A life of service: Shelby County Commissioner Dan Acker remembered

By NATHAN HOWELL | Staff Writer

“Come on.”

That was Dan Acker’s unofficial mantra, and what his son Harmon Acker would dread to hear as a kid on a Saturday morning.

Harmon explained in his youth, it seemed like a punishment, but as an adult, he looks back on those words as a symbol of his father’s dedication.

“He would hear about someone with a need in the community, and we would go out there and help them,” Harmon said.

That commitment to service was present in Acker’s life from the time he began his professional career as an educator in 1959, to when he died on Friday, July 16.

Dan Acker wore many hats. Many people in the community knew him as their teacher, principal, coach, city councilmember, father-figure, deacon and commissioner.

“Though, our favorite was daddy,” his daughter Melody Kortbein said.

His wife, Judy Acker, said Dan never called attention to himself, but quietly found a way to improve the lives of others. So much so  his family has heard new stories about how Dan made an impact in their lives.

“He was not an overt kind of person,” Judy said. “We have heard from so many people in the past few days that we never knew about, who told us how much he helped them. There were plenty of people who had a father not active in their lives and Dan would take that role because he wanted to help.”

Harmon added, “It is one of those things where you don’t realize how good a father he was until you meet other people who say he was more of a father-figure to them than their own father. We have had a lot of people tell us they called him ‘dad.’”

This type of service was most notable when Acker felt compelled to serve Alabaster on its City Council, and later on the Shelby County Commission.

“He saw the county was not going in the right direction when he decided to run for the first time,” Judy said. “There were a lot of people who came to him and asked him to run. In that role, he tried to improve whatever he could. I don’t know of a single time he did not return someone’s call. It was not just about Alabaster too. I remember him working to help people all throughout the county.”

One of Acker’s good friends was Don Armstrong, whom he served with on the Commission. Armstrong recalled how Acker helped to build up the county in a time of financial difficulties.

“He was very instrumental at a time when we were struggling with our finances,” Armstrong said. “He came in when the county was in a very dire financial situation and was a big player in getting us out of debt. He was very instrumental in getting the new water system. There was some controversy with other counties, and he really helped smooth that situation.”

His goal as a city and county leader was never to push his own personal agenda, but to work together with others to accomplish what was best for Alabaster and Shelby County.

“He would keep the peace. There were never any explosions during meetings, and he could work with anyone for the good of the county,” Judy said. “He would work with the other members to keep things as equal as they could for everyone’s benefit, whether it was for the roads, the infrastructure or the staff. He wanted to make sure each department’s needs were met.”

Armstrong said Acker’s time on the Commission could be summed up simply.

“It was never about Dan, it was always what was best for the county,” he said.

That idea was not exclusive to politics for Acker either. He assisted the community through groups like the Alabaster Civitans, the Pelham Rotary Club, the Sons of the American Revolution, the Red Cross, the ARC program, Meals on Wheels, the Alabaster YMCA and others.

One of Dan’s greatest passions was his faith. Judy, Harmon and Melody all said he was in church at every opportunity.  Acker was a charter member of Westwood Baptist Church.

He expressed his faith through his work as a Sunday school teacher, where he helped to spread those values he had developed to a younger generation.

Dan and Judy loved to travel, reaching all 50 states and taking several trips to Africa. Through those trips, Dan was able to spread his love and compassion out of the county and into the world through his son Jade’s non-profit organization Refuge and Hope.

Some of the most memorable moments for the couple happened during their time in Africa, where they helped refugees who fled from their home countries to Uganda.

Judy said she noticed these priorities were not something Dan developed later in life, but were with him as long as they have been together.

The two met when Dan’s father took over as a pastor at a church in West Blocton. Judy, and others, performed with the choir in an attempt to impress Reverend Preston Acker with a big choir.

“They told me the preacher had a college-age son, and I thought I was going to be there,” she joked. “It was slim pickings of guys in that area at the time. While I was singing, I looked out at him and thought he was a high schooler. Afterwards we just gravitated to each other. We talked after that evening service and played ping pong together. A year and a half later, we were married.”

As their relationship developed, she said she began to notice the admirable way he treated others.

“He had wisdom,” Judy said. “He also imparted it with others. Anyone who came in contact with him realized if he said something, that was his word and it was wise. I have had so many people tell me how he helped lead them. He never told them what to do, rather he gently guided them.”

In 2012, Acker suffered a stroke that led to the development of hemianopia and the loss of half of his visual field. He could see out of each eye, but only the right half of what each eye should see.

“He had a great spirit about it though,” Kortbein said. “If you asked him how his vision was, he would joke about it and say, ‘It’s all right.'”

Eventually, he developed Alzheimer’s disease and started to lose his memory. Even through this, his family said he would still hold on to the things that mattered most to him. His kind, gentle spirit remained the same as it had always been.  He never complained.

“Even at the very end, I was feeding him,” Judy said. “He had only had a little bite, and he had not really said much in several days. While he was eating, he opened his eyes and asked if I had something to eat. Even when he couldn’t remember much, that spirit of always looking out for others was still there. It touched me so deeply.”

Harmon recalled that during those last years together, Dan always had the city of Alabaster on his mind.

“He would forget where he was,” Harmon said. “But he would hear a train and say, ‘We must be in Alabaster.’”

In the face of despair and grief, Judy said she felt some relief knowing the love of her life was not in pain anymore.

“The long goodbye is over,” Judy said. “Over time, I feel like we had less and less of him. I said grief is just a word, until you experience it. Now, we grieve and rejoice at the same time. He is not suffering like he was anymore. One thing that really helped me get through it was knowing each day would be better than the day he would have had tomorrow.”

Dan Acker wore many hats during his 84 years on Earth. He was a politician, a teacher, a coach and a deacon. He was a husband and a father figure to more than just his own kids.

For each of those things, he never waited until all other options had been exhausted, he didn’t wait to be asked and he didn’t shy away because something was difficult.

He just said: “Come on.”