Melinda McDowell Calderini

Melinda McDowell Calderini, daughter of a beloved Gadsden kindergarten teacher, now works for the Southeastern Conference.


My oldest grandchild started kindergarten this month, and it sent me on a stroll down Memory Lane, bringing back all those warm, fuzzy, magical feelings from my own preschool days.

I grew up in Gadsden, near Noccalula Falls, and just like every other kid around those parts, I went to Mrs. McDowell’s kindergarten.

Peggy McDowell taught kindergarten out of her home for 22 years. She lived a couple of blocks from me, down a hill and around a curve. I walked there every morning by myself and returned home at noon.

It’s funny the memories you keep from certain times. I remember, for instance, a fluorescent light in the classroom that flickered every morning and how Mrs. McDowell would climb on top of a table and shake it until it stayed on.

“Wake up, Grandpa!” she’d shout, and we kiddies would burst out laughing. We laughed at that every single day as if we had never heard it before.

One morning on my way to school, a 3-year-old neighbor boy was playing in his yard. He asked where I was going and I tried to explain about kindergarten, but then I suddenly remembered we could bring visitors. So that’s what I did. I took a visitor. He sat next to me at the little table and I introduced him to everyone. We didn’t think to tell his poor mother before we left. Four hours later, when we returned home, the police were there, scouring the neighborhood for him.

My biggest takeaway from attending Mrs. McDowell’s kindergarten was my friendship with her daughter, Melinda. All of us have that one childhood friend who was our favorite companion. Melinda was mine. We went to movies together, spent the night at each other’s houses and played with our Barbie dolls for hours on end.

When we were older, the McDowell family moved to a different part of town. Melinda and I drifted apart, rarely seeing each other again. But, some 50 years later, Facebook brought us back together. I learned, sadly, that my beloved kindergarten teacher died of ovarian cancer in 2005.

What I didn’t know about Mrs. McDowell was what a sports nut she was. “She passed away while we were watching John Smoltz on TV pitching for the Atlanta Braves,” Melinda told me.

Mrs. McDowell’s love of sports was something she instilled in her family. Even though she was an Alabama fan, she taught her two children — Melinda and son, John — to pull for all of the SEC teams. Even arch-rival Auburn.

“Mother could not get enough college football,” Melinda remembers. “My parents would tailgate, sometimes for days, in Tuscaloosa, Legion Field and several away game locations.”

Last year Melinda landed a job that would’ve thrilled her mother beyond belief.

After handling administrative work at Briarwood Christian School in Birmingham for 17 years, she started a new career, just last summer, as the coordinator of First Impressions for the Southeastern Conference.

When people, especially football fans, learn what she does, their jaws drop. “It’s amazing how far the SEC spans the world due to media coverage and excellence on the playing field,” she said.

Her responsibilities are varied and include such things as scheduling events, publishing the annual SEC directory, assembling credentials, organizing coaches’ luncheons, assisting with championship games and manning the office phones. “I know the phone number for the Securities and Exchange Commission by heart,” she said with a laugh. “I get a lot of their calls.”

The official replay center, known as the SEC Video Center, is set up in her office. “Whenever you hear announcers say, ‘We are sending this to Birmingham for a ruling on the play,’ that’s where it goes,” she said.

Last December, she served as a liaison for the Mike Slive Award winners at the SEC Nation broadcast, guiding them through the Georgia World Congress Center and assisting them to their seats in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “They were six African American gentlemen who were SEC athletes and helped break the color barrier 50 years ago,” she said. “That is something I will never forget, and I hope my mother had a window open from heaven so she could see it as well.”

The Southeastern Conference supports 266 sports teams representing 14 schools. “It’s great to be a part of this place,” Melinda said. “I can cheer Hotty Toddy, Geaux Tigers, Go Tigers, Woo Pig Sooie, Go Gators, Hail State, Go Vols, Anchor Down, Go Gamecocks, Gig ’Em, Go Big Blue, Go Dawgs, War Eagle and, of course, Roll Tide!”

Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at