Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On the Road with Bob

A few weeks ago I had the chance to take a road trip to south Georgia with Bob Short, the Russell Library’s interviewer for its Reflections on Georgia Politics oral history series. We had a couple days to drive down and speak with Harry Dixon in Waycross, and then with Ford Spinks in Tifton. Our trip south started early. Bob had already driven a couple hours down from Blairsville to meet me in Athens, but he was ready for the trip ahead. We pulled out of the UGA motor pool and headed down Hwy 15.

It was a beautiful, late autumn day with little traffic and our conversation made the ride pass by quickly. We were equipped with Bob’s GPS (a perky device called “Lucy”), but we didn’t need it. The drive was straight ahead through a series of small towns -- Soperton, Hazlehurst, Mount Vernon – just two lane roads, cotton fields, and timber forests. As we rolled through hamlets across the Georgia countryside Bob recited the names of hometown politicians. In Soperton, Bob asked me to make a quick stop so he could visit his friend Hugh Gillis. Gillis gave ROGP a great interview just last year. Bob wanted to say a quick hello and “thanks again.” Lucky for us, Gillis was in and our stop was a pleasant surprise. Hugh, 91 years old, was busy at work but made the time to chat. Before we knew it, Gillis offered to make a donation to the Russell Library's oral history program, a wonderful gesture which we gladly accepted!

Though Bob Short never held public office (aside from a one-time run for Public Service Commissioner), he has been deeply involved in Georgia politics for nearly fifty years. In 1999 he published, Everything is Pickrick: the life of Lester Maddox, for which he was honored as Georgia Writer of the Year. He seems to know everything about Georgia politics from the last half of last century and, what’s more, he has an uncanny ability to recall even the smallest details. We talked national and state politics most of the day before we tired of it. Our first interview (or conversation, as Bob prefers to call them) was late that same afternoon in Waycross with Harry Dixon. A former state legislator who served for over 30 years in the Georgia General Assembly, Dixon is a spirited man with many stories to tell. He loves a good story and offered up more than a few during the interview, including a few about Governor Marvin Griffin. His recollections of politics were interwoven with personal memories from his time working as a railroad engineer. Almost two hours later, Harry and Bob wrapped up with Harry inviting us to return for “part two!”

We next headed west to Tifton where we had dinner and spent the night at a Holiday Inn. We talked shop a bit and laughed again at Dixon’s sense of humor. As it got dark and the rain started the conversation turned more towards Bob, with whom I’ve worked a lot with over the last six months but knew little about personally. Road trips are good for getting to know someone. Bob told me he played basketball and baseball at Georgia Southern on a scholarship. His first job was at the Atlanta Journal Constitution as a sports journalist. He served in the LBJ administration as head of what later became FEMA. He coached Pop Warner football, Little League baseball and basketball for thirty years. He plays guitar and has a son who has recorded and toured with some top name country stars. He is the parent of an adopted child. I was surprised at the number of things we had in common, though our backgrounds couldn’t be more different.

The next morning, after a free breakfast buffet “Lucy” located the home of Ford Spinks, former state legislator and public service commissioner during Governor Jimmy Carter’s administration. Spinks was a thoughtful and soft-spoken man who got sentimental when recalling events that were, in his words, “long ago and far away.” Storms had been brewing all morning and I heard a little sizzle in my headphones during one nearby lightning strike. Luckily, we finished the conversation with Mr. Spinks without any electrifying complications. I loaded up and away we went up I-75 in stormy weather.

It was a wet drive but we made good time. I wanted Bob to have some daylight in which to drive back over the mountains to Blairsville that evening. Bob’s been calling me “Earnhardt” ever since, though I maintain I did not speed. The conversation was easy, floating back and forth from politics to music, with Bob again noting every hometown politician along our route up I-75 to Macon between our discussions of country music and his old friend, Zell Miller.

I knew I would get a real education in Georgia politics on this trip, but I think I was surprised by how much Bob Short and I have in common. I think we’re a better oral history team as a result of our conversations. Hopefully we’ll be back on the road again soon, gathering more reflections on Georgia politics.

Post by Christian Lopez, Oral History Coordinator, Russell Library.

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