Alabama Academy of Honor

Ben Screws Gilmer

The following biographical sketch was compiled at the time of induction into the Academy in 1975.

Ben Screws Gilmer, the first Southern president of the American Telephone and Telephone Company, was born in Savannah in 1905 and moved to Montgomery as an infant.

After growing up in the shadow of the Alabama State Capitol, Mr. Gilmer graduated from Auburn in 1926 with a B.S. degree in electrical engineering. Immediately after graduation, he went to work in the Southern Bell Telephone Company's Birmingham office as an installer, and within a month, was enrolled in the training program at the firm's Atlanta headquarters. From there, he mounted the corporate ladder steadily, serving Southern Bell in a series of increasingly responsible engineering positions until 1942, when he left to join the Army Air Corps.

Not even military service could keep him from rising at Southern Bell. After serving for three years and attaining he rank of lieutenant colonel, he returned to the firm as an executive in the Atlanta office. In 1948, he was made an assistant vice president, and four years later assumed the first of a series of executive posts that took him from Minneapolis to San Francisco.

In 1956, he returned to Atlanta when he was made vice president of Southern Bell, and remained there as president from 1957 to 1965, when he became executive vice president of American Telephone and Telegraph in New York. And in 1967, his career reached its apogee when he was named the president of American Telephone and Telegraph and assumed responsibility for its mammoth communications empire.

He retired from the presidency at AT&T in 1970, but he remained a director of the company, a member of its executive committee, and a director of several of its corporation subsidiaries. Among the other corporations on whose boards he sat were the U.S. Pipe and Foundry Corporation, Rich's Inc., Merck & Company, and the West Point Pepperell Manufacturing Corporation.

Despite the long absences demanded by his career, Mr. Gilmer maintained close ties with the state of Alabama, as the Governor and the legislature recognized when they invited him to address a Joint Session in 1967. Nine years before, Auburn University demonstrated its respect for his achievements by making him an honorary Doctor of Science. And in 1969, the Alabama Conference of Christians and Jews recognized his "outstanding contribution to improving human relations" by giving him its Humanitarian Service Award for promoting equal opportunities in industry.

A humanitarian in private life as well, Mr. Gilmer was either director, chairman of the board, or trustee of more than thirty civic organizations, including the Atlanta United Appeal, the American Cancer Society, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the National Executive Committee of the Boy Scouts of America. He is also a member of Eta Kappa Nu, an honorary engineering society, and Delta Sigma Pi, a professional fraternity for commerce and business administration, and was the chairman of the Auburn University Foundation, a trustee of Agnes Scott College, and an elder of the Presbyterian Church.

In 1939 he married the former Dorothy Cunnigham of Decatur, Georgia. They had one daughter and lived in Atlanta since Mr. Gilmer's retirement. They had two grandchildren: Penn W. Rooker, Jr. (graduate of Auburn); and Ben Gilmer Rooker; and two great-grandchildren: Brittany Lee Rooker and Robert Winston Rooker.

Mr. Gilmer passed away in January 2004.