January 19, 2021

Government is Rob Gordon’s passion

            Just watching him, you knew the blond-haired boy was destined to be an achiever.  He sat with parents Bobby and Sharon—along with his sisters Sheree and Stacey—a few pews apart from our customary spot in the First Baptist Church.  His superlatives—smart, poise, personality, talent, confidence, and a special drive—signaled Rob Gordon was going places.

            The news of Rob’s latest advancement wasn’t surprising, but I did flash back to the 1980s.  I could see his command of the sanctuary’s grand piano, playing an original arrangement.  I blinked, and he was in a star role of a youth-department drama.  The blinks continued.  Now he is leading one of the University of Georgia’s statewide divisions.   

            And that’s the way it’s been for 49-year-old Robert E. Gordon Jr.

Rob is the new director of the Carl Vinson Institute.  Named for legendary Congressman Carl Vinson (1883-1981), the Institute adopted this mission: “To enhance the capacity of governments to serve citizens of Georgia and around the world.  By improving governance … we improve the lives of people worldwide.”

In everyday language, the Institute’s goal is to better prepare the leaders who are making decisions in Georgia’s state and local governments.  And if there was ever a need for better-prepared leaders, 2021 would be the time.  

Rob believes his passion for government goes back to his after-school days of “growing up” in Jesup City Hall, where his mother was a clerk.  If I needed information or help at city hall, Sharon Gordon was a go-to person.  When his dad worked at the Jesup district office of the Georgia Department of Transportation, Rob was a regular there.  I wish his parents were here today.

I’ve encouraged Rob to keep good notes.  There’s a book in all this.  One chapter will be how he could have met his future bride but didn’t.  As children, Leslie Stafford and Rob Gordon visited their Ludowici grandmothers. Leslie played on one side of the town’s railroad tracks.  Rob played on the other side. They were close enough to shout back and forth but didn’t.

And then came the summer of 1998, Leslie and Rob—still not acquainted—were in Jesup.  Leslie’s Aunt Carmen (Howard) Jones was a persistent cupid, working both sides to connect the couple.  Carmen’s sister is Leslie’s mom, Lynne (Howard) Stafford, who is married to George, a retired UGA administrator.  The Staffords are retired and live in Jesup.

Now back to Rob and Leslie.  Rob finally gave in and called Leslie. They talked for 90 minutes. The UGA grads are soon to celebrate their 21st anniversary.  Daughter Lily is 14, and son Will is 9.  

While Rob was attending George Washington University Law School in the nation’s Capital, his wife was at Georgetown University, earning a doctorate. Today, Dr. Leslie Gordon is UGA’s associate director of the Executive Ed.D. Program in Higher Education Management, and director of the Governor’s Teaching Fellow Program.  And if you want to keep up with the gifted Gordons’ rocket-ride careers, you’ll need several pencils.

Before returning to Athens to join the UGA faculty, Rob was an attorney with two of Atlanta’s most prestigious law firms. And prior to that—as a special agent of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service—Rob strapped on a pistol and visited 46 countries.  One of his stints was guarding Palestine’s Yasser Arafat at Camp David.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright preferred the Jesup piano player to be her driver.  Madam Secretary said Rob’s calmness calmed her. And when 9/11 shellshocked America, Rob was with Secretary of State Colin Powell in Lima, Peru.  

Perhaps—in addition to his superlatives—calmness is why Rob Gordon continues to move through leadership chairs at the state’s flagship university.  In a very calm way, Rob leaves footprints of progress everywhere he travels. 

You can be sure Rob and his faculty will build upon the esteemed legacy of the Carl Vinson Institute.  I will be proud but not surprised.

Even when he was just a blond-haired boy, you could see that Rob Gordon was going places.  So far, his journey includes laps around America and visits to 46 foreign countries.

And that’s just a start. 


January 12, 2021

A letter to our eight grandchildren

Dear loved ones:

            There’s no way to sugarcoat this. I am sad and ashamed you had to witness what happened in Washington, D.C., on January 6.

            I understand and embrace American rights to speak up, march and protest, but there is a line separating legal and illegal. The mob that stormed the Capitol flagrantly crossed that line. Consider the lives threatened. Count the deaths—five so far. Examine the damage and looting. Some carried guns. Others had Molotov cocktails. They may have gone in thinking they were patriots, but they came out as criminals who ransacked our republic.

            Wyatt, Hayes, William, Henry, Fenn, Bayard, Smith and Stella, your great-grandfathers fought in World War II to protect our freedoms, but I am glad they did not have to see this banana-republic-like anarchy. 

You were not born when the 9-11 attacks crippled our nation. America went to its knees, but not in surrender. Instead, our proud nation prayed for the resolve to stand up and fight back, stronger than ever. And we did. 

            Now this. 

            If I had a magic wand, I would wave it to keep you safe and healthy. But I would not shield you from the lessons you must learn from scrapes and bruises—physical and emotional. If ever there was a time to heal from hurts—deep hurts—it is now. I am not proud of the mess my generation has made for you. You’ll spend your lives mending broken pieces here and around the globe.

            Magic wands can’t wave away what happened last week, but there are lessons to be learned in every crisis. My dear ones, America is in a crisis. We’ve lost the ability to agreeably disagree. As your grandfather, I hope you will always be brave and stand up for your beliefs. But I urge you even more to do so without hating those with opposing opinions.

            Your ages range from 6 to 17. You are growing up in the Social Media Era, full bore. Now is a perfect time to learn the good and bad of posting of your thoughts. As a boy, I spent many Saturday afternoons watching Western movies at the Strand Theater. If Apaches or other tribes wanted to know if buffalo were nearby, they would put their ears to the ground. The rumble of thundering hooves sent a vibrating signal.

            I was not surprised there was an uprising in Washington last week. You could see and hear the social-media rumbles, but I was shocked by the violence. There’s nothing I can do about President Donald Trump’s inflammatory videos and tweets that helped ignite this riot. But I can admonish you to learn from what’s just happened.

One day, you might be in leadership roles. There are lessons to be gleaned from reckless use of freedom of speech. Never forget that words are like a match that can bring you warmth on a cold day. And words—like a match—can ignite a figurative stick of dynamite, just as we witnessed on January 6.

Over the past 17 years, your smiles, your laughter, your hugs, your love, your energy, and your ingenuity have been sources of unending joy. You make me glad that I am alive. You give me hope. I trust you have learned from this ugly chapter of our nation’s history.

For the sake of our beloved country, however, I pray we don’t have to wait for your generation to lead us back to a United States of America.




January 5, 2021

Kicking off 2021 in a different way

            When the mayor of Margaritaville detoured off the beach to a country road, Jimmy Buffett had a smash hit with Alan Jackson. “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” topped the charts for seven straight weeks in 2003. The title rationalized that it’s 5 o’clock-drinking time somewhere, so let’s have one.

            About 10 o’clock New Year’s Eve, I was humming that tune. But I wasn’t looking for a drink. I was looking for a pillow. I figured it was midnight somewhere, so why wait to start my snore and exit 2020.

            Drifting to sleep, I resolved to begin 2021 differently. I was going to switch off my motor and ignore the farm-life to-do list, except taking care of our animal menagerie. And when I peered outside at dawn, Mother Nature had smiled on my plan. The London-like fog was thick enough to suck through a straw. 

            My goal was to spend the day with boots off—in thick socks and a sweatsuit. Turning on the coffee machine, I pulled a book from my bedside stack. The morning hours evaporated, as did the fog. But I was staying put, swapping the book for a TV remote.

            The next 12 hours were back-to-back-to-back bowl games. I never lay on the couch, but I was a recliner “potato” until the last second of January 1. The competition kept me awake, and I was thrilled ESPN had not one—repeat, not one—mudslinging-political commercial to spoil the televised gridiron marathon. 

            Peach Bowl

            Cincinnati came to play. Underdogs versus our Dawgs. The undefeated Bearcats almost embarrassed us. In the second half, Georgia’s defense hunkered down, led by NFL-bound Azeez Ojulari. God bless Mrs. Podlesny. With three seconds remaining, her son Jack split the uprights with a 53-yard field goal, 22-21—Georgia. And bless Coach Kirby Smart’s heart. No squib on the kickoff. Jake Camarda booted it long, setting up Azeez’s sack of Cincinnati’s quarterback for a safety—24-21. Whew, woof, woof!

            Rose Bowl

            When the “Granddaddy of Them All” isn’t played in Pasadena, you know something wasn’t right about 2020. The Rose Bowl was in Arlington, Texas, but it didn’t matter where the pigskin was teed up. Coach Nick Saban had the Crimson Tide ready for fourth-ranked Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are a legendary powerhouse, but number-one Tide has hurdling and elusive Najee Harris, quarterback Mac Jones, and likely Heisman Trophy-winner DeVonta Smith. Add Alabama’s monstrous defense and the Tide rolled to a 31-14 victory.

            Sugar Bowl

Jimmy and Alan, my nightcap wasn’t a margarita or such. It was a football shocker. I was sure Trevor Lawrence-led Clemson would be too much for Ohio State. But the Buckeyes went to New Orleans with a chip on their shoulder pads, just like the Bearcats came to Atlanta. What Coach Dabo Swinney has created across the state line is incredible—a culture of loyalty, excitement, and championships. I was stunned the Tigers couldn’t paw their way to Miami to take on the Tide. But Ohio State said, “Oh, no! Look at the scoreboard—49-28.” Buckle your chin straps for Monday night’s clash of the titans—Buckeyes versus Bama.

            Hello, 2021

            As lazy as I was on New Year’s Day, I did leave my chair to partake of a traditional good-luck meal of mustard greens, blackeye peas, baked sweet potato, ham, and cornbread.

            In memory of two special friends—the Parker brothers, Billy and Charles—I feasted on Ludowici fruitcake for dessert. In the 1980s, around the campfire of the Flatwoods Hunting Club in Long County, they introduced me to hot, buttered cornbread drenched in cane syrup. Mighty fine.

            The holidays are history. 

Goodbye, sweatsuit. 

Hello, work.

Let’s work—really work—to make 2021 a Happier New Year.


December 29, 2020

Today’s long-haired male athletes would make Samson smile

               Clint Madray almost choked on his chaw of BEECH-NUT. Shifting the 

tobacco from one cheek to the other, the burly UGA Wally Butts disciple 

growled, “Roy, what’s that on your head?”

            “Coach, it’s a Beatle,”Roy said.

            Our football coach hadn’t watched the Ed Sullivan Show and the British Invasion by the Beatles—Paul, John, George and Ringo. But the sophomore had. Over the winter, Roy had grown a shaggy mop of hair before reporting to spring practice.

            Coach Madray wasn’t impressed. “If you don’t get that mess off your head,” he barked, “I’ll ‘Beatle’ your behind with this!” And the whack of the wooden paddle in Clint’s meaty palm bounced off the concrete-block walls at Jesup High School.

            That was 1964.

            If you pay any attention to athletics, you’d know our beloved coach would be out of step in 2020. He’s gone to gridiron heaven, and times have changed. Today’s long-haired players must have embraced the biblical story of Samson, who believed his phenomenal strength was rooted in his flowing head of hair. But when Delilah clipped his locks, well, go to the book of Judges, Chapters 13-16.

            Scanning high school, college and professional ranks, Samson has his share of modern-day, hair-believing disciples. When the New Orleans Saints’ Alex Anzalone trots onto the field, more hair is out of the menacing linebacker’s helmet than inside it. There must be millions of women who would love to have thatmuch blond hair. But I’m not poking fun at the bone-crunching former Florida Gator.

            You’ve probably seen the Head & Shoulders commercial with Patrick Mahomes and Troy Polamalu. Patrick—the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback with a $500 million-dollar contract—teases Polamalu about his hair. Troy—a former Pittsburgh Steeler—would make Samson smile. And if the NFL Hall of Fame safety wants to grow his hair to his ankles, that’s OK with me, too. 

            And long hair is just fine with the Tiger-pawed fans of Clemson University. Coach Dabo Sweeney’s Tigers are in the hunt for another national championship. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a super star from Cartersville, has shoulder-length blond hair flapping outside his orange helmet. With his towering height, swift long legs, cannon-like right arm and field-general savvy, Trevor is projected to be the top pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Nothing girlish about his long hair either, but hold on.

            That brings me to Vanderbilt University’s placekicker, Sarah Fuller. She made college football history, kicking an extra point in the Commodores’ loss to Tennessee on December 12. My friend, Michael, was watching the game with his son.

            “Maddox,” Michael said, “you just witnessed history. Sarah is the first female to score in Power 5-football history. You need to remember this.”

            The 8-year-old quadruple-sport athlete shook his dark-chocolate Beatle mop and said, “Uh-uh, Daddy. What about that girl who’s Clemson’s quarterback?”       



December 22, 2020

Santa’s secret in the funeral home

       Sandy and I took turns. One year, my sister would stay up late. The next year, I had 

the let’s-see-if-we-can-catch-Santa duty. That’s the way it went until my parents got their own 

bedroom, and I got to move into the closed-in back porch where they had been sleeping.

       In my first bedroom, the inside wall had a picture window about seven feet from the floor. The fixed pane of glass allowed sunlight into the next room, where Sandy and our little sister, Sheila, slept. Perched on my top bunk, I had the perfect spying post. With wide eyes and a hushed voice, Sandy explained, “Now we don’t have to take turns anymore. You’ve got the perfect place to see everything that happens on Christmas Eve.”

       In our compact funeral-home apartment, our parents slept on a pull-out sofa bed on the enclosed back porch. Other than the kitchen and the communal commercial/residential bathroom, there was no place to put the Christmas tree except in my two sisters’ bedroom. From my top bunk I had a front-row seat at a major event: the arrival of Santa Claus. Sandy and I kept the catch-Saint-Nick conspiracy from Sheila. 

        With such a great observation point, my only challenges were to lie still, stay awake and report. During my first two turns, I did the first task too well. I lay too still. I was snoring when Santa came and went. Both times, I got a scolding from my big sister.

       By Thanksgiving of the next year, she had just about forgiven me. In early December, we started plotting again. Time was running out. We were getting too old to be left wondering if Santa had helpers.

       One Saturday morning our luck changed. We had just finished putting up the Christmas tree when Mother sent us for the vacuum to clean up the silver icicles from the floor. Space was at a premium in those pre-remodeling days. We had to look for places to store stuff such as vacuum cleaners.

       In NeSmith Funeral Home, there were 20 neat, out-of-the-way nooks for hiding things. In the showroom, caskets were displayed on stands with drapery-like curtains around the bottoms. Behind those maroon-colored skirts were our extra-storage spots. Someone would ask, “Where is the box of family pictures?” Mother would reply, “Look under the caskets.”

     That’s what Sandy and I were doing on that morning. On our hands and knees, we were crawling from casket to casket looking for the vacuum cleaner. First, we looked under the high-end coppers and bronzes. We came up empty-handed in the steel section, too. Then we worked our way toward the wood merchandise. Pulling back the curtain on the rack of a light-blue doeskin cloth-covered wooden casket, Sandy let out a faint squeal. Growing up in the funeral home, you learned to be good at expressive whispering because “the family” might be in the next room.

        “Why is she so excited over finding an Electrolux?” I wondered. 

Goosebumps swept over my skinny body. Sandy hadn’t found just a floor sweeper. No, she had found the motherlode of answers to a childhood mystery. Beneath that budget-priced coffin were items from the list that we had mailed to the North Pole. 

       Hearing Mother’s footsteps, we snatched out the vacuum and pulled the drapes back into place. And then we did the smart thing—conjured up a double case of amnesia.  

On Christmas morning, we asked, “How did Santa Claus get our bicycles down the chimney?”