A few days before my first class at the University of Georgia, my stressed-out mother sat on a creaky deck outside our Roswell home with pen and paper in hand in search of clarity.
Writing always helped soothe her anxiety and, before she knew it, she was paragraphs deep into a letter. The recipient was Zell Miller. And she had much to get off her chest.
As a single mom of three, she wrote to Miller, she probably wouldn’t have been able to send her eldest son to college on a schoolteacher’s salary – let alone the two younger brothers that would hopefully follow. But his brainchild, the HOPE scholarship, was a lifeline she desperately needed.
“It was as though no one else had really much considered us and our plight, and then along comes Zell Miller, out of the blue. He gave us, all of our family, relief,” she said Friday after learning of his death. “An elected official actually responding to our needs - I still am enchanted by that very thought.”
As a political reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the last six years, I’ve had a front-row seat to the most compelling personalities in Georgia. But to me, Miller was always more than a towering figure or a divisive maverick. He was a powerful force in shaping my life.
His lottery-funded scholarship is the main reason I attended UGA, where I began dating my wife 17 years ago, joined the student newspaper, met lifelong friends and cherished mentors. It’s where I came up with the dubious idea to one day return to my hometown and cover politics.
By the time I received my diploma in 2004, HOPE had transformed higher education in Georgia. About three out of every four first-time college freshmen from the state received HOPE funds to pay tuition and other costs. At UGA, virtually every incoming freshman that year was a recipient of the scholarship.
I never got the chance to cover Miller, aside from a stray story or two about his foray into a race. I never even met him. He was in his last months in the U.S. Senate as I entered the job market and was beginning to distance himself from politics.
But a year ago, I thought our paths would cross. Miller’s grandson, Bryan Miller, had launched the Zell Miller Institute for Public Policy to foster bipartisan policies and public service. And to kick off the endeavor, a big party was planned to coincide with the former governor’s 85th birthday.
Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, even rival ex-presidents united to honor Miller that night. Alas, the ex-governor couldn’t make it to the event – he was recovering from shingles. A few months later, he sent word that he had retired from public life.
Still, the event went forward. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke by video. So did George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Strategist Paul Begala regaled the crowd with Miller witticisms. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston confessed, to laughter, that he never voted for his old friend.
But the highlight for me was former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. Miller “beat the daylights” out of him in a bitter 1990 primary for governor, Young said, but he wanted the audience of policymakers and politicians to take to heart the spirit of consensus that dominated the evening.
“If the rest of the world can learn some of the lessons we learned from each other,” he said, “I don't think we would have to worry about the future.”
Those words stayed with me. So did a blue-and-green button that read “It’s Miller Time in Georgia” carefully placed on each table.
I gave it to my oldest daughter and told her about the man who, at least indirectly, is responsible for her birth. And the button, for a time, stayed in her room before migrating down the hall to her younger sister’s place.
When I got home Friday after a long day at work, I tiptoed through the toddler detritus in search of the button. There it was, on a counter strewn with toys and crafts - placed next to a plush replica of UGA’s mascot.
A few weeks after my mom sent her letter to Miller, she came home from work to a hand-written response. She kept it for years, but it must have got lost in a move or a cleaning.
Mom doesn’t remember the words he wrote, but she won’t forget the warmth they brought her.
“After all is said and done,” she said, “it’s the honesty and sentimental feeling that lasts.”