Billy Prince and Don Kyle share of a love of the Tennessee River, fishing and boating.
The two Decatur natives have been friends for two decades after stumbling upon another shared interest: antique fishing lures and tackle. Prince had amassed a collection that Kyle offered to display in the boat shop he used to operate. The two often went fishing together along the banks of the river, talking about their families, current events and everything in between. It was on one such leisure outing that their conversation turned to the defunct shipyard off Alabama 20.
“We started talking about what it could be, envisioning its possibilities as a boat launch,” Prince recalls. “He talked about how it could be used to bring large fishing tournaments, like BASS and FLW Series, to town and all the tourism that it could create for the city. Well, I guess the rest is history, as they say. We see now how that idea turned out.”
National fishing tournaments roll through town regularly now, filling up hotels and restaurants. After getting elected mayor in 2004, Kyle turned his focus to the project and structured the financing to convert the 75-year-old former shipyard into Decatur’s Ingalls Harbor, which now features a massive conference center called Ingalls Pavilion. He pursued and got the city a $500,000 federal grant to fund a portion of the harbor’s construction.
“Don has always looked for ways to make his community a better place and things we can do to complement the natural resources we have already,” Prince said.
Kyle’s supporters say his fingerprints can be found on many projects around the city: the Second Avenue Southeast streetscape, The Crossings of Decatur retail development, the Alabama School of Fine Arts and the Alabama Robotics Center.
But while most know Kyle for his keen financial mind, his daughter Sarah Payne, 28, can only smile when she watches her dad give her 3-year-old daughter, Ella Kyle, “pony rides” on his back on the floor, just like he would do after work 25 years ago with her, her sister Juliana and brother Don Kyle III, who goes by Trey. Don has been married to his college sweetheart, Susan, a Huntsville school teacher, for nearly 40 years. The two are now relishing being grandparents to Ella Kyle and 4-month-old Parker Payne.
“He’s always balanced working very hard for us and making time for us,” said Payne, a Decatur High graduate and mother of two. “He’s always encouraged us to pursue our dreams. He also tries to be funny and make us laugh, but sometimes he’s just corny.”
Sarah, Juliana and Trey are all working for their father’s campaign, waving at traffic, putting up signs and knocking on doors. It’s not the first time Kyle has put his children to work.
“He’d have them helping out around his boat shop instead sitting at home playing video games,” remembers Prince. “He has a good work ethic, and I think he wanted his kids to have it, too. There was many times I’d come over, and he’d be up under a boat working, with grease up to his elbows.”
“A lot of people know him for being mayor and being in a suit and tie all the time, but he’s more comfortable in a T-shirt and shorts.”
Prince recalls when a customer returned a boat after Kyle had just repaired it. The boat was broken down again and the man claimed Kyle hadn’t fixed it.
“Don looked at it and saw where the guy had obviously run it up into some sand, and it had got into the engine,” Prince said. “But he didn’t say anything about it, and he fixed it anyway. He only charged the guy like 10 percent of what the work cost him. He did that because he cared about his good name and his business’ reputation.”
Longtime friend and golf buddy Cecil Chaney said Kyle might not look it, but he is a talented singer and leads a gospel quartet. In March, Chaney’s world fell apart when his wife of 40 years, Jeannette, died. She was Catholic, but her husband wasn’t. Chaney was at loss when it came to making the proper funeral arrangements.
“At the worst time of my life, Don was there and took care of everything,” he said. “He didn’t have to, but he did it because he knew I needed help and guided me through. His group sang at the funeral. I’ll never be able to repay him that debt.”
Todd Russell, the city’s first information technology director, won’t get a chance to work with Kyle again if he’s elected Tuesday. Russell recently left the city after 11 years to work for the Carpenter Technology plant in Tanner, but he remembers how his former boss got things done at City Hall.
“We’re both morning people, so we would take care of things over coffee at his office,” Russell said. “What’s great about Don’s management style is that he knows he doesn’t know everything about IT (information technology) or the landfill or some other departments. So if there was ever an issue or a question from the City Council, he would bring that department head in to talk about it and get their insight.”
Russell said Kyle didn’t deserve some of the flack he got while in office but he never made excuses for it.
“He knew the buck stopped with him as mayor,” Russell said. “I appreciated the business-like approach he brought to the office. I always knew where I stood with him. There was never any gray. That’s all you can ask out of boss.”
Family: Wife Susan, three children, Juliana, Sarah and Trey, and two grandchildren Ella Kyle and Parker
Education: Certificate of accountancy from University of Alabama in Huntsville and bachelor’s degree in business administration from University of Alabama
Community involvement: Various community and civic boards, Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce and member of Annunciation of the Lord Catholic Church
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