People & Events
Born in 1926, Lurleen Burns grew up in the working-class community of Northport, Alabama, across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa. Her father, like many from Northport, made his living as a laborer, working as a river bargeman and later as a shipyard crane operator. Young Lurleen, a tow-headed tomboy, enjoyed spending weekends with him and her older brother hunting and fishing. In addition to their Northport home, the Burnses owned a small farm. Lurleens family on her mothers side had been Alabama farmers for three generations and were considered "good country people" -- a euphemism for hardworking and churchgoing but poor. While not academically inclined, Lurleen did graduate from high school early in 1942 by taking summer courses. She planned to attend nursing school and helped earn her keep at home by working part time at Kresges five and ten cents store in Tuscaloosa.
Glen Curlee, a friend from college, recounts Wallaces first encounter with Lurleen:
We got to this dimestore. "Who was that pretty little thing in there?" he says. "Well, Im gonna get a date with her." I said, "George, you know theres a law against contributing to the delinquency of a minor." I said, "Whats her name?" He said, "I havent met her yet." I said, "Then how you gonna get a date?" He said, "You just wait and see." So he came back in a few minutes, said "I got a date with her tonight." I said, "Whats her name?" He said, "Lurleen Burns."
Wallace, a recent law school graduate and a reputed ladies man, cut a dashing figure in the eyes of the sixteen-year-old clerk. "I remember liking George from the start," Lurleen told an interviewer in 1964. "He had the prettiest dark eyes, and the way hed cut up!" Wallace would pepper dinner at the Burnses with political conversation, a subject of little interest to Lurleen. "Politics," she once explained, "was something Daddy discussed at our house with other people -- not with me."
George and Lurleen quickly became inseparable. When World War II and Wallaces induction into the Army Air Corps briefly forced them apart, they realized they were in love. They wed on May 21, 1943, while Wallace was on leave from his Arkansas air base.
If Lurleen had any delusions about what kind of man she had married, their honeymoon would foreshadow things to come. After a wedding night spent in a shabby boardinghouse, the couple stayed a week in a friends guestroom with Wallace more often than not leaving his new wife behind to talk politics with the men on main street.
As Wallace trained for combat, Lurleen endured several lonely months shuttling back and forth between air bases and her parents home in Alabama. She followed him to Alamogordo, New Mexico, bringing with her their five-month-old daughter Bobbi Jo. Upon arriving, Lurleen discovered that George had neglected to secure housing at the base. The couple and child made do with a converted chicken coop for shelter.
After the war, Wallace returned to Alabama and almost immediately began running for public office. Lurleen quickly learned what it meant to be a politicians wife. When Wallace was elected state representative, they rented a room at a boardinghouse in Montgomery for the legislative session and lived in garage apartments in the small town of Clayton during the rest of the year where Wallace had a law office. Lurleen and the children -- Peggy Sue was born in 1950 and George, Jr. followed 18 months later -- took a backseat to Wallaces true love, politics.
Fed up with Wallaces neglectful behavior, Lurleen confronted him at an outdoor poker game, "George, I cant wash and dry the clothes and take care of the children, all at the same time." She put six-year-old Bobbi Jo in his lap and stormed off.
Wallace made amends by buying his wife an old house, but following a 1958 failed bid for governor he foundered in depression and was rumored to have had several indiscreet affairs. He was also spending more and more time on the campaign trail, focused on the next governors race. Lurleen had finally had enough. She took her children to her parents home and filed for divorce. Wallace pleaded with her to come back and she eventually did. In 1961 their fourth and final child was born, a daughter named for Robert E. Lee.
Lurleen became Alabamas first lady in 1963, and as her husband achieved political success, she finally received some help taking care of the children, and with the governors mansion, had a palace for a home. When not fulfilling her first lady obligations, Lurleen could enjoy one of her passions, fishing, and take a weekend at their cabin on Lake Martin, or simply relax with friends.
Beginning in 1965, Lurleens life changed dramatically. First, her gynecologist discovered that she had uterine cancer. Terrified by the doctors findings, Lurleen grew angry after learning her husband had kept earlier medical suspicions from her when she delivered Lee in 1961. Wallace had not wanted to upset Lurleen and it was common practice for a doctor to follow the husbands lead about whether or not to inform the wife. She had radiation treatment and a hysterectomy to remove an early malignant tumor.
While Lurleen faced cancer, Wallace lost a battle in the state legislature that would have allowed a sitting governor to run for reelection. Desperately wanting to hold onto the governorship as a springboard for a 1968 presidential bid, Wallace decided on the unthinkable -- he would run his wife in his place. Despite being a poor public speaker and a political novice, Lurleen consented and announced her candidacy in February of 1966. She assured voters that Wallace would be her "#1 assistant" and that she would continue all of his programs. His popularity in Alabama overwhelming, in May Lurleen took a majority of the votes in the Democratic primary, beating out ten opponents in the first round. As the Democratic candidate, her victory was a foregone conclusion. Lurleen Wallace became the first female governor elected in the Deep South.
As governor, Lurleen pushed for mental health and state parks initiatives, but before she became too settled in her new role, her cancer reappeared. In July of 1967, doctors detected another abdominal growth and in January a pelvic tumor. Both were treated at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. More surgeries and tests followed as the cancer spread, and in May of 1968, Lurleen was allowed to return home to be with her family before she passed away.
Lurleen Wallaces casket was placed in the state capitol on May 9. Twenty-five thousand mourners waited in line for five hours to pay their respects. Her husband, who had arguably outlived many of his supporters as well as his time in the spotlight when he died, would receive only a small fraction of that outpouring of public affection.