March 8, 2023

HGP had vision and guts to do right thing


 (Note: On March 10—at Decatur Presbyterian Church—I will deliver H.G. Pattillo’s eulogy. In research for my 96-year-old friend’s service, I came across this column that was first published on Jan. 9, 2013. HGP taught me so much. He left an indelible mark on everything, every place and every life that he touched. To have known him was a blessing and an inspiration.)  

     Years ago, a reporter was peppering Henry Ford with questions. Repeatedly, the automotive pioneer replied, “I don’t know.” Frustrated, the journalist asked, “How can you be so successful and know so little about your operation?”

     With a smile, Ford said, “See this button? All I have to do is push it. I can get any answer I want.”

     One of the smartest things you can learn is to realize what you don’t know. There’s no boundary for my lack of knowledge. And I am reminded of that fact—often. Unlike Henry Ford, I don’t have a magic button to push. But luckily, I know Google-like people who are willing to help.

     As I was preparing to pick up the chairman’s gavel of the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents, I made a trip to see my friend who held the gavel almost a half-century ago.

So much has changed since the 1960s, but what hasn’t changed is the basic challenge of making hard choices. Today, whiz-bang technology can pile data mountain-high before decision-makers. However, it cannot spit out vision or guts to do the right thing.

     Vision and guts were the topics of my recent fireside chat with my friend, H.G., a former chairman of the Regents. As a visionary leader, he has the guts to walk on the white-hot coals of risk—again and again.

     Architect John Portman became a global icon, building signature high-rises stretching from Atlanta to Shanghai. His friend and Georgia Tech classmate, H.G., developed a signature stretching beyond concrete and steel. Even though he’s constructed more than 100 million square feet of industrial-warehouse space, he’s spent a majority of his 86 years building communities, jobs and leaders.

     Leadership Georgia—the nation’s premier program of its kind—was his idea. In 1982, that organization is how I met H.G. And that’s why I was sitting in his lakeside cabin, listening to the fire crackle, soaking up its warmth and his wisdom.

H.G. (Pat) Pattillo introduced me to places on the globe to where I had never been. A favorite destination was his beachfront ranch in Costa Rica. A typical afternoon horseback ride would include climbing up a flattop water tower to watch the orange panorama of a Pacific sunset.  Next would come a horserace back to dinner at Hacienda Pinilla.  As this photo—by his son-in-law Glenn Cohen—shows, HGP lived up to his motto: “Ride hard or eat my dust.”    


     His voice is soft, so I know to lean forward, not to miss a word. But what I won’t hear is him talking about his accomplishments or philanthropy. That’s not H.G.’s style. Instead, he advised: “Know when to say no. You’ll be asked to be somewhere every day. It’s a big state, and it’s impossible to say yes—every time.”

     “Tell me about your most memorable decision as a Regent,” I said. He chuckled and closed his eyes, as if to dial up 1969. “In those days, the Regents voted on every faculty hire,” he said. “The University of Georgia law school wanted to hire former Secretary of State Dean Rusk.”

     H.G. got a call from the Gold Dome. Gov. Lester Maddox asked, “Do you enjoy being on the Board of Regents?”

     “Yes, sir, I do,” H.G. said.

     “Well,” said Maddox, “tell me what you think about Dean Rusk. How would you vote?”

     “Governor,” said H.G., “the chairman only votes to break a tie.”

     Maddox persisted, “Well, how would you vote then?”

     “Governor,” said H.G., “I believe Secretary Rusk would bring great distinction to UGA.”

     Sure enough, the votes knotted in a tie. H.G. walked on the white-hot coals, voting to do the right thing. Maddox opposed Rusk’s hiring and retaliated by not reappointing H.G.

     I can’t imagine The University of Georgia’s legacy without the contributions of Dean Rusk. And I can’t imagine our state’s legacy without the servant leadership of Georgians like H.G. (Two of the past three chairmen of the Board of Regents, including the current chair and vice-chair, are all past presidents of his brainchild—Leadership Georgia.)

     There’s so much that I don’t know. But I know this: I am blessed to have my mentor. H.G. “Pat” Pattillo inspires me to have the vision and guts to do the right thing.