(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.)
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
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
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
“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.