Longtime Austell mayor dies, remembered as ‘salt of the Earth’

Former Austell Mayor Joe Jerkins, seated in a green sweater, is pictured with Austell city employees at the Threadmill Complex during his final term. (Provided by City of Austell)
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Former Austell Mayor Joe Jerkins, seated in a green sweater, is pictured with Austell city employees at the Threadmill Complex during his final term. (Provided by City of Austell)

Credit: Matt Bruce

Credit: Matt Bruce

Austell leaders continue to mourn the loss of the city’s longest serving mayor, Joe Lee Jerkins, who died of natural causes over the weekend.

Jerkins, 79, died in hospice Sunday night.

The city flew flags at half-staff Monday and Tuesday in recognition of Jerkins’ accomplishments in Austell.

“It is with heartfelt sorrow and deep sadness that we announce the loss of our beloved former Mayor Joe Jerkins,” the city announced Monday on Facebook. “Mayor Jerkins passed last night. He is affectionately remembered, and will be deeply missed.”

Jerkins was elected mayor in 1989 and served just shy of 30 years. By the time he stepped down due to declining health in 2019, he’d become the longest serving mayor in the city’s history.

Jerkins was not only the mayor during his tenure. He served double duty for years as city manager, a move to help the city save money. Jerkins didn’t accept a salary his first 14 years as chief of staff. The money was used, instead, for employee Christmas bonuses.

“He wasn’t the type of leader that talked the talk. He walked the walk,” said Austell Mayor Ollie Clemons, who took the seat after Jerkins stepped down. “He sacrificed of himself endlessly for the city of Austell. He loved Austell, he was a very caring person, and he loved the employees.”

Sam Olens served 12 years as Cobb County’s commission chairman before being elected Georgia Attorney General in 2010. He regularly had early morning breakfast meetings with Jerkins to discuss Austell’s needs and remembers witnessing Jerkins’ hard work ethic for years.

“Joe was the salt of the Earth. He did everything for that city,” Olens said. “If he saw a trash can was full, he would empty it.”

Austell is a town of about 7,000 residents in southwest Cobb County. Jerkins helped the city acquire the former Coats and Clark Threadmill in 2001. The complex was restored and used for government offices and private businesses.

Cobb County commissioners did a memoriam for Jerkins during their meeting Tuesday and listed several of his milestones, including completion of the overpass over Veterans Memorial Highway.

“Mayor Jerkins was a people person and it was not uncommon for him to literally roll up his sleeves to help his constituents,” Commissioner Monique Sheffield said. “He will be missed.”

Commission chairwoman Lisa Cupid recalled working with Jerkins when she was a district commissioner and heralded him for his support over the years.

“This was a man of very few words,” she said. “A quiet man, but he got a lot of stuff done. And when I called him, he was willing to assist immediately. I just appreciate his helpfulness toward me and his service in the Austell community.”

One of Jerkins’ most controversial decisions came in the late 1990s when Austell stopped fighting against Norfolk Southern Railway’s plans to build a massive $100 million intermodal terminal in town along Dr. Luke Glenn Garrett Jr. Memorial Highway. Jerkins helped negotiate a $5 million settlement with the railroad company. Annual interest from the settlement helped fund a number of city programs over the years.

“He just had an amazing ability to put deals together that benefited the city,” Olens said. “In all the years I was elected, few local elected officials compared to him with regard to his love of the community and his efforts to improve the community. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to help the city.”

Former city leaders have also touted Jerkins for revitalizing the city’s downtown, cutting taxes, building parks and fighting to keep the post office and library from closing.

Jerkins was regarded as a hands-on city manager who was known to hop on the back of a garbage truck. He rolled up his sleeves to help Austell dig out when massive rain floods devastated the city in September 2009.

In December 2009, the city dedicated a life-sized bronze statue to Jerkins at the Mayors Memorial Park. The monument proclaimed that he was “known for his quiet acts of kindness and his hands-on approach.”

The Austell native grew up poor and started working at the age of 12. He quit school by the time he was 15 and took to laying tiles and building homes. Jerkins eventually opened a liquor store and became a self-made millionaire. He was a successful businessman by the time he took office in 1990.

Clemons said Jerkins often dug into his own pocket to help constituents who’d fallen on hard times.

“It’s a tremendous loss for the city,” Clemons said. “A very endeared, very beloved public official. It’s not easy to get elected one time. But to do it continuously for 30 years, that speaks a lot about how people loved and cared about him.”

Jerkins is survived by his wife of 62 years, Sandra Brown Jerkins; and his daughter, Lisa Jerkins. His son, Joseph “Jody” Jerkins Jr., died at the age of 49 in March 2017.

Austell announced the former mayor’s funeral arrangements Tuesday. Rev. John Bailey will officiate the service at 3 p.m. Thursday at Davis-Struempf Chapel, 1975 East-West Connector in Austell. Following the funeral, Jerkins will be laid to rest at the Rose Hill Cemetery. The family will welcome friends from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the funeral home.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Mayor Joe Jerkins
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Joe Jerkins, Austell's longest serving mayor, died Sunday night. (Courtesy of City of Austell)

Joe Jerkins, Austell's longest serving mayor, died Sunday night. (Courtesy of City of Austell)
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Joe Jerkins, Austell's longest serving mayor, died Sunday night. (Courtesy of City of Austell)

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