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Guest column: Heed the call to public service
0712SissyLawson
Emily Dunlap "Sissy" Lawson

It is often described as a clarion call, but it is rarely answered. It may be a cry in the wilderness befalling deaf ears. Or it may be equated to the massive live oak falling in the forest thicket; can it be heard? In today's jargon, its silence may be deafening.

Like my great-grandfather and my grandfather who helped to build our quaint community in the foothills of Northeast Georgia, I heeded the call to public service. In such, I became the first woman elected to our city council.

Much of what they built, structurally and traditionally, I tried to sustain. It is a marvelous Southern town steeped in tradition of family, church and civic opportunities. Six years following my initial election, I became the mayor.

Having taught in public school briefly, earned a real estate license, married and birthed two sons, I knew along the way to expect the call to public service. My time and life were filled with much the same community and parenting endeavors as many.

I and others founded our history museum, opened a shelter for women and children victims of domestic violence, created the South's first nature science center in the largest public park east of the Mississippi River and planted the seeds for the regions' first children's theater.

With a community resume in hand and two sons in public schools, I earned a seat at the council table. Quickly, I learned much about public traditions, consensus building, compromising for progress and public expectations.

I also set out to learn the intricate workings of local business, much as an enterprise with compassion. "Run the city like a business" I heard, but many a business has no real heart, no compassion and no sense of community.

My call produced realistic goals: local jobs, expanding our network of parks, enhancing the historic downtown sector, acquiring and legislating green space initiatives, boosting the visual arts and much more. It also came with unrealistic goals, perhaps unreachable goals for communities our size: recruiting and hosting a competitive sport for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Not only was our recruiting successful, we built a world class venue on Lake Lanier which, to this day, remains in its original mission hosting numerous world class competitions after the Olympic flame was extinguished.

In all I served 18 years on the city council including two, two-year terms as mayor. It was years after my initial election that another woman was elected to the body.

I encourage all to listen and recognize the clarion call to public service. It is an honorable avocation where one's compassion can become public policy. I appreciate what my forefathers built and what I am proud to know I sustained.

This essay by former Gainesville mayor and City Council member Emily Dunlap "Sissy" Lawson received first place in Georgia in the Daughters of the American Revolution essay competition.

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