Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a four-part series by Tuscaloosa Patch that will appear weekly over the next month. Part II will be published on Sunday, April 9
TUSCALOOSA, AL — Decades before he was the controversial, mega-rich developer and political kingmaker he is today, Stan Pate remembers the feeling of having an empty stomach as a college student at the University of Alabama as he sold peanuts and Coca-Colas in the stands of what is now Bryant-Denny Stadium.
He undertook this necessary labor all while his buddies freely enjoyed the revelry of the game. Meanwhile, Pate humped his cargo up and down the concrete steps, navigating the knees of those in attendance and taking dirty pocket change from people who didn’t know his name nor care to learn it.
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It stands out as a minor anecdote among several formative experiences for the highly public, yet polarizing man who would go on to be one of the most powerful influences in Alabama and beyond.
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As Carter Davis penned in a dated, yet thorough 2003 profile of Pate for City Magazine: “Stan Pate has two distinct personalities bottled up inside of him. He is both a thoroughly frustrating and combative businessman and a very charming and likable person who prefers to live by simple means. (Reasonable when one considers that he is worth somewhere near $50 million).”
And that was 20 years ago.
Obviously, little has changed at present regarding his reputation, with Pate in the last week grabbing headlines for a pair of stories, including the push by State Sen. Gerald Allen to rename an interstate bridge in Tuscaloosa after his father — Luther Stancel Pate III. This came along with an ongoing defamation lawsuit he filed against a group of Tuscaloosa business owners for allegedly committing online slander.
Pate is as combative as he is generous by all accounts, which on and below the surface, presents a conflicting view depending on your set of eyes.
Indeed, he’s a character straight out of a Faulkner novel — Thomas Sutpen, specifically — birthed from the ether in his dusty clothes with pistols on his hips, reaching into the dry earth and pulling up his empire with nothing more than his own ambition.
Like Sutpen in the classic “Absalom! Absalom!” Pate very much appeared on this earth “out of nowhere and without warning.”
I was made to sit in a conference room for five minutes or so before our first of two sit-down interviews for the first part of this series. It’s a large modern building off of Industrial Park Road that is deceivingly spartan inside — few frills. But the quiet is misleading, as Pate operates very much out of his own head, while depending on a small brain trust of busy folks buzzing around the complex.
Pate’s personal office looks very much the part of a War Room: files, business cards, multiple screens, a workspace suited for two dozen people. He even told me he has a Bitcoin farm somewhere on the property. On a desk set a yellowed list of “Stan’s Laws” — a list of his own philosophies you will learn more about in our next installment.
But it’s the 12th Law that stands out as the most relevant for this opening chapter: “Do it by the book … but be the author!”
So, as I set out to tell the most complete story about Stan Pate, it’s best to start at the very beginning, when he was born on June 27, 1957.
Roots Of His Raising
The second child of Luther Stancel Pate III and Maxine Newsom Pate, Pate spent the first decade of his life on his family’s farm on Route 1 in Buhl — what is now Sipsey Valley Road. The farm changed hands years ago following the death of his father and bears little resemblance today to how it would have looked in the 1960s.
But to hear Pate reflect on those very early years, they were humble and pastoral, full of rich memories of life on a farm. And it’s the memories of his late father that stand out as the brightest of his youth and, frankly, his entire life up to the present day, when he discusses it at length.
“When you’re almost 10 years old, you love your parents and looking back on my Dad every time that I talk about him in a situation like this, I smile,” Pate told me. “You’re looking at it through the perspective of 10-year-old eyes. Good dads, they walk on water, and mine did in my eyes and still does.”
Born in Pickens County, Luther Stancel Pate III was the son of a farmer with the same name and his wife, Amanda. Stan brightens up when he talks about trips to Gordo to the cattle auctions or the old Coca-Cola factory. He never really cared for going into the city, meaning Tuscaloosa.
Working on the farm as a little boy, he helped tend chicken houses and would often get his hands pecked by angry laying hens or accidentally come up on a chicken snake. At its peak, Pate said, his family had 5,000 laying hens, in addition to cattle, pigs and horses.
Pate grew up loving television westerns and especially loved the horses on their farm. All of the riding tricks he would see in black and white came to life as he learned to ride in those green pastures of his youth.
“I would try to ride a horse with no saddle and no bridle, I tried to stand up on horses and ride, mount ’em from the back, things like that I would see on TV,” he said. “If I saw it and it interested me, I tried to do it and on a farm you have the opportunity.”
Another of the ideas came in 1966 after his father purchased a two-door Ford Fairlane 500 GT.
Complete with the pair of racing flags, he said the car was reminiscent of the early stock car racers transitioning from running moonshine to racing in front of thousands of people. As it was with horseback riding, he wanted to see what it was like to go fast — to do something great like his television heroes.
As an eight year old, Pate decided one day when his parents were gone to take the sports car out into the pasture in an attempt to go 100 mph. He carefully studied the sandy spot where the car was parked to note where to return it so as his father wouldn’t find out it had ever moved.
He then hopped into the car and tore off through the pasture, ultimately topping his triple-digit goal in the wide-open space and parking the car in that same sandy spot, sure that no one would be any the wiser. Instead, his father immediately noticed the Bahiagrass stuck in the front fender.
“When my father got home, he was looking at the new car and said ‘son, have you been driving this car? How fast did you go?’ … he knew me,” Pate said, before telling his father that he had topped 100 mph. “He said ‘well you told me the truth, so I don’t expect you to be doing that no more. We were buddies, I tried to take every step he took.”
‘I’m Never Going Back‘
This reporter was only able to find one existing newspaper account of the evening of July 14, 1968 — on microfilm at the Tuscaloosa Public Library.
Appearing on the front page of the Tuscaloosa News and erroneously identifying his father as Luther Stancel Pate, Jr., the article quoted police in saying it was believed that the right front tire blew out on the truck he was driving, causing him to lose control and crash into an embankment. The crash occurred just after 11 p.m. and Pate told Tuscaloosa Patch his father had successfully purchased the farm from his grandmother, but had to take night jobs to make ends meet.
The crash occurred on U.S. Highway 82 at Rice Mine Road. He died shortly thereafter at Druid City Hospital — just short of Father’s Day and his son’s eleventh birthday. He was only 31 years old.
The experience was heart-shattering for Pate, who spent the next two days in a secluded spot, staring up at the heavens and feeling like he had been left behind. He fought through tears twice as he tried to tell the story, ultimately discussing a cherished picture he had from when all four generations of Luther Stancel Pates were still alive.
“I have very few pictures from my childhood, almost none,” he said. “It was a great group of men and I’m honored to have the Pate name. They were short years, but I believe he instilled in me a lot today. When he looks down from heaven today, I’m sure he shakes his head and wonders “what in the hell is he doing? I’m bad to slip off the road.”
And here Pate was, barely 11 years old and the last of his name. It would prove a life-altering chapter for the young boy and one that set so much into motion for so many, whether they realize it or not.
“[My mother] used to viciously beat us, mostly me and sometimes my older sister would try to protect me and of course she got the beating as well,” he told Patch. “When your father dies when you’re 10 years old, you don’t really understand death because I continue to think he was just going to drive back up the driveway one day. I remember one day a car turned into the driveway and, as a kid, you’re just sure. I had watermelons for sale at the end of the driveway, which causes this car to come in. Then you have the realization.”
And it was shortly after his father’s death, Pate’s mother — who he said had always wanted to live in town instead of out in the country — moved back to the city after an agreement was worked out in court to sell the farm, eventually to Tuscaloosa lawyer Gordon Rosen.
“There was no will for the lawyer that represented [Pate and his sisters over the land],” he said. “I told them they could have it and I’m out of here. Gordon Rosen, at one point, indicated he wanted to sell it to me. The reality is, the more I thought about it, it’s like that book, ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’ [by Thomas Wolfe]. I ultimately recognized that buying the land didn’t mean my father was going to be there.”
Pate’s father was buried in Northport’s Williamson Cemetery and, at present, Pate remarked that he sees him every day on his drive to the office.
“I used to go on my bicycle, seemed like, every time I could,” he said. “For a while, it was almost every day and made sure his grave was clean. A lot of people think I take down a lot of trees, but I planted an oak tree over there and it’s still there.”
Maxine Newsom Pate eventually moved her kids to a place on Eleanor Drive in Northport, which seemed like the other side of the world for her son. In this new life, Pate not only found himself without a father and the open spaces of those early years, but now became the subject of even more intense physical abuse at the hands of his mother.
“Teachers, I have to tell you, without teachers I wouldn’t be here. They did more than teach,” he said, reflecting back on those painful years. “They recognized the pain, they recognized the situation. It got to where I was in a house where the only thing to eat was a cheese cracker or a mayonnaise cracker or potted meat. And one day, finally, the neighbors complained what they saw and so did the teachers and authorities came and took me out of their custody. I’ll never forget as we drove away, I looked over my shoulder and said I’ll never go back, no matter what it takes.”
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He then thought back to that car ride with a man named Upchurch from child protective services.
Stopped at the signal on Bridge Avenue near the OK Tire Store, he said the man looked over at him and gave him words that he would ultimately end up living by.
“He looked over at me and said ‘I know this going to be hard for you to take, but from this day forward you’re in charge of yourself,'” Pate said.
Following that formative car ride, Pate found himself on a bench in a courtroom, before ultimately going into the care of his aunt, who he loved dearly. In later years, Pate would return to claim one of the original benches from that courtroom, which sits in a hallway in his office to this day.
“We were remodeling the courthouse and doing all the stuff downstairs,” longtime Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge Hardy McCollum told me. “And we had leftover benches from Judge [Louis H. Lackey Jr.’s] juvenile court. [Pate] told me that story and I said I believe he needs one of those benches.”
The time with his aunt, however, would be short-lived, despite the affection he still seems to carry for her to this day.
“At the end of the day, that was a real shock to their family and their everyday way of life,” he said. “I had stayed for a while, then I heard a little tense discussion about ‘he’s your brother’s son but this isn’t gonna work in our household.’ So I left and stayed on the streets for a while.”
From there he used what little money he had earned to stay at the former Catalina Hotel, but said the owner ultimately turned him away out of fear he would get in trouble for allowing such a young patron.
“I slept on the back door of the school,” he recalled of those years, which coincided with him being an exemplary student at Tuscaloosa County High School. “The one thing I knew, I could hold on to my grades, I worked hard. I still got a report card from County High where I made an A+ in every class the whole year.”
Another experience that would leave lasting impressions on the young man came when he got his first glimpse of how unfair life can be.
During his high school years, he stayed with his grandmother for a brief time before be taken in by the Gardner family until he graduated in 1978 as one of the top of his class. His senior year at County High, he was even voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”
Despite the promise he showed in spite of his circumstances, Pate still had many more mountains to climb as he entered college at the University of Alabama, where he set out studying chemical engineering.
“If you’re in the dorms come Christmas time, they close the place, so where do you go?” Pate recalled. “It’s a bit embarrassing to ask a friend if I could go home with them. You know, you go to the graduation ceremony and there’s no one to be there and you recognize where parents really count. I’ve spent time assessing, I watched my friends at 15-16 hate their parents and figure they had no clue what they had.”
While many of his classmates had it easy, with the freedom to focus solely on their studies and social lives, young adulthood for Pate was much like his earlier teenage years. He then thought back to selling peanuts and Cokes in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Pate even still remembers some of the sections he worked.
“It could have been easy for me to take a bad path,” he said. “College was tough, and I had to work two or three jobs. And it was slow … That kind of stuff is lasting. It’s hard to walk away from. I had a friend, Kenneth Sealy, who pumped septic tanks. He knew I would do anything necessary to make some money. I’ve spent a lot of time in the bottom of a septic tank. I had convinced myself it’s just methane gas, so I would put my head in the right place and get the job done. If anybody doesn’t think I know the bottom, they need to walk in my footsteps.”
As stated time and again in this opening chapter, these years were indeed formative ones for Pate, but not without their longterm impacts on how he approached everything from business to relationships. He would finish his degree in chemical engineering work in the chemical industry for a brief time, before setting out to work building his empire.
Still, he admits that he ponders what it cost him.
“It’s a little isolated, sure,” Pate said. “I should have had more people in my life, should have had more loving people in my life and I probably should have given more love. But I didn’t and now I stand here and reflect, near the end of my life. You can’t help but recognize mistakes you made in your life.”
But the struggles wouldn’t totally define his life. Rather, the many hard-earned lessons converged, giving him a blueprint for a successful career in business, but an attitude that would govern his relationships and image up until the present day.
Be on the lookout for Part II of our series next week, which will focus on Pate’s business career. Have a news tip or suggestion on how I can improve Tuscaloosa Patch? Maybe you’re interested in having your business become one of the latest sponsors for Tuscaloosa Patch? Email all inquiries to me at email@example.com.
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