It was 10 years ago this month that the Atlanta Business Chronicle asked me to write a column giving my view of Atlanta two years after the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. I had been the managing director of communications and government relations for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and the paper wanted to know how I thought the city had changed after hosting the world. Or had it changed at all? The offer was too good to resist.
I started by saying that Atlanta had blown a once-in-a-lifetime chance to put itself among the great cities of the world. What the world would remember instead was the city's tacky, and spectacularly unsuccessful, street vendors program that did nothing but clog up the streets.
I said Atlanta failed because there was no leadership in the city: not in the timid business community, not in a local media way over its head and certainly not in the race-obsessed city government. Needless to say, the column caused a stir.
The editors at the Business Chronicle were delighted with the furor and asked for some additional flame-throwers. The occasional column became a weekly column and then came an opportunity from my longtime friend and esteemed veteran political correspondent, Bill Shipp, to syndicate my efforts.
Now, here I am 10 years later heaving politically incorrect barbs to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million households a week across the state. It's not Mr. Rogers' neighborhood, but it's a pretty good neighborhood for this former robber baron.
It has been a marvelous experience that has lasted longer than I ever imagined. I have made new friends, lost some and jerked a lot of chains over the past decade.
There have been misfires. When the USS Cole suffered a sneak attack in 2000 and 17 innocent sailors were killed, I called all Arabs a bunch of "cowards," which upset Arabs around the world (an understatement). I later softened that to "Muslim extremists," which I probably should have said the first time. That only upsets self-styled comedian Bill Maher's Kool-Aid drinkers.
Over the past decade, I seem to have worn out my welcome with the higher-ups at the University of Georgia and with some, but not all, of my former colleagues at BellSouth. It is the university's attitude that is most puzzling. Given my passion for my alma mater and the reach of my column, I would have made me UGA's best friend had I been their PR counsel. But academics don't think that way. That is why they are academics.
This column has afforded me some great experiences. The most memorable was the opportunity to be embedded with the men and women of Georgia's 48th Brigade Combat Team in an area of Iraq known as the "Triangle of Death." It was a scary time made more so when our Humvee hit an IED. Only today do I realize how close all of us in that vehicle came that morning to becoming statistics in a war that has gone on far too long.
After 10 years, I figured I had said just about everything I wanted to say and planned to spend more time honing my skills as an artist. Then I wrote a column about a group of Marines in the remote killing fields of Afghanistan who badly needed supplies air-dropped to them.
The response from readers across the state was beyond anything I could have imagined. That reminded me that filling this space is more than pricking humorless thin-skins and watching them squeal. There is the opportunity to do some good, too.
I get a lot of mail -- most of it good, some of it critical, all of it welcomed. Of all the letters I have received over the past 10 years, the one I treasure most came a few weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A reader, reacting to some of my silliness, said, "Thank you for making me laugh. I never thought I would again."
Ten years of making folks laugh and cry or rant and sputter. It has been an absolute blast. I wouldn't trade the experience for all the sweet tea in Georgia.
Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. You can reach him at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; Web site.