About Me

Joe Watts: My Not So Brief Biography

(if you want to see my work experience instead of learning more than you ever might want to about me, visit my experience profile here)

I was born and raised in Marengo County, Alabama, deep in the heart of the Black Belt of old South Alabama. Growing up in the country (really in the deep southwest Alabama woods) provided some of the more lasting experiences of my life. Living 9 miles from the nearest town–that town was Linden, Alabama–and 3 miles from the nearest store had some real advantages. I grew up loving the land, enjoying the good life on an Alabama farm, fixing fences, hunting and fishing and generally leading an idyllic childhood. I had a pony wagon and two Shetland ponies growing up. I also had a cane pole for fishing and a genuine Troy-bilt tiller (I got it for a birthday present one year) to use in our garden.

My parents were much older than most when they had me (my mother, Inez Watts, was 45 years old, and my father, Clark Watts, was 46 years old). This led to a little different home atmosphere than most. Where many of my classmates had parents of the baby boomer generation, I had parents that lived through the Great Depression and World War II (my father was a WWII veteran who fought in the Pacific theater and I had several uncles who fought in the European theater as well–including one who was a German POW). I have five older sisters that fit more neatly into a certain generation, but I think in many ways I got the best of both worlds.

Living so far out in rural southwest Alabama (and getting only 1 channel on the television–and that only by pointing the antenna just so), I enjoyed the woods more than many people my age. I learned to build shelters and chop wood. I learned to hunt and fish. Later, I learned to plant a garden (and I mean a real honest garden with rows of corn and beans and okra and so many tasty vegetables). One year I grew everything, and my wonderful mother helped me to can and freeze all the bounty from the earth.

My real pleasure was reading, though. I could read books all day, every day. That love I can trace back to my Mama and my Aunt Gladys. Mama would read to me every day–I still remember the first time I picked the book up after she fell asleep and kept reading: Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

And Aunt Gladys would never, ever turn down an opportunity to buy me a book or to take me to the library. (We even had a Book Mobile that came to the area once a week or so–it would usually park at the Octagon Baptist Church just down the road.) I read almost anything I could get my hands on: The Hardy Boys, James Bond books, Civil War fiction and non-fiction, the occasional Zane Grey novel, almost anything. I especially enjoyed mysteries and adventures to other, more exotic places. I enjoyed escaping the reality of small town Alabama by reading about other adventures, other places, other times.

I must admit, though, that my favorite stories took place in the wild, out of bounds and in another, simpler time. I loved Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and the like. Jules Verne was another favorite author and one of my favorite books of all time was Where the Red Fern Grows, so much so that I actually had several Redbone Coon hounds named Little Ann (no Old Dan, though) after the dogs in the book. I later had a Labrador Retriever named Lady. She was the sweetest, smartest, most gentle dog a boy could hope for–and she lived longer than anyone could ever have imagined.

My father, Clark Watts, helped me to train Little Ann to be a coondog. My great friends Coyt Jordan–who gave me my dog Lady, mentioned above, and now lives in Panama City, Florida and Dave Nelson–who retired as a wildlife biologist for the state of Alabama and died unexpectedly in 2009–had a lot to do with making sure Little Ann knew what she was doing. They also had an immense amount to do with my love of nature and of all things wild. (Later, I got the dog I truly loved the most growing up–My Fair Lady, a yellow Lab–from Coyt.) Having Dave and later Coyt in my life really gave me an advantage that I can never repay. I learned much of what it meant to be a man from those two. From hunting and fishing to swimming and whistling, they taught me a lot, but they taught me first to be honest, to be reliable and to be a good person.

(We eventually got better T.V. reception and I got to watch many awesome 1970’s and 1980’s T.V. shows such as Magnum P.I., The Dukes of Hazard, Happy Days, Mash, the A-Team and associated drivel, but I consider it a well rounded education in American popular culture. I can, indeed, get the jokes about Tom Hanks in Bosom Buddies or who Balkie was. And yes, I understand exactly what the pop culture reference to “jumping the shark” really is: I watched the Fonz do just that on Happy Days.) And who could possibly forget the glory that was the original Scooby Doo?

When I started 7th grade, I also started taking Wing Chun kung fu lessons. I continued that until my senior year, progressing, sparring and learning a great deal about the balance and harmony with nature that the martial arts can teach.

After graduating from Marengo Academy (located in Linden, Alabama) in 1988, I moved to Birmingham, Alabama to attend Birmingham-Southern College. I finished college in a little over 3 years, due in part to having attended BSC between my junior and senior year of high school as a Summer Scholar. College days were good times with lots of new friends, new and exciting experiences and more, more, more. I learned a great deal while in college, I daresay more outside the classroom than in, though I managed to keep a good GPA and develop relationships with several great professors (including one I remain in regular contact today). I met my future wife, Ann, at Birmingham-Southern and we’ve been together ever since.

After college, I worked for a year at an insulation distribution company called Johnson Products, located near Birmingham-Southern in a rougher, industrial part of Birmingham. I learned a lot about insulation, the trucking industry, and what I did not want to do with the rest of my life. I enrolled in graduate school at Auburn University and moved to Auburn, Alabama for a year.

joe-adventure-travel.jpgJust before heading to graduate school, my lifelong friend Jonathan Merkle (who attended Marengo Academy with me for high school and who was my freshman year roommate at Birmingham-Southern), who grew up and still has roots in Faundsdale, Alabama–deep in the heart of the Black Belt, and I loaded our backpacks and his 1986 Honda Prelude with gear and food and headed West for a 2+ week adventure tour of hiking and backpacking in the great Southwest. (see photos above of, left to right, friend Jonathan Merkle and next two photos of Joe Watts)

This would be one of the big trips of my life, with stops in Dallas, Texas; El Paso and the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez; Tucson, Phoenix; and the Grand Canyon before plunging into Colorado for a true backpacking adventure up to Lizard Head Pass (a name that invited adventure). One of the best meals of my life was just after we hiked back down. We drove to a nearby town near Telluride, Colorado and had the best hamburgers anywhere at a little roadside cafe. The burger was honestly very good, but the atmosphere and the extraordinary hunger had a lot to do with it as well.

My year of classes living in Auburn, Alabama went by very quickly and I moved back to Birmingham in the fall after a brief stay in Octagon with my parents. (Thomas Wolfe told it truly when he said you can’t go home again–at least not right after college.)

I worked at an independent bookstore (Little Professor Books in Homewood, Alabama) for a bit over a year while working on my Master’s thesis on Ernest Hemingway and Identity Issues. While working at Little Professor, I met someone who worked at Southern Progress Corporation, home to Southern Living, Southern Accents, Cooking Light and, at the time, Progressive Farmer. I applied and was accepted as an intern for Southern Accents in their copy-editing department. Imagine the pride my parents felt to discover that I would be working for the company that published Progressive Farmer–who knew, maybe someday I could even work there! I might get to write about tractors, or cotton prices or–if luck would hold out long enough–barn building!

Though I did a great deal of grunt work, including scanning photos and making color copies, I learned a lot as well. After that semester was up, I was asked to join Southern Living as a Food Intern. I was really involved in taste-testing, rating recipes, searching for what I thought would be good recipes and more.

Once my internship ended, I talked with old friend Jonathan, who was finishing up his M.D. at the University of Alabama in Birmingham,  and we decided to head north to Canada for another tourist jaunt. We drove north through Chicago and Wisconsin and into Minnesota and hiked a good portion of the Lake Superior Hiking Trail before traveling on into Canada and then out towards the Badlands of South Dakota and the prairie of Nebraska. (South Dakota has got to have the largest mosquitoes and the most ticks of anywhere in the world–they would swarm around us in clouds of biting, stinging horror. It really made you feel for the bison that could only slightly slap them with their tails.)

Once back in Birmingham, I was offered a job at Weight Watchers Magazine, a magazine newly acquired by Southern Progress. I worked there for 3 years developing recipes and a weekly menu, editing recipes, and writing articles about food, cooking and active lifestyles. It was during this time (1997) that I married Ann, the woman I fell in love with during college. We took an amazing vacation trip to Alaska for our honeymoon, a place I’ve always loved since hearing about it from my Aunt Gladys, who lived there for 20 years in the first half of the 20th century before moving back to Huntsville, Alabama to teach in the Alabama public school system and finally retiring to live the remainder of her life in downtown Linden, Alabama.

It was also during this time that I finally completed my thesis and finished my Master’s Degree from Auburn University. (Though my coursework at Auburn went by quickly, I can’t say the same for my thesis. I loved research quite a bit and could always pinpoint one more book to read before really tightening up my thesis. Luckily, I finally managed to stop reading and start writing.)

After working at Weight Watchers for several years, I decided to make a change of direction in my career path. I began doing volunteer work with the Cahaba Group of the Sierra Club (I became the editor and graphic designer of their monthly newsletter and wrote the occasional article for it as well and was an elected member of their Executive Committee in the late 1990’s) and with the Firehouse Men’s shelter downtown. I continued working at Weight Watchers, trying to change my work portfolio to include more travel-oriented work, including an article on bird watching and another on outdoor photography workshops.

I continued to write articles on food, too, including reviews of cookware, knives and even ice cream makers. My volunteer work reflected my interest in conservation and helping others. I also started sending out a few queries for freelance writing jobs, including one I got from Backpacker Magazine highlighting one of Alabama’s great hikes up Cheaha Mountain in the Talladega National Forest. This article for Backpacker was probably my first foray into writing specifically to interest the traveling public into coming to a particular tourist attraction. Prior to that, most travel writing had been about bigger picture issues and the things one could do on a trip and less about where to go specifically.

One day, while going through the job ads in the Birmingham News, I found an ad for executive director of a non-profit: Scenic Alabama. I applied and got the job–a dramatic change in direction from food writer and recipe developer. I learned an enormous amount from this position, including lobbying to pass legislation creating Alabama’s Scenic Byways Program, public speaking, fundraising and so much more. I also had the day-to-day task of managing membership, writing grants and generally making sure that the office worked.

After a year of fund-raising, lobbying and generally fighting for funding for an extremely small special interest organization, I decided being a nonprofit director just wasn’t for me and I left to start my own company, Watts Consulting.

That was 2000. Since then, I’ve grown my business to include website design, print design, project management and more. I’ve branched into tourism consulting, Search Engine Optimization, grant writing (on rare occasion these days) and photography. I’ve managed to be a part of grants in excess of one million dollars (and yes, I try hard to look like Dr. Evil whenever I say that). I’ve also done some work with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham and the Alabama Association of Regional Councils, mainly related to the scenic byways program I helped create for Alabama (I’ve done the websites for these groups as well as other regional councils around Alabama, too). The byways program in particular has grown significantly while I’ve been involved–partly thanks to me and partly thanks to the efforts of several other great people.

I’ve worked with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on a number of tourism-related projects: the Alabama Birding Trails project, a tourism development project in East Alabama and another in Southwest Alabama.

I live with my wife Ann, three Burmese cats and one adopted tabby Siamese mix cat in an historic part of Birmingham, Alabama (Highland Park’s Chestnut Hill Historic District). We live in a house built in 1929 by a Major League baseball player named Virgil “Spud” Davis and have lived here since 2004.  Just before moving into our house on Chestnut Hill, I lost my beloved Aunt Gladys. Since then, I’ve lost both my father (Clark Watts) and mother (Inez Watts).

We finished a large renovation project several years ago. We removed old ceiling tiles placed there in the 1960’s, replaced aluminum windows with more traditional wooden casement windows that match the original style of the house and more (all with the amazing help of my cousin Kevin “Chunk” Mitchell). In 2011, we did a pretty substantial landscaping renovation, using local landscape architect David Brush. He did an amazing job of understanding what we were looking for.

I still love to cook, something I learned how to do from my mother when I was a child (ask a sister about the Thanksgiving Dinner I made one year as a traditional Chinese feast–no turkey that year, but Sweet and Sour Chicken and hand-rolled egg rolls for sure). I’m often found outside taking photos (or hurriedly snapping shots of the food I cook before a meal). I travel a little more regularly to the Black Belt than before, based on some tourism work I do for the University of Alabama. And, I’ve gotten much, much more interested in family and genealogy of late: as you may notice if you look through my blog. (Though lately, I spend less time on family and genealogy than I did and a lot more time working.)

Speaking of my blog, I started it just after Thanksgiving in 2007. I update it frequently (well, not as frequently as I once did) with random information including information about family, old family photos from Octagon and from our trips throughout Alabama, some of my work samples, occasional random things, my trips into the more beautiful stretches of Alabama’s scenic beauty, and, of course, some of the food I cook. I’ve enjoyed my personal little soapbox/personal advertisement very much. (See, “What Blogging Means to Me” to understand my reasoning a little better.)

I’ve learned that I have old, old roots in Alabama, some dating back to the 1700’s. And more of my family roots–almost all–date to the southern states (the Carolina’s in particular), though most really do date to Alabama before it was even a state. And, my oh my, it appears I’m a son of the American Revolution–always the revolutionary!