Leah Rawls Atkins, one of 20th-century Alabama’s most prominent historians, reached the pinnacle of her career six decades ago this year. At the age of 18, though, her career had nothing to do with history — except for making it. Not just for Alabama or the United States, but for the world.
In 1953, Leah Marie Rawls became the best female water skier on the planet when she won the women’s overall World Tournament in Toronto and became Alabama’s first water skiing world champion. In just three years, she had gone from worst to first. In 1950, at Lake Guntersville in her first tournament, she placed last in every event.
For much of the 1950s, Atkins (she married Auburn University football star George Atkins in 1954) was a force in women’s water skiing. She also won two U.S. national championships, set a women’s jumping record that lasted for years and became the first woman to complete a front-to-back and back-to-front toe turn trick in a tournament. Just don’t dare suggest to Atkins that she ruled her sport.
“I did not dominate,” Atkins insists. “I’ve often said I was fighting for my life.”
Yet, here are the words from her plaque at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, which inducted her in 1976: “Dominated the sport for eight yrs. until retirement. … Her water skiing style perfected by 12 hours per day practice, oft times in winter water, is yet copied by current champs.”
Atkins, born in Birmingham in 1935, has come a long way since her father bought a “red-stained dogtrot cabin” on the Black Warrior River, where she learned to swim and ride a surfboard when she was 4.
Today, she is a common site in the corridors of Alabama Power’s Corporate Headquarters in Birmingham. After a distinguished career as a history teacher and author at UAB, Samford and Auburn, Atkins began writing corporate histories, including “Developed for the Service of Alabama,” the history of Alabama Power. That doorstop of a book was published in the company’s centennial year of 2006 and won the James F. Sulzby Award the next year for the best book on Alabama history.
Atkins’ significance to Alabama Power goes far beyond documenting its history, according to former CEO and President Charles McCrary.
“When I think of Leah, I don’t think about that big, thick book,” he says.
Instead, McCrary thinks of someone who inspires him because of the way she goes at projects nonstop, who opened his eyes to the power of history, and who has become “a great ambassador” for Alabama Power.
The qualities that made Atkins such a brilliant water skier also had something to do with her notable academic career, according to Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus of history at Auburn who has known Atkins for four decades.
“I would say the most important part of any profession is the character and the preparation and work ethic and the discipline and focus,” Flynt says. “Those are the things I say made her a world champion. She had skill, yes, but it was all the other stuff.”
“All the other stuff” helped Atkins earn a doctorate at Auburn, while raising a family; become founding director of Samford’s London Study Center, a study-abroad program in England; write well-received history books, such as “The Valley and the Hills,” which traces the development of Birmingham and Jefferson County; and direct Auburn’s Center for the Arts and Humanities, which brought cultural and educational programs to smaller cities and towns across Alabama.
“Somewhere in America I am certain someone matched Leah for energy, insight and inspiration,” Flynt writes in “Keeping the Faith,” his 2011 memoir. “But so far as I know, the (Auburn) center’s combination of programs, networks, scholarly alliances with local experts and broad community participation were unrivaled.”
Through the decades, Atkins has maintained her lifelong love affair with the water. She and George have owned a home on Lake Martin since 1964, where she taught her children and countless others how to water ski.
The EF-4 tornado that ripped across Lake Martin on April 27, 2011, leveled their home and boathouse, which have since been rebuilt. Their old ski boat, though, was damaged and they have not yet gotten it repaired. Atkins has not skied since the summer of 2010, although she insists she wants to get back up on the water again.
Longtime friend Charles Lloyd doesn’t sound surprised upon hearing that Atkins plans on skiing again, even though she is 78 years old. Lloyd, who grew up in Birmingham and lives in Goddard, Kan., remembers the ultra-competitive Leah Marie Rawls from six decades ago. She, Lloyd and Dick Bruhn skied together as teenagers on the Black Warrior, driving each other to get better. “All three of us were Type A personalities and very competitive,” Lloyd says.
Atkins says, “They pushed me so hard. I knew if I could beat them, I could beat the women. Competition between friends is good.”
During her acceptance speech at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, Atkins credited Lloyd and Bruhn with making her a better skier.
“She was just a gritty competitor. She always has been,” Lloyd says. “Don’t let that sweet Southern belle exterior fool you.”
Underneath that sweet Southern belle exterior is a sweet Southern belle interior, as those who know her well will attest.
“She’s just as sweet as she can be,” McCrary says, and it is clear Atkins has become very dear to him. When the tornado destroyed the Atkins’ lake home, McCrary and his wife, Phyllis, visited them. “It was just awful,” he says.
Yet, standing amid the wreckage, McCrary and Atkins began joking about a power pole lying across what was left of the house.
“She was kidding me the power pole knocked the house down,” McCrary remembers. “I joked with her I was going to have to charge her rent for using the power pole for holding that house up.”
McCrary had company employees remove a section from the power pole to make a base for a glass-topped table, which sits in the den of the rebuilt lake home.
“It was a show of affection between the company and Leah,” he says.
Atkins says she was “stunned” with the present and teared up when employees gave it to her. But then, “I just died laughing. It was so priceless.”
Atkins is in the twilight of her career, but there’s little evidence she has slowed down — mentally or physically. She still works on many historical projects for Alabama Power, and she still gets around like a much younger person. Even approaching 80, Atkins can dart across a room like a water bug, her short legs propelling her at a pace that threatens to leave much younger, taller companions behind.
“She goes at high speed,” McCrary says.
That is how she has lived, and continues to live, her life from her early days as an elite water skier, through her busy years in academia, to her time documenting corporations’ histories.
Lloyd offers a fitting perspective on Atkins shaped by more than six decades of friendship:
“Here’s a young lady who was a world champion the year she graduated from high school and it really didn’t go to her head. She goes on to college and marries a guy who is probably one of the all-time offensive guards at Auburn,” he says. “She raises a family … while she teaches and gets her Ph.D. and becomes an icon, the person to go to on Alabama history. Oh, by the way, she’s in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, the first woman to be inducted.
“She’s absolutely no slouch.”