|The Man Behind Old Huntsville Magazine|
Note: Tom Carney passed away on June 16, 2011. He was buried in Maple Hill Cemetery, surrounded by all the history of Huntsville that he loved.
Old Huntsville Magazine is successful almost in spite of itself. Tom Carney, who modestly calls himself "copy boy" on the magazine's masthead, is as laid-back as they come. His "road to success" started out as a joke he and his wife, Catherine, played on their neighbors. Now years later, it has evolved into a very prominent fixture in Huntsville.
The offices of Old Huntsville are a surprise. I went knocking at Tom's office--a comfortable setup located over his garage-- where I expected to see 15 to 20 employees busily sweating over copy and churning out stories, with telephones ringing, and shouts of a breaking story. Instead, I found Tom alone with his computer, surrounded by old books and stacks of priceless old photographs. Old Huntsville is a simple organization with only three employees: Tom, his wife Catherine, and a part-time associate. Tom says his success stems out of two rules: (1) He doesn't tell on anybody and (2) He doesn't talk out of school.
Tom Carney's love of history was bred into him as a child. He grew up in rural Hurricane Creek near New Market, Alabama. He was raised by his grandfather, who was raised by his grandfather. The old stories of Huntsville were a big part of Tom's life. There wasn't much for entertainment in Hurricane Creek, so Tom sat and listened while all the old men talked. Years later, after serving in the Army, Tom took different odd jobs in different parts of the country. He ended up back in Huntsville in the mid-80's as a contractor.
On a flight to Florida for vacation, Tom and Catherine were going through some mail and came across a simple newsletter about Old Town. As he read it, Tom kept saying to himself that he could do better. Although he had no real writing experience, the stories his grandfather had told him kept ringing in his ears. Tom had a burning desire to tell the real stories of Huntsville, not just the nice ones printed in the history books. He wanted to tell stories about The Way It Really Was, Eventually he wrote a book by the same title.
When he and Catherine got home, as a joke they wrote and printed a 24-page newsletter and paid to have 500 copies printed. Under the cover of night, they slinked around their neighborhood and anonymously distributed the little paper. Then they sat back and watched as the neighbors started reading and talking. Soon word got out that the Carney's were the ones who were writing the little paper. After the second issue was distributed free of charge, advertisers started calling, wanting to place ads. Tom was as surprised as anyone. He didn't know what price to quote, so asked the advertisers what price they were used to paying. On their word and a handshake, Tom's advertising department was born. He still doesn't have any ad people; the advertisers just come to him. Today, most of the original advertisers still place ads in the paper. Tom charges by the month and not the year because, he says, he "might decide to go fishing one month and not get an issue out."
For the third issue of Old Huntsville, the 4,000 copies that had been printed disappeared from local distribution points way too fast. Tom and Cathey's hobby had taken on a life of its own. To try to slow things down, Tom put 50 cents on the cover and was more surprised than anyone that the copies still went faster than a ice cream on a hot summer day.
Tom didn't want to deal with all the problems associated with distributing the magazine. His first love was telling the stories, so he gave his circulation job to the Golden K Kiwanis Club. Around forty seniors volunteer to distribute the magazine all over the Huntsville area. Tom calls them the "oldest paperboys" in the country. The Golden K Kiwanis Club keeps 100% of the proceeds from the sale of Old Huntsville magazine in the racks around town. This money-maker for the club allows them to sponsor many children's charities, including four different boy scout troops, the Reading Is Fundamental program, children's hospital programs and college scholarships. This group has been named top fundraisers in Alabama..
Soon Tom was selling subscriptions to the magazine for $15 a year. People still kept buying it. Someone even send a subscription to Paul Harvey, who began to feature several of Tom's stories on his radio show. Eventually, Harvey asked Tom to write for him.
Old Huntsville was also the first to research and bring to light many stories with amazing reactions and repercussions. It was Tom who first brought up the story of the Confederate soldiers who moved to Brazil. Recently WAAY-TV went to Brazil to do a documentary on it for their feature, "O Confederatos!" Carney first told of Georgia Cemetery laying beneath Huntsville Hospital, where a marker now commemorates the spot. He published news of Dred Scott, whose real name was Sam Blow, and who was a slave on a plantation near Oakwood College. Plans are now in the making for a statute. He also uncovered the fact that John Hunt had not mysteriously disappeared from Huntsville as was long believed, but was buried right here in town. The place has since been renamed John Hunt Park. It took almost a year of winning her confidence after sending her a copy of Old Huntsville magazine, but Tom was the only one of the media, local or national, to convince Betty Wilson to tell her story about the murder of her husband. That issue sold over 10,000 copies in two days.
Tom Carney seems unaware of the big impact he is having on Huntsville. Not only is he helping the Kiwanis Club with their philanthropic efforts, but he has given many local writers their start by having them publish first in Old Huntsville. Tom admits that the money isn't the main reason he's still publishing the magazine. His most cherished memory is of the lady who was driven to his house by her daughter to meet him. He had to go to the car and squat down to talk to her because ill health prevented her from getting out. With tears in her eyes, she thanked him for a story he'd written that had mentioned her husband by name. She said, "Fifty years and someone remembered his name." That's why Tom Carney continues to hit the keyboard and print the true stories of Huntsville.
Homespun stories that make you wonder if they are really true or not; plus some serious old-time stuff like the 1859 City Directory and listings for Maple Hill Cemetery.
Resources for researching genealogy and history in Alabama, the South, the Civil War, and in general.