When it comes to governors, Georgia has a fair share of both statesmen and colorful characters. We have had statesmen like Richard Russell, George Busbee, Joe Frank Harris and our current governor, Nathan Deal.
We had some colorful characters like Gene Talmadge, Marvin Griffin and Lester Maddox.
Somewhere in the mix was Zell Miller. He had a combination of a statesman’s resolve and the tenacity of the young Marine who became a public servant. The Marines will quickly tell you “once a Marine, always a Marine.” Zell Miller lived up to the motto of “Semper Fidelis,” always faithful. He was faithful to his family, his state and his God.
I was 14 years old when Zell Bryan Miller first took the oath of office as lieutenant governor in 1975. A nice fellow by the name of Frank Ellis was managing editor of The Walton Tribune in Monroe. I had been shooting a few pictures and writing a few stories for my local paper. I asked him about getting press credentials to cover the inauguration of our new governor and lieutenant governor. He said yes.
I don’t remember the words of Miller’s speech, but I remember that voice that had the flavor of the mountains he called home. In his 1992 speech to the Democratic National Convention, he said the voice was “more barbed wire than honeysuckle.”
Some people associate the mountain twang with uneducated hillbillies, wearing bib overalls and going without shoes. This was not Zell Miller.
He was a student of history. Not just Georgia history, but the entire world. It was a world he learned about at Young Harris College. His mama used to point to the mountain highway that went through the middle of town and reminded her son that you could get anywhere in the world starting on that road.
In a speech, he was likely to quote Mark Twain, a European monarch or a former American president. As a reporter, he was perhaps the most quotable public figure I ever encountered.
His best known quote was about a turtle.
“If you see a turtle sitting on a fencepost, you can bet one thing for sure — he didn’t get there by himself,” said Miller.
Zell Miller also knew a thing or two about people relations. In his early days in office, he had people combing newspapers to find information worthy of congratulations. Many years ago, when I joined the Monroe Lions Club, I got a letter from then Lt. Gov. Miller commending me on my civic work. Jeff Hullinger, the now dean of Atlanta TV anchors, got a letter from Miller when he was hired by Channel 5. The letter was sent to Hullinger in Denver, where he was working before moving here.
A few years ago, when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution stopped selling its paper in Young Harris. The Times saw an opportunity and began offering the paper at stores in the area. Among those who would buy a daily paper was Zell Miller.
One day, I returned from a meeting to find a voicemail on my phone. It was that familiar sound of barbed wire with a tinge of honeysuckle.
“You’re doing some pretty good writing down there,” said Miller. “Now, keep it up.”
The first part sounded like a neighbor. The second part was the old coach and teacher pressing me to work harder.
Someone asked the other day if there would be another Zell Miller. The answer is no, but we are a much better state because of him.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.