June 15, 2023

Jekyll Island: A gem among our Golden Isles


             Millions of Georgians would probably ask, “Who was Melvin Ernest Thompson?”

             Four times in the past week, I passed over the M.E. Thompson Bridge.

And each time, I said, “Thank you, Melvin Ernest Thompson.”

M.E. Thompson, Georgia’s 70th governor, didn’t serve long.

But his legacy should make every Georgian smile. His foresight led to the state’s purchase of Jekyll Island for $675,000. That was 1947. Today, try to buy a beachfront home on Jekyll for $675,000. You’ll be laughed off the island.

My love affair with this 11-mile-long gem among Georgia’s Golden Isles started in the late 1950s. A few nights in the Wanderer Motel was as close to a vacation as our family ever had. Big Dink would drive back and forth to Jesup to direct funerals, and Mother watched my sisters and me scamper on the beach. Putt-putt golf was a big deal in those days. Years later, our kids grew up playing on that same comical course. And now our grandkids laugh their way through the 18 holes of Jekyll putt-putt.

When God was dealing out geography, Georgia got a lucky hand.

Our 100 miles of coastline, protected by an array of barrier islands, give us a natural wonderland that few states can claim and enjoy.

But Jekyll Island—under state ownership—hasn’t always sparkled. Different ideas, different leadership, different competition and different economies have made for some roller-coaster years in Jekyll Island’s history as a state park. Truth is that—at times—Jekyll and its amenities were sort of pitiful. Conventions—once the island economy’s bread and butter—went elsewhere.

But Jekyll is shining, again.

In 2012, the ribbon was clipped on a new state-of-the-art convention center. New hotels, a new shopping district and new things everywhere are pulling the crowds back to Jekyll. But what I like most about Jekyll is its mandated balance of development with its irreplaceable natural wonder. That’s smart growth. There are choices that range from the iconic Jekyll Island Club Hotel to campgrounds nestled among the live oaks, behind the dunes. I like the family feel of the island.

And I applaud the leadership that my friend Jones Hooks has provided for the Jekyll Island Authority over the past 15 years. Jones and I have a special connection. We both grew up in funeral homes. His dad owned Hooks Mortuary in Metter. Our friendship was spawned through Leadership Georgia. When I was president in 1985, I asked Jones and his wife, Stephanie, to chair the January meeting at Unicoi State Park. I’ve been a fan of the power couple’s creativity, energy and leadership ever since.

I was thrilled for Georgia when Jones took the helm of the Jekyll Island Authority in 2008. And now on June 30, he’ll be retiring. Jones deserves a standing ovation for his contributions to bringing the luster and sustainability back to Jekyll Island. While on Jekyll for the 136th annual convention of the Georgia Press Association, I took a lap around the island to appreciate the things that have changed and the things that have not changed. Jones, you made us proud.

On July 1, another friend will take the lead. Mark Williams, who has been commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources for 13 years, will be the Jekyll Island Authority’s executive director. Mark and I go way back, too. But my wife and his wife go back even further. My Pam taught Mark’s Pam in the first grade at Orange Street Elementary School. Mark appreciates the successes of the Jones Hooks era. My prediction is that Jekyll will keep on sparkling under the guidance and stewardship of Mark Williams.

Every Georgian should thank Melvin Ernest Thompson.

I just wish he was here to see Jekyll Island today.