Posts Tagged ‘The South’


I believe in maintenance. When you maintain things, small problems are less likely to grow into big problems.

For example, I get myself checked regularly by an assortment of medicos. Not just my GP, but the dermatologist, the ophthalmologist, and the periodontist. If something needs fixing, in me or on me, I want to know about it, pronto.

This philosophy also extends to my vehicles. I take them in for regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly and, knock on wood, head off serious issues later.

My mechanic is a life-long local, a soft-spoken family man of about 40. He’s a pro, very conscientious, well regarded hereabouts.

But sometimes, stuff happens.

One morning several years ago, I took my Subaru to his shop for an oil change. It’s a fairly large operation for this little town, with half a dozen mechanics working in the bays. While I waited, one of them would change the oil, inspect things, and rotate the tires.

After about 30 minutes, the deed was done. I exchanged pleasantries with the owner, paid the bill, and drove away.

100 yards from the shop, the car suddenly lurched and pulled to the left. I stopped immediately.

When I got out to investigate, I discovered that the left front wheel was askew on the wheel studs. Three of the lug nuts were loose, two were missing.

For whatever reason, the technician had failed to tighten that wheel. As I drove away — fortunately at low speed — the nuts had unthreaded themselves, and the wheel was on the verge of coming off. Yikes!

I walked back to the shop and gave them the news.

My friend the mild-mannered owner blew his top. He was as angry as I’ve ever seen him — close to breaking things

Finally, he calmed down, collected himself, and dispatched a truck and two employees to retrieve the Subaru.

Fortunately, no damage was done. They made things right and triple-checked the work. The owner offered a heartfelt apology and said I was ready to go again.

“You know,” I told him, “This surely was a freak thing. Your guy probably just got distracted. You can bet he won’t let it happen again. Don’t be too hard on him.”

“No, this is unacceptable,” he said. “He and I are gonna have a come-to-Jesus meeting, and then I’ll decide what to do.”

And there, for me, the episode ended.

Since then, no one at the shop has mentioned that particular unpleasantness. A few times, I was tempted to make a joke about it, but I always stopped myself. Too touchy a subject for levity.

But last month, while I was at the garage for an oil change on my current vehicle, I got curious and decided to ask.

As I was preparing to leave, I said to the owner, “Got a minute? I’d like to ask you something.” I turned and went outside, indicating that I wanted privacy, and he followed.

“Remember that time a few years ago, ” I said, “when I drove away, and the front wheel on my Subaru –”

“You bet I remember,” he said. “It was a nightmare. A low point for this business. ”

“Well, I never knew who did the work that day. You said you planned to read him the riot act. How did things work out?”

How things worked out was a bit surprising.

The come-to-Jesus meeting was brief, animated, and, no doubt, one-sided. But the mechanic had been a steady and reliable worker, and he kept his job.

More importantly, the shop put new procedures in place aimed at preventing similar screw-ups in the future.

First, the shop’s standard work order was changed to include new checkboxes about lug nuts and the proper torquing thereof.

Under the new rules, mechanics are required to look up the manufacturer’s torque specifications, tighten the lugs as recommended (it was 75 ft-lbs in the case of my Subaru), and record it on the work order. Individually for each wheel.

After that, a second mechanic is required to check the work and add his initials to vouch for it. Four wheels, four initials.


The moral: preventing human error is a tough and never-ending job.

It’s pretty much hopeless, but you have to try anyway.



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Maybe a math major could help me understand this transaction.

Back in January, because my RV had been sitting idle for too long, I decided to take a road trip. Nothing elaborate, just a loop into the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains for a few days. It turned out to be a leisurely, interesting, and pleasant trip.

Usually, I stay at state park campgrounds, which are reliably clean, quiet, and inexpensive. But sometimes you have no choice. The first night, due to the timing, I was obliged to stay at a private RV park in North Carolina. A place called Whispering Pines or something like that.

Whispering Pines was a bad decision. After checking in, I discovered that the bathhouse had been “winterized” and closed for the season. In other words, the pipes had been drained to prevent freezing, and the place was padlocked. It would reopen in the spring.

Sorry, Mr. Camper. Use the shower in your RV.

Which would be fine, except that my RV, like virtually every other RV this side of Tampa, also has been winterized for the season. My shower is closed until spring, too.

I was not a happy camper.

Fortunately, by the second night, I was back in Northeast Georgia, and with great relief, I checked into the campground at Tallulah Gorge State Park. The facilities there, thank you very much, remain operational all year long.

At this point, the aforementioned transaction comes in.

The campground host was a patient, almost serene woman trying to deal with an infant, a toddler, and me at the same time. She said campsites with full hookups were $32 per night, with discounts to senior citizens and veterans.

“Are you a senior or a veteran?”


“Okay, that will be $24 for the night. Also, we’re having a special right now: you can stay a second night for half price. That’s $24 for tonight and $12 for tomorrow night.”

“You’re kidding.”

She wasn’t kidding.

“That’s basically a free night,” I said. “How can I turn that down?”

The only problem was minor. The office was closed, and the nice lady had no cash with her.

I gave her $25, and we agreed I could settle up when the office opened the next morning.

Later that evening, when I retired to the RV and watched the news, I learned that heavy rain was moving toward us from the north. It would arrive by mid-morning and hang around for the next 48 hours.

Bummer. Up to that point, the weather had been sunny and mild. In an instant, the idea of being on the road lost its appeal. It was time to head home. After a luxurious morning shower in the bathhouse, of course.

The next day, up early and ready to depart, I saw no reason to wait for the park office to open. I owed $24 for one night and had paid $25. Close enough.

A few hours later, just as the storm caught up with me, I was home.

Three weeks later, a hand-addressed envelope arrived from Tallulah Gorge State Park. Inside was this:


In case you can’t tell, enclosed was $7.10.

First and foremost, refunding the money — taking the trouble to refund it — was a generous, high-minded thing to do. It speaks well of the person responsible and of the park itself.

But, as I understood the situation, I overpaid THEM. Where the idea of $7.10 in my favor came from, I haven’t a clue.

I even sat down with pencil and paper, trying to use dead reckoning to figure it out. This is as far as I got:

– $32
– $24
– $12

– $25

– $7.10


Math was never my thing.


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The Augusta Canal

This is my second post about Augusta, Georgia, which I visited in June on a lark. No need to read my earlier post first, but feel free.


When I think about how people lived in earlier times, I tend to judge them as primitive and unsophisticated. Not stupid, mind you, but simple and unrefined. Clueless compared to us cutting-edge modern folks.

And up to a point, they were. For example, to prevent disease, you have to understand the concept of pathogens. Good luck with that if you lived before people knew what pathogens are.

But sometimes, I run across evidence that people from days of yore were quite competent and shouldn’t be sold short. A case in point: the impressive feat, way back in the 1840s, of building the Augusta Canal.

A bit of background. In 1733, General James Oglethorpe founded Savannah, the first settlement in the new colony of Georgia. In 1736, Oglethorpe sent a contingent of troops up the Savannah River to build an outpost at the limit of upstream navigation.

The purpose was to establish a settlement where goods could be brought from towns to the north and west and shipped downriver to Savannah for export.

The limit of upstream navigation turned out to be 200 miles north of Savannah at the fall line, where the Piedmont Plateau drops down to the Coastal Plain. For centuries, native people used the ledges and shoals at the fall line to cross the Savannah River.

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(Later, the cities of  Macon, Columbus, and Milledgeville also were established at the fall line. Below them, the rivers are deep and smooth to the Atlantic or the Gulf. Above them is rocky, shallow water and a steady climb to the Appalachians.)

Oglethorpe’s expedition built an outpost on the west bank of the Savannah River about seven miles south of the fall line. The settlement was named in honor of Princess Augusta, the wife of the Prince of Wales.

And Oglethorpe’s plan worked splendidly. For the next hundred years, Augusta thrived as a trading and shipping center. Wagons rolled into town from across the region carrying tobacco, cotton, and other goods. The warehouses brimmed with product. Barges and steamboats transported a steady stream of cargo downriver to Savannah, where it was shipped to other markets.

But by the early 1800s, Augusta’s prosperity was waning. Various economic factors were taking their toll — the country’s westward expansion, the growth of the railroads, competition from other river towns.

Then in the 1840s, a man with a vision came forward. Henry H. Cumming, son of the city’s first mayor, proposed a plan to turn Augusta into a manufacturing center by building a canal from the fall line to Augusta.


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Henry H. Cumming

Because the canal would drop 52 feet in elevation by the time it reached Augusta, it could provide hydropower to operate mills and factories. Plus, it would be a transportation corridor and a source of drinking water.

Cumming hired a prestigious engineer to survey the route and draw up the plans, and the city fathers gave it their blessing. Construction on the Augusta Canal began in the spring of 1845.

The workers — hundreds of slaves, freedmen, and white laborers — dug the entire canal by hand.

This, mind you, was an era when the only tools available were pickaxes, shovels, and horse-drawn carts. There was no electric power, no heavy equipment. Steam power was in development, but it was not practical for a field project.

The canal was designed and built in three sections. Where each section ended, some of the water was allowed to flow downhill and back into the Savannah River. At those drops, the new factories would be built.

Despite constant engineering complications and a several legal battles over the route, the canal was completed and opened in July 1850.

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Painting of the headgates of the Augusta Canal at the fall line, 1850s.

But the project was only a limited success. The canal performed as expected, but it wasn’t large enough to power all the proposed factories and mills. The engineers had miscalculated.

Thus, after the understandable delay of the Civil War, a project to enlarge the canal got underway in 1872.

Again, battalions of workers were assembled. Some were local laborers, some were convicts from area prisons. Italian stonemasons and Chinese railroad workers were brought in. Steam-powered equipment was used in addition to picks and shovels.

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Expanding the Augusta Canal. Painting by Bernard Willingham, 1870s.

By 1875, the new and improved Augusta Canal was in operation. This time, the channel was 13 feet deep and 150 feet across.

Between the canal and the Savannah River, a towpath was built atop the levy so horses and oxen could pull the barges. The towpath ran from the canal headgates to downtown Augusta.

As envisioned, new factories soon arose along the canal banks. “Mill towns” materialized to house the factory workers and their families. The textile industry and other enterprises flourished in Augusta well into the 20th Century.

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Sibley Cotton Mill on the Augusta Canal, 1903.

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A flat-bottomed “Petersburg” boat on the canal in the 1890s.

As the decades passed, the canal generated electricity not only for the factories, but also for streetcars, streetlights, homes, and businesses.

But by the 1960s, inevitably, Augusta’s prosperity began to wane again. The canal was becoming antiquated. Truck transportation took business away. Electricity was cheaper from the new power plants on the Savannah River.

Meanwhile, the city began neglecting the canal and even considered draining parts of it. When Augusta demolished several abandoned factories during urban renewal projects, parts of the in-town portion of the canal were allowed to dry up.

In 1971, another Cumming stepped forward and woke up the city fathers in grand style. It was Joseph Cumming, great-grandson of Henry, who managed to get the Augusta Canal added to the National Register of Historic Places.

This action forced the city administration to change its viewpoint about the canal. “Save the Augusta Canal” bumper stickers became popular. Local citizens organized to stop the construction of a golf course near the canal headgates.

By the 1990s, Augusta also realized that the canal had superb recreational possibilities. Soon, a canal authority was chartered. The canal was cleaned up, and the flow of water was restored throughout its length.

In 1996, the canal was designated a National Heritage Area. One of the old factories was converted into a canal museum and visitor center.

Today, You can rent a canoe or kayak at the headgates, float as far downstream as you like, and take a shuttle back.

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You can walk, run, or cycle for miles on the towpath or other trails in the vicinity.

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The city now offers cruises along the canal aboard replicas of the old Petersburg flatboats. Appropriately, one of those flatboats is the Henry H. Cumming.

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Sibley Mill (left) and J. P. King Mill today. Both are vacant, but are owned and protected by the Canal Authority.

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One leg of the canal passes through this in-town courtyard as the water flows back to the Savannah River.

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A view of the canal from the towpath.

The Augusta Canal is now 166 years old — and doing pretty well for its age.


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Mr. Dynamite

Last month, I spent a few days in Augusta, Georgia, exploring the city. I went simply out of curiosity. I knew very little about the place.

We Smiths, you see, are from Savannah, and we always dismissed Augusta as that other cotton town upstream on the Savannah River.

Silly us. As I discovered, Augusta is an interesting and attractive place.

But it wasn’t always thus. In the decades after World War II, the city had become seedy and rundown — bedeviled by trash, brothels, strip clubs, and the shells of empty mills and factories. Finally, in the 1980s, the city fathers acted.

Augusta invested heavily in cleaning up and modernizing the riverfront and the downtown district. Former factory buildings became condos. The worst of the strip clubs were zoned out of business. The brothels, I assume, went underground.

Augusta built Riverwalk, a beautiful city park that runs for a dozen blocks atop the levee and along the river.

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An art museum was built at one end of Riverwalk, a history museum at the other. Most of the downtown streets were landscaped and prettified.

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The key to understanding Augusta is geography. The city was built at the “fall line,” where the Piedmont Plateau drops down to the Coastal Plain. This is the spot where upstream navigation on the Savannah River ends.

At the history museum, you learn that Augusta’s economy was founded on tobacco and later thrived on cotton and textiles.

You learn about the construction in 1845 of the Augusta Canal, which starts at the fall line and flows south through the city. For years, the canal generated power for factories.

And, no surprise, a large part of the history museum is devoted to the life and career of Augusta luminary James Brown.

Yes, that James Brown. The Godfather of Soul. The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business. Mr. Dynamite.

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Brown was born into poverty across the river in South Carolina in 1933. When he was five, he and his family moved to Augusta, where they lived in a brothel run by his aunt.

Brown had a tough childhood, and he was incarcerated by age 16. But he prevailed. And even though life knocked him around at regular intervals, he went on to gain fame and fortune in true Horatio Alger style.

Today, one of Augusta’s major downtown streets is James Brown Boulevard. The civic center complex is James Brown Arena. Nearby, in James Brown Plaza, is a life-size bronze statue of Brown at the microphone, wearing his signature cape.

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The plaza is a favorite spot for tourist photos.

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As it happens, the statue is across the street from K’s Buffalo Wings, where I had stopped for lunch. I emerged from K’s, wiping hot sauce from my beard while trying not to drop my lemonade, and walked over to the plaza.

The spot was shady, but hot, this being Augusta in June. Occupying the benches around the statue were half a dozen black guys ranging in age from 20s to 60s. Two were eating lunch, a few were chatting, one was reading. They all looked up as I approached, but quickly lost interest.

At the time, I was the only tourist in the plaza. I took photos of the statue from various angles, trying to avoid getting people and traffic in the shots. It wasn’t easy.

Finally, a voice behind me said, “No offense, man, but you don’t look like a James Brown fan.”

I turned around. It was a young man in his mid-20s, holding a takeout box of K’s chicken wings. He was neatly dressed, probably an office worker on his lunch hour.

“Well, I’m not a huge fan,” I said, “But he really had talent. He was quite an entertainer. I saw him at a concert in Macon once, back in the 60s. ”

“For real? You saw James Brown back when he was young?”

“Yeah, I was in college in Athens, and a few of us drove to Macon to see him. I was in my teens. He was about 30, I guess. Really in his prime. He was amazing.”

The young man shook his head in wonder. “I saw him on stage a few times before he died. But he was pretty old, you know? Not James Brown like in the old days.”

“I don’t remember too much about the concert,” I said. “It was so long ago. But he was a trip — so much energy. Dancin’, struttin’, and sweatin’. One guy followed him around the stage to wipe his brow.”

The young man grinned. “Yeah, yeah, the cape routine. He falls to his knees, he’s exhausted, and they put the cape around his shoulders.”

“That’s it.”

He chuckled. “Man, I wish I coulda seen him in those days. I sure do.”

“If you’d seen him, you’d be old like me. You don’t wish that.”

“No, but I sure envy you seein’ him.”

The conversation stalled. Then the young man asked, “You from around here?”

“I live over by Athens. I just came to see a little of James Brown’s Augusta.”

“Well, you enjoy. Nice talkin’ to you, man.”

He returned to his lunch. I walked back to my car.


Here is the man himself, live in 1964, performing the cape routine.


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My beloved Paco, my best friend, the kindest and gentlest soul I’ve ever known, died Friday. I am reeling with grief. I have cried a hundred times.

Paco was 15, more or less. I don’t know for sure. He was a rescue dog, a stray found wandering along a county road, wearing a purple nylon collar with no identification.

He was a charmer, and I adopted him, and he had a long, eventful life. He was happy, healthy, comfortable, and content. Then, a few mornings ago, he was too weak to stand. The vet never determined why.

Death came to my precious boy in a calm, gentle way. For two days, he was kept on an IV. He was lucid, and he responded to me and others with his usual affection, although it was muted.

But he couldn’t get up. Several times a day, the staff carried him outside on a blanket. He ate only once.

Although he didn’t bounce back, he was never in pain or distress. When the time came to let him go, he passed away peacefully. I kissed his cheek and stroked his fur, and we were looking into each other’s eyes when the moment came.

For 13 years, Paco and I were a team. It was just the two of us, and I did my best to treat him well. I tried to make sure he lacked for nothing.

I probably raised my voice a few times, but I never struck him or punished him. I treated him with kindness and respect, because he deserved it; he never misbehaved or caused the slightest trouble. He was just a devoted friend. I was soothed and uplifted by his calm demeanor and quiet presence.

During the last year of his life, Paco slowed down considerably. For a long time, we were trail buddies, and we logged many miles hiking in the North Georgia mountains. But age and arthritis finally made the hills and the distances more than he could handle.

So, instead of driving north for a day of hiking, we settled for Sunday morning walks in town, around the elementary school or the high school. He could go off-leash there, wander at his own pace, and investigate all the wonderful smells.

It may be selfish of me to say, but suddenly, my life is abruptly changed. Paco isn’t there to greet me when I come home. The food and water bowls have been put away. The treat canisters are gone from the kitchen counter.

The familiar rituals — taking him outside for potty breaks, saving a few choice morsels for him on my dinner plate, making sure the toilet seat is up and the bowl is full, helping him onto the bed at night — all have ended.

Paco was a border collie, but an especially calm and quiet one. He rarely barked or vocalized. Perhaps to compensate, I talked to him quite a bit.

I had a long list of affectionate names for him. I called him “Sweetness.” That was the nickname of Walter Payton, the Chicago Bears running back of the 1970s.

I called him “my handsome friend” and “my bat-eared buddy” and “old flop-eared mutt” as often as “Paco.”

“You silly pooch,” I would say, or “What a knucklehead,” or “Look at that beautiful tail.” He answered with a head tilt.

Yes, I know — everyone’s dog is the best dog in the world. But Paco truly was a special creature, a special soul. Everyone who knew him acknowledged that.

It’s hard to say what made him so. Probably many factors. He was deeply intelligent. He had a quiet dignity, a noble character — almost an air of Zen, if “just a dog” could display such a thing. Whatever it was, it was impressive. It was admirable.

A long time ago, I ran across the adage that “most dogs are better people than most people.” Paco certainly was that. He was a better man than I am.

He was a calm, serene, delightful spirit. I loved, admired, and respected him more than I can express.

People have said Paco was lucky I found him. I suppose that’s true. But I was the lucky one. That silly pooch, he was a treasure. He enriched my life.

If there is a next realm, if there is a God, then God has the duty to take care of my wonderful Paco now.

There. I’ve said what I wanted to say about my dear, delightful friend. If you’ll excuse me, it’s Sunday morning, and I feel like walking for a while at the elementary school.













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A Geechee, as you may know, is a person from coastal South Carolina or Georgia. The term can refer to:

– African Americans, including those from both the Gullah culture in South Carolina and those known as Geechees on the coastal islands of Georgia, or

– the local Anglos, who also embrace the name.

According to some authorities, the word Geechee derives from the Ogeechee River, which flows into the Atlantic below Savannah. Others say the term came from one of the languages brought to America by African slaves.

I’m familiar with all this because Savannah is the long-time home of the Smith family. My dad and his three siblings were born and raised there. They proudly called themselves Geechees, and they spoke Geechee because they couldn’t help it.

Indeed, part of being a Geechee is the distinctive manner of speech. Among blacks, the dialect can be baffling to the listener; among whites, it’s a hybrid of Irish and Scottish brogues, heavily influenced by Gullah/Geechee words, style, and delivery.

In Geechee-speak, most “R” sounds are discarded except at the beginnings of words. Thus, Cousin Roger is Cousin “Rah-juh,” and the Lone Ranger is the Lone “Range-uh.”

To a Geechee, Charleston is “Choll-stun.”

A Geechee will wish you a Happy New “Yee-uh.”

As for my dad, he was not Walter, but “Wall-tuh.”

The four Smith kids — Walter, Allan, John, and Betty — were of the World War II generation. The three boys enlisted and went off to war.

Dad became a bomber pilot in Europe. Allan was an Air Corps mechanic in China and Burma. John was an Army infantryman who, as he liked to put it, pursued the German army on foot up the length of Italy.

Happily, all three brothers made it home. Dad, who spent months in a prison camp, came back with a bunch of medals. So did John. Everyone had stories to tell.

The war also set the three brothers on their eventual career paths. Dad stayed in the Air Force and flew jet fighters. Allan became a civilian instructor of Navy aircraft mechanics. John, an Army cartographer, pursued an art career.

Clearly, art was John’s thing. As early as grade school, he showed genuine talent. He did the oil painting below at age 15. (The white material flowing from the coffee cup: grits.)


After the war, John moved to New York City to seek his fortune. He attended art school at Pratt Institute and began working as a commercial artist in Brooklyn. As often happens, he met and married a nice local girl, Annette Conlin from Connecticut.

A few years later, John was hired by the design department at Fisher-Price Toys in East Aurora, New York, near Buffalo.

John and Annette raised four children in East Aurora, and John rose to became the chief product designer at Fisher-Price. Most of the classic Fisher-Price toys you may remember from your childhood, including the “little people,” are John’s creations.


In 1993, Fisher-Price was acquired by Mattel, Inc., the toy manufacturing behemoth. John’s department was disbanded, and Mattel took over the design duties. John was invited to retire.

But the new Mattel designs didn’t measure up, and Fisher-Price sales quickly nose-dived. Before long, Mattel asked John to return to the company in a consulting role.

John agreed, and ultimately, Fisher-Price rebounded in the toy market. John’s consulting fees, I’m told, were eye-popping.

A few years later, having put Fisher-Price back on course, John retired again. He and Annette settled into a quiet life in East Aurora.

It’s worthy of note that, even after decades of living in New York, John never lost his Geechee accent. Neither did Dad, Allan, or Betty.

Despite drifting into commercial work and product design, John had a fire in the belly to paint. For him, it was both artistic expression and therapy.

He preferred maritime subjects,  landscapes, and architecture — which Savannah, and Buffalo and Lake Erie, provided aplenty.

This watercolor of a stately downtown Savannah residence is typical of his style:


So is this watercolor of the Savannah Cotton Exchange, where my grandfather worked years ago as a broker.

Cotton Exchange

Sometimes — in fact, many times — life takes an unexpected turn. And, when life is really on its game, the turn can be wonderfully ironic.

Not long after college, one of John and Annette’s daughters took a job, strictly by chance, in Charleston. Soon, the other daughter joined her.

As often happens, both girls married local fellows. They had children and became Charlestonians — Geechees, if you prefer — but with New York accents.

John and Annette spent their golden years in East Aurora, but naturally, they went to Charleston often, sometimes for visits of a month or two. Charleston became the subject of more and more of John’s paintings.

Through the years, John enjoyed good health and remained mentally sharper than people half his age. But a few years ago, his time came. He died in East Aurora at age 91.

It took a while, but Annette got the estate settled, got the house ready, and sold it. Last fall, she relocated from upstate New York to Charleston.

There, she moved into a comfortable cottage near the beach, which was fixed up for her by a son-in-law in the landscaping and construction business.

Because the cottage is on stilts (required by the hurricane code), and because Annette is 85, the son-in-law installed an elevator. Annette says it’s quite handy for taking in the groceries and taking out the garbage.

In the Geechee vernacular, a true native is a “been-yee-uh” (been here), and a newcomer is a “come-yee-uh” (come here).

Annette will never be the former, but she is now a Charlestonian. As are three of her four children and all of her grandchildren.

Last month, Annette invited me to the coast for a few days to see her new place, join her for her daily walks at the beach, and visit with the cousins.

Her cottage is impressive. Nicely renovated and beautifully landscaped. Tastefully decorated with her treasures from East Aurora, plus lots of new beach-themed items.

And, parked beneath the house, convenient to the elevator, is a gift Annette gave to herself to celebrate her new life down South: a handsome Mustang convertible.


The new wheels.


Annette enjoying the ocean breeze on the pier at Folly Beach, in the land of the Geechees.


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On September 22, 1962, in the opening week of the SEC football season, the Alabama Crimson Tide spanked the fannies of the Georgia Bulldogs, 35-0. It was Alabama’s 12th straight win.

The game marked the debut of Alabama’s sophomore quarterback Joe Namath, who threw three touchdown passes. The Tide defense, led by All-American Lee Roy Jordan, held Georgia to a mere 116 yards on offense.

But the game was destined to have even greater consequences. Big trouble was brewing.

In early 1963, the Saturday Evening Post ran a sensational story claiming that, prior to the game, Georgia Athletic Director Wally Butts gave crucial information about Georgia’s plays and formations to Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

The magazine gave as its source an Atlanta insurance agent, George Burnett, who claimed that on September 13,1962, when he placed a routine long distance phone call, his line was accidentally connected to a conversation between Butts and Bryant.

Burnett said he listened, spellbound, and quickly understood that Butts was divulging crucial information that would give the Alabama team a major advantage over Georgia. He said he took notes as the 15-minute conversation unfolded.

Burnett claimed that he only told a few friends about the incident. But after the big Alabama victory, he went to several officials at UGA with his story. Inquiries began.

Abruptly, Burnett then sold his story to the Saturday Evening Post for $5,000. And, according to later reports, the Post rushed the article into print to avoid being scooped by other news outlets.

The result, no surprise, was a firestorm. Both coaches vehemently denied the accusation. Outraged football fans in Georgia and Alabama rose to defend the two coaches. Butts filed a $10 million libel suit. Bryant, who already had a lawsuit in progress against the magazine (for alleging that Bryant was a brutal coach), did the same.

When the Butts libel trial reached court, evidence showed that Butts and Bryant indeed had spoken by telephone at the time Burnett claimed. Southern Bell admitted it was possible for a third party to be connected accidentally to another call.

But three UGA players testified that Alabama did not seem to have any special inside information. And three Alabama players testified that their game preparation was normal.

Namath and Jordan both said they would have known if their team possessed the kind of sensitive information described in the story.

Butts and Bryant, close friends for many years, insisted they simply had shared “coach talk,” and Bryant received no information that would help him in the game.

In his summation, Butts’ high-powered attorney William Schroder, Jr. intoned, “Someday, Wallace Butts will pass on to where neither the Post nor anyone else can then bother him. Unless I miss my guess, they will put him in a red coffin with a black lid with a football in his hands, and his epitaph will read, ‘Glory, glory to old Georgia.'”

Mrs. Butts and her three daughters, sitting in the front row, sobbed.

The jury ruled that the magazine indeed had rushed to judgment and was liable. The publisher was ordered to pay Butts $3.06 million in damages — the largest amount ever awarded in a libel suit.

When the verdict was read, Butts wept. Attorney Schroder leaned over and said, “Let it come, Wally. Let it come, boy.”

“I couldn’t help it,” Butts said later. “It was six months rolling out of me.”

“It’s not the money. It’s the vindication,” he said.

Later, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court previously had ruled that news organizations are protected from liability when they make allegations about public officials. But in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, the Court said news outlets can be held liable if they print information about public figures that is “recklessly gathered and unchecked.”

Eventually, the $3.06 million awarded to Butts was reduced on appeal to $460,000. Bryant settled out of court for $300,000. The Saturday Evening Post, already in financial trouble, closed its doors in 1969.

In 1963, the Georgia Bulldogs had a 4-5-1 season, which sealed the fate of Johnny Griffith. He was fired and replaced by Vince Dooley.

That same year, his reputation further battered by the Post story, Wally Butts stepped down as Athletic Director. He moved to Atlanta and opened the Wallace Butts Insurance Agency. The business soon became successful, and he moved it back to Athens, where he was still a beloved figure.

Butts died of a heart attack in Athens in 1973, age 68.


When I arrived at UGA as a freshman in 1960, Wally Butts was the head coach. In my sophomore and junior years, Johnny Griffith had the job. When I was a senior, Vince Dooley began his reign.

The irony doesn’t escape me that the Bulldogs were SEC champs the year before I arrived, and they resumed their winning ways the year after I graduated.

As the 1960 football season unfolded, the Bulldogs having just lost consecutive games to Florida and Auburn, rumors circulated on campus that Coach Butts was surely doomed, on his way out.

I didn’t know, of course, that a group of prominent Georgia alumni already had met with Butts and invited him to resign. (Please, Wally, don’t force us to go public with details about your girlfriend and all that.)

All I knew was that the very idea of firing the legendary Wally Butts was unfair and underhanded. After all, the man was a Georgia institution.

But I was a tender, innocent freshman, just back in the U.S. after living for three years in Europe. I was just getting used to campus life, just learning my way around Athens. What did I know?

So, one sunny Saturday afternoon in December, as Fall Quarter was winding down, when my friend Al came to my dorm room and asked me to go with him to a “Save Wally” demonstration at the Arch on North Campus, naturally I said yes.

The demonstration wasn’t much. About 50-75 students showed up. We milled around for 30 minutes or so, chanting things like “Wah-LEE! Wah-LEE!” and “Save Our Butts! Save Our Butts!”

The group declined, however, to chant one of the most obvious slogans before their eyes, which Al and I had hand-lettered with black Magic Marker on white t-shirts and proudly wore to the event: I LIKE BUTTS

What can I say. I was young and stupid.

The University officially replaced Butts with Griffith the first week of January 1961, as Winter Quarter was starting. It’s worthy of note that on the same day, a federal judge ordered UGA to quit stalling and admit its first black students.

That, of course, led to other demonstrations — bone-headed, embarrassing, dangerous demonstrations — from which I stayed as far away as possible.

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Room with a view… I took this photo of Sanford Stadium from the window of my dorm room in November 1960.

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Wally during the glory years.

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The iconic Arch between the UGA campus and downtown Athens originally was a gate to keep out livestock. It has became a traditional spot for demonstrations, such as this “Occupy Athens” rally in 2011.


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My alma mater, the University of Georgia, dumped its head football coach after last season and hired a new one.

Gone is Mark Richt, who held the job for 15 years. Richt had a respectable record of 145 wins, 51 losses. He was replaced by Kirby Smart, an Alabama assistant coach.

Why did Richt get the boot? Because for all his winning, he delivered the coveted SEC championship only twice, way back in 2002 and 2005. That fact was stuck in the craw of too many influential UGA alumni, so Richt was invited out the door.

The same thing happened to the previous Georgia coach, Vince Dooley. Dooley coached at UGA for 24 years, from 1964 until 1988. He, too, had a strong record (201-77-10), but a mere five SEC titles. He was replaced as head coach and put out to pasture as Athletic Director.

Dooley and Richt are still highly regarded in these parts, because they are honorable men, models of civility and decorum, respected as coaches, leaders, and role models. Unfortunately for them, the UGA power elite wanted meat-eaters.

Inevitably, this latest Athens coaching kerfuffle leads my thoughts back to when I attended UGA in the 1960s.

During my four years there, Georgia had three different head coaches. And the terms “decorum” and “role model” do not come to mind.

Therein, my friends, lies a marvelous tale.


James Wallace “Wally” Butts, Jr., often called “the little round man,” was an unlikely college athlete. He was 5′ 6″ and 155 pounds. But he attended Mercer University on scholarships in football, basketball, and baseball and was team captain in all three sports.

After a decade of coaching football at prep schools around the South, Butts came to the University of Georgia in 1938 as an assistant coach. In 1939, when the UGA head coach departed (following a 5-4-1 season), Butts was picked for the job.

At practice sessions and on game days, Butts was a feisty, fiery-tempered presence. He paced the sidelines, strutting and fuming and barking orders.

In an era when power runners fueled the offense in most of college football, Butts was a proponent of the passing game. Success came to the Bulldogs almost immediately.

UGA quickly won three SEC titles (1942, 1946, 1948) and two national championships (1942 and 1946). Butts recruited the two Georgia football legends who helped deliver the national titles: Heisman Trophy winner Frank Sinkwich in 1942 and Charley Trippi in 1946.

But success in sports is a transitory thing. By the 1950s, the Bulldogs had become mediocre, languishing in the SEC cellar. The team suffered through five losing seasons.

Butts rebounded briefly in 1959 under ace quarterback Fran Tarkington, and UGA again won the SEC title. But in 1960, with Tarkington gone, the Bulldogs went 6-4.

The powers-that-be stepped in. Butts was replaced as head coach, but allowed to stay on as Athletic Director. His record over 21 years was 140-86-9.

The performance of the football team, however, was not the only factor in his firing.

Butts was married with three children and was, of course, an Athens institution. The telephones in his house were red and black. His home phone number was listed in the telephone book. He owned The Huddle, a popular downtown diner.

But his personal life had become increasingly, and sometimes openly, scandalous. The allegations were eyebrow-raising.

According to reports, Butts frequented bars, drank excessively, and had a young girlfriend in Atlanta with whom he went nightclubbing.

Sometimes, she traveled with him to out-of-state football games; he charged her expenses, including airline tickets, to the University.

The school also said it found over 300 long distance phone calls between Butts and his lady friend that were charged to UGA.

There’s more. Allegedly, Butts was pals with a Chicago beer distributor known for gambling on college football games. At various times, the man helped Butts with business investments, and he once arranged for the coach to get a sizable loan.

Meanwhile, the IRS was after Butts for $36,000 in unpaid income taxes.

Slowly, the stories became public knowledge around Athens and Atlanta. Team morale and recruiting almost certainly were affected. As Butts’ reputation declined, so did the team’s performance.

Butts accepted the Athletic Director position, but he resented being pushed out as head coach. It didn’t help that Georgia’s new head coach, Johnny Griffith, took the Bulldogs to a record of 3-7 in 1961 and 3-4-3 in 1962. Butts began to criticize Griffith’s coaching abilities publicly and often.

Then, the saga took a turn for the surreal. Sensational accusations were made of high-level cheating and collusion. A monumental legal fight ensued.

More about which in my next post.

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Wally Butts during practice at Sanford Stadium.

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Coach Butts on game day.

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Posing in 1959 with Tarkington (10) and other star players.

griffith, johnny.jpg (ntphoto/sports/uga football/2003)

Johnny Griffith

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Vince Dooley

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Mark Richt

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Kirby Smart


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The College Bowls

This is one of those “why, back in my day” posts, in which I put on my curmudgeon hat and bemoan something that was better in the old days.

But I aim to make a legitimate point, by cracky, so bear with me.


For an old guy with plenty of football seasons behind me, I have attended only one college bowl game. It was the 1966 Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Georgia beat SMU 24-9.

Back then, there were nine post-season bowl games:

The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, established in 1902
The Orange Bowl in Miami, 1935
The Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, 1935
The Sun Bowl in El Paso, 1935
The Cotton Bowl in Dallas, 1937
The Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, 1945
The Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, 1946
The Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, 1959
The Liberty Bowl in Memphis, 1959

Today, all nine are still around, and the Rose Bowl is still the Rose Bowl. But the other eight, one by one, sold their naming rights to corporations.

Ah, free enterprise. It’s as American as apple pie.

The Orange Bowl is now the Capitol One Orange Bowl.
The Sugar Bowl is the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
The Sun Bowl is the Hyundai Sun Bowl.
The Cotton Bowl is the Goodyear Cotton Bowl.
The Gator Bowl is the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The Tangerine Bowl is the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.
The Bluebonnet Bowl is the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl.
The Liberty Bowl is the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

In case you didn’t know, TaxSlayer is a do-it-yourself online tax software company.

AdvoCare (they are advocates who care) sells nutritional supplements. V100 is a “tropical chew” — $35 for a pouch of 60. They must work wonders.

Which leads to my next point. Have you counted the number of bowl games out there lately? The college bowl industry now operates an astonishing 41 games around the country.

In addition to the nine bowls listed previously, we also have:

— The Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl in Atlanta
— The AutoNation Cure Bowl, Orlando
— The BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl, Glendale (BattleFrog stages local obstacle races)
— The Belk Bowl, Charlotte
— The Birmingham Bowl (Formerly the Papa John’s Bowl, now owned by ESPN)
— The Camping World Independence Bowl, Shreveport
— The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Atlanta
— The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Boise
— The Foster Farms Bowl, Santa Clara
— The Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Nashville
— The Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque (For Gildan t-shirts)
— The GoDaddy Bowl, Mobile
— The Hawai’i Bowl, Honolulu
— The Holiday Bowl, San Diego (Previous sponsor National University pulled out)
— The Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Fort Worth
— The Marmot Boca Raton Bowl, Boca Raton
— The Miami Beach Bowl, Miami Beach (Owned by the Marlins)
— The Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman, Annapolis
— The Motel 6 Cactus Bowl, Tempe
— The New Era Pinstripe Bowl, New York City (For New Era baseball caps)
— The Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl, Tucson
— The Outback Bowl, Tampa
— The Popeyes Bahamas Bowl, Nassau
— The Quick Lane Bowl, Detroit (For the Quick Lane auto repair chain)
— The R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, New Orleans
— The Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, Montgomery
— The Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Las Vegas (Royal Purple makes synthetic oil)
— The Russell Athletic Bowl, Orlando
— The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, San Diego
— The St. Petersburg Bowl, St. Petersburg (Bitcoin pulled out as sponsor)
— The Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio
— The Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, Dallas


I realize the selling of bowl names is a minor matter compared to, say, gun deaths or global warming, but this particular commercialization strikes me as especially tacky and offensive.

Yes, a bowl needs a name. But renaming it to hype a product? That’s beyond unsavory; it’s vulgar and sleazy.

It’s like a car dealership drawing attention to itself with an inflatable gorilla.

It’s like the NASCAR tradition of cars and drivers festooned with as many logos as will fit the space.

I understand and respect the role and the power of advertising. My college degree is in Advertising. I spent most of my working life in the business.

And when a marketing practice triggers my internal “tacky and offensive” detector, it tells me the practice is over the line.

Too bad those companies couldn’t simply buy some ad space, or run some TV spots, or sponsor the PBS News Hour, and leave the bowls alone.

Bowl games, when you think about it, have limited appeal. Except in the case of the very top bowls where the national title is determined, most people don’t care all that much. Only the fans at the two competing colleges, plus some people in the bowl’s host city, are paying attention. Not much of an audience, really.

I also should point out that the corporate sponsors are not the only villains here. The bowls themselves are more than willing to sell out. Clearly, all parties have a healthy mercenary spirit, wholly unburdened by shame.

Ah, free enterprise. It’s as American as apple pie.


In order to end this on an upbeat note, let me add some recollections about that Cotton Bowl game I attended in Dallas in 1966.

I was in the Air Force at the time, and I had just spent the Christmas holidays with my family in Georgia. The trip back to my duty station in New Mexico had me passing through Dallas at just the right time, so Dad surprised me with a Cotton Bowl ticket.

The Bulldogs had a terrific season in 1966. Vince Dooley was in his third year as coach. That year, Georgia lost only one game (by one point) and shared the SEC title with Alabama. The Cotton Bowl win was gravy.

That was a long time ago, but I still remember a marvelous series of downs in the 4th quarter, when Dooley sent a star defensive lineman into the game as quarterback. Yes, quarterback.

The player was two-time All-American tackle George “The General” Patton, the team captain, playing in the last game of his college career.

Patton, 6’3″ and 210 pounds, had been an All-State quarterback at his high school in Alabama. He came to UGA as a quarterback in his freshman year.

But after watching Patton during practice, Dooley asked if he would consider trying out as a defensive tackle.

“I told him it didn’t matter to me,” Patton said. “I just wanted a job.”

On the first play of his defensive career, Patton sacked Alabama’s Joe Namath for an eight-yard loss. For the next two seasons, Patton was the terror of the SEC.

So, at the Cotton Bowl in 1966, with Georgia comfortably leading SMU, Dooley sent Patton into the game for one series of downs in his old position of quarterback.

Patton handed off the ball twice, ran the ball himself for a 14-yard gain, and heaved one mighty pass downfield. It fell 20 yards beyond the nearest receiver.

For me, the highlight of the game was seeing Patton let the ball fly and watching the tremendous arc of that pass.

What a supremely satisfying moment it must have been for Patton.

Cotton Bowl

Dooley and the Dogs celebrate in Dallas, December 1966.


George “The General” Patton.


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On July 20, 2009, this article appeared in The Times, the daily newspaper of Gainesville, Georgia.


Visitor Arrested for Eating Chicken With Fork

Ginny Dietrick fought the law Monday. But this time, she won.

The Louisiana resident was celebrating her 91st birthday by enjoying a lunch of Longstreet Cafe’s finest fried chicken Monday when Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper told Dietrick to put down her fork and listen up — she was under arrest.

Hooper informed Dietrick that it’s against a city ordinance to eat fried chicken, “a culinary delicacy sacred to this municipality, this county, this state, the Southland and this republic,” with anything other than your fingers. The 1961 ordinance was put on city books as a sort of public relations stunt to promote Gainesville as the poultry capital of the world, Hooper said.

Dietrick had Gainesville resident and friend A.C. Marshall to thank for the practical joke. Dietrick can also thank Marshall for setting up her pardon.

Gainesville Mayor Myrtle Figueras was on hand at Longstreet Cafe to dismiss the charges of improper poultry consumption against Dietrick.

And Abit Massey, president-emeritus of the Georgia Poultry Federation, ordained Dietrick an Honorary Georgia Poultry Princess.


It’s true. Eating fried chicken with a utensil is against the law in Gainesville, which is 20 miles from where I live, and which calls itself the “Poultry Capital of the World” and “Queen City of the Mountains.”

Technically, Gainesville isn’t in the mountains. It’s in the foothills, although on a clear day, you can see the Blue Ridge Mountains on the horizon. The “Queen City” thing, therefore, is a bit of a stretch.

The “Poultry Capital” claim, on the other hand, isn’t.

Gainesville is an interesting and in some ways curious place. It is most notable for:

1) the looming presence of Lake Lanier, which was created in its backyard when the Chattahoochee River was dammed in the 1950s, and

2) a robust, billion-dollar poultry processing industry.

Lake Lanier surrounds Gainesville on three sides. Countless coves and inlets intrude deep into the rolling hills. As a result, Gainesville (population 35,000) and Hall County (190,000) are home to some eye-poppingly spectacular and expensive lakefront residential neighborhoods.

As for the poultry industry, it has dominated the local economy for the last 75 years.

Gainesville was founded 200 years ago as Mule Camp Springs, at a spot not far from the Chattahoochee River where two old Indian trails crossed. Before long, the town was renamed Gainesville in honor of General Edmund P. Gaines, a hero of the War of 1812.

Frankly, I like the choice. In those days, President Andrew Jackson was engaged in forcibly removing the native tribes from the Southeast (as many individuals as they could catch, at any rate) and shipping them to the Oklahoma Territory, thus freeing up their land for European settlers.

General Gaines was a veteran of several Indian wars, but to his credit, he publicly opposed the removal policy on moral grounds. His opposition did nothing to stop the removal, of course, and it ended his military career.

Maybe Gaines would be a good choice to replace the villainous Jackson on the $20 bill.

Edmund P. Gaines

Edmund P. Gaines

But I digress.

The poultry industry rose in Gainesville thanks to Jesse Dickson Jewell (1902-1975), a savvy businessman who perfected the process of raising, slaughtering, and marketing the birds.

Jesse Jewell

Jesse Jewell

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Jewell made the chicken-processing industry efficient and profitable. During the post-World War II boom, J. D. Jewell, Inc. became a leading regional employer.

The Jewell processing plant also was among the first local factories to hire black workers.

The Rooster Statue

After Jewell died, the city fathers and business leaders determined to honor both Jewell and the chicken, the source of so much of Gainesville’s fame and prosperity.

The primary north-south avenue through downtown Gainesville was renamed Jesse Jewell Parkway.

Then in 1977, Gainesville opened Georgia Poultry Park, fittingly located on Jesse Jewell Parkway, not far from the center of town.

The centerpiece of the quiet little park is a 25-foot marble obelisk topped by a handsome three-foot-tall bronze rooster.

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Jesse Jewell would be proud.

The Rabbit Statue

Although most Gainesvillians are proud of their poultry-related heritage, resentment simmered in the northeast corner of the city, in a tiny neighborhood where chickens were less revered.

Around 1900, well before poultry’s rise to prominence in Gainesville, local farmer David Highsmith began raising and selling rabbits to the citizenry. Most people were poor, and rabbits were a cheap and plentiful food item. Highsmith’s business prospered, and soon, he dubbed his little community Rabbittown.

Highsmith remained in the rabbit business through the 1920s. When he died, the business died with him. Rabbittown was absorbed into Gainesville and largely was forgotten…

… except in the hearts of Rabbittown’s residents. In 1993, a few local businessmen, probably irritated by the presence of the bronze rooster in Poultry Park, erected their own monument: a 20-foot-tall rabbit, perched on its haunches, one paw raised in greeting to passersby.

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Whereas the rooster statue is a dramatized, but realistic depiction, the rabbit statue is… more like a gray version of a chocolate Easter bunny.

The statue is made of Styrofoam, covered with a layer of fiberglass mesh and coated with synthetic stucco for preservation. It stands in the parking lot of the Rabbittown Cafe, a local favorite for home cookin’.

David Highsmith would be proud.

The Tiger Statue

Tiger? Yes, Gainesville also has a tiger statue, said to be the largest in the world.

The bronze tiger, installed in 2013 on the campus of Brenau University, is 7′ 6″ tall and 14′ long. It rests on a granite base and weighs 2,200 pounds.

Tiger statue

If you sense an interesting story here, your instinct is correct.

Brenau is a prestigious private university founded in Gainesville in 1878. Today, in addition to the Gainesville campus, Brenau has six other locations around Georgia and one Jacksonville. Enrollment is about 3,500 students.

The statue represents Brenau’s Golden Tiger mascot. It was a gift from Irwin “Ike” Belk, former head of the Belk Department Store chain. Apparently, Ike’s hobby after retirement was to donate “world’s largest” statues to colleges and universities.

Over the years, he placed 40 such statues at various institutions, including a giant flying falcon at the Air Force Academy.

Brenau students voted to name the bronze tiger “Lucille” after the wife of a former university president.

I close with one last interesting fact, a connection between Brenau and the Jewell family.

Jesse Jewell’s mother, Mary Dickson, worked as an art teacher at Brenau (which was a women’s college until the 1960s) before she married Edgar Jewell. Consequently, the Jewell family always maintained close ties to Brenau.

Mary died in 1953. In the early 1960s, when Jesse sold the company and retired, he used a large portion of his fortune to establish a scholarship fund at Brenau. Over the years, the fund has enabled many local women to attend Brenau.

Mary Jewell would be proud.

Rabbit statue-2

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