The Richard B. Russell Building Special Collection Libraries is a special place indeed on Hull Street in Athens, almost a Hail Mary pass across Lumpkin Street from Sanford Stadium.
The $41 million facility contains the papers and memorabilia of the late long-serving U.S. senator from Georgia, Richard B. Russell of Winder. It also houses the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 200,000 volumes of rare books and publications about Georgia and by Georgians, and is the home of the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, among many other notable historic records.
It is available for research or just touring numerous exhibits that bring pieces of Georgia history to life.
The idea of such a library resulted from a Sunday afternoon visit by a Gainesville family to Sen. Russell’s home in Winder in January 1970, a year to the month before he died.
W.L. Norton Jr., a lawyer and prominent bankruptcy judge, became acquainted with Sen. Russell when as a Gainesville High School freshman he served as a Capitol page in 1938. The Nortons got to know him better when W.L. worked in the U.S. Attorney General’s office in the early 1950s. His wife Adelaide served as secretary in Sen. Russell’s presidential campaign in 1952.
So W.L., Adelaide and their two young children, Bill III and Martha, were no strangers to Russell when they visited him in Winder. It was then that W.L. asked the senator what he planned to do with his papers. The senator said that the University of Georgia had asked him for them, but he worried that his records would get lost among all the other documents in the school’s main library.
Norton earlier had suggested forming a foundation that would be perpetually managed by friends that were committed to the sustenance of his status, reputation and government service. In the Winder meeting in January 1970, he outlined a charter that Russell took back to Washington to smoke over with aides. Two weeks later he called Norton to say he wanted him and Atlanta lawyer Robert Troutman to put the draft into final form. Russell asked that Sen. Herman Talmadge be the foundation’s first chairman and that Norton serve as attorney and secretary on the board of trustees.
A few weeks later, a WSB-TV film, “Richard B. Russell, Georgia Giant,” debuted before hundreds of friends, including President Richard Nixon, in Washington. Charles Campbell, Russell’s administrative assistant, recognized the fortuitous timing of the movie as a catalyst for a Russell Foundation. Norton and his law partner, J. Robert Cooper, a state representative, lobbied for legislative support.
Russell had said he didn’t want any money raised for the foundation while he was alive. The foundation raised more than a million dollars after his death to support a Russell Library in the university’s main library. The 45 tons of material that had been in storage in Athens were moved in 1974 to an expanded space in the library, which provided a separate entrance for the Russell collection.
When Norton’s family had visited Sen. Russell that January day in 1970, some of the material had been in a concrete block building behind his ancestral home in Winder.
Norton and other Russell friends continued to pursue a standalone building that would serve as a depository for the senator’s documents and memorabilia in conformance with his wishes. The foundation raised more millions, and the state legislature stepped up to provide two-thirds of the cost of the building. Ground finally broke on Hull Street in January 2010, four decades after Norton had outlined his idea to Sen. Russell.
The Richard B. Russell Special Collection Libraries was dedicated in February 2012.
Norton served on the Foundation board for a number of years and was succeeded by his son, Bill III. Late 9th District Rep. Phil Landrum was its second chairman.
Sheryl Vogt, director of UGA libraries, visited with Judge Norton recently and said she felt sure he recognized her and understood her conversation about the Russell Libraries despite suffering a stroke several months ago.
Abit Massey, president emeritus of Georgia Poultry Federation, which Norton represented on numerous occasions, said, “There would not be a Richard B. Russell Foundation if it were not for W.L. Norton.”
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.