On my “To Do” list last week was a reminder to call former Gov. Carl Sanders and see if he had any thoughts on how to get the field at Sanford Stadium named for the University of Georgia’s former coach and athletic director Vince Dooley. I knew he would like the idea and perhaps could jerk a few chains I seem to have been unable to rattle thus far.
In addition, I wanted to visit with him and talk politics, one of our mutually favorite subjects. I made it a point to go see him a couple of times a year at his office. Each visit was a treasure. There was no one I admired more than Gov. Sanders, who died Nov. 15 at the age of 89.
The morning after we lost our oldest grandson, the first call I received was from the governor. (By the way, he was and always will be “The Governor” to me.) He had recently lost a grandson roughly the same age. He knew the pain we were experiencing and wanted to share some private thoughts with me. I will never forget that call or the man who made it.
He was an avid reader of this space along with his wife, Betty. I have a number of notes he had written over the years commending me on something I had said in a column. Then there were the times I would pick up the phone and hear his longtime assistant Doris Barnes say, “The governor would like to speak to you,” and he would tell me in real time.
On one occasion, a newspaper chose not to print one of my columns because my thin-skinned target had gone to the publisher and had wheedled him into not running it. Ms. Sanders called the governor to inform him my column was missing from the paper. He in turn called me to find out why. I told him. He was not happy.
Gov. Sanders wanted the publisher’s phone number in order to register a strong protest on Ms. Sanders and his behalf. I suggested we let it ride. Publishers can get cranky, too, and being chewed out by Carl Sanders for not running my column was one way to ensure that Ms. Sanders might never see it again — if he got my drift. The governor reluctantly agreed. I hung up the phone thinking, “Whoa. Did I just give Carl Sanders some political advice?”
I loved his stories about the characters who dotted Georgia’s political landscape in his day, except he would always end with the same admonition, “Of course, you can’t print that.” What a shame. You would have loved the stories — particularly the one about the mule.
On one of my last visits with him, he wanted to talk about Jimmy Carter. He didn’t care for the man and spoke at length about his dealings with Carter during his time as governor. He also didn’t care for the savagely racist attacks leveled by the Carter camp against him during the 1970 gubernatorial campaign between the two of them (Carter won with only 5 percent of the black vote, something his fawning sycophants
seem to have forgotten) and in the years that followed.
This is neither the time nor place to reprise that conversation but suffice it to say Carl Sanders was proud of the fact he never played the race card during his long and distinguished career and never compromised his integrity for political gain and could look himself in the mirror at night and not be ashamed of what he had said or done. This was more important to him than being president of the United States.
I asked Gov. Sanders once how he would like to be remembered. “I would like to be known as a good governor who did good things and made this a better state as a result,” he said.
Carl Sanders’ lasting legacy will be in having navigated Georgia through the civil rights turbulence of the 1960s while other governors across the South were posturing in schoolhouse doors and defying the U.S. Supreme Court. A lot of racists pushed him hard to resist integration, but he would not.
Why did he do what other Southern governors were unwilling to do? “I took an oath to uphold the law,” he said, “not break it.”
The best way to judge a person’s life is to determine whether or not he left the world better than he found it. Carl Sanders did. He was a great man. I am honored to have known him. I will miss him.