My mother was a first-grade teacher and my father was a vocational agriculture teacher. My mother was recruited to teach when we came to Sandersville, when I was three. One of the conditions was that she would teach first grade if I could come along, because she didn’t have anywhere or anyone to leave me with. So I became a vagabond, in the first grade as a four-year-old.
Nathan Deal with a trophy he received for winning the District II public speaking competition in Savannah, May 1959, with his father and FFA adviser, N.J. Deal; photograph
courtesy of Nathan Deal
In the summers, my father operated the canning plant on the premises of the school. People would bring their vegetables in. It was tin cans, not glass jars. I learned how to operate all the equipment. I’d take the cans off the line, put ’em in the canning machine, get each one canned separately, clamp it down, seal it, use a chain hoist to lift it up and drop it in the big vats, turn the pressure on, and leave it for an hour or so. When they were cool, you’d take them out, separate them out as to whose cans they were. I got to meet a lot of people coming in from the farms.
Before I went to high school, we bought a farm about four miles away from where our house was. A little over 300 acres. We planted a little bit of everything—wheat, grains, corn. And we started a cattle operation. Up to that point in time, we’d had a hog farm. We grew registered Duroc pigs. I showed those growing up, both as a 4-Her and later as a member of FFA. I got a box full of ribbons and trophies over the years from that. I saved up enough money to pay for my first year of college from winnings in livestock shows.
Sandersville was a small town. We lived about two and a half miles out in the country, which was way out in the country in those days. I joined the First Baptist Church in Sandersville when I was six.
My mother pushed me a lot. I guess I was a willing recipient of that. I remember she decided we needed some more income. So she had a poultry house built for laying hens. We probably had 100 to 125 laying hens. That’s a lot of eggs. We’d collect the eggs, we’d wash them, we’d weigh them on the scales, sort them, put them in cartons, and she’d sell them.
The feed would be delivered in hundred-pound sacks. In those days, it was from Marbut Milling Co. out of Augusta. They’d come in colored sacks. My mother would take those feed sacks and make shirts and pajamas for me. So I’d always meet the truck and pick out what my next shirt would look like. When I got a little older, I said, “Mother, everybody else has store-bought shirts.” She said, “Well, they don’t have them as colorful as yours.” I said, “Well no, they’re not as colorful. But they’re store-bought.” She said, “What’s so different about them?” I said, “They have button-down collars.” She said, “I can fix that.” So she made me button-down collars on my feed-sack shirts. I was in style.
My mother insisted that I was too shy. She hired a lady to give me speech lessons, from about the third grade through fifth grade. You’d have poems or recitations to memorize. She’d critique you. I was shy. Still am. It’s a challenge. But sometimes it does pay to keep your own counsel, which I think is too rare in the public arena.
I was on the debate team in high school, all the way through. My team won the state debate championship in both the junior and senior year in high school. One of my debate coaches came to my inauguration—Miss Isabel Snyder.
I was also involved in public speaking. I won regional, state, tristate, Southern region, and went on to the national FFA convention in public speaking. I won second place in the nation. I had pretty well decided that I probably was not going to go into agriculture, that I’d go a different route—law school.
John Foster owned the radio station in Sandersville at the time. During my junior or senior year of high school, he called me up out of the blue and said, “I want you to enter the Voice of Democracy competition.” I said, “What is that?” He said, “Well, you write a speech, you record it, and it’s all done through the radio.” So I wrote a speech. He submitted the tape and I won the state competition, so I got to go to Washington, D.C.
In 1980 I was in Gainesville practicing law. John Foster was a member of the state Senate from Habersham County. He encouraged me to run for the state Senate seat. I did and I was elected and we ended up sitting next to each other. That connection began with him calling me up out of the blue.
—As told to Steve Fennessy
Nathan Deal received undergraduate and law degrees from Mercer University. He is the eighty-second governor of Georgia.