Zell and Shirley Miller were happy to be home
(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. After Bert Lance and Bobby Lee Cook we visited Zell Miller. Been thinking about visiting family or friends? Here’s some advice: “Don’t procrastinate.” This column was originally published on Aug. 7, 2013. Zell Miller died on March 23, 2018.)
United States senator.
Fox TV contributor.
New York Times best-selling author.
And if you are talking about the most recognizable resident of Young Harris, you can’t leave out devoted son, country music enthusiast, baseball scholar, Appalachian expert, dog lover and mountain man. When you swirl all those together and stuff them into his signature cowboy boots, you have 81-year-old Zell Miller. And if he gives you an invitation “to get down and sit a spell,” don’t walk. Run.
That’s what Larry Walker and I did on July 13 on the third leg of our Legends Tour. The day before, we stopped in Calhoun to visit with one-time DOT commissioner Bert Lance, 82, on our way to Summerville. There, legendary trial lawyer Bobby Lee Cook, 86, regaled us with his globetrotting courtroom jousts.
A few years ago, Bobby Lee and another lawyer split a multimillion-dollar victory fee.
“Now,” the other lawyer said, “we can do anything we want to.” Bobby Lee quipped, “I’ve always done what I wanted to do.” Stories like that made us forget that there’s no shortage of asphalt between Chattooga and Towns counties. Still, we would have driven all night to get to Young Harris.
On that Saturday morning, the former first lady and retired banker, Shirley Miller, met Larry, Clark Fain and me at the door. “Zell will be here in a minute,” she said. That gave us time to soak up the surroundings. The first things I noticed were the walls of books and the heart-pine first-cousin-to-a-stretch-limousine dining room table. Then, Zell appeared. “We wanted a table long enough for our whole family,” he said, “but we kept growing and had to annex another.”
As I fingered the spines of several books, Zell said, “There are probably this many more upstairs.” Book people are my kind of people.
Shirley pointed us to the parlor, where we settled in for a two-hour chat. Zell was clearly at home in his chair, in the rock house that his mother built when he was a boy, in his hometown. The setting had the warmth and coziness of your grandmother’s kitchen. Shirley would lean forward with a story, and then Zell would take a turn. Each trek into the past wound up at the same place—a laughing point.
Larry, who spent 32 years under the Gold Dome, was the governor’s floor leader in his second term. Like a ping-pong match, Larry and Zell swatted memories back and forth. Zell’s trim belly did its best to bounce with laughter when Larry impersonated the late Tom Murphy, speaker of the House.
I reminded Zell of our 1991 flight to Shreveport, Louisiana, to watch UGA play Arkansas in the Independence Bowl. Before the Bulldogs kicked off, I asked over lunch about his to-do list. “I am going to get the lottery passed in Georgia,” Zell said. “And I’m going to help my good friend, Bill Clinton, get elected president.” I just nodded, thinking: “Neither of those will ever happen.” Later, I owned up to earlier doubts and said, “Governor, next time you have an idea, I’ll give you a hand.”
What a hand-up Zell gave Georgia students, getting lottery-funded HOPE scholarships in place in 1993. History will grade the former teacher with an A+, as one of Georgia’s greatest governors. Larry confessed that he didn’t support the lottery. His angelic mother, Hilda, had a vote in that, too. Zell laughed, again.
When we stood up to go, Zell said, “Come see my baseball room.” I tried not to drool on the bats, balls, photographs and autographed memorabilia. He told the backstory on a photo of him and Mickey Mantle. My boyhood idol, the New York Yankee, once introduced Zell at a fundraiser. The Mick left his handwritten notes on the table, and the governor snared the script. Zell read it to us:
“1st met Zell '91
Golf Tourny for Starlite
At Lake O’Konnee.
I’ve been lucky—
Harry Croft 1st mgr
Casey—like a father
Ralph Houk—brought me
From kid to what he
Said was a Team Leader
Then Yogi—who said
I should be great
Switch hitter ‘I was
Yog and Zell remind me
Of each other ‘Not as dumb
As they seem.’”
On that wave of guffaws, we drifted into the backyard garden. Zell and Shirley invited us to stay. Larry quoted his father, the late Cohen Walker: “Short visits make for long friends.” Laughing, again, we aimed my truck toward Ellijay, to reflect—over a plate of barbecue—on our Legends Tour 2013.
And I had a surprise for Larry—induction into Poole’s Bar-B-Q Pig Hill of Fame. I convinced the proprietor that my friend had the required credentials: an honest face, good intentions and five bucks. But that’s a story for another day.