Never at a loss for (big) words: City officials offer tribute to the late Ralph Timberlake

single-meta-cal October 30, 2017

He was concerned “that privacy had been obfuscated and absconded from.” He wanted to assure there was never a “penumbra” over the business of government. He would quote Martin Luther King Jr., the Constitution – and never forget to wish a Happy Mother’s Day to the ladies in the audience.

Ralph Timberlake was a man with a big vocabulary and an even bigger passion.

He was a consistent voice in front of the City Council, a group he’d occasionally label, in his frustration, as “an oligarchy.”

He would pontificate boisterously.”

Organizations that drew his ire, whether it be the City Government or a hospital, the Postal Service or TVA, could be, in his viewpoint, “heinous” and “antithetical” and “nefarious.”

In lovingly borrowing from Timberlake’s own style, Huntsville City Councilman Bill Kling noted that he would “pontificate boisterously.”

City Council meetings consistently, as they should, attract citizens who want to air concerns and complaints. For most speakers, it’s a one-time appearance. Others are regulars. Timberlake was among the latter.

“He was kind of a member of the family of the City Council for a long time,” Mayor Tommy Battle said.

Timberlake was decorated veteran

Timberlake died on October 23 at age 69. He was a U.S. Army veteran with two tours of duty in Vietnam, and was awarded both the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor. He is being laid to rest at Chattanooga’s National Cemetery with full military honors.

After his military career, Timberlake worked as a civil servant and continued to improve his education – and vocabulary – by enrolling in college. Council member Will Culver was teaching at Calhoun Community College “and Ralph matriculated through Calhoun. In Ralph’s word,” Culver recalled. “Then he followed me to splendiferously impeccable Alabama A&M.”

And as he followed Culver into Council chambers, “He was like our conscience.”

He always gave a solution. He didn’t just rise to argue.”

“One of things he did, which is kind of his legacy, he raised concerns about community development and condemned properties,” Kling said. That prompted the City to be more open and detailed on those projects and, said Kling, “there’s nothing wrong with transparency. He was a good influence in that. He was perhaps a little eccentric, but a good person to have as a watchdog.”

First-term Council member Devin Keith recalled meeting Timberlake early in his campaign at a north Huntsville restaurant, where “a 30-minute conversation in the doorway led to a three-hour debate.

“There was one commonality when he rose in opposition,” Keith continued. “It wasn’t necessarily against something. It was for something. Even though we may not agree, he always gave a solution. He didn’t just rise to argue. He said there was a better way to do it.”

All those $5 words

As he rose, he was armed with a stockpile of five-dollar words.

“Nobody could ever deny he had one of the best vocabularies of any of the speakers who came before Council,” Battle said. “One night, I wrote down all the words I didn’t know the definitions of. I looked them up, and the definition and tense, he had them all in the right order and proper and correct English.”

But it was not so much the words as it was the grace with which he delivered them.

“What I appreciated about Ralph was his courtesy, courtesy to the point of being chivalrous,” said Council member Jennie Robinson. “I appreciate when he came to the meetings, even when he disagreed, he was always extremely respectful and kind.

“The lesson Ralph leaves us with is you can disagree without being disagreeable,” Robinson said. “And that made me want to work with him.”