The state of Alabama is well-versed when it comes to hatred, as those who have loved a wide range of people from Dr. Martin Luther King to Governor George Wallace know all too well. But a newcomer who at first called himself "Al from Dadeville," but has since been found to be Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr., emerged at the state's undisputed Most Hated of All-Time by midday Thursday.
Somewhat haggard, Updike turned himself in at the Auburn police station early Thursday morning and admitted he had a part in poisoning some century-old oak trees at the center of "The Loveliest Village on the Plains." These are no ordinary trees, not by any stretch, because they have shaded Toomer's Drug Store for an estimated 130 years.
Better yet, when things get festive as they sometimes do in Auburn, a hallowed campus custom is to drape the trees with literally miles of white toilet paper. They did it in January, the night the Tigers won this season's national football championship, and they did it again this Wednesday night, although much of the T.P. was streaked with tears brought on by the despicable "Al of Dadeville."
It is alleged that Updyke, who was reportedly a Texas Highway Patrolman at one time, has since become a University of Alabama partisan and after the unbeaten Auburn team took a 28-27 victory in this year's Iron Bowl between the two in-state rivals, he was so incensed he apparently had something to do with dousing the soil beneath the beautiful trees with a lethal herbicide known as Spike 80DF, or tebuthiuron.
But that didn't quite do it for him. On Jan. 27 he called a popular sports radio show in Birmingham and bragged about it on the air, fussing and fuming and banging his chest before ending the call with "Roll D**n Tide!"
The shocked but alert host, Paul Finebaum, was immediately in contact with police officials and, with the FBI soon getting involved, Updyke was arrested and booked at 1 a.m. yesterday morning. Bond has been set at $50,000, but if he's smart he'll stay in jail for his own safety.
What is most notable about this latest state of rage - in the state known for rage - is that unlike Dr. King who had the Christians, and unlike Governor Wallace who had his rednecks, "Al from Dadeville" has to now be the loneliest lout in Alabama's colorful history.
Auburn faithful are understandably speechless, their Alabama counterparts are admittedly aghast, and the agriculture faction in the state is calling for the most severe penalties in this particular case of malicious vandalism. A prompt sentence could conceivably move Updyke from his peaceful fishing cabin on Lake Martin in Tallapoosa County to the state penitentiary in Atmore for - get this - up to 10 years.
By Thursday afternoon Auburn officials were begging against any retaliation while their athletic kinsmen in Tuscaloosa were bitterly decrying the heinous act. Auburn is one of the foremost agriculture centers in the country and university scientists have confirmed the soil under the beloved trees now contains lethal doses of the powerful herbicide and it will probably kill those that were targeted.
Jimmy Rane, perhaps the state's top timber man who is widely known for his "Yella Fella" TV commercials and is the CEO of Southern Wood Products, is calling for all those responsible "to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." But Jimmy said that was his view as an Auburn trustee. "The Yella Fella would deal with that gentleman in a different sort of way!" he explained with a wink.
A colorful character, Rane is a generous contributor to both Alabama and Auburn and said he has talked to the presidents and other top officials at both universities about the tragedy. "These two universities represent a huge economic impact for Alabama, our nation and our world," he said. "Neither want our universities represented in this way. We will work together for the benefit of all."
The Alabama-Auburn rivalry is regarded as one of the best in the nation and, while it will take far more than Spike 80DF to dampen the glorious Auburn spirit or sully Alabama's classy tradition, "Al from Dadeville" was the lead news item across the entire country's news websites by dark on Thursday.
People in every corner of the state were sickened by the malicious act.
It was being "taught against" in every elementary school and will now be part of Sunday sermons from Muscle Shoals to Mobile. Good and decent people, black and white, rich and poor, are in shock over the brazen vandalism.
But what's worse is that, seeing it happened in Alabama, there isn't a soul to be found that will give "Al from Dadeville" much of a chance when the jury will one day soon walk back into the courtroom and clobber him good for - remember this - killing a tree.