From the Archives: Saying goodbye to Zell Miller, the man who says goodbye best

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[Editor’s note: For our December 1998 Best of Atlanta issue, we featured this story on Zell Miller as he prepared to leave the governor’s office. Much of the story centers around Miller’s proficiency for telling eulogies, which felt fitting in the wake of this death on March 23, 2018. Below is the original copy, as it was published in 1998.]

Zell Miller goodbye

Photograph by Billy Howard

Only editors and printers had time to closely examine my newly-finished book. Trucks were still delivering boxes of Zell: The Governor Who Gave Georgia Hope to bookstores. Only a few copies were in circulation. The day before, broadcasting from the front porch of the Georgia governor’s mansion, shock jock Don Imus held up the book for this cable TV viewers to see. That same morning, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley, in a heady first review, told readers hat this as a perfectly stunning work that contained live Georgia history. Authors relish such words even more than their publishers. The publisher hears the faint ringing of cash registers. The uneasy writer settles for fleeing moments of recognition like these.

Only that was Friday and this was Saturday. As the newly-introduced biographer of Zell Miller, the governor of Georgia, I stood in front of a literary gathering at a posh Buckhead hotel where people paid $125 a plate to hear writers talk about their latest work, then waited in line so they could purchase autographed copies of those books. John Berendt, celebrating months on The New York Times Bestsellers List, went first, and I could have re-read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil right there in the hall he rambled so long. I was more brief, for Clint Eastwood had not bought the Hollywood rights to my book. Quickly, I was back in my chair and the governor was about to follow his biographer with his own take on the book.

I began to sweat.

We had quarreled face to face, phone to phone and fax to fax over how I would approach the project. I maintained that to understand the governor you had to understand the man, and he argued that if he wasn’t governor there would be no book. I finally prevailed. But along the way he explained that he likes to be in control, which was a little like telling Noah about the flood.

“I’ve even planned my own funeral,” he confessed, if not apologizing for, at least explaining, his gubernatorial tantrum.

So now we were in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom, people were on their feet applauding and the governor of Georgia was walking to the front of the hall. He had a microphone and an audience, and that can be both exhilarating and frightening if your name is featured in a Zell Miller oratory. I didn’t know what he would say, but it was a review I wanted to hear, for though the book was mine, the story was his.

“This book has allowed me to see my own obituary,” Miller told the crowd. “It’s kinda like being there in your own casket and watching people filing by saying, ‘Don’t he look natural.'”

Well, now may be an even more appropriate time to dress him up in his best cowboy boots, for Zell Miller, as we have come to know him, is abotu to pass away from Georgia politics. If you’ll fry the chicken, I’ll bring the potato salad. Somebody make a squash casserole. And don’t forget to put your name on the bottom of the dish, ’cause afterward we’ll want to be sure we get them all back to the right kitchen. The time has come to look back at the Zell Miller you may not know. The things you do know are how he has given state teachers a 29 percent raise, how he brought hope to the players of the lottery and HOPE to families who want their sons and daughters to be able to go to college. And you know his reputation: Zell gave ’em hell, whether it was the Speaker of the Georgia House or an AJC cartoonist who poked fun at his mountain neighbors.

Another Zell Miller has been emerging since election day when Georgia voters anointed his successor. By the new year, Zell and Shirley will have packed up their eclectic library of books and CDs, along with memories of a state that has grown into long pants on their watch. A moving van will take them back to the mountains and that rock cabin his mother built, giving her only son an Abe Lincoln-like story that served as political collateral for years.

He’ll teach. He’ll lecture. He’ll write some books. He’ll hang his shingle at Young Harris College, where he, like his daddy before him, once taught history. He’ll lecture at Emory University, where he was a misplaced boy from the hills who didn’t feel like he belonged.  He’ll teach at the University of Georgia, where a history professor once predicted he’d be governor.

Zell Miller is coming up fast on his 67th birthday, and he has few political battles left to fight in Georgia. The last respects have started. You’re already reading and hearing from authoritative columnists and commentators who have been evaluating Miller’s 24 years int he executive branch of state government, the last eight as one of Georgia’s most popular chief executives. Miller himself is getting into the act, planning a pair of books on his administration for Mercer University Press. They’ll be part of a Miller trilogy, pairing up with Zell: The Governor Who Gave Georgia Hope, the biography I wrote on him last year. I’m not here to tell that story. You’ll need $29.99 plus tax if you want to know those details. But it does seem fitting to say a few words over his years around the capitol.

Leaving politics to the pundits and the professors, I’m still working on the man. Little by little, he comes clearer. Last Christmas, for example, I was on the bookstore circuit from the Atlanta Perimeter to the Washington Beltway. If a store had books, I had time. And at most stops, there was the governor, sitting next to me, ready to sell and sign. Shirley Miller teased him about how the subject of the book shouldn’t sit at the autograph table. But there he was, shaking hands like he was running for something. If you didn’t know better, you’d jump to the conclusion that this was a sign of ego.

But there was a night at Emory University where we had to speak as well as sign. We left together, and as the elevator door slammed shut, Miller let out a noticeable sigh. During a question-and-answer period we had been questioned by Merle Black and Dan Carter—respected members of the faculty there—as well as noted authors in political science and history. And besides them, Miller reminded me, the president of the university was there.

“In a few months, he’ll be my boss,” Miller said, for a moment sounding like the boy from the mountains who cut school and hung out at The Varsity so he wouldn’t have to face the taunts of big city classmates.

This disbelieving side of him wasn’t seen by the thousands of rowdy Democrats who crowded into Madison Square Garden or the millions who watched on worldwide television as he delivered the stunning keynote address at the 1992 party convention. Nor was it evident to members of the 1993 General Assembly when he aggressively lectured them on why they should vote to change the Georgia flag—as assignment they declined.

A fragile ego is part of his appeal. For while he is invited to watch the Atlanta Braves in Ted Turner’s box, a side of him would be comfortable in the bleachers. He is welcome to pick out a private table at The Commerce Club, but the manager at the Piccadilly Cafeteria on Howell Mill Road sees him often enough to wave and tell him they have stuffed peppers on the line that day. He has a state driver, but when he has film at Wolf Camera, he goes in to pick it up.

These attitudes are carry-overs from his raising. His father, Grady, a popular dean at Young Harris College, died when the son he named after a favorite student was 17 days old. Zell and his sister, Jane, were reared by Birdie, a strong-willed mama who hauled smooth stones from the creek to build them a home rock by rock. He was influenced by Edna Herren, an English teacher who wore a flower in her hair and left her students a love of words.

As a teenager he wanted only to please his mysterious teacher, but soon words were part of his life. For mountain kids words sometimes came naturally, for it was a region that appreciated a good yarn. While the rest of the South is known for native sons and daughters who put words on paper, the Appalachians spawn storytellers. Miller is the author of four books with two more in the wings and a seventh somewhere between paper and printing. And while it’s refreshing to have a literary governor, his gift is the telling of a story.

Used to be, that was common among Southern politicians. They were as at home on the stump as they were in a pew at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. When Gene Talmadge came to town, folks climbed up in trees to listen. When Marvin Griffin started to speak, people put down their barbecue knowing they’d be entertained even if they didn’t plan to vote for him. Television changed all of that. George Busbee and Joe Frank Harris—the governors who proceeded Miller—couldn’t talk their way out of a speeding ticket in their own county. Think back to the campaign that just passed and you know that Busbee and Harris weren’t alone in their monotone, for the sound bite has made stump speaking a fading art.

Miller, on the other hand, spends time on his text and his delivery. Like the country song writers whose lyrics he appreciates, he looks for the hook, a line people will remember. Then he hones the presentation so that when he gets to the podium he is comfortable with the message and the medium. These skills evolved from his days as a champion debater and from his study of speakers and speeches.

Auburn University history professor Wayne Flynt says Southern politicians have often used their oral skills as a tool. “The genius of it is that it often keeps people away from their ideology,” he notes. “Southern people will cut you some slack whatever your ideology or party if you tell a good story.”

To Flynt, Miller tells a story as good as anyone has. When he remembers the stump speakers of the past, he mentions Big Jim Folsom of Alabama and Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee. “But New South governors today have none of those skills. They’re from the button-down generation,” he says.

Around Georgia’s state capitol, people still talk about last January’s State of the State address. It was the last time Miller would demand a statewide network and the final formal speech he would make to legislators. It was a production, so secret that only staff members who needed to know were given a preview of the text. It was acclaimed on both sides of the aisle. But the speeches he will be most remembered for, most of us never heard. They were presented in rainy church cemeteries, under faded funeral tents that could only keep out the blistering sun. And to me, these speeches tell us about the man more than the politician.

Even longtime observers talk about how aloof and distant Miller is, how he has no friends, how mean his spirit can be. He can be all of those things, but when folks around Towns County braved a mountain rain in the spring of 1993 to pay their respects to Charlie Jenkins, they heard from one of the local man’s old baseball players, a former infielder who was governor of Georgia.

“And when it comes to baseball legends, when it comes to boyhood heroes, it is not a Mantle or an Aaron that touches my soul and sends shivers of excitement up my spine. No, my boyhood heroes were not named Mickey, or Willie or the Babe, they were named Quentin and Hoyle, Tom and Skud, Arnold and Charlie.”

Charles Reagan Wilson is a student of death down South. He’s the newly installed director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and author of a book that deals in part with the funerals of Martin Luther King, Jr., Elvis Presley and Bear Bryant. While Southern funerals often dwell on the souls of the people in the pews more than that of the dearly departed, Wilson says the personal eulogy is a way of marking the moment.

“When we lived in small crossroad communities it was important to remember the families we had known for generations, people we had lived with all our life,” Wilson says. “When we came together to mourn, we remembered the good times. Eulogies are still part of that ritual.”

J. Wayne Garner, Georgia’s controversial commissioner of corrections, is a former funeral director. In describing his boss, he says Miller has “good funeral etiquette.” Wilson had never heard that description, but he understands its meaning. “Funerals in our part of the country are important,” he says. “It’s a conservative time when people want familiarity, something they understand. The funeral is a snapshot of our culture, a moment frozen in time that tells so much about who we are.”

And Edna Herren was every part of who Zell Miller is. When she died in 1994, she had not yet seen the poignant political ad that told of her influence on him. At a service on St. Simons Island, Miller spoke for the generations of students she had taught.

“Edna Herren was first, last and always a teacher. A teacher unrelenting in her demands, but with extraordinary magnetism—dramatic, spellbinding in the way she made the personalities in English literature come alive. I go back and read the same passages that she once read to us and the realism, the drama, the emotion are not just there. I read Chaucer and Beowulf and they are boring and plodding now, but when she read them they lived so vividly you’d get goose bumps. What a teacher! What a teacher!”

Before I ever learned about the number of eulogies Miller had delivered, Garner talked about when his own father died and how Zell and Shirley Miller came to the funeral home the night before, then came back for the service the next afternoon. “They were the last folks to leave,” he shared, still touched by the memory.

When someone close to him dies, Miller reaches out to their loved ones with caring words, giving a gift that lives longer than a floral spray. It’s enough to make you want to go first so he’ll be there to give you a send-off to your forwarding address. Over the years he’s been there for people you’ve heard of and for folks you’ve never known.

The words he delivers at such services reveal a closeness that doesn’t come naturally to Miller or to many of us who share his gender. It’s part of being a mountain man, part of his public veneer and part of being Zell Bryan Miller.

Many people from the North Georgia hills keep others at a safe distance, displaying a reticence that protects them from a biting winter cold or from folks who show up in front of them without an invitation. Looking for a telephone one afternoon in Young Harris, I went into a store and asked if they had a phone. “Yes,” the clerk said, followed by a period of silence. He didn’t ask if I’d like to use it. When I asked about making a local call, he pondered it as if I had asked a family secret. Finally, he pointed me in the direction of the phone. Miller can be that way if a person forces himself on him—especially if a press badge dangles around that person’s neck. Over the years he was a press corps favorite, but as governor he had distanced himself from reporters, disdaining their laziness and their failing grades in Georgia history. After being burned by n ews people and by others, he built, brick by brick, a public veneer, stepping out from behind it less and less.

While countless voters are on a first-name basis with him, they don’t know the private Zell any more than he knew his own father. And though his mother was the most dominant figure in his young life, she was not a typical Young Harris mom. She was one of the few single moms in the county. She may have hauled stones from the creek to build her own house, but she had the eccentric soul of an artist, showing an ability to shut out the rest of the world when she needed to. It was a trait that has served her son well, and friends will tell you that if you’re going to talk to him, then get to the point, for sometimes he finishes listening before you finish talking.

It’s at the most important times that Zell Miller lowers his guard. He brings a different person to the graveside of the friends and colleagues he eulogizes. He’s there as a friend, and even as a historian, for he wants that person to have their moment in history. He wants them to be remembered as he will remember them.

He doesn’t cry. But his words do.

He laughed out loud when asked if he says things in those eulogies that he couldn’t say to the deceased person’s face.

“That’s one of those stretch-out-on-the-couch questions,” he said.

He laughed again. Then he got quiet.

“I’ve never thought about that angle of it. You ought to put on your damn white coat,” he said, obviously thinking about the question all the time.

“That’s probably true. I never could have said those things to Charlie Jenkins or Shirley’s father [Luke Carver]. It’s an interesting thought.”

Last summer Miller joined throngs of legislators at the funeral of Elmore Thrash, a diminutive fellow from Lowndes County who had been around the Capitol since he was a page in the days when Richard Russell was governor. Even a debilitating stroke didn’t keep Thrash from his job as House messenger, which during the General Assembly often included placing a morning wake-up call to Speaker of the House Tom Murphy. Down in Gay, Miller remembered Thrash’s ageless wit.

“He taught us how to laugh at ourselves and not to take ourselves so seriously, and how to grow old with grace and optimism. I never knew anyone who grew old with more style and flair . . . I’ll think of him frequently as I grow older. He showed me and you show it should be done.”

Miller is following some of Mr. Elmore’s traits. It’s easier for him to laugh at himself than it used to be. And though he’s reached Social Security age, he still has a boyish side to him that wonders why he’s there. And when the blood boils, he will still charge the hill like an old Marine without looking behind to see if others are following. Those things are not going to change.

But as his days in public life grow shorter, he is having more trouble controlling the person who prides himself on control. I saw it when he shared a story about his twin grandsons, Bryan and Andrew, who had drawn a picture for his 65th birthday, a picture that placed him side-by-side with Washington and Lincoln. I heard it in his State of the State address last January when he gestured to the gallery of the House and paused to collect himself as he started to say thanks to his staff.

The last night of the 1997 General Assembly opened another window on the emotions Miller is feeling as he prepares the lesson plans for his return to the classroom. The clock was ticking and so was the calendar. Upstairs, legislators were making laws. Downstairs, the governor was passing time.

His staff had brought in a catered table of food, ready to wait for the final gavel. A string of TV reporters and cameramen had come in for last minute interviews. Loyce Turner, a retiring senator from South Georgia, came in to thank Miller for showing up unexpectedly for his goodbye speech in the afternoon.

Then, Miller and I sat in his office and the conversation turned to other nights and other years. He remembered how his mother used to keep their young children so Shirley could be with the young senator. He remembered the first night they came to Atlanta and how he left Shirley at the hotel, promising he’d be back soon, only to get caught up in the excitement so much that he forgot he hadn’t left her a dime for dinner. He remembered who sat next to him and who sat behind him on the floor of that first Senate.

In many way all of that was ending that night.

“I’m not going to allow myself to think about that,” he said. “I could get nostalgic and emotional. But I’m not gonna cry.”

No other governor has ever loved the job more than Zell Miller. Every stop along the winding mountain road he followed to the job prepared him for his time in office. Even the defeats were lessons, for without them he wouldn’t have been the governor he has been. Future governors will not have been affected by the Depression or had mothers who worked in defense plants. They will have little memory of a world without television and a time when state government was all white, all male and all Democratic. Men like Zell Miller are the products of that past and carry the values of another generation. But one by one they are moving on.

On that hectic night last March, Zell Miller’s demeanor reflected none of this. This was his arena. He was comfortable in the building he had worked around for most of his adult life. He was comfortable in the parliamentary rituals born in England and followed by generations of Georgia governors. Joined by throng of family and friends, he waited outside the doors of the Senate where he served in 1961 and where for 16 years he presided. His arrival was announced with a flurry of bows from door keeper Herschel Beazley.

Miller made his way down the center aisle. On either side of him and Shirley were people they ahd fought with and fought against.

“I love this chamber and I love this Senate,” Miller told the senators, many of whom had been there with him for the long haul.

Then it was on to the House, an old battleground where both he and Speaker Tom Murphy had shed political blood. He told cheering members of the House that in this building he had the times of his life. Miller recommended the job to anyone, knowing that in the room that night were a number of would-be governors.

When the 40th day of legislature comes to a mandated end, the heavy doors of the House and Senate are swung open wide so that the two presiding officers can drop their gavel at once and declare sine die, a motion that ends the session without setting the day of reconvening.

Speaking to the House, Miller reminded them they could wait ’til next year.

“But for me,” he said, “this is truly sine die.”

He didn’t cry. But others did.

 

Atlanta magazine asked Governor Miller to list the highlights and regrets of his political career. Following are his choices:

Highlights

  • Watching the impact and popularity of HOPE and Pre-K grow beyond my fondest dreams. And having parents, grandparents and students stop me on the street to thank me for touching their lives with these programs.
  • Getting Stephen Portch to be chancellor of the University System of Georgia and Rebecca Paul to run the Georgia Lottery.
  • My “dreams” of removing the sales tax from groceries, building the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and a Brasstown Valley Resort, setting aside 100,000 acres of natural land, sending classical CDs home with newborn babies—all programs scoffed at when first mentioned—becoming realities.
  • For one who never knew a father or any grandparents, getting to sit around a table now with a Miller clan of four generations.
  • That so many people got to know and admire the kind of woman I’ve been married to for more than 44 years.
  • The surprising success of Corps Values at Longstreet Press and Bantam books.
  • Taking my twangy mountain voice that had been made fun of for so many years by Atlanta pundits to Madison Square Garden as a Keynote Speaker at the 1992 Democratic National Convention and getting positive reviews from the audience.
  • Getting to pal around with Mickey Mantle and finding that [one of] my idols was a good and thoughtful human being.
  • Visiting and having a meal with Ted Williams in his home and listening spellbound as he spun his philosophy on baseball and life. Also walking through the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., with Hank Aaron at a Black Legends of Baseball weekend.
  • My friend George Jones [notorious for missing his concert dates] cutting a television commercial for my campaign that ended “. . . and this is one election I’m going to show up for.” And writing songs at the Mansion with another friend, legendary Nashville songwriter Jack Clement.

Regrets

  • I live every day with the regret that while I got to pursue my desired career, by doing so I kept Shirley from pursuing hers.
  • I regret that my two grown sons have never known a day in their lives when their father was not involved in politics and controversy.
  • I regret that I’ve never really been able to articulate to my staff just how aware I am of their contribution to my career and how much I shall always love them.
  • I regret that I let the controversy over the flag go on too long. When, early on, I saw that the votes were not there, I should have pulled the plug rather than prolong it. In the end, I probably did more harm to the cause than good.
  • I regret that I did not challenge someone at the Atlanta newspapers to a duel over their never-ending bigotry toward rural mountain people.

Zell’s favorite stump joke
The late Jerry Clower used this story on an album, giving Zell Miller credit. It was a tale Miller could use to fit any number of subjects. He often used it as a means of getting across the idea that someone ought to put the brakes to a particular idea.

There was a fire in Young Harris, and we didn’t have a fire department or even a fire hydrant. Everybody was out there just watching this old building go up in flames, helpless like. All of a sudden, out of one of those hollows came Fuzz Chastain in his old pickup. He had his whole family in the back of it.

They came on up there, and instead of stopping where the crowd was, they drove that truck right into the fire. They all piled out and started swatting around with old tow sacks and pieces of brush they had. Lo and behold, if they didn’t put the fire out.

Everybody thought that was a great thing. The mayor was there and the mayor passed the hat. Folks put in a quarter here and a dollar there. Then the mayor called Fuzz Chastain up. His eyebrows were singed off and he had lost one of the sleeves on his shirt.

“Fuzz,” the mayor said, “That’s one of the most heroic things that’s ever happened in this town of Young Harris. To show you our gratitude, we’ve taken up a collection for you. We’ve got 14 dollars and 75 cents here, and we’re gonna give it to you from the city.

Everybody whooped and hollered as the mayor handed it to him.

“Now, Fuzz, what you gonna do with that money?”

“Well,” said Fuzz, “first thing I’m gonna do is get those brakes fixed.”

This article originally appeared in our December 1998 issue.

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