James Mathis Sr. understood what was important in life. The family man lent his business and marketing prowess to supporting education and preserving the history and natural beauty of Northeast Georgia.
Mathis passed away at age 84 in July, but the banker’s legacy is immortalized in the lecture halls of Gainesville State College, the quiet trails of Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve and in Cherokee Chief White Path’s cabin on display at the Northeast Georgia History Center.
Community leaders joined the Mathis family on Friday at Gainesville State College in celebrating Mathis’ achievements that shaped the landscape of Hall County.
Mathis, a Hall native, was president of Home Federal Savings and Loan Association, which later became a bank that merged with what is now SunTrust. He was a founder of Gainesville State College, the annual Mule Camp Market, Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve, the Elachee Nature Science Center and the Northeast Georgia History Center at Brenau University. He also volunteered as a Scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 26 for many years and was an active member and supporter of First Baptist Church of Gainesville.
His wife, Frances Mathis, said she is grateful to the community for supporting her husband’s ideas and honoring his memory.
"I think he would’ve liked this because it was a happy situation," she said of the celebration Friday.
Gainesville State President Martha Nesbitt said Mathis is the father of Gainesville Junior College, which evolved into Gainesville State. She said he oversaw the construction of the college.
"I am so happy James witnessed the transition from Gainesville Junior College to Gainesville State College, and from serving students in Gainesville to serving students from all over Northeast Georgia," she said. "We miss James, but his legacy will live on in this college."
Frank Armstrong of the Chicopee Woods Area Parks Commission said Mathis’ love for nature fueled his preservation efforts. Armstrong said Mathis considered nature a necessity, not a luxury, that is "the fountain of life."
"Nature helps restore the soul by washing away the cobwebs of sin," Mathis wrote.
Armstrong said Chicopee Woods turned out just as Mathis had hoped. The preserve is flourishing with a golf course, walking trails and a nature center.
Gainesville recently added 50 acres to the 3,000-acre preserve, Armstrong said, and Gainesville State College is teeming with a record number of students.
"Everything is moving in the right direction," Armstrong said. "James would be proud."