By Alvin Benn
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Jim Hodo had hoped to become a history professor when he enrolled at Auburn University, but he shelved that dream to become one of Alabama's leading industrialists.
His executive positions began at a foundry in his hometown of Alexander City, followed by stints at a wire harness plant in Montgomery and, finally, a military garment facility in Selma.
For the past seven months he's been enjoying retired life, but state needs continue to draw his interest and attention, especially when they involve rural Alabama.
Hodo is a soft-spoken man, but his ire is evident when he talks about a region he believes has been neglected far too long by those with the assets to make some positive changes.
"Investments are always being made in our big cities, but look what happens when you leave them and head into rural parts of the state," he said during an interview at Selma's popular Downtowner Restaurant. "Highway 80 is a good example of neglect."
Snail-pace work on improving the busy federal highway that links Alabama and Mississippi has become a perennial joke among officials and motorists who use it.
"It's been going on for the past 60 years, and it's still not completed," said Hodo, 63. "It seems we've been working on widening and paving that highway forever."
Hodo isn't the only state leader who feels the same way about U.S. 80, at times referred to as "Blood Alley" because of all the fatal wrecks that have occurred on it during the past six decades.
"Economically challenged" is a phrase that many leaders use to describe Alabama's Black Belt, where unemployment is the highest in the state.
A few years ago, millions of federal dollars were set aside for an economic impact study on possibly extending Interstate 85, the interstate system that ends in Montgomery.
"Interstate systems are being built all over the country, but we can't seem to finish something like U.S. 80 that was started so long ago," Hodo said. "The same thing applies to health care. It's as though rural Alabama has been forgotten."
The biggest question involving the proposed I-85 project is which route to take — north or south of Selma. The same problem happened in Uniontown over bypassing a historic house. That debate went on for about 20 years.
Interstate highways and completion of U.S. 80 haven't consumed much of Hodo's retirement time. He has other interests, too. His newest job is serving as chairman of the Nature Conservancy of Alabama.
Hodo has earned his share of awards during a long, productive career as an industrialist, but nothing can beat the pleasure of touring places that have been protected by his organization.
"Right now, we are working on canoe access points from Birmingham all the way to old Cahawba," he said Thursday as he drove toward Alabama's first capital, where he enjoyed a leisurely stroll along a walkway toward a slough that feeds into the Cahaba River and, eventually, the Alabama River.
Recent flooding has turned part of the area into a muddy mess, but the walk was worth it when Hodo reached an elevated viewing area where he could see birds circling high overhead.
The confluence of the two rivers is historic. It's the place where Alabama's first capital was created, where Union troops were housed at a Confederate prison camp, where changing times and Selma's emergence as Dallas County's leading city signaled the end of Cahawba as a viable community.
"What a fantastic sight," he said. "It's something everybody in Alabama ought to see at least once. This can be a perfect recreational site one day with camping, hiking, canoeing and other family-oriented things to do."
It's unlikely that will ever happen until funds are found to do more than build scenic overheads or boat ramps, according to Hodo, who knows of what he speaks.
"Tourism could be a major industry for the Black Belt, but we'll never be able to promote it unless infrastructure changes are made," he said. "City folks come out here and they don't see signs, paved parking lots, bathrooms and other necessities. That's not fun for families."
Former Dallas County Probate Judge Johnny Jones can empathize with Hodo and his frustrations, but he'd rather praise the east Alabamian who has made west Alabama his home.
"He's become an adopted son in Dallas County," Jones said. "Jim likes to work behind the scenes and has done a lot for us. He is totally involved."
Wayne Vardaman, executive director of the local economic development authority, feels the same way about Hodo, calling him "a man of high character and values."
"I plan on trying to get him involved in the EDA during his retirement," said Vardaman, who knows that won't be hard because Hodo already served as the authority's president for two years.