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Column: Famous and not-so-famous, these folks comprised a small part of the fabric of Gainesville’s community
Johnny Vardeman

Thousands of Gainesvillians have made their marks one way or another since the city’s official founding 200 years ago.

Obviously, they are too numerous to mention. Here are just a few who helped make memories for the rest of us.

Tommy Aaron is one of only 70 winners of the Masters Golf Tournament out of thousands of professional golfers. Remarkable in itself, Tommy grew up in Gainesville where the little golf course was lacking and only a handful of people played. He was the only one of his age group to pick up the clubs at that time.

Many other Gainesville athletes played college sports, some of whom advanced to the pros. They included Billy Martin and Billy Lothridge, who starred at Gainesville High School and Georgia Tech before joining the pros, quarterbacks Preston Ridlehuber and Deshaun Watson, baseball pitcher Cris Carpenter, catcher Jody Davis, Riverside Military grad Bucky Curtis, an all-American pass receiver at Vanderbilt, Tommy West, Mike “Moonpie” Wilson and all-around athlete Jack Roberts, to mention a few.

Tom Paris Sr. and Tom Paris Jr. played football at the University of Georgia.

The Banks family was prominent in Gainesville’s history in many ways, starting with Dr. Richard Banks. A noted physician, Cherokee Indians would wait for his medical treatment in the yard of his home. Dr. Banks, for whom Banks County is named, restored the sight of many of the blind and made some headway in the treatment for smallpox.

H.W.J. Ham was such an eloquent speaker that his reputation spread nationally. The folksy, witty orator was in such demand he was on the road constantly, so much that it affected his health, and he died at age 57 in 1907. He also had taken turns as editor of the Georgia Cracker and Gainesville Eagle.

While in Gainesville, Ed Dodd, an outdoorsman, turned his eye for art into cartooning, eventually syndicating the comic strip “Mark Trail” on a national level. He partnered with another Gainesvillian, Jack Elrod, who eventually took over the strip, and a third Gainesville artist, James Allen, succeeded him. “Mark Trail” still appears in newspapers across the country with its fourth artist.

Malcolm “Mike” Johnson, a Gainesville High School graduate in 1922, cut his journalistic teeth on the school newspaper. He was a World War II correspondent for New York newspapers and won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for his “Crime on the Waterfront” series. His son, Haynes Johnson, also won a Pulitzer Prize and was a frequent guest on TV news programs.

At least two others with Gainesville ties won Pulitzer Prizes. Michael duCille, another Gainesville High graduate, won two prizes as a photographer for the Miami Herald and Washington Post. He got his start as a photographer at The Times while still in high school. Another former Times newswoman, Deborah Blum, won a Pulitzer writing for the Sacramento Bee.

Then there are those who never gained national recognition, but are such a part of the fabric of the community they deserve some mention.

The late Bimbo Brewer was a beloved character who seemed to know everybody in North Georgia. He touched many lives with his eternal optimism and wit and wore many hats as a newsman, law enforcement officer, sports player and fan and community volunteer.

Possum Bailey was a unique employee of the City of Gainesville. He held a humble job, helping clean city streets. But he did it with dedication and was a lovable familiar sight, pushing his cart and usually wearing a rumpled felt hat, overalls and denim jacket.

The Old Soldier, as people called him, wasn’t a Gainesvillian, but residents knew him as the guy who wore a World War I uniform and constantly walked all over town and often on Atlanta Highway. His name was Luther Cleghorn, who sang in the choir at then-Blackshear Place Baptist Church.

Then there was Pledger Strayhorn, one of the friendliest Gainesvillians ever. He walked everywhere unless somebody offered him a ride. He would instinctively wave to one and all as he passed by them. Pledger’s vocation was odd jobs and yard work for the many residents who remember him fondly. The community was saddened when he was struck by a car on one of his walks down the street.

While that is only a partial list, these are examples of the famous and not-so-famous who make a community what it is.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or His column publishes weekly.