It’s unusual for a person to live long enough to enjoy his own benediction, especially five times.

It reminds me of beloved songwriter Irving Berlin celebrating his 100th birthday — and his 101st. Or George Burns (100). Or basketball coach John Wooden (99). Or actress Olivia DeHavilland (‘Melanie’ in ‘Gone With the Wind’, 104).  On each occasion, writers and friends recapped the meaning of the life of the person, who was still alive, could have some input into their story, could read and watch it all, and could respond.

That’s the situation with Alabama’s former U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Tuscaloosa). He turns a young 90 years old on Monday, May 6.

Shelby had his first farewell in 2021 when he announced he would not run again in the 2022 elections; he would retire at the end of his sixth term.  Press and friends recapped his life and service.

When retirement approached, Shelby gave his “Farewell Address” on the floor of the U.S. Senate, where he had served for 36 years. On December 31, 2022, for a second time, his life and service were recapped.

In the farewell address, he said: “I want to start off by thanking the people of Alabama, my home state. They put their trust in me for more than 50 years. It’s more than I could ever have wished for and this has been truly here an experience of a lifetime. Something I could have never dreamed.”

In January 2023, Shelby left the U.S. Senate. A third recap followed him home to Tuscaloosa.

In March 2023, Shelby, now retired and home in Tuscaloosa, was honored at the Alabama legislature, where he had served eight years in the 1970s. Legislators with whom he had served, Gov. Kay Ivey and others in Montgomery recapped his life and service for the fourth time.

In his remarks at the legislative tribute, Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth described Shelby as “Alabama’s greatest builder” and cited his success in securing federal resources and directly impacting the growth of Alabama.

“Perhaps the most important and lasting thing that Richard Shelby has built during 51 years in office is his legacy,” Ainsworth said. “A legacy that will provide jobs, hope, and opportunity to our children, our grandchildren, and their children after them.”

Now, as Shelby turns 90 on Monday, commentators, friends, and family will celebrate his life and service for a fifth time.  

Shelby served 51 years in office with 44 of those years in Washington, including his last 36 years in the U.S. Senate.

Shelby is a fifth-generation Alabamian and a graduate of the University of Alabama’s undergraduate and law schools. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986. As Alabama’s longest-serving U.S. Senator, Shelby chaired four Senate committees, Appropriations, Rules, Banking and Intelligence.

Before serving in the U.S. Senate, Shelby was already an experienced lawmaker.  He had served four terms in the U.S. House and eight years in the Alabama State Senate in Montgomery.

Shelby will be remembered for his ability to broker deals across the aisle and his ability to secure billions of dollars in federal funds to support military defense, infrastructure and economic development projects like the deepening and widening of the Port of Alabama ship channel.

“To say Senator Shelby committed his career to the betterment of his state and the nation would be a huge understatement.,” said Alabama U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville. “His retirement is well earned, and his work should be celebrated. So, today, I want to honor the countless hours — countless hours — he has spent fighting for Alabama, and the many achievements he has championed for the betterment of all Americans. Senator Shelby’s work has hit almost every corner of Alabama.  His focus on national defense, manufacturing, infrastructure, and education will be the hallmarks of his legacy.”

“We have to think about a time when this body and nation are as divided as ever. Senator Richard Shelby’s tenure exemplifies a commitment to cooperation and fairness,” said Pat Leahy, longtime U.S. Senator from Vermont. “At the conclusion of the 117th Congress, the Senate will lose a skilled leader and a true senator of his word. That has been his way with our decades of service together.”

“Richard always wants to solve the problems, and the country is better for that and so is the Senate, “said U.S. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri.

Shelby had worked through eight presidential administrations starting when he was in the U.S. House during the Jimmy Carter administration. He moved to the Senate when Ronald Regan occupied the Oval Office. There, he served under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Shelby has been elected 12 times to public office.

Shelbylegislativetribute Alabama News

U.S. Sen. Katie Britt (R-Montgomery), who served for a time as Shelby’s chief of staff in Washington, D.C., was elected to fill the seat left by Shelby at the end of his term.

Shelby’s exit meant that Alabama lost the seniority and power that came with decades in Congress. His perch on Appropriations helped him to direct federal funds back home.

“It’s going to cost Alabama a trillion dollars to not have Shelby in the U.S. Senate,” said Brent Buchanan, a GOP consultant in Alabama, who added that the senator’s impact on the state spanned multiple industries, from massive amounts of defense spending to grants for local fire departments.

“He is the best thing that’s ever happened to Alabama,” Buchanan said. “That and Nick Saban, and I’m an Auburn fan.”

Shelby had started his political career as a Southern Democrat in an era when almost all elected officials in Alabama were Democrats. He had difficulty working with Democratic leadership in the U.S. Senate and the White House. As the voters of Alabama made a switch from almost-solid Democrat to solid Republican, Shelby did too. He partially led that switch, as his decision in 1994 to become a Republican played a role in solidifying Alabama as a Republican state. Dozens of local candidates and officials followed Shelby’s lead to the Republican party.

“I thought there was room in the Democratic Party for a conservative Southern Democrat such as myself,” Shelby said at the time. “But I can tell you, there’s not.”

Happy 90th birthday, Senator Shelby.

Jim ‘Zig’ Zeigler writes about Alabama’s people, places, events, groups and prominent deaths.  He is a former Alabama Public Service Commissioner and State Auditor. You can reach him for comments at

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