farm Bureau in Butler County at the tender age of five. His interest in agriculture began early, and remained with him his entire life, says Rogers.

“I used to try to visit him every two or three days at his room in Country Place, and he always asked me questions about my farming operation—the cattle, the pastures, the fields—he was always concerned and his interest just made me feel good every single time,” Rogers said.

“I always left him in a better mood than when I arrived.”

Dexter McLendon, Greenville’s mayor, said much the same about time spent with Cates, who was a member of the Alabama House of Representatives from 1974-82 and served as a board member/director for several local banking institutions.

“The colonel never failed to ask me about what was going on in the city and the community—it was just a pleasure to be able to sit and talk politics with him. He was a very smart, sharp man,” McLendon says. “You know, he actually gave Governor Kay Ivey her first job in the state department. And he could remember things from 40 or 50 years ago as clear as a bell and give you some sound advice for today, too. He really was an amazing human being. I can’t name any one else other than my own father who has done more for me and my family than Colonel Cates.”

Representative Chris Sells, who came to know Cates in his later years, said, “I believe Mr. Eric served our country, state, community,  his friends and family to the very best of his ability . . . he was really an example to us all.”

Cates, a combat veteran of both WW II and Korea, also served in the Alabama National Guard for 35 years, retiring with the rank of colonel.

His military background and experience was evident in the way Cates conducted himself, said McLendon.

“The colonel was very particular about things being done the right and proper way and he let you know that. But you always knew where you stood with him, too. He believed in doing what was right and he wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he believed in, either. And he was a great American—he was what America is really all about.”

Rogers said Cates held his Christian faith, his family and his country   all very close to his heart.

“I also served in the military, saw combat and retired from the Guard . . .  so Mr. Eric was somebody I could sit and talk with about such things. He was a real patriot and a true friend to people from all backgrounds. And he truly loved every single member of his family; I never heard him say a single negative thing about any of them.”

Even as the years passed, Cates continued to make an impact on county and community.

“That subdivision that is located across from where we live—it was Colonel Cates who saw that land and saw its potential,” said McLendon.

“And he and his family came together and starting building houses when he was 80. There are a lot of nice houses there now, thanks to them. He never really retired. Why, he was still hauling hay when he was 85. Colonel Cates was very much an active man, a man’s man—and he remained so interested in the life of his community until his health got bad at the very end.”

This “man’s man” was also the model of a true gentleman, added Rogers.

“My wife Linda has always described Mr. Eric as ‘some kind of real gentleman.’ I tell you, if I can live to be the kind of gentleman he was; if I can leave just a part of the legacy Mr. Eric left behind—I will be a happy man when I leave this earth.”