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Harris Blackwood: Zell Miller’s influence at state Capitol hasn’t faded
Zell Miller
Former Georgia Governor Zell Miller, right, waves when acknowledged with wife Shirley during an inaugural ceremony for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal at the state Capitol, Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, in Atlanta. - photo by Associated Press

I don’t remember the exact day I first went to the state Capitol, but I was about 8. My mama had grown up dirt poor and thought it was important for her boys to see the Capitol and other important buildings.

We attended the inauguration of Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1971 and then, a few weeks later, we came back to see them honor U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell. I stood on the sidewalk of Washington Street as President Richard Nixon went inside to pay his respects to Russell, who died on Jan. 21, 1971.

Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

In the summer of 1975, Gov. George Busbee called a special session of the Georgia General Assembly to balance the state budget. I was 15 and convinced the press officials of the House and Senate that I was a reporter.

I was given a pass that allowed me full access to the floor of the House and Senate. It was that week that I first met Zell Bryan Miller of Towns County, who was in his first term as lieutenant governor.

He spoke with an unmistakable mountain twang. At 43, he seemed old to a boy of 15, but he was kind and understanding to this boy-turned-reporter.

I had interviewed House Speaker Tom Murphy about the budget impasse. Murphy was placing some of the blame on Miller, without mentioning him by name. I recorded the whole thing.

I then went to Miller’s office and waited my turn. I was so nervous that I couldn’t remember exactly what Murphy said, so I just rewound my tape and played it for him.

I saw Miller’s face become red and when Murphy finished, the lieutenant governor said, “Turn that thing on.” I did and he responded with an equally strong retort.

For the next 30 years, I covered the legislature for radio, TV and newspapers.

I was always fond of Miller. He was an aficionado of country music. In his early campaigns, “Zell” was always represented by a pair of cowboy boots replacing the letters “L” in his name.

When I began writing for The Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was no longer available in Young Harris. The Times was offered daily in stores. One of those who bought a copy was Zell Miller. I was beaming one day when I checked my voicemail and had an “Attaboy” from our former governor and U.S. senator.

I had known for some time that his health was in decline. When I saw him at the funeral for former Rep. Ed Jenkins in 2012, you could tell that the old mountain lion was not the ferocious cat of years before.

When the public announcement was made that he is suffering from a form of Parkinson’s disease, it wasn’t news to me. But it was a stark reality that we would not see the man from the mountains on the public stage again.

About 15 years ago, I took my little girl to the Capitol to act as a page in the House of Representatives. I guess the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree as that same bug, the love for that grand old gold-domed gal, had bitten her, too.

Ashton Blackwood became a familiar face at the Capitol as an assistant to Sen. Butch Miller and the other senators who served as Gov. Nathan Deal’s floor leaders.

A few months ago, another of the young people with the Capitol bug, Bryan Miller, grandson of Zell, invited Ashton to join him in building the Miller Institute Foundation. One of the goals is to carry on the legacy of Zell Miller by preparing a new generation to find a place in public service.

I am so sad that a cruel disease has clouded the windows in Zell Miller’s mind. But I have to believe that he would be happy to know that the daughter of that boy reporter from four decades ago is now working to see that a new generation can learn from his distinguished record of service. 

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on

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