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The Titans: 25 people who helped build Gainesville, Hall County

POSTED: May 8, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Rafe Banks Sr.
Rafe Banks Sr. served for many years as a director of the county's largest bank, First National Bank of Gainesville, and was a key player in the postwar growth of the community.
Banks served as president of First National from 1932 to 1947 and was a director from 1916 to 1964. After serving as president, he was the bank's chairman of the board. At one time, Banks was the largest private landowner in Hall County and his holdings included the property near Flowery Branch that is now the home to Wrigley's, the largest chewing gum factory in the world. His son, Rafe Jr., was a prominent physician in Hall County prior to his death in 1980. A grandson, Rafe Banks III, served as district attorney in Forsyth County and is now in private practice there.

Gen. Sandy Beaver
In 1913, Brenau professors H.J. Pearce and A.W. Van Hoose hired Sandy Beaver to head the fledgling Riverside Military Academy. Beaver would go on to acquire ownership of the school in 1915 and preside over its growth until his death in 1969.
He brought Riverside to national prominence as an all-boys residential preparatory school. Riverside operated a winter campus in Florida for more than 50 years. In 1932, Beaver purchased the Hollywood Hills Hotel in south Florida. With the exception of brief time during World War II when the Navy used the Florida campus as a training facility, the school's cadets and staff would spend January through March at the Florida campus and the remainder of the school year would take place in Gainesville. The campus was eventually sold in 1984.

J. Nathan Deal
J. Nathan Deal, 65, is currently in his seventh term in the U.S. Congress. Deal also served a decade as a member of the state Senate. Deal also served as a juvenile court judge and as an assistant district attorney. He was in private practice in Hall County for two decades, prior to his election to Congress. He has been known for his emphasis on health issues and as a proponent of securing the nation's borders as a deterrent to illegal immigration. His son, Jason, followed in public service, first as a district attorney and currently as a Superior Court judge in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit of Hall and Dawson counties.

Dr. J.H. Downey
In 1909, Dr. J.H. Downey built the first hospital between Greenville, S.C., and Atlanta in Gainesville. An innovator in medicine, he developed a medical device, the Downey Fracture Table, in 1911. By 1912, the hospital, which started with just six rooms, had grown to 36 beds and was the first accredited hospital in the state. The hospital also included a nursing school, which according to a 1937 news account had 24 students. Downey was joined later by Dr. Cleveland D. Whelchel and Dr. John K. Burns.

Edgar B. Dunlap
Edgar B. Dunlap was a Gainesville attorney who used his connections to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help his home city during one of its darkest hours, the aftermath of the 1936 tornado. Dunlap, who held appointed posts related to Roosevelt's New Deal, personally sought White House aid for the devastated community. Among the results: a new city hall, courthouse and the eventual construction of the Gainesville Civic Center. Dunlap was politically powerful, and was an ally of Roosevelt in his unsuccessful effort to oust popular U.S. Sen. Walter F. George.

James A. "Bubba" Dunlap
James A. "Bubba" Dunlap was a prominent Gainesville attorney whose influence spread far beyond Hall County. Dunlap was a member of the state Board of Regents during the creation of what is now Gainesville State College. He is considered among the architects of Georgia's two-year college system, which began in the 1960s. Dunlap, a member of one of Gainesville's pioneering families, was also the attorney for the county's first public hospital, Hall County Hospital, which is now known as Northeast Georgia Medical Center. He was also instrumental in the acquisition of the land for Elachee Nature Science Center.

Jerry Jackson
Jerry Jackson, an easygoing service station operator, worked his way up to become an insider under Georgia's Gold Dome. Jackson was a member of the Hall County legislative delegation when it included three posts. While he always fought for the entire county, he was a tireless promoter of projects in South Hall, where he lives. When the district was redrawn for the 1992 election, Jackson, a conservative Democrat, found himself in the land of new Republicans and was defeated by Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain.

John W. Jacobs Jr.
John W. Jacobs Jr. served two terms as president of what is now the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce. Jacobs also served as the hired staff member of the chamber.

But Jacobs' impact on the community is best known in media circles. He was among a group that founded WDUN radio. He also brought cable television, then just a conduit for receiving out-of-town broadcast stations, to Gainesville. His melodic radio voice was a mainstay for Gainesville listeners for generations. When ownership regulations changed, Jacobs eventually acquired WGGA, the city's oldest radio station, and operates two AM and one FM stations in the family-run business.

Jacobs served for many years as the chairman of the board of trustees of Brenau University. He was honored with the naming of the school's communications building in his honor.

Jesse Jewell
Jesse Jewell is considered by many to be the father of the integrated poultry industry. Jewell came up with the concept that one company would contract with growers, provide the baby chicks and food, and then process the chicken in its own plant. The Jewell brand became widely known, however, the company later fell on hard times and filed for bankruptcy protection. Jewell forever changed the landscape for the poultry industry, which has contributed billions of dollars to the state's economy.

Emily Dunlap "Sissy" Lawson
Emily Dunlap "Sissy" Lawson followed in the family tradition of public service as a member of the Gainesville City Council and eventually becoming the city's first female mayor. The granddaughter of Dr. H.J. Pearce, a 50-year president of Brenau College - and the man who gave Brenau its name - as well as the founder of Riverside Military Academy, Lawson did not attend Brenau, the school her mother and her aunts attended. She instead attended Stephens College, a private college for women in Columbia, Mo., and finished with a bachelor's of education at the University of Georgia.

Politics was a major part of her married life; her husband, Bobby Lawson, served a number of years in the Georgia House of Representatives.

James Mathis Sr.
James Mathis Sr. was born in the Hall County community of Klondike. Mathis found his career in banking and his niche in creative marketing. He became president of Home Federal Savings & Loan Association, which later became a bank and subsequently merged with what is now SunTrust. Mathis was a tireless promoter, both for his bank and his community. He created what is now called the annual Mule Camp Market. He was also one of the driving forces in the creation of what is now Gainesville State College. Mathis, who attended Young Harris College, has also been active in preservation of the history and environment of the North Georgia Mountains.

J.M. "Ray" McRae
J.M. "Ray" McRae is remembered as the consummate deal maker. McRae was the key player in recruiting a number of industries, including Wrigley's and Rockwell International, which manufactured engines for the Tomahawk missile.

McRae's bank, First National Bank of Gainesville, grew to control more than half the deposit business in the Hall County market. A stickler for customer service, McRae insisted that every employee wear a company name tag, something he did daily, and to know the names of their customers. McRae served as chairman and president of First National and its company, First National Bancorp, until its merger with Alabama-based Regions Bank.

Ernest Moore
Ernest Moore's life in public service began with the Hall County Family and Children Services board, where he served as both a member and chairman. In 1971, he was elected to the first of six terms on what was then called the city commission. He served two-year terms as mayor in 1977-78 and again in 1987-88. A staunch promoter of industrial growth, Moore served 14 years on the Gainesville-Hall County Industrial Authority and as a director of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce. He was a recipient of the chamber's Silver Shovel award for his work. In a lighter moment of his political career,

Moore, as mayor, presided over a 1977 mock trial of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders. Sanders was charged with violating a Gainesville city ordinance that prohibits "the use of mechanical appliances in eating fried chicken." The ordinance notes that "eating fried chicken with the fingers is the very essence of American practicality." Moore gave the colonel a suspended sentence and a stern warning to remember his own "finger lickin'" slogan. A Hall County native, Moore was a graduate of Riverbend High School and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was the co-owner and operator of Allison-Moore Dairies and for 31 years was the owner of Jim Waters Motor Co., a used car dealership.

Pearl Nix
Pearl Nix took an incredible risk in building the region's first enclosed shopping center, Lakeshore Mall. When her husband, Sen. Arthur J. Nix, died suddenly in 1946 at the age of 51, he left his widow, Pearl, and his only child with a large parcel of undeveloped land, which included the abandoned remnants of a sawmill. Pearl Nix ended her 36-year career as a teacher and suddenly became a developer. In the early 1950s, construction began on the first section of Lakeshore Heights, a subdivision off Dawsonville Highway that remains a vibrant community today. However, another portion of the Nix land, a rolling tract of peaks and valleys, stayed vacant for the rest of the 1950s until Mrs. Nix began the first phase of a dream for a major retail complex. In 1968, construction began on what was first known as Lakeshore Plaza. Five years later, the mall, one of the first enclosed shopping venues outside of Atlanta, was complete.

Beulah Rucker Oliver
Beulah Rucker Oliver was born in 1888 in Banks County. Coming to Gainesville in the early 1900s, she established a school for black children that continued in various forms until the late 1950s. The school provided educational opportunities to the region's black youth at a time when such opportunities were rare. She established this school primarily through her own hard work and money. Her unselfish actions and her inspiring vision prompted others to act. She was a driving force in the black community before the civil rights era. Her daughter, Dorothy Rucker, followed in her footsteps as an educator and leader in the black community. The school was later merged into the public schools.

Howard Overby
Howard Overby was born in Buford, but spent much of his life in Hall County, where he served 26 years in the General Assembly, 10 in the House and 16 in the Senate. He served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and was a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Overby was a member of the Hall legislative delegation during the era that included the founding of Gainesville Junior College and the completion of Ga. 365 and Interstate 985. He was a member of the city's legal community for more than half a century. He was honored posthumously with the naming of the Georgia National Guard Armory in his memory.

Haywood Jefferson Pearce
Haywood Jefferson Pearce was president of Brenau College from 1893 to 1943. It was Pearce who changed the name of the college, which was known as the Georgia Baptist Female Seminary.

Pearce also convinced the community to lend the college $10,000 to build an auditorium, which would be named for him 67 years later. However, Pearce's influence went beyond the college. He was a founder of Riverside Military Academy, which achieved national prominence as a boarding school for boys. In 1928, Brenau created a female, residential, college-preparatory school with grades 9 through 12. The college remained exclusively female until the early 1970s, when Brenau began offering evening and weekend classes to both men and women.

Sidney O. Smith Jr.
Sidney O. Smith Jr. is a retired attorney whose career included service as a state trial court judge and as U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Georgia, serving as its chief judge for six years. He received an A.B. degree in government from Harvard College in 1947, where his classmates included the late U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. He earned a law degree from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1949. From 1980 to 1987, he served as a member of the University System Board of Regents. His father, Sidney O. Smith Sr. ,was a community leader and founder of the Gainesville insurance firm that bears his name.

Charles and Lessie Smithgall
Charles and Lessie Smithgall are the founders of a media empire that includes The Times and other media holdings. Their contributions to the life of Gainesville and Hall County are many. During their active ownership of the newspaper, they hired publisher Lou Fockele and editor Sylvan Meyer, who each made their own indelible impact on the community. The Fockele and Meyer era brought others, including longtime editor Johnny Vardeman, who shepherded The Times into a new age. But the legacy of the Smithgalls will long be what they did with their financial resources, endowing the arts, education and environment. The most recent project, Smithgall Woodland Gardens, is a legacy that will be reflected upon when future generations look back 100 years from now.

Loyd Strickland
Loyd Strickland is known for his role in the community effort to bring a public college to Hall County. Strickland, a confidant of then-Gov. Carl Sanders, served on the state highway board. He was a key player in the development of Interstate 985, which provided a gateway to Gainesville State College and Lanier Technical College. The interchange which connects to the college now bears his name.

Strickland's philanthropy is also widely known. He was among the early supporters of Eagle Ranch, now a thriving home for boys and girls. He is also a pioneer in the poultry industry as the founder of Chestnut Mountain Hatchery, which later became Crystal Farms, a major egg producer.

Charles Thurmond
Charles Thurmond, a Gainesville attorney, held many community leadership positions in a business career that spanned more than 60 years. Thurmond was president of the J.D. Jewell Co. and was among the first franchise holders of the Days Inn motel chain. Thurmond served as a member of the Georgia House and was also elected to the Gainesville City Council, serving as mayor. He was chairman of the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce and was chairman of the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority.

He was a trustee and chairman of Brenau College - a lecture hall on the university campus now bears his name - along with banker Ray McRae. In 1945, Thurmond was honored by the Gainesville Jaycees as their first Young Man of the Year.

James A. "Jim" Walters
James A. "Jim" Walters has found many avenues of community service. He served on the board of the Medical Center foundation, the philanthropic arm of Northeast Georgia Health System, from 1999 to 2008. Walters has also served on the Georgia Board of Natural Resources, recently completing a one-year term as chairman. Walters made his fortune in the consumer loan business and has shared many financial gifts with the community. He has been a benefactor for the hospital, Brenau University and the Boys and Girls Club. One of his most recent legacies is the naming of the Hall County YMCA in his honor.

Philip Wilheit
Philip Wilheit is the second generation of a family to find a niche manufacturing waxed boxes for the poultry industry. His late father and mother were both known for their service to the community and he has followed in their footsteps. For 20 years, Wilheit has been a board member of the Northeast Georgia Health System, serving many of those years as chairman. He has been a leader in economic development, first through the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce and then as a member of the state Board of Economic Development. Wilheit was a founding director of Gainesville Bank & Trust and is completing his service as chairman of GB&T Bancshares, which is merging with SunTrust Bank.

Bill Williams
Bill Williams for many years was the dean of the Hall County legislative delegation. Williams served during the time when funds were being sought for the start of Gainesville Junior College and Lanier Tech. He was known as a persistent fighter for his home area. While Bill Williams was an active Democrat, his son, Roger, is now a Republican state House member from Dalton.

Joe T. Wood Sr.
Joe T. Wood Sr., like Williams, served in a great era of change for Hall County. Wood, a World War II veteran, was known for his service to veterans both through the legislature and as a leader in local veterans organizations. He served as commander of the state of Georgia for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 1953 and is a life member of the VFW, the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans. He spent nearly half a century in the insurance business as a part owner of Turner, Wood and Smith insurance. He spent 23 years in the House and served many of those years as chairman of the Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee.



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