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Zell pens history of Young Harris, signs copies of new book today
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Jill Goforth, principal of New Holland Core Knowledge Academy in Gainesville, talks about her visits to elementary schools in Egypt.

When Zell Miller calls, there is no doubt who is on the line. The former governor and U.S. senator once described his own mountain twang as "flavored by the Blue Ridge" and "more barbed wire than honeysuckle."

But it’s Miller’s love of his alma mater, Young Harris College, and the tiny village of the same name that is heard in his newest book, "The Miracle of Brasstown Valley."

Miller will be in Gainesville to sign copies of the book from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. today at Lemstone Christian Store at 1210 Thompson Bridge Road.

The voice on the other end of the telephone interview is not the fabled Georgia politician, but the historian who clearly has a deep love for the mountains.

"This is a story that I’ve heard bits and pieces of all my life," Miller said. "It was a story that I wanted to try to pull together and tell. It’s different from anything I’ve written in a long time."

The book begins with the story of a circuit riding Methodist preacher, Artemas Lester, who made his way into the mountains with the idea of starting a school.

In 1885, he came to what was then known as McTyeire, later to become Young Harris. The community was first named for Bishop Holland Nimmons McTyeire, who was the first president of Vanderbilt University.

Nancy Louise Haynes Stephens Sanderson, a widow who had been married to two wealthy men, gave Lester use of an old store, where classes began with seven students.

George W. Truett, a Baptist, had the same idea at about the same time and started a school in the county seat of Hiawassee with his cousin, F.C. McConnell.

Truett went on to become pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, which during his pastorate was the largest church in the world. McConnell would become pastor of Druid Hills Baptist Church, a large congregation in Atlanta.

Their school, Hiawassee Academy, grew to 300 students. The two men are the namesakes of Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland.

Lester was assigned by the church to Rome and never returned to see the school he started.

The school’s greatest benefactor never set foot on the campus. Judge Young Loftin Gerdine Harris of Athens served in the state legislature from both Elbert and Clarke counties and learned of the school in the mountains.

"Young Harris was a big Methodist church member, and didn’t have time to come and look at this school in the Brasstown valley," Miller said. "So he sent his associate, a Mr. Thomas, who looked it over and liked the idea."

Thomas approached Sanderson about the need for more land, and she gave them 10 acres, which is now a part of the campus.

"Nancy Louise was sort of the angel that helped them along with their dream," Miller said.

Harris would contribute money for land and buildings, and the school was renamed Young Harris Institute. The town became known by the same name.

The college continued to struggle. But near the turn of the century, Dr. Joseph Sharp was named president.

"For the next 20 years, Sharp was the one who really made the college grow," Miller said.

Sharp bought a farm to allow students to work in exchange for their education.

"A man brought an old bull in and wanted to see Dr. Sharp," Miller said. "He wanted to give him that bull in exchange for that much college for his son."

Among the faculty members hired by Sharp were Stephen Grady Miller and Birdie Bryan, who eventually married and had a daughter and son, the youngest named Zell.

"If Dr. Sharp hadn’t given these people a job, they would never have met and there wouldn’t be a Zell Miller," he said.

The book concludes at the end of Sharp’s tenure. The former senator and governor said he is toying with the idea of a sequel or two.

"If I live that long," he said.