It was probably four years ago, on the sidewalk in front of Ichabod's restaurant in Shelby.
Our family was together and we ran into John Cline, longtime member of the Cleveland County Sanitary District.
My wife Dina had been the district's lawyer some years back and that's how I had first gotten to know John. It was a friendship that blossomed. He came by often to visit me at The Star. More on those priceless times later.
On this day, though, in uptown Shelby, something unusual happened. My youngest son Will was just a toddler, which meant he was shy and even downright frightened of strangers. Bless his heart, but John Cline wasn't exactly the kind of person you'd expect to break through that type of fear -- well into his 80s with a weathered face and sharp features.
But he gave it a shot. Smiling and cooing with Will as Dina held him and we all talked.
Then it happened. Little arms that had clutched so tightly to mommy suddenly loosened that grip, then let go, then reached out for John. As our jaws dropped, his countenance brightened in a way words can't describe. He held Will like he would his own son. We talked some more and eventually, but reluctantly, he handed Will back to his mommy and we all went our ways.
"John Cline is here to see you"
If I'm being totally honest, there were a few times those weren't necessarily the words I wanted to hear. There is no one in this county that came to see me more often than John and sometimes those calls came in the middle of breaking news or just minutes before an important meeting.
Yet, I could never say no to a John visit. And no matter how busy, when our time was through, I was richer for the visit.
John cared about a lot of things and a lot of people. He was a rock-ribbed Republican. I tried to Google up the origin of the term "rock-ribbed Republican." No luck. Maybe it was invented by or for John. His involvement in party politics at the highest levels was a source of great pride.
He cared deeply about the upper end of Cleveland County. Some of that love translated to resentment of "the city," meaning Shelby. Hearing his views helped me gain perspective on that endless debate which rages anywhere rural and urban cultures cross.
John treasured his service on the sanitary district board. His life was consumed by the current efforts to bring a reservoir to Upper Cleveland. I (and undoubtedly many others) would teasingly start out conversations with John: "So, how's it coming on the new John Cline Lake?" He would wave off the title, but the strong glint in his eye would reveal his love affair with the project and his investment in its success. He and district manager Butch Smith were always working on some angle to try and speed up the reservoir process. He could barely contain his impatience with the federal red tape that brought the process to a crawl.
And I can't leave out an important passion of John's -- The Star. He devoured the paper daily. Often, he would call to commend me on an editorial view or story. He was always lobbying -- in John's ever-so-effective and courteous way -- for more coverage of the district. He would do it like this: "Skip, you think we can get a reporter up to our next meeting. It's going to be real important." How could I say no?
John was a figure. Not in the sense of "public figure" but in the sense of having a true presence. His hat was as much a fixture on his head as the one worn by legendary Alabama Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. Yet, he would remove the hat when he came and sat in my office, the ultimate display of courtesy and respect. I hope that hat finds its way into the formal remembrance of John.
Even as a Republican in a Democratic county, he was impossible not to like. At Chamber meetings, when John was introduced, he always elicited smiles from the group. He was just a nice man, always bringing me books of interest and offering me produce and such.
John's service in World War II was an integral part of who he was. Often he would say to me "I don't like to talk about that very much," when his service would come up in conversation. When something 60 years past is too painful for a man like John Cline to talk about, it must have been worse than anything I could imagine.
And finally, John's faith was his source of all this goodness. He was deeply involved in his church, often telling me about transitions to new pastors and such. John and I also talked occasionally of his family, but I will leave those observations to those closer to his kin.
And so, our visits at The Star would end. John would get up and offer a firm handshake. Then, without fail, he would turn to me and smile and say "How's that Will doin'?" Four years later, and the World War II veteran well into his 80s remembered that day he held my toddler as freshly as if it had happened a few minutes prior. He would ask for the latest picture of Will and marveled at the speed at which he had grown.
Only at the word of his passing do I finally get it.
My little Will sensed what so many of us had felt over the years -- John Cline was just somebody you enjoyed being close to.