By Donna Cornelius
In between ridding himself of unwanted wives, Henry VIII studied a gardening manual.
The famous garden maze at England’s Hampton Court Palace was created for another British king, William of Orange. France’s Louis XIV wrote a book giving visitors a path to follow at his spectacular Versailles garden.
Dr. Tommy Amason, the king of this year’s Beaux Arts Krewe Ball, has something in common with these monarchs. He’s a garden guru.
“Everybody who knows me knows that the garden is a part of me, and I’m part of the garden,” Amason said.
He’ll have to trade his digging-in-the-dirt duds for more formal attire when he reigns over the 49th Krewe Ball, set for Feb. 5 at Birmingham’s Boutwell Auditorium. The glittering event isn’t just a social affair; it benefits the Birmingham Museum of Art.
“I’ve been in the Krewe about 32 years,” said Amason, who lives in Mountain Brook. “I’m taking this as an honor. I’m doing it because I’m very proud of the Krewe and the museum.”
Amason spent years tending children as well as his garden. The pediatrician opened Mayfair Medical Group in Homewood in 1971 and was there for 44 years, retiring last April. But even though he’s about to celebrate his 76th birthday, he didn’t retire to twiddle his green thumbs.
“If my brain and body just stayed in this house all day, I wouldn’t live very long,” Amason said.
That’s why he’s taken on a new job.
“I’m now a medical consultant for the state of Alabama,” he said. “I go through the medical records of people and do a legal document that solidifies all kinds of material. Then my information goes to a medical examiner, who determines whether or not that person can be considered to be disabled.”
Amason isn’t afraid of fresh challenges. After he attended school in his native Ozark for 11 years, his father, an agronomist, got a new job in Auburn.
“I was about to be a senior in high school, and a lot of folks advised me to just pass up my senior year,” he said. “But going to a new school was one of the best things to happen to me; it was sink or swim.”
Amason entered Auburn University with the intention of going on to medical school. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were doctors, he said.
“I had wanted to do medicine forever,” Amason said. “After Auburn, I went to the Medical College of Alabama. When I had to get FBI clearance for my new job, I was told they were ‘failing to get the Medical College of Alabama to tell us you graduated.’ Of course, that was because it’s now UAB.”
He and his wife, Yates Middleton Amason, lived in Charleston, S.C., right after they married. He was stationed there as a U.S. Navy doctor.
“In 1968, I wound up on a nuclear submarine,” Amason said. “It was character-building to go for 90 days underwater. The sub stays deep. I monitored the air, and I did that right next to the navigator’s station, so I knew we were way north of Russia. The sub was a hotbed, with about 140 people on it in close quarters.”
Amason said he was particularly worried about one sailor, whom he considered a suicide risk.
“I had someone monitoring him around the clock,” Amason said.
His precaution saved the life of the sailor, who did attempt suicide but was rescued. That led to a promotion for Amason that’s rare for Navy doctors, he said.
“Most Navy doctors go in as lieutenants and come out as lieutenants,” he said. “I was discharged as a lieutenant commander.”
Amason spent two years in the Navy before he and his family moved to New York for his last year of residency at Montifiore Hospital, part of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
“Adolescent medicine was a brand new specialty then, and I was in a training program at Albert Einstein,” he said.
After moving to Birmingham in 1971, Amason set about not only establishing his pediatric practice, but putting down roots – literally. His gardens have twice been featured on the Birmingham Botanical Garden’s Glorious Gardens tour.
The Beginnings of a Gardener
His interest in gardening started early.
“My daddy grafted camellias for people,” Amason said. “My sixth-grade science project, since I’d learned how to graft, was to graft pecan branches onto a hickory tree. It worked. We had pecans, and I won a prize. That’s when I got into the horticultural stuff.”
Amason became a Master Gardener in 1993, taking night classes at Jefferson State Community College’s Shelby campus. He’s served on the American Horticultural Society’s board of directors, which took him to the group’s headquarters near Washington, D.C., about four times a year, he said.
He also was invited to be a guest lecturer at the prestigious Colonial Williamsburg Garden Symposium in Williamsburg, Va.
“They like to have somebody there who has a personal garden, and I’ve got dirt on my hands,” Amason said. “I did a slideshow of our garden. Afterward, Yates said, ‘Your garden is beautiful – but you had too many slides.’”
Amason said he became interested in horticultural therapy and wrote an article about it.
“I then went to Pasadena, Calif., for a national symposium about children and gardening and presented a paper there,” he said.
Amason’s list of career and civic achievements is a lengthy one. He is a past president of the medical staff at Children’s of Alabama, was named to the America’s Top Pediatricians list for 2004-2005, and qualified for the 2010 edition of “The Leading Physicians of the World.”
He’s a life member of the National Registry of Who’s Who and a founding board member of the Discovery Place, the forerunner to Birmingham’s McWane Science Center. After serving on the Birmingham Botanical Gardens board of directors as president and as a member, he’s now a trustee there.
He is an active member and past vestry member of St. Mary’s-on-the-Highlands Presbyterian Church. He’s also a member of the St. Andrew’s Society of the Middle South and of the Country Club of Birmingham.
Amason is just the latest member of his family to be in the spotlight at the ball. Yates was presented at the Beaux Arts Jewel Ball. It was the predecessor to the Krewe Ball, which was started in 1967 by Mrs. James Mallory Kidd. The Amasons’ daughter, Caroline Amason Adams, was Krewe queen in 1994.
The couple’s son, Thomas Gilbert Amason III, will be one of his father’s dukes this year. Other dukes are William Alfred Bowron Jr., Joseph Henry Brady Jr., Jack Dabney Carl, Hubert Wesley Goings Jr., John Higgins Martin, James Walton Rainer Jr. and Frederick Weyman Renneker III.
The Amasons’ grandchildren also will be on hand for their grandfather’s big night. Edith and Gilbert Adams will be King’s Box ushers. Emily Browning Amason will be a train bearer, along with Harriet Huntress Crommelin Adams, Richard Gunter Crommelin IV, Thomas Coker Foster, Jon Killebrew Roberts, Albert Flynn Thomasson and Robin Adair Wade IV.
Murphy McMillian is captain of the Krewe. Forest Whatley is Krewe board president. The queen’s identity is kept secret until the ball.
Amason said he’s looking forward to sharing the Krewe Ball experience with his family and friends.
“I’m happy and I’m proud – and it may be strange to say that I’m modest when you realize that I’ll have to get into that king’s costume,” he said, smiling.