[AL.com] For decades in Huntsville, the name Charlie Grainger was equally ubiquitous and behind-the-scenes.
While Wernher von Braun at NASA and the Army Missile Command were creating the smoke and fire that made Redstone Arsenal famous, Grainger was walking the back halls of Capitol Hill, lobbying for the money to make it all happen.
As an executive at Teledyne Brown Engineering, Grainger fought the backroom fights in favor of Huntsville’s space program and for a national missile defense system, now one of Redstone Arsenal’s bread and butter programs.
“We won the fight for missile defense,” Grainger said. “That was my primary interest over the years.”
The backstory of those backroom negotiations are part of Grainger’s new book, “My Journey Through a Changing South.”
Grainger, now 83 and living in Sandy Springs, Georgia, with Mary, his wife of 52 years, looks back in his memoir on his rise from a barefooted country boy to newspaperman to state legislator to Capitol Hill lobbyist.
He was born in rural Lawrence County, then spent his later childhood and teens as a plucky newspaper carrier and savings bond salesman in Sheffield. At 13, he met President Harry Truman when he was invited to the White House to be honored for his bond sales.
Grainger’s life has been full of such brushes with history, as well as brushes with death. “He nearly died twice during infancy, nearly drowned as a teenager, then escaped death as a young man while flying on a small plane,” says the summary of his book on Amazon.com.
He began his working career as a journalist, starting as a reporter for The Birmingham News and later editor of The Valley Voice in Tuscumbia.
While reporting for The Birmingham News in 1961, he witnessed an angry mob that beat up Black Freedom Riders at the Montgomery Bus Depot and was nearly beaten himself, he said.
As editor of The Valley Voice, he got to meet President John F. Kennedy not long before his assassination in 1963. Grainger and other Alabama editors were invited to the White House for a luncheon to discuss solving racial problems in the South.
Four days later the president’s office asked him to help coordinate a visit by President Kennedy to Muscle Shoals to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
“President Kennedy had the most charisma of any man I had ever met,” Grainger recalled.
Grainger would later work with business leaders in Huntsville to establish equal employment policies that the federal government required if NASA was going to do its historic work here.
He sees echoes of that turbulent time in the 1960s in today’s ongoing movement for social justice.
“I’m for working together, down the line,” said Grainger. “That’s always been my thing, practice the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Though much of his career was spent working behind the scenes with politicians to get things done, he stepped into the public arena briefly when he served in the State Legislature from 1968-1970.
Before retiring in 2017, Grainger would serve many years as the director of Cummings Research Park, then as a private economic development consultant.
He was among the generation that stoked the fire that would see Huntsville grow from a small cotton and watercress town, to The Rocket City, and now diversifying into a burgeoning automobile manufacturing center.
He’s looking forward to watching that fire continue to burn hot.
“We’ll be a leader if we go to Mars, and I think we will,” he said.