Ex-mayor ‘Sonny’ Wilbanks named grand marshal of Madison Street Festival parade
MADISON – As grand marshal, Burwell L. ‘Sonny’ Wilbanks will lead the Madison Street Festival (MSF) parade on Oct. 4 at 9 a.m. Wilbanks also led the city as mayor for the first festival in 1976.
In fact, Wilbanks, now 84, was elected mayor in 1969, 1973, 1977 and 1985. He served until September 1988, when Madison changed from a commission to mayor/council government.
Technically, Madison’s city commission didn’t have a mayor but three commissioners. “But everybody referred to me as mayor,” Wilbanks said. “We had a good group then with no fights.”
MSF President Debbie Overcash described Wilbanks as “an encyclopedia of Madison and Madison County. I could listen to him for hours.”
As mayor, Wilbanks faced infrastructure demands, annexation threats and quality-of-life improvements for a town posed to become a city.
“During the 1986 Madison Street Festival, citizens from all walks of life built the Roundhouse. We had obtained use of the Norfolk-Southern Railroad property adjacent to the tracks downtown,” Wilbanks said.
“A city is a business,” he said. “You don’t make a profit but don’t want to lose (money) either.”
Wilbanks served in the U.S. Navy from 1950-1952. Then, he enrolled at Florence State Teachers College (now University of North Alabama) and studied engineering at Auburn University.
Wilbanks worked as an engineer at NASA in the Saturn Instrument Group. He made two presentations to Wernher von Braun and conducted meetings with top-level scientists on “success and failure of Marshall-developed experiments.”
“Trying to get a high school in Madison was quite a task. The county system wanted to build another school south of Sparkman. We wanted a school south of U.S. 72 to handle our growth,” Wilbanks said. Wilbanks and Triana Mayor Clyde Foster collaborated with U.S. Rep. Bob Jones for the high school.
Wilbanks and Jones also secured land for Palmer Park from the Tennessee Valley Authority.
During Wilbank’s administration, Hughes Road was widened, and a branch library opened in Hughes Plaza. He helped found the North Alabama Gas District. With five potential routes debated for I-565, Wilbanks insisted on preserving Madison’s tax base with I-565 near Ala. Hwy. 20.
Wilbanks vocally opposed Huntsville’s annexation of Madison. “We little guys spoke up on the Metropolitan Planning Commission. I said, ‘If we go into Huntsville, we’ll just be another link on somebody’s chain.'”
He 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.