William J. Cabaniss Jr.

Cabaniss at Alabama Humanities William J. Cabaniss Jr. (1938- ) served as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2004 to 2006. Prior to that, he represented his home districts as a Republican in the Alabama House and Senate from 1978 to 1990. A small business owner, Cabaniss was a pro-business legislator and advocated raising the ethical standards for political officeholders and statewide governmental employees. Additionally, Cabaniss championed tort reform and introduced legislation crafted to improve the business environment of Alabama.

William Jelks Cabaniss Jr. was born in Birmingham, Jefferson County, on July 11, 1938, to William J. and Florence Sanson Cabaniss; he was the middle child of three siblings. A great uncle, William Dorsey Jelks, served as governor of Alabama. His father was a lieutenant commander onboard the light cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-62) during World War II and for his service was awarded the Bronze Star. After the war, Cabaniss Sr. served as chief executive officer (CEO) of the Southern Cement Company.

William Cabaniss Jr. and Father and Son Following in his father’s footsteps, Cabaniss in 1953 entered the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, a prep school for Princeton and Yale Universities. He was elected vice president of his graduating class, played football, and was a member of the school’s swimming team. Cabaniss then attended Vanderbilt University, played football there, and graduated in 1960 with a major in mathematics; he planned on a career in the U.S. Army. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant on his graduation day and was assigned to a missile battalion in Karlsruhe, Germany. After 18 months in Germany, Cabaniss returned home briefly in 1962, married Catherine Hood Caldwell, and with her returned to Germany. The couple would have three children; their only son would die tragically in 1979 at age 11.

Cabaniss’s plans for a career in the U.S. Army were derailed by complications from a serious knee injury he had incurred while playing football for Vanderbilt that disqualified him from continuing to serve in the Army Special Forces. He resigned his commission at the end of his tour in 1964 and returned to Birmingham to look for work. Despite having misgivings about working for his father’s company, Cabaniss was urged by the company’s CEO to apply; he was hired and was assigned to the firm’s Shelby County plant as a safety engineer. Cabaniss later moved into sales and marketing but tired of working for managers in New York City, where the firm’s parent company, Martin Marietta Corporation, was located. He resigned in 1970 to search for his own business opportunity.

In 1971, Cabaniss and a partner bought the assets of Precision Grinding and Machining, Inc., an industrial knife grinding and sharpening enterprise in Birmingham. While traveling the Southeast as the firm’s salesman, Cabaniss noticed that many manufacturers were leaving the North and Northeast to relocate or build plants in the Southeast, but not in Alabama. He learned from the leaders of those companies that Alabama was not a good state for business because of regressive policies, such as its poor civil rights record, and what they perceived as an anti-business environment, particularly the need for tort reform in Alabama to curtail lawsuits and the amount of settlements, especially those relating to workman’s compensation claims. Thus, Cabaniss came to realize that Alabama was losing businesses to neighboring states and resolved to do something about it by entering politics.

In 1978, Cabaniss ran for the open seat from Mountain Brook, Jefferson County, to the Alabama House of Representatives. Elected with three other Republicans, Cabaniss emerged as a senior Republican and key legislative leader. In 1982, Cabaniss decided to run for a seat in the Alabama Senate and won. He ran successfully again in 1983 when re-districting forced a new election. During his time in both houses, Cabaniss worked on pro-business legislation and introduced bills to strengthen the Alabama Ethics Commission by giving the commission subpoena power and its own investigative staff. Although he was highly respected on both sides of the aisle and able to achieve many bipartisan votes on his bills, Cabiness’s efforts at reforming the commission only came to fruition after he left office.

In 1990, Cabaniss made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, losing to the incumbent, Democrat Howell Heflin. Late in 2002, Cabaniss served as the manager of the transition team for Alabama governor-elect Bob Riley. He also raised money for Alabama Republicans, served as Alabama finance chairman for Pres. George W. Bush (whom he had previously met while vacationing in Maine), and managed campaigns for statewide officeholders.

Cabaniss reached the pinnacle of his career when he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic by President Bush; he was sworn in on December 9, 2003. Early in his tenure, Cabaniss met with the Czech foreign minister and a dozen Czech business leaders in Baghdad, Iraq, to discuss potential business arrangements for maintenance work for American and Czech contractors in the Iraqi refineries and oil fields. Cabaniss also participated in a meeting at the Mercedes headquarters in Germany hosted by the Metropolitan Development Board of Jefferson County for Alabama business executives and members to recruit European automotive suppliers to Alabama. In addition, Cabaniss met regularly with officials of the American Chamber of Commerce in Prague to encourage trade between the United States and the Czech Republic. His appointment expired in 2006, and he returned to the United States. Soon after, Cabaniss began serving as chair of the supervisory board of Tatra, a Czech vehicle manufacturer. He also developed a sister-city relationship between Birmingham and the Czech town of Pilsen, (PlzeĆ² in Czech).

Cabaniss was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 2004. He has served on the boards of several Alabama businesses, including AmSouth Bank, Birmingham Steel Corporation, the Southern Company (parent company of Alabama Power), and Protective Life Company. He was chairman of the Metropolitan Development Board of Jefferson County and served on the boards of the Southern Research Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers. In 2002, Cabaniss received the Distinguished Builders of Birmingham Award, and in 2006 he was inducted into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame. In 2010, he received the Chairman’s Award for Leadership and Distinguished Service from the Business Council of Alabama. He also has been a member of and served on the boards of many national and state nonprofit and public-service organizations.

Further Reading

  • Cabaniss, James Allen. Cabaniss Through Four Generations: Some Descendants of Matthew and George. Oxford, Miss.: University of Mississippi, 1971.

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