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Zell’s mountain twang a mark of love

POSTED: May 31, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Come January, I’ve been reporting on Zell Miller for 33 years. I was 14 and somehow asked for and was issued media credentials for the inauguration of Gov. George Busbee and Lt. Gov. Zell Miller.

Aside from folks on “Hee Haw,” I had never heard anyone with as much mountain twang as Zell Miller.

I don’t remember much about his speech, except for one word: poor. Mr. Miller, in his mountain way, pronounced it “purr.”

To this day, I can’t look at Zell Miller without thinking about “purr.” Over the years, he has adopted the more common pronunciation.

Six years later, I was a kid reporter for WALB-TV in Albany. I was doing a story at the Valdosta Airport and was on my way to cover another function at the Valdosta Country Club.

There, standing alone outside the airport, was Zell Miller. A few months before, he had lost a runoff to Herman Talmadge for the U.S. Senate. Folks were already writing Zell’s political obituary.

He had flown in on a commercial flight, but it seems that whoever was going to pick him up wasn’t there. Turns out, he was going to the same event and we offered him a ride.

At that moment, I felt kind of sorry for the lieutenant governor. That day, he was overshadowed by Joe Frank Harris, who went on to become the next governor.

But in 1990, I watch as Zell Miller banged the drum for the lottery and prison boot camps to become governor.

Zell has always been a scrappy fighter and never shied away from a chance to stand his ground. He’s written two national best sellers that took direct aim at his own Democratic Party. Despite his break with his party, he continues to be one of the most popular political figures in Georgia. It’s a far cry from the man who needed a ride 25 years ago.

But the true love of Zell Miller’s life, aside from his wife, Shirley, is the very mountains where he acquired that well-known twang.

He has written a book about the founding of his beloved alma mater, Young Harris College. The book, “The Miracle of Brasstown Valley,” is the true story of a young circuit-riding Methodist preacher, Artemas Lester, who came to the tiny hamlet, which was then known as McTyeire. The school struggled to compete with Truett-McConnell College, which had been organized in nearby Hiawassee.

But Miller, in his book, takes the readers through the founding of what would become Young Harris College up through the era of Dr. Josiah Sharp, who eventually hired Miller’s father and mother as faculty members.

I spent about a half-hour on the phone this week with Zell Miller talking about his latest book. He knows it won’t be a national chart-topper, but listening to him recount the stories was a real pleasure. It wasn’t Miller the politician; it was Miller the history teacher who shared the story of Young Harris.

Interestingly, the benefactor for whom the town and college is named, Judge Young Loftin Gerdine Harris of Athens, never set foot in the mountain town. Miller said that his gifts to the college and to start a church in China, so angered his heirs that they sued to challenge his mental condition.

They lost.

“The Miracle of Brasstown Valley” is rich, not purr, with great stories and may be Miller’s best.

Harris Blackwood is community editor of The Times. His columns appear Wednesdays in the print edition only and Sundays.



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