An ‘unequaled’ legacy: Georgia remembers Zell Miller

Zell Miller, a former two-term governor and U.S. senator who gave birth to Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, has died at the age of 86, his family said Friday in a statement.

As word spread under the Gold Dome, politicians from both sides of the aisle quickly offered their kind words and memories of the towering north Georgia political figure. Funeral arrangements have not yet been released.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican who counts Miller as one of his mentors:

“One of the greatest governors of the 20th century in this state, he gave Georgia hope and many, many young people for generations will benefit from his vision.”

Stacey Evans, a former state lawmaker who has centered her Democratic campaign for governor on bolstering the HOPE scholarship:

“The footprint he left on this state is unmatched. HOPE has transformed so many Georgians’ lives – those who got the chance to get the education they needed to live better, more fulfilling lives. It also transformed our state, making Georgia a national model in access to higher education. Thank you, governor, for everything that is dear to me; and I hope to live up to the potential you saw in me and so many Georgians like me.”

Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican who served in the Georgia Senate with Miller:

“Georgia has lost a favorite son and a true statesman, and I’ve lost a dear friend. Zell’s legacy is unequaled and his accomplishments in public service are innumerable. Without question, our state and our people are better off because of him. But the mark Zell made in his private life—as a dutiful son, a loving husband, and a proud father and grandfather—are the ones of which I’m sure he was most proud.” 

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who is the longest-serving member of the Georgia Legislature:

Smyre recounted one of Miller’s favorite phrases: “If you ever see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know that he or she didn’t get up there by themselves. Somebody helped put them there."

"That was Zell Miller’s credo. That’s one of the things that signifies his life because he was always pulling others up and to assist his fellow man.”

Miller’s grandson, Bryan Miller, on his grandfather’s legacy:

“He was more than my grandfather. He was my dear friend and mentor. I cherish all the time we spent together. I will never forget the lessons he taught me, his witty sense of humor, or his contagious smile. Our family will miss him terribly.” 

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican who was defeated by Miller in a bitter 1990 race for governor:

On what he learned from Miller during the governor’s race: “You’ve got to be tough and have a thick hide. You’ve got to be able to take it but you’ve got to be able to dish it out also. He was the best at that of anybody I’ve ever seen.”

On Miller’s ideology: “In terms of politics, Zell was a Democrat from his date of birth to his passing, but he was also independent. He had an independent streak in him and was not going to just roll over and let somebody roll over him if he didn’t think it was right, whether they were Democrat or Republican.”

Steve Wrigley, the Board of Regents chancellor who was Miller’s chief of staff in the governor’s office:

“You can step foot on any campus of the University System of Georgia and feel the immediate and lasting impact of Governor Zell Miller’s legacy. We see it every day in the thousands of students enrolled in our world-class institutions with help from the HOPE Scholarship. The child of two teachers, Governor Miller knew education could transform lives for the better. HOPE, since its creation in 1993, has provided more than $10 billion in financial aid to more than 1.8 million students. We stand proud to uphold that legacy, one that created a culture of higher expectations and helped move the University System of Georgia to among the very best in the nation.” 

Wayne Garner, a Miller protege and friend was Miller’s prisons commissioner:

He had this innate ability to think big, and he did that. You think of the thousands upon thousands of children in school today, the HOPE scholarship, public safety, he was huge on that, he built a lot of prisons in the state.”

Garner also remembered Miller’s ornery side: “I remember one time he called me when I was corrections commissioner and he said ‘Garner, I want to ask you something, and if I have to ask it again it won’t be you I’m talking to.’”

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, a close ally of Miller in the 1990s:

“It was my privilege to serve as a member of Zell’s floor leader team in the ‘90s. The creation of HOPE to encourage academic excellence and support students to go to college was a hallmark of his career. We still fight today to strengthen and preserve HOPE. That’s a testament to the dedication he had to the children of the state. The first term of Gov. Zell Miller saw great achievements for which he will be remembered.”

Democratic Party of Georgia chair DuBose Porter:

“Governor Miller loved Georgia and his commitment to education and the environment changed lives for generations. Our hearts go out to Shirley and his family. And we are glad to see the formation of the Zell Miller Institute and know that it will be capable of carrying on the good things that Zell envisioned for Georgia.”

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who is now Agriculture Secretary:

“His legacy as a state legislator, lieutenant governor, governor, and U.S. senator, particularly in expanding educational opportunities for Georgia students, will resonate for generations to come. We have no doubt that in Heaven, the Marine is having a feisty debate with some of his old friends right now.”

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican: 

“Zell Miller touched the lives of many as a teacher, Marine, public servant, and friend. Throughout his career, Zell Miller was a strong advocate for the value of a public education and made it his mission to ensure Georgia students had the opportunity to pursue a college degree. Because of his work on the HOPE Scholarship Program, over 1.8 million Georgians have been able to attend a public college or university in Georgia who may not have been able to otherwise.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the GOP front-runner for governor:

“All of Georgia’s families and communities will feel the benefits of Governor Miller’s dedicated service for generations to come, and he will continue to set an example for what public service should be about. I know I speak for many Georgians when I say we will truly miss Zell Miller.”

An obituary and public condolence book are available on the Miller Institute Foundation’s website at 

- AJC writers Tamar Hallerman, Mark Niesse, Maya Prabhu and James Salzer contributed to this report.

About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He joined the newspaper...

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