Sonny Wilbanks’ legacy has elevated quality-of-life standards
MADISON – One of Madison’s champions, Burwell L. ‘Sonny’ Wilbanks, worked tirelessly to see that the community had needed infrastructure, retail and education options to expand to the city of today.
Wilbanks, 92, passed away on Sept. 2.
Born on Feb. 22, 1930, Wilbanks graduated from Huntsville High School in 1948. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War from 1950-1952. He then studied electrical engineering at Auburn University and Florence State College (now University of North Alabama).
With his engineering job at NASA, Wilbanks worked in Saturn Instrument Group and gave two presentations to Wernher von Braun. Wilbanks also conducted meetings with top-level scientists about the validity of experiments at Marshall Space Flight Center.
Wilbanks was elected Mayor of Madison in 1969, 1973, 1977 and 1985. He served until September 1988, when Madison changed its governance configuration from a commission to mayor/council.
Wanting the best education options for youth, Wilbanks collaborated with Triana Mayor Clyde Foster and U.S. Rep. Bob Jones to secure a high school in Madison. The county system wanted to build its second high school, south of Sparkman. To handle growth for the town, Madison residents pressed for the school’s location south of U.S. 72.
In another success, Wilbanks and Jones secured land from the Tennessee Valley Authority to develop Palmer Park.
Wilbanks’ administration promoted several major improvements for the City of Madison:
* Widening of Hughes Road.
* Opening a branch of Huntsville-Madison County Public Library in Hughes Plaza.
* Assisted in founding North Alabama Gas District.
* Insisted on location of I-565 adjacent to Madison instead of four other possible routes. The location of I-565 helped to preserve and expand Madison’s tax base, thanks to Wilbanks’ ‘lobbying.’
* Vocally opposed Huntsville’s annexation of Madison. “We little guys spoke up on the Metropolitan Planning Commission,” Wilbanks said. Their message? “If we go into Huntsville, we’ll just be another link on somebody’s chain.”
* Negotiated with railroad management for land downtown and assisted replica construction of the Roundhouse.
“A city is a business,” Wilbanks once said. “You don’t make a profit but don’t want to lose (money) either.”
Sonny Wilbanks participated actively with Madison Church of Christ, along with Lexington Church of Christ with his wife Jane; Civitan Club; Top of Alabama Regional Council of Governments or TARCOG; Alabama League of Municipalities; North Alabama Gas District; North Alabama’s Mayor Association; Heart Association of Madison County; and volunteer firefighting and later assisted with establishing a fire department.
Sonny married Jane Bradley in 1958. Their daughter Jane Ellen Kennedy and husband Alan have one son, Drew, 19. Their son Brian and wife Emily are parents of Brian, ‘B.J.,’ 23, and Grace Ann ‘Gracie’, 17.
Sonny Wilbanks enjoyed blacksmithing, hunting, fishing and creating lures and mechanics work on cars and John Deere mowers.
Sen. Tom Butler and Madison County Commissioner Dale Strong issued a statement: “Mayor Wilbanks was a crucial player in many infrastructure changes in Madison. With the help of U.S. Rep. Bob Jones, he obtained a 99-year lease with TVA for Palmer Park in Madison. He was also instrumental in the development of Bob Jones High School.”
Mayor Paul Finley said, “Our City of Madison family is saddened by the passing of our former Mayor Burwell ‘Sonny’ Wilbanks. Mayor Wilbanks governed Madison into our current Mayor/Council form of government, setting us up for the continued success our city enjoys today. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Wilbanks family.”
Visitation for Sonny Wilbanks will be held on Sept. 7 from noon to 1 p.m. at Madison Church of Christ, 556 Hughes Road. His funeral service will start at 1 p.m. Interment will follow at Pettus Cemetery in Lexington, Ala. Legacy Funeral Home is handling arrangements.