August 24, 2016

An unsung hero gets the praise he deserves

     If you are in a foxhole with a battle raging all around, you want—by your side—a soldier with the brains and the backbone to help you win.  I’ve never been in a war with bullets whizzing over my helmet. However, I’ve been in plenty of scraps where I needed someone with unquestionable loyalty watching my back, while fighting with all his or her heart.
     Derby Waters is one of those unsung heroes in too many skirmishes to count.  For 50 years—since high school, we’ve been friends.  Saturday night, I saw this humble man blush and be almost at a loss for words.  And if you know Derby, that was a rare moment—finding him speechless. 
The Satilla Riverkeepers surprised him with its coveted “Conservationist of the Year” award. Standing up for the environment is nothing new for the preacher’s son from Screven.  In the early 1970s—when there was talk of dredging the Altamaha River for barge traffic—Derby got baptized into the often-turbulent-waters of the conservation movement.  He’s been a staunch advocate of God’s creations ever since.  If there’s a fight, you want Derby Waters on your side.  Just ask Lindsay Thomas.
     On a cold, blustery Sunday afternoon in the winter of 1982, I was home alone when the phone rang.  Lindsay said, “I need to come to see you.”
Thirty minutes later, we were propping our feet on the fireplace hearth and letting sizzling red-oak coals take off the chill.    
     I thought the Screven farmer had come to talk about a hunting segment we were planning for our cable TV channel.  Instead, he startled me, saying: “I want to run for Congress, and I need your help.”  Without hesitation, I pledged my support and a forthcoming check.  That part was easy.
     Then, Lindsay shifted gears. 
     “I have another favor to ask,” he said.  “I want to borrow your editor, Derby, to run my campaign.”  If Derby was willing, so was I.  I was all in for Lindsay and Wayne County.  But I had a request: “When you are done with Derby, please, send him back to us.  We need him, too.”
When Congressman Bo Ginn announced he was running for governor, the First District race got crowded in a hurry.  The often-repeated line was that Savannah banker and Republican, Herb Jones, was going to be our next congressman.
     Apparently, the political pundits didn’t know much about Lindsay and even less about Derby, his untested political strategist.  Lindsay carried all 20 counties in the district, and Herb Jones kept on banking.
     Lindsay was sitting in the audience Saturday night, too, when Derby was called into the limelight.  The former congressman led the standing ovation of 150 packed into the banquet hall overlooking the sugar-white shores and black water of the Satilla River in Brantley County. 
     Lindsay served five stellar terms in Congress, but he’ll quickly tell you that his first campaign was a dogfight victory, directed by Derby’s “guts, intelligence, unlimited energy and imagination.”
     There are so many Derby stories.  One of my favorite this-tells-you-about-the-man examples is from his reporting days at The Baxley News-Banner.  An angry county commissioner whipped out a pocket knife and held its blade against Derby’s throat and threatened to cut his head off.  With a steady hand and a confident gaze into the politician’s eyes, Derby pushed away the knife and said, “I don’t think you want to do that.”
That’s who I want in my foxhole. 
A brave soldier and  friend, just like Derby.