Dickinson Remembered for Dedication to Defense Issues

Posted April 1, 2008 at 6:44pm

Former Rep. Bill Dickinson (R-Ala.), who won his seat amid the turmoil of Alabama politics of the mid-1960s and was known for his work on defense issues, died Monday at the age of 82.

Dickinson passed away in the Montgomery home where he had lived since his retirement from Congress in 1992.

Dickinson was elected in 1964 to succeed 14-term Democrat Rep. George Grant. Dickinson went on to finish 14 terms himself, and for six of them he served as the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. He was known for his commitment to military issues, having served in both the U.S. Navy and Air Force Reserve. The Army’s Aviation Warfighting Center at Fort Rucker and the Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base are located in the district he represented.

“He was a stalwart in national defense and was Ronald Reagan’s point man on the House Armed Services Committee,” said his successor, Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), in a statement. “As the committee’s leading Republican he gave his support to President Reagan’s defense buildup of the 1980s, which helped to bring down the Soviet Union.”

Dickinson served as a point man for President George H.W. Bush as well, according to aides. The Congressman worked to improve collaboration between the Armed Services Committee and the executive branch, an effort that “was probably the highlight of his career,” said Clay Swanzy, a senior associate for Sonny Callahan & Associates LLC, and Dickinson’s chief of staff for the last 10 years the Congressman was in office.

“I used to tease him that he was known as the defense guy,” Swanzy said.

Dickinson was elected in part because of his catchy campaign slogan: “First for Bill, then as you will.” Swanzy explained that this message was designed to appeal to independents and others who were used to designating their ballot as an all-Democratic ticket. For the first time, Dickinson was able to convince them to vote for a Republican.

“For so many years before, being the Democratic nominee was tantamount to being elected,” Swanzy said.

Swanzy recalled an instance when a Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee turned a meeting over to Dickinson instead of to the ranking Democrat because Dickinson was so well respected.

“That’s just the way things were back then,” Swanzy said.

Members issued statements offering condolences on Dickinson’s passing, and others who knew him recalled his approachability and sense of humor.

“He could hang out with kings and presidents of foreign nations and also be comfortable with everybody else,” said Wade Heck, Everett’s current chief of staff, who also worked on Dickinson’s staff.

Dickinson was a recipient of the 1992 Gold Order of St. Michael Award, an award with only 75 recipients since its inception in 1990, given by the Army Aviation Association of America and the U.S. Army Aviation Center to individuals who have contributed significantly to the promotion of Army aviation. He also received the Jim Woodruff Jr. Award from the Association of the United States Army in 1981, recognizing his distinguished service to the United States on the part of an official holding national level elected office.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and four children. Funeral services are scheduled for Saturday, April 5, at 2 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, 2416 W. Cloverdale Park, Montgomery, Ala. Visitation will be held at the church from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the burial will follow in Rosemere Cemetery on South Long Street in Opelika, Ala. The family requests memorial donations be made to the Disabled American Veterans, and The Smile Train, an international charity that provides free cleft surgery to underprivileged children.