October 26, 2021

‘Don’t need your rockin’ chair’

            Walk back 32 years with me.

Our family sat around an oval oak table in the kitchen, talking and praying. We loved living across the street from my parents, but we knew drastic change was imminent.

            Our newspaper company had grown. Its footprint spread over Georgia, Florida and both Carolinas. For our family to remain connected at mealtimes, dance recitals, sporting events and other traditional activities, we needed to move to the geographic center of Community Newspapers Inc. (CNI).

            I’ll never forget what Jerry Mosley, my high-school classmate, remarked: “I thought Manuel Noriega [Panama’s corrupt dictator] would have moved here before you left Wayne County.” The affable barber was right. I was startled, too. The reason for the relocation was family, but my heart will always be deeply rooted in Wayne County. Home is home.

            Pam and I engaged our children in the decision-making process. Alan, Emily and Eric voted for the Athens area. I suggested we live on a farm. Everyone agreed. I called one of my 1966 UGA roommates. Bill Cabaniss was president of the Commercial Bank in Crawford.

            “Bill,” I said, “our family is moving to Northeast Georgia. We’d like to find some acreage in Oglethorpe County with an old farmhouse, pastures, pecan trees, a barn and a fishpond.”

Bill went to  work, but the search stalled. We bought a subdivision house a few miles outside of Athens. The rural itch didn’t go away until we found a small farm on Lake Hartwell in 1995.

            Fast-forward to 2012.

The type of Oglethorpe County farm that we had previously wanted was available. We now have eight grandchildren—from the ages of 7 to 17—living in North Georgia. Historic Smithonia Farm is a family magnet. Our children and their children visit every possible opportunity.

            Now walk back to July 2021.

My partner, Tom Wood, and I stepped down from our CNI co-CEO roles. Alan is the chairman and co-CEO, and the president is Mark Major, who had been our chief financial officer. With that announcement, some folks assumed—after 50 years—that I would retire.

Uhhh, I never imagined that. I did imagine that I would shift gears. But to what? The Lord proved, again, that He moves in mysterious ways. And He didn’t take long. A phone call from a friend is all that it took.

In mid-September, Ralph Maxwell told me that he was going to close his newspaper at month’s end. Health was his primary factor. I respect that. But for 148 years, The Oglethorpe Echo has been the soul, conscience and recordkeeper of the rural community east of Athens.

I couldn’t bear the thought of no newspaper, so I jumped into my truck and pointed it toward Lexington. On the way to 121 E. Main St., I repeated over and over, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” And that’s what I told Ralph in our brief conversation. To give me time to find a way, he agreed to keep publishing until Oct. 31.

Back in my truck, I called Dean Charles Davis of UGA’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications. I outlined my battlefield game plan. Charles said, “I like it. Let’s do it.”

The Oglethorpe Echo will begin its next era on Nov. 1. The Maxwell family is donating the newspaper to a new nonprofit corporation, The Oglethorpe Echo Legacy Inc. As an overseer, I will chair the local advisory board. Primary revenue will come from circulation and advertising. In addition, donors can make tax-deductible contributions to the newly established 501(c)(3).

Initially, Grady College paid interns will staff the newsroom. Starting in January, a senior “capstone class” will earn academic credit in The Echo’s real-life journalism laboratory. Two Grady professors, also seasoned newspaper veterans, will supervise the students.

Volunteers, Friends of The Echo, are helping with painting, landscaping, answering the phone and other needs. I’ve advised everyone to keep a few Band-Aids handy. We are sure to scrape our knees. Every day will be a learning adventure. Maybe this business model will work in other small towns.

Monday morning, I walked back 50 years to where I had started, selling advertising. By noon—with three full-page ads sold—I was humming the country tune of George Jones, ‘I don’t need your rockin’ chair.”



 Nah, not yet.