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  • Public Servant and Southern Lady:Public and Private Tensions in Lurleen Wallace’s Battle with Cancer
  • Jefferson Walker (bio)

Lurleen Wallace spent her final tortuous months moving between the Governor’s Mansion, where she was too frail to fulfill her gubernatorial duties, and hospitals in both Alabama and Texas, where she endured emergency operations and procedures designed to treat her spreading cancer. Before her death on May 7, 1968, Wallace weighed only sixty-eight pounds and suffered from cancer that spread from her uterus to her colon, liver, and lungs.1 In the final weeks of her life, she received some comfort from her reverend, John Vickers, who prayed with the governor on each of his many visits. Catherine Steineker, who worshiped with Wallace and Vickers at St. James Methodist Church in Montgomery, described the relationship between the governor and her reverend as deeply spiritual. “I’ll never forget when Lurleen and I were in Houston on January 3, 1968, and she’d just been told about the latest tumor,” Steineker said. “John Vickers didn’t know about the terrible news she’d just gotten. But Lurleen and I were sitting in the motel room that night, and out of the blue he called Lurleen. He said, ‘I just thought I needed to talk to you all.’ Of course, she told him about the tumor, and they talked for a long time . . . It seemed he was always there when Lurleen needed him.”2 Wallace rarely discussed her impending death with her husband George or the rest of her family; she found the subject [End Page 161] inappropriate and preferred to keep her feelings private. However, unbeknownst to her family, Wallace and Vickers discussed and made detailed arrangements for her funeral. Vickers remembered, “She wanted any funeral services to be simple . . . She knew that since she was governor, a certain amount of state protocol would have to be observed. But she didn’t want a big spectacle made of it.”3

On May 9, Wallace’s funeral went largely as planned. Relatives, friends, and state officials packed into St. James to hear a eulogy by Vickers and poems and songs personally selected by Lurleen.4 Although many of Wallace’s wishes were honored in her funeral proceedings, one major detail was changed. Uncomfortable with her appearance in her final months, Wallace insisted on a closed-casket funeral. Yet after her death, George Wallace took issue with this wish and discussed the matter with his son, George Jr. Deciding that Lurleen looked like herself in spite of her vast weight loss, the pair decided to place her body in an open casket in the rotunda of the Capitol.5 So after months of avoiding public appearances and conscientiously making the decision to have a closed-casket funeral, Wallace lay exposed under a glass bubble, which historian Dan T. Carter called “the perfect symbol for that lack of privacy, that fishbowl existence that she had always hated.”6 Thousands of Alabamians and many from other parts of the nation lined the streets to the Capitol to view Wallace’s body and pay their respects. One person recalled her experience, saying, “I stood in line for three or four hours with the children . . . never even did get near Dexter Avenue. They had stopped all the traffic in every direction. And this went on through the night, until morning.”7 Those that saw Wallace’s body in the rotunda grieved openly, weeping for their former first lady and governor. Rev. Vickers recognized that Wallace would have thought this inappropriate, [End Page 162]

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Images from the state capital press conference where Lurleen Wallace announced her candidacy for Governor of Alabama, February 24, 1966. Jim Peppler Southern Courier Photograph Collection, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery.

[End Page 163]

explaining in his eulogy, “Modesty is the citadel of beauty and virtue . . . Our governor was one of modesty and humility.”8

The choice to publicly display Wallace’s body against her previous requests is only one illustration of a recurring theme in Wallace’s political career: tension between the public and private spheres. In her public life, Wallace faced the...


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pp. 161-187
Launched on MUSE
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