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Our area is better, thanks to marks left by these men

POSTED: July 19, 2009 1:00 a.m.

After more than 20 years in this area, I have come to know many of the people who shaped this region. Most came from the group that has been called "The Greatest Generation," the veterans of World War II. In the past few days, we lost two great ones.

It wasn't until the twilight of his years that I really got to know James Mathis Sr. His stories were long and colorful and sometimes spiced with a little salty language, but to sit beside him and listen was something I will long treasure.

I'm not sure where he got it, but James Mathis was gifted with the promotional prowess of P.T. Barnum. He was a bang-a-drum, rustle-up-a-crowd promoter who used his tireless energy to turn a fledgling savings and loan into a major player.

But his can-do attitude did so much more.

In an interview some time back, former Gov. Carl Sanders told me Mathis practically camped outside the governor's office to make the case for a public college in Gainesville. With James "Bubba" Dunlap serving at the time on the Board of Regents, we had a strong voice in the discussion. But Mathis was the street fighter for the projects. At his funeral this week, I learned that he even brought food to inmates to get them to work a little harder and faster on the land grading for the college.

Mathis loved history and celebrated events like George Washington's birthday by serving cherry pie at Home Federal. He conceived a character named "Skippy the Squirrel," who taught youngsters the importance of savings and made appearances at their birthday parties held at the bank.

He loved the political arena and, like all players in that game, he won some and lost some. But never gave up.

He was a great conservationist and had the finest system I've ever seen for capturing rainwater to keep his plants thriving. My friend, Bimbo Brewer, has great memories of Mathis as Scoutmaster to another generation that has made its mark on Northeast Georgia.

We also said goodbye this week to John Burl Hulsey, a fine businessman who, as a young Navy pilot, was selected for a top secret mission in World War II.

Hulsey, who was 91, had a quick mind that unfortunately outlasted a failing heart. I want to be that witty when I'm 91.

Ironically, his last outing before his passing was his first and only visit to our house for dinner with his wife, Mary Louise.

He was a delightful guest and I will forever remember that night filled with good conversation and much laughter.

Hulsey flew unmanned drones to bomb Japanese targets in the Pacific. The plane was flown using a primitive television camera that transmitted a picture back to a manned plane, where the remote control was operated. The technology may have been simple, but it paved the way for modern drones and guided missile systems.

I enjoyed hearing Hulsey's stories about his experiences in the war. He was truly one of our heroes.

These were two of our community's finest. We are in a much better place because of them.

Harris Blackwood is a columnist for The Times. His column runs every week in Sunday Life.



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