MONTGOMERY (AP) — Pope John Paul II and the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace had something in common — both were seriously injured in assassination attempts and publicly forgave their assailants.
Wallace and the pope met in a private 20-minute session on July 21, 1984, and discussed the attacks that changed both of their lives. The meeting came during Wallace's fourth term as governor and was held during an industry-hunting trip to Europe by Wallace and his aides.
"The pope praised the governor on overcoming the attempt on his life and the governor did likewise," Elvin Stanton, Wallace's former chief of staff, said.
Wallace was shot by Arthur Bremer in 1972 during a presidential campaign stop in Laurel, Md., and spent the rest of his life using a wheelchair and in constant pain. He died in 1998. The pope was shot by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk, in 1981 at St. Peter's Square. He also recovered from his wounds but felt the effects of the attack for the rest of his life.
Stanton, who served as executive secretary during Wallace's fourth and final term as governor, said the meeting took place at Castle Gandolfo, about 10 miles south of Rome. Stanton, Wallace's wife, Lisa, and security guard George Golden also attended the meeting.
Alabama Public Service Commissioner George Wallace Jr. said Monday that when his father returned from Europe, he often mentioned the audience with the pope, especially when they talked about surviving the assassination attempts.
Wallace said his father wrote letters to Bremer saying that he forgave him. Two years after he was shot, the pope visited the prison where Agca was being held and told him he had forgiven him.
Stanton said the governor and the pope each praised each other for the courage it took to recover from their injuries.
Stanton said Wallace's audience with the pope was a highlight of the life of the four-term governor, who ran for president four times.
"We weren't sure if the governor would be able to meet with the pope, and he kept asking about it during our swing through Europe," Stanton said. "When he learned the pope would meet with him, he was very happy."
By 1984, Wallace had turned away from the segregationist politics he once championed and had been elected after actively seeking black votes.
Stanton said Wallace and his party were escorted to the pope's summer retreat in a motorcade. The governor already was familiar with protocols associated with meeting heads of state and religious leaders.
"Both men had a lot in common," Stanton, 67, said. "In addition to surviving the assassination attempts and forgiving those who shot them, they were outgoing populists who cared about ordinary people and those who couldn't care for themselves."