September 22, 2020

Professor’s challenge helped redirect future

            By the way he strutted, you could tell he was enjoying his rookie professorship.   As he stood before us—sharply dressed in a glen plaid sport coat, a starched oxford-cloth shirt, a striped silk tie, crisp khakis and spit-shined, oxblood Bass Weejuns—he pushed up his tortoiseshell eyeglasses and gave us a menacing stare.

            “I need you to know,” he scowled, “I have never given an A+, and I don’t expect to give one this quarter.”

            If I had been sitting in a quantum physics or calculus class, I would have thought, “Ummmm, there’s no danger of me breaking that record.”

            But the textbook that he was thumping was The PRESS and AMERICA, AnInterpretative History of Journalism.  (I just paused and plucked it from my bookcase.)  This wasn’t about using a slide rule or an empty pocket in my brain.  He was talking about one of my favorite subjects—history—and required memorization. 

            I was up for the challenge.  

            His tests were multiple choice.

            If you attended every class, you got an idea of what he thought was important.  At night, I’d reread the day’s material and underline what he had stressed.  (I just paused, again, and thumbed through the 801 pages.  The musty smell took me back to 1969 and UGA’s Henry W. Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communications.)  I must have worn out a couple of blue-ink Bic pens, underlining and scribbling in the margins.

            In those days, printer’s ink hadn’t flirted with invading my veins.  A 49-year career in newspapers, nah.  But I figured a journalism degree would be a good springboard to law school.  Little did I know then that the overly confident young professor was helping to redirect my future.

            He introduced me to John Peter Zenger, whose 1735 libel-trial victory continues to resonate today.  While Zenger became a hero for free speech, it was his “Philadelphia lawyer,” Andrew Hamilton, who persuaded the court to free his client.

            On page 745, I reread what textbook author Edwin Emery wrote:

            “The obligations of any newspaper to its community are to strive for honest and comprehensive coverage of the news, and for courageous expression of editorial opinion in support of basic principles of human liberty and social progress.”

            That, our readers, is why I still do what I do.  

            I am convinced—more than ever—that strong newspapers help to build strong communities.  What you are reading at this moment is not the national media.  We are yourmedia—yournewspaper.  Prior to COVID-19, we sat by you in church.  We stopped and visited with you in the grocery store.  We cheered with you at ball games.  Our children played with your children.  We hugged your necks at funerals.

            Those days will return.  But in the meantime, we covet your continued trust and readership. Your subscription andadvertising dollars support our biggest investment—gathering, editing and disseminating the news.  The fact that we can’t hug your necks—during this pandemic—doesn’t mean that we don’t need or appreciate your loyal support. Without you, our newsrooms would be dark and growing cobwebs in the corners. 

            Without that cocksure professor, I might have become a lawyer.

            Instead, I’m entering my 50thyear of this. And after all these years, I’m still savoring at least one A+ that he said he’d never give.

            I love a challenge.

            I am glad the preppy professor urged me to study and learn more.

But most of all, I am especially grateful for you, our readers and advertisers.

Thank you.

September 15, 2020

Canon greets Mickey Mantle with a boom

            Franklin and Hart counties share the small town of Canon. And if you blink, you’ll miss the low-slung concrete-block building that squats beside Highway 17.

        What happened in that beer joint—years ago—makes me laugh every time I drive between Lavonia and Royston.

         Besides being the editor and publisher of The Herald-Journalin Greensboro, Carey Williams is a walking book of stories. You’d need a jumbo pack of Crayolas to be as colorful as Carey. He’s how I learned about a famous visitor to Canon’s former roadside watering hole.

         Among Carey’s eclectic circle of friends was one of my boyhood idols, Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees. There was a time I could rattle off the entire roster. In those days baseball fans either loved or hated the Yankees.

         I lovedrooting for the Yankees. 

In the summer of 1960—on a road trip with my Aunt Lillie—she made one of my dreams come true. There I was, albeit in the cheap seats, watching Mickey, Roger, Yogi, Whitey, Elston, Tony, Clete, Bobby and the rest of my pinstriped heroes trot onto Yankee Stadium’s diamond. 

When we returned to Jesup, I thumbtacked a Yankees souvenir pennant to my bedroom wall. Sixty years later, grandson William NeSmith, 11, displays that faded felt triangle. I was the same age when I visited New York.

After retiring, Mickey spent time in Carey’s backyard—well, Lake Oconee. That’s how they met, probably playing poker. Carey became Mickey’s go-to person if the switch-hitting slugger wanted to know something about anything in Northeast Georgia.

One day, Mickey said, “I hear there’s a Ty Cobb Museum around here.” Carey said, “It’s in Royston, his hometown.” Mickey grabbed a half-empty bottle of whiskey and said, “Let’s go.” Besides belting the baseball, The Mick belted back more than his share of stiff drinks.

Carey said Mickey polished off the bottle on the way to Franklin County. And when they got to the museum, Mickey stayed andstayed. He wanted to see and read everything about the “Georgia Peach.” Heading to Greensboro, Mickey said, “Time out. I’m out of whiskey. I’ll need more for the trip home.”

Carey thought a minute and said, “In these parts, there’s only one place that I know of to get what you want. It’s The Flats in Canon.”

“Let’s go there,” Mickey said.

When Carey pulled off Highway 17, there was a cluster of cars around The Flats. Stepping inside, they were greeted by a haze of blue smoke and a blaring country song on the jukebox. Mickey beelined for the bar. The proprietor couldn’t believe the Major League Hall of Famer was at his bar and Mickey was thirsty.

Carey says the barkeep—over the loud music, laughter and clicking billiards balls—tried to get everyone’s attention. He wanted his patrons to know who had just walked in the door. After shouting, louder and louder, the bartender gave up.

And then he had an idea.

Reaching beneath the counter, the barkeeper pulled out a pistol and aimed at the ceiling.


Pool cues dropped. To a hushed crowd, the shooter announced, “Everybody, I just wanted y’all to know that we have a special guest among us. Please welcome the great Mickey Mantle.”

With his signature boyish grin and a tip of his cap, Mickey said, “@#&*! I’ve been introduced all over the world, but this is the loudest introduction that I’ve ever gotten.”

Next time you’re passing through Canon, think about the late Yankees legend and Mickey’s one-and-only visit to The Flats.

         And if you laugh, you can thank his colorful poker-playing buddy Carey.

September 8, 2020

A ‘coal fox’ is in EPA’s ‘henhouse’

            Even above the commotion caused by COVID-19, you could hear the EPA’s hooves in the rules-change stampede. The Environmental Protection Agency—despite the public’s concern and comments—was determined to gallop toward weaker regulations for toxic coal ash.

            We shouldn’t be surprised.

Kissing the coal industry and its customers on the mouth was predestined.

Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, assured us of that when he was appointed the EPA’s new director. If ever there was a proverbial fox put in the henhouse, this would be a classic example.

On April 24, 2018, I was in Washington to testify about proposed coal-ash rules. Someone asked, “Where’re the coal folks?” I replied, “They’ve already been here. Look at these proposed rules. This is their wish list. We are just going through the motions so that the EPA can say it had a public hearing.”

Was I wrong?


But if we are suckered by Director Wheeler’s spin, you’d believe Americans are safer, courtesy of the agency charged to protect us and our environment.

In a July EPA news release, Wheeler said that new rules would give electric utilities enough time to “retrofit or replace unlined impoundment ponds.” He continued, “The public will also be better informed as EPA makes facility groundwater monitoring data more accessible and understandable.”

Translate that to read: “The lobbyists did their homework—spending whatever it took—to get what they wanted.”

When I was in Washington, I met attorney Lisa Evans of Earthjustice. We had been swapping emails since 2016, when the toxic coal-ash controversy flared up in Wayne County. Lisa, an expert on the subject for the global nonprofit, has countered Wheeler’s statements.

In a July article in The Hill, she said, “EPA is disingenuous. EPA is clearly fulfilling the demands of industry. This is coal lobbyist rule. This is Andrew Wheeler’s rule, and we wouldn’t expect anything different.  This rule allows tens of millions of tons of additional toxic waste to be placed in impoundments we know are leaking.”

Amen, Sister.

Visit Juliette in Middle Georgia.

I did.

And here’s what I saw.

Frightened residents were filling jugs with safe drinking water that was hauled in from elsewhere, away from the suspected leaking toxic coal-ash ponds of Georgia Power’s Plant Scherer. A group of residents are suing the utility on the belief that their wells are contaminated.

In the meantime, Monroe County officials have approved $16.3 million in revenue bonds to install more than 70 miles of water lines around Lake Juliette of Fried Green Tomatoes fame. Clean air and safe water are keystones to quality of life.

That is why our newspaper fought against a plan that would have dumped as much as 10,000 tons of toxic coal ash per day into the local landfill. Georgia Power said it “had no plans” to dump its coal ash in Wayne County. That was good, but we were clear that we didn’t want anyone’s toxic trash.

Just as the EPA brushes off concern over coal ash, Georgia Power’s attitude seems to be the same. Consider the cocky tone of these two 2016 emails that I got from Chris Cummiskey, then Georgia Power’s executive vice president:

“And coal ash (I will contend) is safer than other things going into landfills in Georgia ….” (3-6-2016, 12:15 pm)

“I guess fear and wrong facts do sell papers!” (3-6-2016, 12:28 pm)

Cummiskey is one of the utility’s rising stars. Perhaps he’s introduced the arrogant flipside of the longstanding warm-and-fuzzy slogan: “A Citizen Wherever We Serve.”

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, we could easily lose focus on how the lobbyists are influencing the EPA to put America at more health and environmental risks.

But we shouldn’t.

The past is a good predictor of the future.

There’s proof that some companies will spend whatever it takes to get what they want, including weaker pollution laws. According to the Energy and Policy Institute, the Southern Company—Georgia Power’s parent—has spent more than $135 million over the past decade to pedal political influence. That’s more than any utility in America, and it does not count what Georgia Power spends on a busload of lobbyists.

We need EPA looking out for our best interest, just as we need Georgia Power doing the same.

But as these two emails and recent EPA actions show, we don’t need anyone in Atlanta or Washington peeing on our legs and trying to convince us it’s raining.

August 25, 2020

‘Precious memories how they linger’

             As I stood on the pebble-laced hill, Mack, Kenworth and Peterbilt big rigs roared one way to Newton and the other way to Colquitt. Fanning gnats under Southwest Georgia’s heat lamp, I felt a chill, as BB-sized sweat beads cascaded down my spine. I wanted to cry, but tears would not build back my great-grandparents’ house.

For a century, the dog-trot structure had stood, along Highway 97, on pillars of stacked field stones. Its amber heart-pine walls—inside and out—had never been touched by a dab of paint. All that was left of my boyhood oasis was dirt, the same dirt that had once felt magical to my bare feet so many summers ago. On the day of my visit, the soil was moist, courtesy of a monstrous aluminum creature called a center-pivot irrigation system.

I knew change was coming to Baker County. The demand for uninsulated, rusty, tin-roofed houses would fall short, way short, of the value of rich soil to grow peanuts and cotton. That’s why I had sent word that I wanted to dismantle Pa and Ma McNeal’s house. I was going to reuse the vintage lumber to build something to remind me of my mother’s heritage.

Somehow, the message was lost or forgotten. A Caterpillar bulldozer destroyed those hopes before Pa could have harnessed his mule and hitched a plow. A few splashes of diesel fuel and a match sent black smoke swirling into the sky.

Pa moved his family there in 1910. By the time I was old enough to swing on the backyard pump’s handle, Ezra McNeal was resting in Pilgrims Home Primitive Baptist Church’s graveyard. I would have loved to tag along with the pint-sized farmer, known for his pine-knot toughness. The legend is that Pa would say, “If he’s bigger than you, pick up a level and knock hell outta him.”

Standing 4-foot-11 and stoop-shouldered from years of hoeing and picking cotton, Ma had a personality that was the polar opposite of Pa’s. ­Her heart was featherbed soft. People who knew Miz Susie declared she was a Heavenly saint on earth. Mean-spirited words did not cross her lips—lips that had never been painted with a dime’s worth of lipstick.

I can see her now. Around her weathered neck is a shawl crocheted by an aunt as a wedding gift seven decades ago. The mother of five is resting in a petite oak rocker in front of her bedroom’s fireplace. Her stubby, calloused toes are waving with the hiss of orange embers, a reminder of the morning fire that broke the Baker County darkness.

On my last trip to Ma’s house, I rescued that rocker. In the waning years of my mother’s life, she greeted sunrise rocking and praying in that heirloom chair. Today when I sit in it, I can smell the blackberry cobblers baking in Ma’s woodstove. And I smile, thinking about the saint who put cold biscuits in the corner pie safe, waiting for great-grandchildren to poke their thumbs into the fluffy centers and fill the holes with cane syrup.

I pay regular homage to Pilgrims Home Primitive Baptist Church, where the pioneers of my mother’s family are buried. Mother told me how the church got its name. She explained, “As my people were bouncing in a wagon from Alabama to Georgia, mean-spirited kids ran along the sides and taunted, ‘Here come the gypsies! Here come the gypsies!’”

Frightened, my grandmother and her siblings cried. Ma cooed, “No, my dear children. We aren’t gypsies. We are pilgrims. We are on our way to a new home.”

“… Precious memories how they linger

How they ever flood my soul … ”

You can’t destroy those, you monstrous aluminum creature.

August 18, 2020

The Smithonia 10 give us hope

            With newly minted diplomas from one of the best public universities in America, nine University of North Carolina (UNC) graduates were ready for rocket rides into their careers. But if prestigious Chapel Hill had been their launching pad, why did these scholars land in Smithonia, a historic crossroads in Oglethorpe County?

            The answer: COVID-19.

            When you harness 10 bright minds, including a Georgia Tech grad, a pandemic can become an opportunity-laden detour rather than a roadblock. Years from now, I predict the Smithonia 10 will say this summer’s experience made their careers’ soar even higher.

            I felt that energy and possibility surging inside the brick walls of the 115-year-old brick commissary that once served James Monroe Smith’s 20,000-acre agricultural empire.

When Atlantans John and Jane Robertson bought their Smithonia farm in 1996, the commissary was in shambles—three walls and no roof. Their oldest grandson, Nicholas Byrne, who would become a distinguished UNC Morehead-Cain Scholar, was born later that year.

Today the three-story structure is more than a place to store John’s tractor and tools, house historical artifacts and provide accommodations for family and guests. It’s an incubator of hope. Our across-the-road neighbor John said, “If you look around this room, you have to feel good about America. Young people, like these, give us hope.”

After studying advertising and music at UNC, Nicholas set up a video and audio production studio in the commissary to explore his passion—digital music. The bricks absorb the sound, but I can see lights burning into the night. Nicholas’ digital wizardry has attracted attention from some of Nashville’s biggest artists—Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt and Keith Urban—asking him to design advertising campaigns.

But for a 23-year old—pandemic or no pandemic—life can be lonely, miles from the bright lights. With his grandparents’ blessings, Nicholas masterminded a problem-solving idea. He invited nine of his friends to join him in Smithonia to “create a community” and collaborate. As a rural think tank, the 10 have quarantined themselves for most of the summer.

The blue-chip roster includes grads from across America and one from Singapore. Their academic interests are wide-ranging: business, environmental science, technology, photography, music, dance, choreography, performance art, artificial intelligence, studio art, philosophy, religion and public policy. Several are enrolled in graduate schools, including UGA. Two are MIT graduate students.

Vijay Rajkumar was born in Boston and grew up in Singapore. Vijay and Benjamin Tasistro-Hart will take their life lessons from Smithonia back to MIT for their second year of graduate architectural studies. Vijay said, “We are spread out across the country, but we came together to use COVID-19 to our advantage.”

 Heads nodded.

 They all endorsed the creation of a community of collective collaboration on music, art, architecture, entrepreneurship, video, social media and cooking. With the mention of cooking, Eric Lee, self-anointed pit master, broke into a grin.

Heads nodded, again.

They really liked John’s teaching them how to roast a pig on the Fourth of July. When I was in the commissary, the aroma of barbecuing ribs wafted around the room.

John, a retired Waffle House executive, said, “We wanted them to experience all the good things about living in the country.” The curriculum included fishing, fileting fish, sailing, shooting skeet, playing bridge, picking figs and swimming in the lake. Oh, yes, and cooking, the consensus “bridge builder.” Sam Lowe summed it up, “Learning anything ‘Big John’ offers his wisdom on.”

With summer almost over, the Smithonia 10 are drifting away. Make a note of these names: Cameron Champion, Elinor Walker, Eric Lee, Vijay Rajkumar, Sam Lowe, Marissa Kuczkowski, Benjamin Tasistro-Hart, Annie Simpson, Scott Diekema and Nicholas Byrne.

John’s right.

While COVID-19’s cloud hangs over us, these bright minds are among the reasons there is hope for America.

The Smithonia 10 proved this pandemic doesn’t have to be a career roadblock. Instead, they showed creativity and collaboration can provide a life-enhancing and uplifting detour to lifetime goals.