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Bill Slack Jr. helped city, county on lake issues

POSTED: April 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.

One person more than any other was responsible for Gainesville and Hall County being compensated for infrastructure that was affected by the creation of Lake Lanier.

W.H. "Bill" Slack Jr. attended Georgia Tech for about a year before going to work with the Panama Canal and later with a power company in West Virginia. His talent and interests lay in engineering and things mechanical. When illness brought him back to Gainesville, he began an auto parts replacement business in 1926, formally organizing the highly successful Slack Auto Parts in 1928.

As Buford Dam impounded the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers in the mid-1950s, miles of roads would have to be relocated. Yet, according to Hugh Turk, county commissioner at the time, and Gurley Satterfield, who became Gainesville's utilities department head, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn't plan to compensate the county or the city for their losses. Gainesville would have to relocate water lines and build a sewage treatment plant. Before Lake Lanier, the city's untreated sewage was dumped into streams that fed the Chattahoochee.

Bill Slack became the unpaid, but invaluable advisor to city and county governments in replacing infrastructure and getting the federal government's financial aid. The county hired lawyer J. Ernest "Hip" Palmour Jr. to pursue compensation in federal courts. It didn't hurt that Judge Boyd Sloan, who lived in Gainesville, heard their case.

Palmour and Slack also went to Washington to talk to federal officials on the county's behalf, Turk said. Other county commissioners at the time were Rudolph Clark and Ralph Pope.

In the end, Hall County received $1.8 million to relocate its roads. Gainesville got federal funds to help relocate water lines and build the Linwood wastewater treatment plant on Lake Lanier.

Satterfield recalls Slack traveling to Mobile, Ala., at his own expense several times to negotiate with the corps. Often, he said, he also paid expenses for those going with him.

Robert and Co., Gainesville's consulting engineers, would listen to Slack's advice during construction of water and sewer facilities. He was plain spoken and frank, says his son, Bill Slack III.

"When Mr. Slack spoke, everybody listened," Satterfield said. He and Slack would drive to Atlanta once every two weeks to review plans with Robert and Co.

With Slack's expertise, Gainesville was plowing new ground in water and sewage treatment facilities, Satterfield said, and was well ahead of other cities.

Eight poultry processors operated in Gainesville at the time, and they had to have water to keep their production lines moving. Water and sewer employees often worked holidays and weekends to make repairs needed to provide sufficient water to the plants and other customers, including then Hall County Hospital. Satterfield often would call Slack in the middle of the night to open his machine shop to provide some part or fix some piece of equipment.

"There were things he did nobody ever knew," Satterfield said. "But if the poultry plants weren't operating Monday morning, they knew it. I never ever called that he didn't respond. Without Mr. Slack doing what he did, I don't know if we could have met all the schedules we had to."

Though Slack worked tirelessly for the city and county to get what they needed from the federal government because of Lake Lanier's impact, he believed the lake was a mistake, his son said. The lake would silt, Slack said, and the corps of engineers made no provision for that. Satterfield agreed that silting is a serious problem on the lake. After last week's rains, he pointed to the muddy water on the northern end of the lake. "That's silt," he said.

His father did not seek prominence, Bill Slack III said. He never sought nor received any money for his services, Turk and Satterfield agreed. And very little recognition. The only thing he would accept was a small plaque from the county commission in appreciation of his efforts.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published March 23, 2008.



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