Fridays with Rice

Published 12:11 am Saturday, January 7, 2012

Members of the Alabama Friday Lunch Crowd meet each week at Julia'€™s Restaurant. Gone is their friend and Alabama fan, Bill Rice, Sr. But Rice is not forgotten. He still has a place at their table and in their hearts. His chair leans against the table each Friday and the conversation always includes him. From left, seated, Allen Jones, Tony Smith, Dickie Calhoun, William Davis, Jim Colley and Mack Hixon. Standing, Jimmy Phillips and Joe Faulk. (Photo/Jaine Treadwell)

Friends still hold a spot for longtime Alabama fan

A restaurant chair leans empty against the table at Julia’s Restaurant at lunchtime each Friday.

There’s laughter, good-natured kidding and a few barbs among the men who share the table. But every now and then, and from each of them, a wistful glance is cast in the direction of the empty chair.

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For early 30 years, that chair was occupied by Bill Rice Sr., first at Mr. Ho’s in 1981 and then at other restaurants around town. On Oct. 12, 2010, the chair no longer had an occupant.

“I never thought about it until Bill died, but I had lunch with him every Friday for almost 30 years,” said Dickie Calhoun, a member of the Alabama Friday Lunch Crowd. “That’s a thousand meals we shared. Other than your wife, there’s probably not a single person that you sit down and have a face-to-face talk with over lunch a thousand times.”

For Calhoun and all the others who shared Friday lunches with Rice, those days are cherished memories.

Just what it was about Bill Rice Sr. that drew people to him, William Davis said, he’s not sure. But he is sure that it was no one thing.

“Bill was a man with many interests,” Davis said. “He was knowledgeable about so many things – Alabama football, politics, Alabama football, history, Alabama football …”

It was the common interest in Alabama football that brought the men together in 1981. Over the years, the group has picked up members and lost members. But they meet, year round every Friday, now at Julia’s, for lunch.

“Every now and then, Doug Hawkins comes around to harass us, especially not that Auburn is ‘finally’ winning a few games,” Calhoun said, laughing.

Rice had “inside” information on the Crimson Tide that he often shared, “but you can never repeat what I’m telling you,” he would say to his lunch bunch friends.

Rice had been a stalwart on the 1957-58 Troy High School football teams and was a blue chip choice for more than one team when he graduated.

“Some of the Auburn fans in Troy offered to buy Bill a suit of clothes at Rosenberg’s if he would go to Auburn,” said Joe Faulk. “But Bill was Alabama through and through.”

Rice chose to play for the Tide and entered the University of Alabama the fall of 1958 as a member of Paul “Bear” Bryant’s first recruiting class. He was a starter on Bryant’s first national championship team in 1961.

“Bill played end and tackle for Alabama and caught quite a few passes as a tackle-eligible,” said Davis.

Prior to Bryant’s arrival at the Capstone, J.B. “Ears” Whitworth had posted dismal records including an 0 and 10 record and a 2-7-1 record the year before the Bear arrived.

“Bill helped bring prominence back to Alabama football. That team laid the foundation for what was to come,” Davis said.

Faulk said one of his favorite Alabama Rice stores, that he can tell, is about Rice’s inability to get up and get to an 8 a.m. class.

“Bill said that Coach Bryant called him into his office and told him that he understood that he was missing his early morning class,” Faulk said. “Coach Bryant told him to meet him the next morning at 4:30 in the office and to be wearing a coat and tie. Bill said Coach Bryant had him study in his office until it was time to go to his 8 o’clock class.

“After about a week or more of that, Coach Bryant asked Bill if he thought he could make it to his 8 o’clock class. Bill said, ‘Yes, sir.’”

Mack Hixon and Rice were freshmen at Alabama together and pledged the same fraternity.

“It was a real honor for me to know Bill because everybody looked up to the football players,” he said.

But, Hixon also knew Rice as a fun-loving college boy who joined him on panty raids.

Back then, panty raids were nothing like climbing a fire escape and going to get them, Hixon said.

“About a hundred of us would stand under the dorm windows on sorority row and, sometimes a girl or two would throw down some ‘lingerie.’” Hixon said laughing. “Those were fun, special times.”

For the men who shared lunch, laughter and a few heated discussions with Rice, those were also very special times.

“We all respected Bill because he knew a lot about a lot of things,” Calhoun said. “Back during the last governor’s race, Bill said he was going to support Robert Bentley, who by all accounts wasn’t qualified to be governor. I told him that Bentley didn’t know anything about politics. That he couldn’t win. But Bill said, ‘Yes, he could.’ And he did.”

Jim Colley said Rice knew more about most everything than most of the Alabama Friday lunch crowd, including movies. Rice thought any movie that John Wayne appeared in was a good movie.

“He could be hard-headed and we didn’t always agree with him, but he was right most of the time,” Colley said.

Sometimes, Rice would invite his Friday lunch friends up to his house on Lake Martin. He would take them to lunch at Hotel Talisi and then out on the lake on his boat.

“Bill liked to have a good time and he liked to have friends around,” said Jimmy Phillips. “And, we liked to be around him. We always had a good time when Bill was around.”

Allen Jones said that Rice made good and lasting friendships and especially with those of like minds – Alabama minds.

“He became very good friends with Martha Bradshaw Gibbs, who was married to Charlie Bradshaw, who was an assistant at Alabama,” Jones said. “She was close friends with the Bryants. Their friendship was a unique connection with the Bryant family.”

Over the years, Bill Rice formed many friendships but none closer that the ones with the Alabama Friday Lunch Crowd.

The “crowd” had lunch on the Friday before he died on Saturday.

“None of us ever thought …” Calhoun said.

Rice had watched Bama win a close one over Arkansas and later suffered a heart attack at his home.

Davis and Phillips went immediately to the emergency room at Troy Regional Medical Center to be with him.

“Bill asked me what I was doing there and I told him I came to be with a friend,” Phillips said.

Davis said, with a smile, that, in true Bill Rice fashion, he kept asking the nurses, “Is Auburn still losing?”

Rice died the way that his friends had often thought he might – after the excitement of an Alabama victory.

Bill Rice Sr. is gone from the Alabama Friday Lunch Crowd but he is not forgotten.

His Alabama friends are still holding his chair for him and his name always comes up at Friday lunches and not just one time but also many.

“After Marsha’s illness and her death, Bill said that coming to our Friday lunch was the highlight of his week. He still has the place of honor at our table. He’s still with us,” Phillips said.

On Monday night, Alabama will play LSU for the national championship.

Some of his friends will be at the game and the others will be watching on television. And, to a one, they will be rooting for their team and hoping and believing that the Tide can win one for the Rice man.