Although he was a faculty member at Jacksonville High School for more than 30 years, Malone, who died last week at age 81, seemed to make a personal connection with every single one of the students who passed through the hallways.
“I remember him when I was in school, but it was actually after I graduated I really recall what an impact he had on my life,” said Angie Finley, a spokeswoman with Jacksonville State University and a Jacksonville High School graduate in 1983. “He just had a mental Rolodex of everyone he taught, and every time I saw him we would talk and just pick up where we left off.”
Malone’s wife, Sylvia, said her husband came to Jacksonville not long after finishing school at Auburn University in the early 1950s. Being relatively young, single and a passionate Auburn football fan gave him a unique bond with his students right from the start.
He seemed to never forgot a single one of them, Sylvia said. She recalled that not long after they married in 1964, they were at a restaurant that overlooked the city of Atlanta. To highlight the natural lighting, the restaurant was kept dark, but once Malone heard the waiter’s voice, he knew it was a Jacksonville student.
“He couldn’t even see his face,” Sylvia recalled. “But he knew who they were, what middle school they went to. He knew everyone.”
Of course, keeping names and preserving memories was also part of his job as a history teacher and that extended to a lifelong love of preserving the history of the community he called home. Malone’s daughter, Katherine, said her father first got her interested in history when he was a member of the Jacksonville Library Board, trying to persuade the federal government to preserve the city’s old post office by letting the library move in.
“He told me, Katherine, why don’t you write to your congressman and tell them you want to see the library in the post office,” Katherine recalled. “That was the first time I got involved in historical preservation.”
And it wouldn’t be the last time, either. Katherine ended up moving to Washington to take a job at the National Trust for Historic Preservation — just another way of keeping names and faces familiar, like her father.
But it wasn’t just a memorized list of facts the longtime teacher had for seemingly everyone he came into contact with. Kay Boozer, Jacksonville High School class of 1955, was one of Malone’s first students after the teacher started working in Jacksonville. Boozer said while she respected and admired Malone as a teacher, she was even more impressed by his commitment to keep in touch after she graduated. That commitment began her first year at Auburn University when Malone visited her at every home football game.
“I just thought I was so special that my high school teacher came to visit me in college,” Boozer said. “He had a way of making everyone he talked to feel like the most important person in the world.”
Boozer said her own children, who went to school in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were surprised to know that Malone was invited to every single Jacksonville High School reunion she attended. And of course, he didn’t need a name tag.
“None of us could remember half the people there, but he knew everyone,” Boozer recalled.
Malone retired from Jacksonville High School in 1983 but remained active throughout the town, where he seemed to know everyone.
“It was never a surprise when he stopped someone and asked them about their kids, or their parents,” Katherine said. “You just always sort of expected it.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.