By Julie Keith
Wes Calhoun knows that when it comes to UAB, seeing is believing.
“I think a lot of people haven’t experienced or seen the growth that I’ve seen in the past two months as I’ve taken campus tours. I’m like ‘Wow, this is all here?’ People have their blinders on and they’re going through their day to day and they haven’t had a chance to look at what UAB is doing,” Calhoun said. “So one of the things I’m looking forward to as part of our new board is getting people to campus and excited about what’s going on here.”
As a 1986 criminal justice graduate and longtime Birmingham businessman, Calhoun has the perspective, the connections and the enthusiasm to champion the College of Arts and Sciences. He purposely chose UAB despite longstanding family connections to the University of Alabama, at a time when many of his friends were heading to Tuscaloosa, Auburn or out of state.
“My father wanted me to go to UA, but I didn’t want to go to Tuscaloosa,” he said. “I grew up going down there to homecoming and football games my whole life, but I wanted to stay here in Birmingham. I took a few classes at Alabama one summer and I made good grades, but I wanted to come home. I never really felt like I was missing anything by not going away to school.”
Part of UAB’s appeal for Calhoun was that it offered a flexible class schedule that accommodated his heavy workload. His grandfather started Calhoun’s Shoes in Homewood in 1950, which, by the time Calhoun graduated from high school, had grown to seven retail locations under his father’s leadership. He was able to work days or nights, depending on when his classes were available. But he said it wasn’t easy.
“It was tough because I was working more than 40 hours a week, and I was in school taking three classes, sometimes four classes at a time. So it took me five and a half years to graduate,” he said.
By then, he said, he was ready to finish school, and he followed good friends through the criminal law program, a part of the Department of Justice Sciences in the early-mid 1980s.
“Many of my friends were going to go to law school, they were all criminal law majors,” he said. “I rode their coattails through that program and I actually got my degree in criminal justice with a minor in studio art. My father didn’t want me to get a Bachelor of Arts degree; he said I had to have a Bachelor of Science degree. So that was the compromise.”
In hindsight, Calhoun can see how his degree choices worked out as he built his own career.
“In a way it’s ironic, because five years after graduation I took a break from the family business because I wanted to use my studio art degree, and that’s when I started my advertising agency, Calhoun Communications,” he said.
Building a Career, Cheering for UAB
Calhoun decided to forge his own path in marketing and communications rather than assume a role in the family-owned company. But as he built a two-decade career in advertising – eventually representing more than 100 clients – he remained close to his father, who was also adapting the family shoe business into something else.
“He ended up letting all the leases run out on all seven stores,” Calhoun recalled. “The final one was at Century Plaza, and when my father let that one expire, he started looking at government contracts. That’s when he started Shoe Corp. He used American manufacturers and slowly won contracts and wrote specs for prison shoes, which have no metal so you can’t make a weapon. This was before the Internet, so he would get all the major newspapers and look in the back where they had bids for prison shoes and he started slowly bidding on them.”
Years went by, and father and son each became successful – side-by-side. Calhoun kept his dad up-to-date on Calhoun Communications, and his father kept him abreast of developments at Shoe Corp., but they didn’t work together – until 2008.
“That’s when he asked me if I would come back and help him. He had offers to sell the business, but he wanted his children and grandchildren to take it over,” Calhoun explained. “My sister has always been with Dad and worked with Dad, so he said ‘Let’s pass this business on.’ It wasn’t that sexy to me, like advertising, so I was doing maybe 15 hours a week and slowly year after a year got more and more involved. He came to me about two years ago and said, ‘Hey Wes, I’m going to retire in the next year or two. What do you want to do? Do you want to sell the company?’ And I said, ‘Dad I hate to tell you this, but I’m really enjoying it.’”
As Calhoun points out, now that he’s working with government contracts, that criminal law degree has come in handy after all.
At the same time Calhoun was transitioning back into his family’s business, UAB was transitioning, too. Growing rapidly and establishing a thriving campus culture, as well as successful new academic and athletic programs, UAB was no longer the school Calhoun attended in the 1980s.
He heard the UAB siren call after the football program was canceled and then re-established. The old passions he felt for his school as a student had been rekindled as an alum, and now as president of the new Arts and Sciences Alumni Board.
“One of the things I’m excited about as part of our new board is the chance to have events leading up to football coming back,” he said. “Getting people to campus and excited about campus is going to be so important. Because if you don’t come down here and see it, you don’t even know what we’re talking about. Planning events that will get alumni back down here, that’s going be the first step.”
Calhoun sees even more growth and opportunity ahead for his alma mater and his hometown.
“The exciting thing is we’ll have football back next year, and in the South football reigns. And that just really coincides with the growth of Birmingham with the (Regions) ball park and Railroad Park. I’m hearing more and more that the kids when they’re graduating, they don’t want to leave Birmingham, and that’s different than it was 20-30 years ago. They are slowly sticking around, and that’s going to make a huge impact on UAB and Birmingham.”
Telling the College Story
When asked why more of his peers aren’t as engaged, Calhoun said the explanation is pretty simple.
“I think they don’t know,” he said. “We have close to 30,000 College of Arts and Sciences alumni to connect with. Nineteen departments fall under this CAS umbrella. There’s so much to talk about – so much that’s happened in a short time. It’s incredible.”
“Reaching out to classmates I had at UAB who have gone and moved away, to get them back into it, that’s what I’m looking forward to,” he added. “Back to my fraternity brothers, people here in our own backyard. So many people have just turned 180 degrees from their college experience. That’s a challenge for us, but that’s exciting to get people down here and see what UAB is doing, and get their children down here to go to school here.”
“You know, we say that the Atlanta Braves are America’s Team, but UAB is Birmingham’s Team. We’ve got a gem in our backyard, but you’re not going to know about any of these things unless you come down here. And I’ve already started spreading the word about how amazing this place is.”uab
This article first appeared in the fall issue of the Arts & Sciences magazine for the UAB College of Arts and Sciences.