When Hugh Gillis first came to the Georgia General Assembly in January 1941, Franklin Roosevelt was president, Captain America had yet to appear in a comic book and most Americans had never heard of Pearl Harbor.
Gillis, fresh out of the University of Georgia, was getting into the family business — state politics.
His home county, Treutlen, between Macon and Savannah, was created by his grandfather, a state lawmaker. Many of the state’s roads were paved by his father, a legislator and state transportation chief. And Georgia’s forestry industry has been nurtured and fortified by Gillis and his brother, a former lawmaker and longtime member of the State Forestry Commission. One of Gillis’ sons was a county commissioner, and another is a state judge.
In a 2001 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, Gillis told a reporter that government service is just something a Gillis does
“I was born and reared in it,” he said. “We’ve been involved in county or state government since I was born.”
Gillis served in the Legislature until he retired some 63 years later with the distinction of being recognized as the longest-serving legislator in the state — and some said in the nation.
Hugh M. Gillis Sr., of Soperton, died Tuesday at Meadows Regional Hospital in Vidalia from complications of pneumonia. He was 94.
A funeral is planned for 2 p.m. Friday at First Baptist Church of Soperton. Burial will follow at the Gillis Family Cemetery in Treutlen County. Sammons Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.
Gillis attended Georgia Military College and graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture in 1939. Soon a seat in the state House opened up and Gillis won it in 1940 as a representative of his hometown. He served until 1944, then returned to the House in 1949. He then served two years in the state Senate, starting in 1957 and then won re-election to the Senate in 1962, where he remained until he retired in 2004. In all, he served 56 years in the Legislature. After his retirement, he was appointed to the Georgia Ports Authority, where he served for five years. All totaled, he worked with more than a dozen governors and was widely respected by his colleagues.
“For someone of his stature and influence, he was perhaps the most humble public servant I’ve ever met,” said Young Harris College President Cathy Cox, a former Democratic state lawmaker and secretary of state. “He was always helpful, and even when he disagreed, there was a profound sense of respect that he had for you.”
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue said Gillis was “always a consummate representative of his people — he would bring every request, no matter how large or small, to the body for a decision.”
Though Gillis was the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee for years, his legacy was also tied to education, said DuBose Porter, a former Democratic leader in the House. Gillis helped get five technical schools in his home area.
“He was also one of the main people behind putting the medical school at Mercer to help with rural health care,” Porter said. “There is not much that has happened, in a good way, in Georgia that Hugh Gillis was not a part of.”
That goodness included his family, Porter said. In 1948, Gillis married the former Laura Jean Hall, and the couple had three children. She died in 1990, and he remarried in 2001.
Gillis is survived by his wife, Montez Champion Gillis of Soperton; children from his first marriage, Hugh M. Gillis Jr. of Soperton, Donald W. Gillis of Dublin and Jeanmarie G. Harris of Adel; a brother, Jim L. Gillis Jr. of Soperton; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.