Gabriella Comer White
Gabriella Comer White’s grandson, William B. White IV, reflects on the woman who inspired him in life, love, and his passion for the brand, Gabby.
Susan Gabriella Comer was born in Alabama on July 16, 1922, the first daughter of Gillian Goodall and Hugh Moss Comer. Her father was the youngest son of Braxton Bragg Comer who founded Avondale Mills in 1897, and served as Governor of Alabama from 1907-1911. Hugh and Gillian lived in Sylacauga where he worked as Vice President for Avondale Mills.
Hugh’s father, Governor Comer, founded Avondale Mills with the backing of several Birmingham bankers and other supporters, and moved the headquarters from Birmingham to Sylacauga. As the need for cotton grew, Avondale Mills expanded to other small cities in Birmingham. Mill towns grew up around these mills and Avondale provided housing, schools, doctors and company stores for their employees. Many families benefitted from life in these villages.
When Gabriella began her education, her parents let her move to Birmingham to take advantage of the schools there. Her Grandmother, Susan Gabriella Goodall, whom she was named for, welcomed her to her home on Glen Iris Circle. Gabriella remembered these years fondly as she walked to school each morning with a close group of neighbors and friends. Glen Iris Circle and the surrounding neighborhood was filled with young families excited about the promise of Birmingham and the many opportunities that the Magic City offered.
As the Great Depression settled in the U.S. Birmingham felt its effects strongly. Gabriella’s son Bew White, III, founder of Summer Classics, Gabby’s sister company, recalls a story about an impressionable moment in his mother’s life. Bew says “Every day during the Great Depression, people would gather in a line at the back of my great grandmother’s porch. She would give each person a nickel so they could buy enough food for the day. That kindness made a big impression on my mother- one that she would carry forward in her life.”
After she graduated from Ramsay High School, Gabriella decided to continue her education in New York City at Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School. This school was famous for insisting on a strict and professional curriculum and dress code. In her book, Katherine Gibbs -Beyond White Gloves, author Rose Dougherty says the school was” known for its graduates who overcame the seemingly impossible hurdle of being female.” She finished her studies here and returned to Birmingham and attended Birmingham Southern College. She would later serve her alma mater as a board member.
The outbreak of World War II interrupted her studies as men went off to serve our country, and women were needed to fill in the workplace. It was on a train ride to New York that Gabriella met a young Army officer, William Bew White, Jr. traveling to report to duty. This train ride was the beginning of a great partnership that would last for almost six decades. After a whirlwind romance, the couple married in 1943 and Bew left just six months after the wedding to serve our country. “People had a very free spirit during that time,” says their son, “Couples got married when they hardly knew each other. Soldiers wanted a wife to think about and come home to after the war.”
It would be two years before Gabriella’s husband returned from the war to begin life in Birmingham. He joined the law firm where his father worked, White, Bradley, Arant, All and Rose (now known as Bradley). He and Gabriella settled into post war life in Birmingham. While Bew was busy with a budding law practice, Gabriella was raising four children and becoming an active part of the community. She served on many community boards, including Mercy Home (now Gateway), the YWCA and United Way. However, she was most passionate about her work with the Girl Scouts. She was an energetic troop leader, Chairman of the annual cookie sale for many years, a dedicated board member and board president for several terms. It was during these years that the two Birmingham Girl Scout councils (one white and one African American) merged. She handled this merger and was proud to have unified the Girl Scouts during such a tumultuous time.
Gabriella and Bew also enjoyed traveling and took many trips all over the world. When the family was young, they spent many memorable summers on the beach at Ponte Vedra, Florida, as well as taking trips out west to see the National Parks. A board member of Southern Airways, and later Northwest Airlines, Bew had the opportunity for broadening their travels. Whether it was a trip down the Amazon or to the Serengeti Desert in Africa, Gabriella’s sense of adventure enriched the entire family. William says, ”they would be gone for weeks and return with fantastic stories. I’d like to think that her adventurous spirit and curious nature prompted me to want to see the world, study French, admire the finer things and find a passion for antiques. I have several beautiful pieces from their home that I treasure. We shop for antiques in France once a year to source for Gabby.”
As much as they enjoyed travel, Gabriella and Bew cherished their time on their farm on the Tombigbee River in Greene County. It was a favorite place for family visits or quiet time for them. Gabriella embraced the land and enjoyed working in her vegetable and flower gardens as well as taking exploring walks in the woods. William remembers, “once she got lost in the woods on one of her walks. Luckily, she encountered a hunter in the woods who gave her the location of the river so she could find her way back. She positioned it as exciting that she found her way back… a thrill. She loved the wild nature of the farm and it suited her spirit.”
As Gabriella and Bew’s family grew to include 12 grandchildren, their Greene County farm and their Birmingham home became the place for holidays and celebrations. “We always spent Christmas and Easter at my grandparents’ home. I have several cousins and we are all around the same age. Some of my fondest memories are of times spent on the farm with my extended family. Granny (as she was known to all the grandchildren) created extravagant scavenger hunts for the kids. She would have us running all over the farm in an attempt to teach us about our natural surroundings and to wear us out. She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She loved to garden, knew all about the different tree species on the farm, and swam fearlessly in the Tombigbee River! “
Gabriella’s relationship with Christ was the most important thing in her life. She was very involved in her United Methodist Church, and never missed services. “you never went to stay with Granny on a weekend without going to church,” William says. “Not only did she attend, she sometimes gave the Children’s Sermon, always impressing us with her Bible knowledge and love of God.”
This amazing woman, Gabriella Comer White, inspired her grandson, William Bew White, IV to name an indoor furniture company Gabby after her. Today, her well lived life, beliefs and experience are honored in the Gabby furniture line. Always full of practical wisdom, some of her favorite sayings were, “a stitch in time saves nine.” “Don’t put off until tomorrow what should be done today.” “Procrastination is the thief of time.” And her favorite: “Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well.”
When William started the interior furnishings line and was trying on names for the brand, he looked no further than the grandmother who had inspired him for so many years. Today, Gabriella Comer White’s well-lived life, beliefs, and experiences are honored in the Gabby furniture collection. “Like Granny said, it is important to ‘remember where you came from’ and how your character is shaped by those that have come before you – by your family,” says William. “The only reason our company exists today is because of what God and my family have done for me and so I will honor them with my hard work and by sharing the adventure with my children. I love you, Paw Paw and I love you, Granny.”
For more on Gabby, click here.