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Brenau library houses books from Watson

POSTED: January 9, 2011 1:00 a.m.

The library of one of Georgia's best known politicians is housed in Brenau University's trustee library in Gainesville.

Judge Uly Thompson of Miami, Fla., bought Tom Watson's collection after his death in 1922. It ended up at Brenau in 1941 through a gift in memory of Felix Jackson, father of Walton Jackson, a Brenau trustee at the time. Felix Jackson was a successful businessman who built Gainesville's Jackson Building, owned various area businesses and had operated a steamship and railroad line in the Northeast.

The books collection originally contained about 10,000 volumes, but a hurricane in South Florida destroyed a number of them. Water damage can be seen on some of the books in the Brenau library. Judge Thompson, who coincidentally was the grandfather of Jim Barco, senior vice president of institutional development at Brenau, is said to have paid $5,400 for Watson's library in 1924.

Melissa Hozey, who oversees special collections at Brenau's library, said students can request the Watson books for research, though strict rules apply. The collection is locked in the rare books room in the university's library.
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Watson was a prolific writer and avid reader. Many of the books are histories of European countries. He wrote a book about Napoleon Bonaparte, the French military and political leader, and the history of France. Other books include biographies, the Civil War, physics, philosophy and religion.

Watson was a mercurial politician who served in Congress and the state legislature. He was a founder of the Populist Party and was its nominee for vice president in 1896 and president in 1904.

One of his greatest achievements as a U.S. senator was introducing the bill that brought about Rural Free Delivery mail. Watson was considered a friend to the farmer and the common man.

He supported allowing black men to vote and through the Populist Party tried to unite various segments of the population across class lines. Yet in later years Watson changed his position on black voting, also supported the Ku Klux Klan and wrote anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic articles in publications he owned.

When Gov. John Slaton commuted to life in prison the death sentence of Leo Frank, a Jew convicted in the Atlanta murder of Mary Phagan, Watson stirred up anger about the decision through articles that are said to have led a mob to lynch Frank.

Zell Miller, in his book "Great Georgians," called Watson one of the state's most charismatic and intellectual politicians. But, Miller wrote, he fell short of a higher place in history because he wasn't consistent and persistent in the pursuit of the progressive philosophies during his career. Instead, "he missed the mark because he bogged down in the mire of the virulent anti-Negro, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic writings and rantings into which he plunged in the bitter obsessions of his later years," the former governor wrote.

A statue of Watson, considered an outstanding orator, stands on Georgia capitol grounds.

Historical footnote: Watson's death in office as a U.S. senator led to Rebecca Latimer Felton, 87, serving as the first female in the Senate. Gov. Thomas A. Hardwick appointed her to serve for one day, hoping to win the seat himself in the succeeding election. But he lost to Walter F. George.

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A popular teacher at the old Main Street School hasn't vanished off the face of the earth after all. Warren Jones and some of his former classmates in the old elementary school, were having trouble finding the former Mary Helen Hancock, who taught them in fourth and fifth grades 1950-52.

The Main Street Gang, former students of the school, couldn't locate her either. But after a mention about his search in this column a couple of weeks ago, Warren located the now Mary Helen Hancock Cook in Atlanta, thanks to several people who tracked her down, including Betty Evans and Bob Ham. Mrs. Cook was a classmate of Ham's in the Gainesville High School Class of 1946. She also graduated from Brenau College.

The result of all this was Warren having a telephone conversation with his favorite teacher, who is now 81 years old, living in Atlanta and planning a train trip across Canada this year.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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