By Donna Cornelius
Russ Chambliss Sr. doesn’t need a palace to feel like a king.
He and his wife, Ann, have a lovely home in Mountain Brook. But many of their happiest days are spent high atop Lookout Mountain at their 3,000-acre Little River Farm.
“We raise Angus cattle and enjoy our Tennessee Walking Horses, which are great for trail riding,” Russ said.
On March 1, he’ll be trading in his riding clothes for a royal robe to reign over the 52nd Beaux Arts Krewe Ball. Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham will be the site of the festive event, the theme of which is “Under the Big Top.”
The pageantry includes the presentation of 26 young women, one of whom will be announced as queen that night. But the ball isn’t just a social occasion. It benefits the Birmingham Museum of Art and the Krewe Acquisition Fund every year.
The Krewe King gets more advance notice of his royal status than the queen. Russ said he learned about the honor in June, well ahead of the official announcement on Jan. 28.
“I’ve been in the Krewe since 2001,” he said. “I’ve done most everything – there were lots of late nights working on the ball. I was captain in 2007 and president in 2008-2009. I was on the board for many years.”
Russ is a native of Virginia, having lived mostly in Richmond and Franklin, which he said “was a lot like Mayberry – a wonderful place to grow up.” He later moved with his family to Beaumont, Texas, and graduated from high school there. He returned to his home state to go to college at Washington and Lee University, where he was a member of Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity and president of the W&L Interfraternity Council. But before he graduated in 1974, he had an experience that would change his life.
“I met a little girl from Birmingham there,” Russ said.
Ann Cooper, who grew up in Mountain Brook and graduated from Mountain Brook High School, was a student at Stratford College in Danville, Virginia. Russ said his sister brought some friends – including Ann – to a party at Washington and Lee.
“Ann came up the steps, and I was kind of done for,” he said.
Russ was charged with getting dates for his sister’s friends and managed to snag Ann for himself. The couple married after Russ graduated from college and finished U.S. Army officer basic training in Oklahoma. During the wedding festivities in Birmingham, Russ’ assignment came in – and the newlyweds of two weeks found themselves on their way to an idyllic spot.
“We moved to northern Italy near the Austrian border,” Russ said. “It was called the ‘dream detachment,’ and I never thought I’d get it. It was like living in ‘The Sound of Music.’”
After two years there, the Chamblisses returned to Birmingham. Ann’s father, Frank Mason, was the owner of Mason Corp., a manufacturing company.
“He made me an offer to come in and help with marketing,” Russ said. “We decided I’d give it five years. I ended up being there 38 years. I started as a management trainee and eventually became president and CEO.”
The company was sold in 2015, and Russ left it the following year.
“I retired a little earlier than expected, but it was the best choice at the time – and I was near retirement age,” he said.
Russ may be retired – but he’s still busy. He’s a member of the Cathedral Church of the Advent, the Country Club of Birmingham, The Club, Kiwanis Club, Sons of the Revolution, the Society of the Revolution, the George Washington Society and YPO Gold.
And of course, there’s the farm, which is about a two-hour drive from their home in Crestline.
Life on the Farm
“Ann’s father and mother started buying land in Mentone in the 1970s,” Russ said. “In 1996, this 80-acre cattle farm adjacent to them came up for sale. We bought it, put the properties together and formed Little River Farm.”
He said their Little River Cattle Co. is a “cow-calf – or a mama-baby – operation.”
“It’s a partnership,” Russ said. “Ann, her dad and I strategize. We have two people who run the cattle aspect of the farm. Ann and I tend to our horses and fool with the cattle. We get involved with vaccinating them in the spring.”
Ann said she loves the farm, too. She’s a talented photographer who bought her first “real” camera when she was in high school and did an independent study in photography as a college student.
“I took pictures for fun and later for volunteer causes, such as Junior League, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and City Stages,” she said.
A Family Affair
Russ and Ann have four children and 10 grandchildren. Son Russ Chambliss Jr. and his wife, Rebecca, have two children: Russell, age 9, and Charlotte, 6. Daughter MaryMargaret Chambliss is the mother of Alligood Rogoff, 5, and Louis Rogoff, 3. Daughter Jane Drennen and her husband, Daniel, have three children: Annie, 8; Felix, 5; and Edward, 3. Son Beau Chambliss and his wife, Russell, are the parents of Julia, 10; Charlotte, 7; and Lucy, 2. All live in Birmingham except for Beau, Russell, and their children, who live in Memphis, Tennessee.
The Chambliss grandchildren will be trainbearers for their grandfather at the Krewe ball.
Dukes who will attend Russ at the event all are close friends, several from his college days. They include James William Blair, Felix M. Drennen II, George Bondurant Elliott Jr., William H. Hartsfield, Claude Beeland Nielsen, William Shelton Pritchard III, Joseph E. Sandner III and Hatton C.V. Smith.
Russ said he’s happy to serve as Krewe King for two reasons.
“First, it’s about family,” he said. “We celebrate our daughters. Both of mine were presented at a Krewe ball. That’s a special time for a daddy and his daughter.
“Second, we raise money for the museum. When you see what they’ve been able to purchase, it makes all those late nights worth it.”
As he takes part in the royal procession at the ball, one aspect of the event will be particularly special to him.
“I’m most looking forward to seeing my 10 grandchildren behind me,” Russ said.