To Live and To Die by Change

My maternal grandfather, Kyle Hobson Durant, was born in rural Shelby County, Alabama, in September 1899.  At 18, he came to Birmingham to take a menial railroad-yard job held by his brother who was enlisting into World War I.

Though Kyle’s form

Kyle Hobson Durant

al education reached only 6th grade, his native intelligence and eagerness to learn produced a career that culminated in his serving as Superintendent of Car Services for Birmingham Southern Railroad, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel—essentially a vice-president-level job.

But that was not his biggest accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned.

What I most appreciate about Granddaddy is that he sought and embraced change. Not only did he choose to leave rural life and come to the city, he chose to adapt, to become not merely a country boy living in the city, but a fully-devoted city dweller.

Upon promotion from the rail-yard to an office in downtown Birmingham’s Brown-Marx building, he relished the change. He told me of the thrill of wearing pressed white shirt and tie, of climbing on to the #5 streetcar in Ensley, of paying his nickel fare, of reading the Birmingham Age-Herald as the #5 rocked and clattered up Third Avenue, of lunching in downtown restaurants, of the banter and camaraderie among the throngs of city folks. “Things I couldn’t have imagined as a little boy,” he said.

His two children—my mother, Sarah Jean, and uncle, Jack—would benefit from public educations superior to what they would have received in south Shelby County. Both would graduate college. Uncle Jack would attain a PhD in English literature.

Kyle’s story, however, would take an ironic turn.  Though change, and his embracing it, had taken him so far, change would turn on him and end his career. Computerization of the railroad industry blind-sided him.  At age 62 he was forced into retirement by, as he put it, “those goddamn yankees in Pittsburgh who think computers are the answer to everything!”

My grandfather had ridden change as far as he could, only to be booted from the train. But in doing so, he had radically altered the trajectory of our family—for the better, if you ask me.



One response to “To Live and To Die by Change”

  1. […] Into Birmingham will stream former slaves and poor white folks (like each one of my grandparents), and while some may rightly question how fairly these folks were treated by the new industrial barons, one cannot deny that, for the first time in hundreds of years, these families have a shot—however long it may be—at upward mobility, of bettering their lives and the lives of their descendants—of gaining dignity. And this isn’t just Birmingham. All over Alabama, all over the South, big factories pop up in need of employees, most of whom are drawn out of what otherwise would’ve been inescapable poverty. [As just one example among millions, read my grandfather’s story here.] […]

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