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Rich: Carrying the torch of Southern tradition
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Sometimes two old souls can find each other and form a friendship that is anchored in rock solid respect and like thinking.

Such is my friendship with one of the greatest Southerners of modern time — Zell Miller. We understand each other and, quite simply, we speak the same language, the language of the Scotch-Irish who embedded themselves deep in the Southern mountains and hoped to never have to mix with a society different from theirs.

But Zell Miller, a man of courage and determination, defied the traditional way of loner Scotch-Irish thinking and ventured down from the North Georgia mountains to become a politician.

By the time his career ended in 2005 when he pulled his hat out of the ring he had thrown it into almost 50 years earlier, he was known as one of the greatest statesmen that the South had birthed.

Americans remember him as the renegade U.S. senator who, as a Democrat, would stir the political pot by addressing the Republican Convention in 2004. Georgians will never forget him as the man who gave the state hope. Literally.

A history professor, he believes keenly in the power of education. As Georgia's governor, he guided the use of lottery funds to establish the Hope Scholarship, guaranteeing any person who maintains certain academic criteria, a fully-paid education at a state college or university.

In many ways, I not only admire him, I adore him.

Recently as I lunched with him and his wife, Shirley, people repeatedly approached to say their "howdys" and give their thanks. Time after time, he courteously arose, shook hands and exchanged remarks.

"We sure do need you back in politics," one admirer said. "If you go back, you've got my vote."

He laughed gently and shook his head. "No, no. I'm through."

When she left, he eased down into his chair and I said quietly, "The weary has earned a rest from his labors, hasn't he?"

That's another thing that we, the old souls we both are, share in common. We are devout readers of the King James Bible, a poetic translation that because of its difficulty in deciphering, loses ground each day with young whippersnappers.

He is old enough to be my father yet I am, in many ways, more akin to him in spirit that any of my contemporaries. We have seen many similar trials and tribulations and are always ready to lend a word of support and kindness to each other.

When Mama died, he understood the loss - his mother had been one of his greatest loves - and sent me a touching, hand-written note. When his dog, a long-time companion, left this life, I understood that pain and sent him a sympathy note.

After writing two runaway New York Times best-selling books on politics, Miller has now written a heart-felt book that embraces the culture of the Appalachians called Purt Nigh Gone. In this lovely memoir of the rural mountains, he writes that the old ways of the Southern mountains are vanishing - "(a) way of life that once was but is no more, a way of life that is purt nigh gone." That, of course, is an old Scotch-Irish phrase.

I feel compelled to carry on a work that Zell Miller began long ago, to write of the culture of our people, to celebrate it and uplift it for its solid values and traditions. To remind those who have forgotten and to tell those who never knew.

"I've learned so much from you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart," I told him.

He blushed. "Aw, you embarrass me. Stop that."

Nonetheless, there comes a time, always there comes a time, when the torch must pass from one generation to another.

In this case, it is best passed from one old soul to another.

Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of the new book, "What Southern Women Know About Faith." Sign up for her newsletter.
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