March 8, 2017

Welcome to Wayne County, Leadership Georgia

     Without a swift kick to my shin, I might have missed one of the best experiences of my life.  In 1982, a letter invited me to apply for participation in a statewide organization.  I put the mailing aside and almost forgot it, until a month later in Athens.  While attending a banquet at The University of Georgia, I asked a friend, “Have you ever heard of something called Leadership Georgia?”
     After 35 years, I can still feel the pointed toe of Henrietta Singletary’s stiletto sinking into my skinny leg. Her husband, Marvin, laughed.  He must have felt the under-the-table jolt, too.  Looking to her left and right, the former Under Secretary of Agriculture in the Carter administration said, in her Vidalia drawl,  “I’d like to introduce you to the two co-founders of Leadership Georgia: Pat Pattillo and Dr. J.W. Fanning.”
     Today, I cannot imagine my life without the influence of these men. Before long, I had appointed both to my personal board of directors.  An added blessing was our children got to know these extraordinary Georgians and their remarkable wives.
     The vision and wisdom of the co-founders opened my eyes beyond rural Southeast Georgia.  Until his death in 1997, Dr. Fanning was my constant sounding board.  He would listen and then—in his quiet voice—say, “I think you know what to do.  Now, just go do it.”
     Pat Pattillo, now 90, opened another world to me.  Other than a honeymoon to Paradise Island in the Bahamas, the farthest I had ever been “overseas” was chest-hairs deep wading off Jekyll Island in the Atlantic Ocean.  The Middle East and Costa Rica were a part of his introduction of a small-town newspaper publisher to other regions of the globe.
     Leadership Georgia was Pat’s idea when he was serving as president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.  The Decatur-based industrial developer handpicked Dr. Fanning, a retired vice president of The University of Georgia, to be Leadership Georgia’s original advisor.  The rest is history as the organization flourished to become the premier program of its kind in the nation.
     In 1972, former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn was in the inaugural class.  On the way back from the first meeting, the young Perry attorney told his wife, Colleen, “I am going to run for the United States Senate.”  More than 5,000 men and women have shared the Leadership Georgia experience.  Everyone can’t be a United States senator, but almost all—over the past 45 years—have gone back to their hometowns asking, “How can we make our community and our state better?”
     Pam and I were chosen for the Class of 1983.  The next year, we served as chairs of one of the five annual programs.  I was president of Leadership Georgia in 1985 and chairman the next.  In 1986, I recommended Jesup to be one of the towns to visit in 1988.  I figured that would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase my hometown to these young Georgians.
     I was wrong.
     Leadership Georgia is back in Wayne County this weekend to explore our state’s natural resources and the Altamaha River.  Our older son, Alan, is now president.  And for the same reason I did, he proudly chose his hometown.  While Alan, along with his wife, Heather, picked the theme and meeting locations for 2017, Dr. Patrick Lucas and his wife, Julie, are in charge of the Jesup program.
Dr. Lucas, too, has strong ties here.  His grandmother was the late Helen McDonald.
     I contend that if it weren’t for the last minute, some of the best things in life would never happen.  And if it weren’t for that last-minute kick under a white-linen tablecloth, we would have missed Leadership Georgia.
     Welcome, Class of 2017!