TIFTON — Like many communities in the South, Tifton and the towns nearby had an influx of Jewish merchants in the early part of the 20th century.
Many of them came from Russia, like Abraham Harris, who came to Ocilla in 1906, and Ike Perlis, who opened a dry goods store in Cordele.
One of the first in Fitzgerald was Isadore Goldenberg, who came to the U.S. from Romania and settled in Fitzgerald in 1900. Another was Abe Kruger, who opened a store in Fitzgerald in 1920.
The Jews in the region around Fitzgerald came to know each other and would gather in various rented halls to celebrate the Jewish Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Abe Kruger became one of the leaders of the Jewish gatherings in Fitzgerald and convinced the Jews from surrounding areas to purchase the former Methodist church and remodel it as a synagogue. It was dedicated at a celebration in 1942.
As World War II was coming to an end, a young intelligence officer from North Carolina fell in love with Abe Kruger’s daughter, Evelyn. Ralph and Evelyn Edwards were married for 67 years. They came to Tifton in the 1950s, where Ralph purchased a radio station and newspaper.
In 1980, he hired me and I became the first and only news director for his powerful FM station, which covered a wide swath of South Central Georgia. That summer, we decided to broadcast the election returns for the upcoming congressional election. It was the first time in a decade that the area would elect a new congressman and it was big news.
We hired 25 stringers in every county in the district and we rented a big ballroom at an Albany hotel.
WALB, the major TV station in the district, was counting on new computers at the Secretary of State’s office to get their returns. The computers did not work and folks from throughout the region were tuning in to our station for the returns.
As it turned out, it was the launching pad for my career and was Ralph Edwards’ radio swan song. He was already in negotiations to sell his stations. Two weeks later, I was offered a job with WALB.
Edwards didn’t fade away in retirement. He would eventually become Tifton’s first Apple computer dealer and spent his retirement years dabbling at the new world of these interesting little computers.
When he died a few days ago at the age of 95, I jumped in the car to attend his funeral.
While the Fitzgerald Hebrew Congregation, where Edwards would become a leading member, remains strong in its faith. Its numbers have dwindled. Many of the generations who followed those early merchants went on to live in places like Atlanta or elsewhere. The congregation hasn’t had a fulltime rabbi since 1975.
When the Edwards family needed someone to officiate at the memorial service in Tifton, they turned to Dr. W. Ches Smith III, the pastor-emeritus of First Baptist Church of Tifton.
In one of the most ecumenical eulogies I’ve ever witnessed, Smith used Psalms 1 and 23 and the Boy Scout Oath, as he remembered his friend. He said that Scouts were to be loyal, trustworthy, loyal and faithful and he said that Edwards was all of those.
Ralph Edwards demonstrated those qualities to me when he gave me the opportunity of a lifetime over 30 years ago.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.