Cornelia Wallace dies

Published 9:20 pm Thursday, January 8, 2009

The death of former Alabama first lady Cornelia Wallace on Thursday evoked memories from several people around the state.

The second wife of Gov. George C. Wallace was part of several moments forever embedded in the minds of people who grew up in Alabama.

Wallace, who threw herself over her husband when he was shot in a 1972 assassination attempt, died in Sebring, Fla. She was 69.

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Kathryn Tucker Windham said she knew Wallace “casually,” and was always amazed at her ambition and talent.

“She was unusually beautiful and always seemed to have a wonderful disposition,” Windham said.

Wallace’s cousin, Melissa Boyen, said the former first lady died from cancer.

Cornelia Wallace was the niece of two-term Gov. James E. “Big Jim” Folsom. The dark-haired beauty, known simply as “C’nelia,” married George Wallace on Jan. 4, 1971 — just days before he began his second term as governor. It was the second marriage for both.

The union marked a merger between Alabama’s two most famous political families and surprised some because George Wallace had defeated Jim Folsom in the 1962 race for governor and the relationship between the two governors had been strained since then.

Cornelia Wallace was a socially active first lady who was known for her lively personality. But for many, the most endearing memory of her occurred on May 15, 1972.

She was accompanying her husband on the Democratic campaign trial for president when Arthur Bremer shot him four times at a campaign rally in Laurel, Md. A news camera captured photos of Cornelia Wallace throwing herself over her husband’s body to shield him as he lay bleeding in a shopping center parking lot.

“She’s etched in Alabamians’ memory because of the tragedy of that,” said Joe Turnham, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party.

William Stewart, a longtime political scientist at the University of Alabama, said he remains impressed by her bravery during the shooting and her loyalty to her husband during his long recovery from the wounds that left his legs paralyzed.

“I don’t know if he would have made it without her,” Stewart said. “She was totally devoted to him. It was beautiful to see.”

Her cousin, Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., shared the same view.

“Cornelia played an indelible role in our state’s history,” he said. “We will miss her very much.”

Turnham recalled that as first lady, she urged Alabamians to plant vegetable gardens to be more self-reliant. To help her make her point, his father, former state Rep. Pete Turnham, D-Auburn, and others joined her in planting a vegetable garden in the back yard of the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery.

The Wallaces divorced in 1978, amid claims she had bugged his phone in the Governor’s Mansion. She entered the Democratic primary for governor in 1978 but never campaigned hard and finished last among the 13 candidates. She later moved to central Florida to be near her sons from her previous marriage.

In 1997, Turner Network Television made “George Wallace” and cast actress Angelina Jolie to portray Cornelia Wallace. The role earned Jolie a Golden Globe award for best supporting actress in a TV movie or miniseries, but Wallace criticized the script for portraying her as a shallow sex kitten.

Melissa Boyen, the daughter of Gov. Folsom, said she regarded Cornelia Wallace more like a sister than a cousin because she and her mother, Ruby Folsom Ellis, lived with the Folsom family in the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery during Folsom’s first term as governor.

“She was a warm and gentle person. She was like that all her life,” she said.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Survivors include a brother, Charles Ellis of Elba; and her sons, James Snively of Lake Placid, Fla., and Joshua Snively of Winter Haven