Late Herman Russell praised for his special brand of humanity

Business and civil rights icon Herman J. Russell Sr. was celebrated Saturday — not with tears of pain, but through laughter and demonstrations of love for a man whose funeral was closed with the song “My Way.”

Family, friends and colleagues — from former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and fellow construction giant Robert Holder to Russell’s children and grandchildren — remembered a leader who had a deft sense of humor, favored a strong work ethic and could pinch a penny until it bled.

“There was no one as cheap as H.J.,” Egbert Perry, a business protege, said to great laughter and nods from attendees at the Saturday funeral.

Perry joked about the time he and a colleague dropped a penny in the toilet of Russell’s private bathroom just to see if the business tycoon would fish it out. Russell did.

“Herman was not just a great man, but, sorry Evander (Holyfield), he was the real deal,” Perry said.

Hundreds packed Saint Philip AME Church on Candler Road in east Atlanta to say goodbye to Russell, who died Nov. 15 at age 83. They came from all walks of life, with sections of the behemoth church set aside for employees of H.J. Russell & Co., family and friends such as baseball legend Hank Aaron, and political and civic heavyweights, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Martin Luther King III.

Turnout was so large that the church directed traffic to two overflow parking lots to handle the crowds that kept coming even after services had begun.

“Man, overflow was overflowed,” said one attendee, to which another replied, “I can believe it, he was a pioneer.”

A slick, 28-page color glossy program designed with the kind of professionalism used for Fortune 500 annual reports documented Russell’s life. There were pictures from early in his career to scenes of his children and grandchildren growing up. The program described his achievements as an entrepreneur, his love of family and of friends. Official condolences from Gov. Nathan Deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the Metro Atlanta Chamber, of which Russell was a former leader, preceded dozens of quotes in tribute.

Noel Khalil, who worked with and was mentored by Russell, said when Russell offered him a job, he asked Khalil how much he was making. It was in the 1980s and Khalil, who was in the real estate business in north metro Atlanta, was making between $60,000 to $75,000 a year, a sizable income at the time. Russell offered him $30,000, Khalil said, with attendees erupting in laughter.

Khalil said he took the job — even going back to ask for $250 more a month so he could make his car payments — because he knew he would learn and eventually earn much more than he was giving up under Russell’s tutelage. As he did, he became a part of Russell’s family.

“I want to think the Russell children for sharing your father with me,” Khalil said.

Russell’s grandchildren also spoke, remembering the lessons he taught them about hard work and how he demonstrated so much passion in everything he did that he made shredding paper even seem exciting.

Grandson H. Jerome Russell Jr. said his grandfather didn’t play favorites with employees. Once, when he was working for the elder Russell, he had finished his work and was in the parking lot getting ready to leave. His grandfather caught up with him, gave him a stern look and Russell Jr. knew he was in trouble.

“Go back inside and find something to do,” Russell Jr. said his grandfather ordered. “And don’t leave until 6.”

While business was his public face, Herman Russell Sr.’s heart belonged to family, friends and equality, speaker after speaker said.

Vernon Jordan, activist and political adviser to heads of state such as President Bill Clinton, said Russell was one of the first people he saw in his hospital room after an attempt was made on Jordan’s life in 1980 in Fort Wayne, Ind.

It also was Russell who wrote checks to pay the bail of students arrested after sit-ins at lunch counters in the South during the civil rights movement, said Jordan.

Jordan, who gave the eulogy at the funeral, said Russell had given him two conflicting directions on how to handle the tribute.

“Herman said, ‘Vernon, do not speak all day. People having other things to do.’

“He also said don’t leave anything out!”