Winston Groom talks growing up in Coastal Alabama, & Forrest Gump at Bays and Bayous Symposium

Alabama author Winston Groom is introduced as the keynote speaker during the Alabama-Mississippi Bays and Bayous Symposium at the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center in Mobile, Ala. on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. (Dennis Pillion |

MOBILE, Alabama -- Long before he penned "Forrest Gump," "Gone the Sun," or a myriad of other fiction and non-fiction books, Winston Groom grew up on Mobile Bay, hunting and fishing in the Delta, exploring the many natural wonders of Coastal Alabama.

Groom spoke about his youthful experiences and the need for conservation of Alabama's sensitive waters Wednesday at the Alabama Mississippi Bays and Bayous Symposium. The two-day symposium was a gathering of scientists, engineers, government officials, non-profit groups and researchers who are actively involved in issues such as water quality, habitat management and developing resilient coastal communities in the two states.

"After reading through the list of all the projects that are in your program, I feel quite convinced that through your work, interest and dedication, the Alabama estuary system, from Tennessee to Mobile Bay, will be improved and preserved for many generations to come," Groom said. "I thank you for your intelligent science and your care-taking mission of protecting our nation's marine treasures."

Groom told stories of his father cutting a thin notch in a tree and inserting a penny to mark the tree's growth over the years, fishing and boating on Dog River and hunting in nutria rodeos organized to tame the invasive rodent. He also shared his thoughts on conservation issues he sees today from his Point Clear home.

After the main portion of his speech, Groom opened the floor for questions, even about his most famous book.

Groom doesn't mind talking about "Forrest Gump," but he would prefer it if people stopped telling him "life is like a box of chocolates," or giving him boxes of chocolate, or asking if he has a box of chocolate. That famous line from the Academy Award-winning movie was not in his book, but was added in by a Hollywood screenwriter.

"I would never write such a line as that," Groom said. "Ever since then I've been getting chocolates. For 20 years, everywhere I go there's a box of chocolates."

That line was just one example of the difficult task of adapting his book, which he said was about a 6-foot-5 idiot who could run 100 yards in 10 seconds flat, to a studio-acceptable film starring Tom Hanks. Groom compared some parts of the film-making process to "a one-armed man trying to nail together a chicken coop in a hurricane," but he said "somehow we muddled through it and got the movie made."

Groom was one of several keynote speakers at the symposium, organized by the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and many other organizations. Also speaking at the conference was Justin Ehrenwerth, executive director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. That council will administer billions of dollars in Deepwater Horizon oil spill fine money over the next several years.

Experts from the Chesapeake Bay also spoke about the conservation programs and studies taking place in Virginia and Maryland, and noted science journalist Ari Daniel delivered a Tuesday night keynote address on his work in the Gulf of Mexico.

Roberta Swann, director of the Mobile Bay NEP, said the biennial conference is a productive gathering point for many separate groups working on similar issues to share information and compare projects. The symposium dates back to 1979, but adopted its current biennial schedule in 2006.

"I think this has been one of the best one yet," Swann said. "We have a lot of repeat customers and you can follow their science over time. There's also a lot of synergy taking place between the engineering firms, some of the resource managers and the scientists.

"Mostly the Bays and Bayous Symposium is about getting the best science on the ground and I think we achieved that."