Born 1944, Atlanta
I was born in Atlanta, December 28, 1944. My father was a Greyhound bus driver. He and my mother would buy run-down houses and fix them up to sell and make a little money on the side. I’m told we lived in ten houses between the day I was born and the day I was six years old, most of them Downtown or around Midtown. But in 1950, my parents bought a house in Brookhaven. We lived there for ten years, and that ended our nomadic moving around.
Isakson, around age three, at his parents' East Paces Ferry Road apartment, which was built by his grandfather; photograph
courtesy of Johnny Isakson
My father was hired by a builder to run a small company called Northside Realty. He built it into a very substantial company. I succeeded him as president in 1977. My grandfather was from Sweden. [My grandparents] lived on the corner of North Fulton Drive and Pharr Road. He was a stone mason who came to the U.S. in 1903. One of his assignments was the stonework at Oglethorpe University. He settled in Buckhead and started building houses and apartment complexes. He was a great guy. He never spoke a lot of English, sometimes conveniently. The building tradition goes back to him.
My [oldest] memories are from East Brookhaven Drive. We always had jobs. I was the guy who cut the grass, raked the leaves, and did outside chores. Theater of the Stars, which is now Downtown, originally was in Chastain. I worked as an usher there. The pay was $2.50 a night, but the reward was you got to see the stars and the starlets. I can remember getting to meet Carol Channing.
Every Thanksgiving, we would go to my mother’s parents’ farm in Fitzgerald. It was a small, about 100-acre farm where they had chickens and cows and raised corn. They had a two-bedroom, one-bath clapboard house heated by two coal fireplaces. My grandmother cooked on a wood stove until she died. But she would make Thanksgiving dinner on that little wood stove. She’d go out and get a chicken and take the ax to his head, and I’d pull the feathers out. She’d cook the chicken, make the dressing, make biscuits. Best Thanksgiving dinner. I can still taste it to this day. The fun part was the whole family would get in the second bedroom at night. Of course, the fireplaces would burn down, so it would get really cold in the winter. We’d pile under all the quilts. It would be all five of us in two beds.
In my sixth-grade year, I was the school safety patrol officer who directed traffic at the intersection of Peachtree and Piedmont. R.L. Hope Elementary was at that corner. Of course, no adult in their right mind, much less a twelve-year-old, would get out there and direct traffic now.
Alice Gibson was an English teacher at North Fulton High School. She was the most demanding teacher, and she put up with no mischief whatsoever. She could not tolerate somebody not living up to their potential. In eighth grade, when I was in her class, we had an assignment dealing with the poem “Evangeline.” I didn’t do the assignment over the weekend, and I was asked to come up and recite parts of “Evangeline.” I couldn’t do it. She embarrassed me in front of the class and said, “You’re smarter than that. I want you to come in here and do it tomorrow.” She made me really mad, but she made me mad at myself. So I went home and studied the whole night and came back the next day and recited the assignment flawlessly. She really kind of turned me around. She said, “Now, see. I told you you could do it, and that’s the way you ought to treat your homework every night.” She really got me to be a much better student.
—As told to Betsy Riley
Johnny Isakson has served as a Georgia senator since 2004. Before that, he spent three terms as a U.S. representative and seventeen years in the state legislature. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he worked as president of Northside Realty for twenty years. He now lives in Marietta and attends Mount Zion United Methodist Church, where he taught sixth-grade Sunday school for thirty years.