I knew today eventually would come. This is my final column for The Times.
It’s been an exciting and fulfilling ride, starring my 54th consecutive year writing a regular column. I sold The Gainesville Tribune when my Air Force Reserve unit got a two-year no-notice recall to active duty during the Vietnam War. When I discharged, I was offered several jobs elsewhere but ultimately decided I didn’t want to leave Gainesville.
Times Publisher Lou Fockele hired me before we moved into the present building, which was under construction. There have been several expansions and renovations. The paper has been a consistent award-winner. Fockele sent staff members to specialized weeklong training seminars all over the country. I remain one of only two in Georgia Press Association history to win first place in best column and most fearless column, in both weekly and daily divisions.
I served on the board of managers and as vice president of the GPA weekly division and was slated to become president when called to active duty. Other awards won over the years included best photo, best feature, best religious column, best investigative reporting and a number of second- and third-place finishes. Some remain on the hallway wall, last I knew.
Fockele encouraged staffers to get involved in community affairs, even partisan politics. I turned down a request to chair a governmental efficiency committee, but Fockele learned of it and asked me to do it. Over a two-year period, we recommended and saw enacted numerous reforms. We initiated the 911 system, created the frame work for countywide ambulance, fire protection, water and sewer services and consolidation of several duplicative offices, such as planning and zoning, tax, joint task force, etc.
Back then, the county borrowed money (with interest) to operate all year until taxes came in. Various departments, meanwhile, were holding their collections in accounts at their favorite banks. We recommended banks bid on interest rates to become the official depository where collected taxes, fines and fees were deposited at least semi-monthly. Controversially, we got the first professionally trained city and county managers and road engineers.
The Times gave me paid time off (three days quarterly around the state) for my 20-plus years service on the Georgia Small Business Advisory Council, the longest tenure of any member in its history. Our adopted recommendations turned the 6,000-employee SBA from personnel going door to door trying to loan money (with a high loss ratio) into a 4,000-employee agency letting certified local banks who knew the borrowers better make the loans, with the SBA guaranteeing up to 75 instead of 100 percent, with far fewer failures. We conceived and led the creation of Small Business Development Centers in Georgia (19 now, I believe), and across the nation. Georgia continuned to trail only California in number of loans but was first in percentage of unfailed loans.
I spent most of one summer on the road. Many claimed there were two Georgias, one north, one south, the north getting everything. I was to find out. I’d leave home Sunday afternoon and return Friday night, exploring the state, visiting all 159 counties. On highways, I’d turn onto side roads, some paved, some dirt, stop at random houses and, if the dogs let me, knock on the door and interview residents. When I approached and left towns, I’d stop at several outlying businesses such as auto dealerships, farm equipment, manufacturing plants, etc., talking to the owners and managers. In town, I’d visit city hall, courthouse, chamber of commerce, beauty and barber shops, clothing stores and restaurants, where I’d ask people if I could join them and talk with them.
I didn’t find two Georgias; I found SIX! My findings were published in a special section (“The Six Faces of Georgia”) and entered into the Southeastern Publishers Association special section contest with a $5,000 cash prize. I’m convinced it would have won first place except that our advertising department had sold advertising to poultry plants and hatcheries and the paper increased the last section with those several unrelated ads, effectively killing the theme. I still won the second place prize of $2,500.
Those trips gave me a deep insight into our state, leading me to regular election-year, weeklong “Georgia Tours” similarly, testing the statewide political pulse. On election morning, I’d give Johnny Vardeman my predictions. After the polls closed, he’d open them. I missed very few.
On election night, we’d collaborate with radio station WDUN, their reporters and ours going to various precincts and candidates’ headquarters. I’d be on the air at the station or sometimes the station would broadcast from our newsroom. I developed a system enabling me to name the winners after only about 4 to 5 precincts reporting, missing only two or three through all the years. I co-hosted “Morning Talk” on WDUN for 17 years (telling what was in the paper every broadcast).
I wrote an investigative series on the growing trend of gated resort-like communities. That led to my uncovering a colossal fraud where crooked developers were using government-owned land, converting it to their own. That investigation cost a couple of unsuspecting banks considerable money and sent six people to jail.
One of my first Times assignments was running a “help line” where people could call with problems they couldn’t solve. They ranged from helping the homeless to helping prove the innocence of a man charged with a crime in Mississippi when the information I gathered proved it would have been impossible. The district attorney wrote me a letter of thanks and apologized to the man.
I had a group of anonymous donors to a help fund I maintained. Our biggest such project was a young divorced mother of two small children who had been working two permanent, part-time jobs and occasionally a third one while taking classes, looking after the children and going to school. She was physically and emotionally tired and lacked the money to finish her final year in nursing school. We had quit all but one part-time job, loaned or guaranteed loans for her last year’s costs and gave her and the children a week’s vacation before she started work. Most donors forgave her loans and the remaining few delayed payments for three months after she started work. She sent half of her first paycheck to the fund.
A cruise sponsored by The Times, who selected me to escort, ultimately led to my longtime travel-escort business, where I spent at least one night in all 50 states, many more in most. I made a total of 15 14-day trips to Alaska alone. I’ve been in every Canadian province, every Central American country except Costa Rica, every South American country except Chile, most Caribbean islands, every European country except for three Scandinavian states, to Japan, the Philippines, Guam, Cambodia, South Vietnam, Laos and Hong Kong. I had a trip scheduled to leave for Australia, New Zealand and the Fiji Islands three days after 9/11. Uncle Sam canceled it.
The Times had to give me two weeks off for my annual two-week Air Force active duty tour. They voluntarily went much further, giving me added unpaid time off for some special tours, some as long as 60 days. I was one of 221 reservists nationally from Army, Army National Guard, Navy, Marines and their respective air branches, Coast Guard, Air Force and Air Force Reserves nationwide to attend the National War College summer course, an abbreviated version of the full nine-month course. Twenty-one attendees were selected to return the following year to be a class moderator.
I was selected. The next year, I had to three days earlier for training and stay three days later to write ERs and critiques. One moderator was selected to return a third year. I was selected and had to go a week earlier and stay another week. It was during those years at that highest level military institution where top-secret clearance was required that I learned about such things as factors of national power, interrelationships of the various military branches, the histories of treaties around the world, results good and bad, reaching back centuries. We had top-notch expert lecturers. It was there I learned about organized international terrorism.
The origin of everything in my career as described can be traced back to my association with The Times. It was a great ride.
Ted Oglesby is retired associate and opinion page editor of The Times. You can reach him at P.O. Box 663, Gainesville, GA 30503.