Philip Wilheit is a man of no small influence in our state. A community leader and a successful business man — he is president and CEO of Wilheit Packaging in Gainesville — Wilheit is also one of Gov. Nathan Deal’s oldest and closest friends and advisers. He served as chairman of Deal’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2010 and now sits as a member of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.
His wife, Mary Hart, is a well-known community leader in her own right, having served as executive director of Gainesville/Hall ’96, home of the rowing/canoe/kayak venue for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.
Gainesville turned out to be one of the best — if not the best — venues during the Games.
As I have come to learn, Wilheit is fiercely loyal to Gov. Deal and has rapped my knuckles on those occasions when he thought I was practicing being governor without a license. I think it is fair to say that we share a mutual respect for one another.
We also share something else. Both of us have lost our homes to fire. Ours was back in the mid-1980s. The Wilheits lost theirs this past week. According to fire officials, heavy smoke was showing from the attic of their home when firefighters responded to a 7:40 p.m. call. By 9:15 p.m., Hall fire officials reported they were in a “defensive position.” That, I assume, means the fire had gone on the offense. It is believed the blaze started in the fireplace, but as of this writing, that is not for sure.
Losing one’s home to a fire is an experience that can only be appreciated (if that is the proper description) by those that have been through it.
Reading of the Wilheits’ fire brought back memories of the morning of Jan. 2, 1986, when we were awakened by the screech of smoke detectors at 5 a.m. I opened the bedroom door and was confronted with a thick haze of acrid smoke. (I sometimes think I can still smell it all these years later.) Making my way down the hall and through the family room to our garage, I discovered one of our automobiles on fire. (It was later determined that fumes from the carburetor of my little sports car had met up with the pilot light on our water heater and the rest, as they say, is history.)
Watching your house burn is a surreal experience. I can remember standing out in the street as flames shot up through the roof, paint cans exploding, timber falling and thinking how helpless I was to do anything about it, despite being a well-known control freak.
At the time, I was working closely with Gov. Joe Frank Harris on his education reform efforts. I remember thinking that I could call the governor at this moment and there would be nothing he could do to save my house. What a weird thought that was. Maybe Philip Wilheit had some of the same thoughts as his house went up in flames. I don’t know.
What I do know is that in my conversations with Wilheit since his fire, he has come to the same conclusion we did after the smoke had died away from our own: There is a direct correlation between cost and value. Wilheit told me, “Material things can be replaced so easily, but memories are impossible to replace.” Amen. Among the things we lost were little trinkets from my wife’s Scottish grandmother that likely had a monetary value of less than $100. They were and remain irreplaceable.
Fortunately, the Wilheits got out with their lives and, not so incidentally, the lives of their pets. Now, they will begin the task of putting their lives back together again. I suspect that the community spirit they have helped to foster in Gainesville will be returned to them many times over. As ye sow, so shall you reap. Philip and Mary Hart Wilheit have sown well.
It is hard to describe what it is like to lose your home to fire. Helpless is the best I can do. But we survived that painful experience and the Wilheits will, too. Obviously, it is going to take a while for them to get things back to some sense of normalcy. I am looking forward to the day when my friend Philip Wilheit once again raps my knuckles for practicing being a governor without a license. It can’t come soon enough.
Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint. Contact him at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; dickyarbrough. com; or on Facebook.