(Note: What’s one of the easiest things do? Procrastinate. What’s one of the hardest things to not do? Don’t procrastinate. In 2013, Larry Walker and I quit procrastinating and launched a Legends Tour. All three legendary friends—Bert Lance, Bobby Lee Cook and Zell Miller—are now gone. A decade later, I decided to retrace our North Georgia tour. The first stop was with Bert, who died soon after our visit. Been thinking about visiting family or friends? Here’s some advice: “Don’t procrastinate.” This column was originally published on July 26, 2013.)
Talking about it is one thing. Doing it is something else. That’s why I put—in ink—July 12 and 13 on my calendar. The idea had been batted around for months, but life is full of delays and detours. I didn’t breathe easy until my truck rolled toward Atlanta to meet my buddy Larry Walker. We dubbed our 500-mile North Georgia ramble The Legends Tour.
Our jaunt had only one disappointment. Our friend Jim Minter, retired executive editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had to cancel at the last minute. Jim was my Google before Google had all the answers. Besides his encyclopedic knowledge, Jim’s as genuine as anyone God ever put on this earth. I treasure every opportunity to be in his company.
Our mission was to visit three legendary Georgians: one-time DOT commissioner Bert Lance, attorney Bobby Lee Cook and former Gov. Zell Miller, who also served in the United States Senate.
Bert is 82. Bobby Lee is 86, and Zell’s 81. In their combined 249 years of living, there’s plenty to tell. There’s so much, I can’t do it all in one sitting. So, let’s start with Bert.
Thomas Bertram Lance grew up in Zell Miller’s hometown. The elder Lance was president of Young Harris College. Bert and Zell sat in a first-grade double-desk, and they’ve been friends ever since. I met Bert in 1974, when he was running for governor. His motto was “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” George Busbee won. Two years later, I bumped into Bert. He said, “Dink, good to see you again.” And he picked up where we left off in our last conversation.
Jim recalls a time Bert hosted an event for a group of Canadians. Without notes, Bert introduced 25 Georgians to the visitors, giving unique snippets about each. “It was like nothing I had ever seen,” said Jim, who has seen plenty in his 83 years. Bert’s charisma and recall made him a legend.
And a young Jimmy Carter noticed that about Bert, standing under an oak tree at a North Georgia barbecue and political rally. The peanut farmer and country banker became fast friends. Gov. Carter appointed Bert to the DOT post. And since the governor came to work early, Bert did, too. He left Calhoun at 4 in the morning to commute down I-75 to the state capital. Add to that commitment, Jim says Bert rejected pay and worked for free.When Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter moved into the White House, the new president took Bert to D.C. as his director of the Office of Planning and Budget. History will show that the Washington hounds stayed on the Carter administration, and they sank their teeth into Bert.
Back in Calhoun, a lady couldn’t pay her note, so she brought her cow to
the bank. Typical of Bert, he said, “We don’t need your cow. We’ll work with
you.” He was apt to cover your overdraft, too. Federal officials weren’t
enamored by his folksy way of doing business. “Bert befriended so many people,”
Jim said. I believe history will also show that Bert was guilty of only two
things: being too trusting and being too generous in helping others.
Thanks to Larry Walker, who served in the General Assembly for 32 years, I have reconnected with Bert. He and his friend, Dick Inman, join us for lunch with a small group in Atlanta, from time to time. Even in failing health, Bert can regale an audience with stories. Last October, I made him laugh.
I reminded him of what he witnessed on the campaign trail 39 years ago. Bert said, “The only time I ever saw flies trying to get out of a house—rather than get in—was when I knocked on the door of a house where they were cooking chitlins and collards in the same pot.”
I told that story, again, during our visit. And with that laugh, we headed to Summerville. Bobby Lee Cook was in his seersucker suit and waiting.