Amazing journeys

AJC writers report the latest news on Georgians featured in previous Personal Journeys.As the year draws to an end, take a moment to look back at some extraordinary people.

Every Sunday for the past five months, our reporters and photographers have brought you some truly amazing stories about the people who call Georgia home. Today, we are revisiting some of those people to update you about what happened after their stories were published.

Remember the family whose children suffered a rare kidney disorder? Find out how they are doing, and how the family’s life has changed. Remember Coach Cart, the former basketball coach who went to live with one of his high school players 40 years later? Find out about an afternoon he spent with a former Georgia governor.

Storytelling in a great newspaper like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution can change lives. I’m reminded of that awesome power every day we publish. Enjoy today’s special updates. We’ve got a lot of great stories planned for 2013.

– Ken Foskett
Assistant managing editor,

1. The player and his coach

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Nearly 40 years ago, Larry Cart was the basketball coach at Atlanta’s Douglass High School and student Sylvester Lawson was his team captain.

Last May, Lawson found out that Cart — who had fallen down the rabbit hole of gambling addiction decades earlier — was sick and homeless. So Lawson took in his old coach to live with him and his companion Glenda Brown. The long-ago bonds between Cart and Lawson had survived much fraying; only now it is the player’s turn to look after the coach.

Steve Hummer reports:

The coach has not wanted to leave his new home much lately. The leg that had been attacked by bone cancer years ago hurt. He was beset by nausea and weakness. Just moving from room to room was a major production.

But on Dec. 8, Lawson rousted Cart, loaded him up in the SUV and made the three-hour drive from their south Atlanta home to Young Harris College in the north Georgia mountains. It was a long way to go to catch a basketball game between the Mountain Lions and Auburn-Montgomery, but it was worth the effort.

A slick guard at Young Harris before he transferred to Auburn in 1962, Cart was received as a returning prodigal son. It had been a long time since Cart felt important.

For one day, he got the full VIP treatment. He was brought to mid-court at halftime and introduced to the sparse crowd as one of the best players to pass through the small school.

For the second half, former Gov. Zell Miller sat with Cart and reminisced about long-ago days when he was Cart’s baseball coach and Georgia history professor.

Besides his considerable basketball talent, Miller said, Cart was a reliable No. 2 hitter in his day.

Caring for Coach Cart has not gotten any easier over time. Riding the cycles of a 72-year-old who has a history of illness and neglect, Lawson continues to confront a series of care-giving challenges.

After falling and breaking his hip in September, Cart spent more than a month in an Atlanta rehab center recovering. Lawson was there every day.

“As he was getting better, he told the people (at the center) he was going ‘home,’” Lawson said. “That made me feel good. That’s all I ever wanted, for him to know he has a home.”

Talking sports remains the most reliable way to engage Cart. For the record: He has little use for any quarterback other than Peyton Manning; he likes Notre Dame to win the BCS national championship game; and he is of the firm belief his home-state basketball team, Indiana, is bound to win it all during the Atlanta Final Four.

When Cart first came to live with Lawson and the story of their remarkable reunion came out, many old friends from his past reappeared. Former players, others from the Atlanta coaching community and representatives from Young Harris and Auburn reached out to him.

Other plans to reconnect with the past have been put on pause because of Cart’s health issues.

Another December outing, this one to Auburn, was canceled when Cart wasn’t physically up to it. In a dark mood, he told Lawson, “I’ll never go. I’m not going to get well.”

“He says that and I reject it,” Lawson said.

Lawson said he would keep pushing his coach to get better, just as the coach pushed him in the early 1970s.

2. The House of Candler

Asa Griggs Candler is credited with helping build modern Atlanta by turning Coca-Cola into an international treasure and its hometown into a regional powerhouse. His name appears on a city park, a high-rise building and an intown neighborhood, and he amassed a fortune, which he bequeathed to his family.

But his 81-year-old great grandson Asa V is struggling with a mountain of debt and financial woes that would surely make his namesake blanch.

Asa V inherited his forefather’s passion for real estate and built a successful business developing apartments, Publix grocery stores and shopping centers across the Southeast.

But the Great Recession took a great toll, and Candler’s companies lost about $37.5 million in real estate since the economy seized up, with creditors and banks chasing him and his three sons for anything they can get.

Greg Bluestein and J. Scott Trubey report:

Ever the optimist, Asa V sounded an upbeat note during a recent visit to his office a few days before the new year. He’s still fighting for deals in a tepid real estate market — and struggling to keep debt collectors at bay.

The Web browser on his computer revealed a luxury shopping center he was scouting in Florida, and he was buoyed by news that Publix was considering expanding its presence in the Carolinas.

“I’ll tell you one thing: I promise you, if things turn around — when they turn around — I’ll call you,” he told the AJC.

He knows he’s muddling through the toughest economic fight of his life, and he hopes the commercial real estate business he built with his three sons can hang on long enough to see it through.

“We’re still fighting all those same alligators,” said Candler, ever fond of colloquialisms. The legal battle over his debt wages on, as he contends he’s got no hidden pot of money to repay angry creditors.

“I’m basically an optimist. You’ve got to hope — hope that you can get things resolved, hope that the economy can turn around and hope that everyone makes some money.”

To his creditors, of course, he’s something different. He’s a developer who made big promises and left them holding the bag.

Before we left, Asa V reminded us to leave our numbers on a slip of paper at his desk.

“I promise you, when we get things done, I’ll call you boys,” he said.

3. The perfect match

Last year, 11-year-old Bryson Dickman could barely walk from the school bus stop to his house in Acworth; he’d crawl into bed before dark, his body so weak. He was diagnosed with a rare disease that was slowly destroying his kidney. In March, he received a lifesaving kidney from a stranger — Tina Jennings, a Cartersville mother who spotted a paper flier seeking a miracle for Bryson. This rare kidney disease afflicts only one to two children for every 100,000. In the Dickman family, it struck twice. And in both cases, strangers came forward to help. Bryson’s older sister, Sarah, received her donated kidney in 2008.

Helena Oliviero reports:

Almost every day, Bryson Dickman, now 12, rides his bike, jumps on a trampoline and begs his parents to let him use the leaf blower to clear the leaves off the driveway.

“He can do almost anything now,” said Bryson’s mother, Lori Dickman, with a big smile.

His 13-year-old sister, Sarah, is also doing well. She recently started wearing lip gloss and a touch of eye shadow.

The health of her children isn’t the only thing Lori and her husband, Joe, are celebrating as 2012 draws to a close. When Jennifer Hui, practice manager at Northside Women’s Specialists, an affiliate of the Pediatrix Medical Group, read the AJC story about the Dickman family, she held onto the article, hoping she could help some how. She thought she might one day have a job opening for Lori, who was working part-time at a gas station but looking for full-time work.

“I immediately connected to her story,” said Hui, whose daughter Rachel was born with a heart defect and died in 1990, a week before turning 5. “Being a parent to a child with chronic illness takes fortitude and faith. And then, you still never know. It is an emotional roller coaster.”

Hui kept the article on her desk, and when a receptionist job opened up this past fall, she contacted Dickman, who landed the job.

“I was really taken aback by this,” said Dickman. “She is a blessing. I was so grateful to know there are good people in this world to even consider giving a person a job knowing that with my two children, I will have to be off from time to time to be with them.”

Earlier this month, the Dickman family received more good news: the family will go on an all-expense paid trip to Disney World next year as part of Bert’s Big Adventure, a charity founded by Q100’s Bert Weiss and his wife Stacey that gives children with chronic and terminal illnesses and their families a VIP trip to the Florida theme park.

For Jennings, life quickly returned to normal. Giving a kidney was easier than she expected, she said.

“In all honesty, I don’t think what I did was a huge deal. I guess when the Lord puts an opportunity like that in front of you, he will make it easy to implement his plan.”

For the Dickman family, however, receiving a kidney from a stranger — twice — is a miracle.” We have always had so many worries about our children,” said Lori. “And now this year, we can say that we have everything we could ask for: for our children to be healthy.”

4. Must win

In 2010, Drew Jubera moved to Valdosta so he could write about Rance Gillespie’s dramatic first season as head coach of the Valdosta High School football team, which Jubera chronicled in “Must Win,” a book about the passionate, complicated relationship between the town and the team.

The book’s opening chapter, excerpted in the AJC in September, detailed an almost Gothic tour of a city cemetery that the newly arrived Gillespie was given by 77-year-old David Waller, the program’s most prominent booster.

A self-made millionaire who’d missed just five Wildcat games since 1947, Waller escorted the 41-year-old Gillespie to the graves of Valdosta’s two iconic coaches. He described at length what Wright Bazemore and Nick Hyder had meant to the place; locals still talk about Hyder’s 1996 funeral service inside the stadium. Nearly 8,000 mourners gazed at the revered coach’s open casket, placed on the 50-yard line. Afterward, Hyder was buried in Waller’s family plot.

Waller finished that Tour of Dead Coaches with an offer: Gillespie and his family could be buried in the Waller plot, too — if he won 200 games the next 20 years and resurrected Valdosta’s legacy.

That’s what football means in a place like Valdosta.

Drew Jubera reports:

Maybe the loneliest spot in Georgia on a Friday night is Valdosta High’s end zone after a Wildcat loss.

So when the winningest high school football team in America dropped its home opener last September before 10,000 fans, coach Rance Gillespie stood at one end of the field with his wife, his daughter and nobody else. It looked as if that little piece of turf in deepest south Georgia had been quarantined to keep the loss from spreading.

“Oh, well,” observed Claudette Gillespie, the coach’s wife. “It’s been just the three of us here before.”

The Gillespies knew there’d be nights like that when they arrived in the storied town of 50,000. The three previous coaches were fired or pushed out — the last just days after a thumping from cross-town rival Lowndes.

The Wildcats hadn’t won a state title for more than a decade, a record drought for a school that has won 23 Georgia championships and six unofficial national titles.

Off the field, a petition circulated to abolish the city school’s charter and merge the system with the county.

Three years later, Gillespie needs 174 more victories to claim those free holes in the ground. It hasn’t been easy: One booster described the workaholic coach as “aging like a president.” Yet while he hasn’t won a championship, he has won the loyalty of Valdosta’s notoriously fickle fans. He’s given them what they really crave most: hope.

His first team went 11-2 and sent Malcolm Mitchell and Jay Rome on to play for Georgia. The next season, Valdosta beat Lowndes for the first time in eight years; city voters defeated a referendum to merge the two school systems a month later.

This year was a roller coaster: 7-4, including a last-second loss to Lowndes. After that game, fans crowded the end zone to offer the Gillespies condolences — more wake than quarantine.

Gillespie remains optimistic about Valdosta’s future.

“We’ve all heard the nightmares about being head coach here, and a lot of it’s just not true,” he says. “There are high expectations, but you know what? That’s why I’m here.

“I should never be asked to leave,” he adds. “My own expectations are so high, if I’m not meeting them, I’ll get out myself.”

As for Waller: He didn’t miss a game all season, despite internal bleeding from diverticulitis that cost him four pints of blood. His grave site offer to Gillespie still stands — he believes his beloved ’Cats will win state once more before he’s gone.

If not?

“I love the Wildcats. I’ll always love the Wildcats,” he says. “If they never win another game, I’ll go to my grave loving the Wildcats.”

5. Fractured family

Tragedy twice this year visited the Alecksens and their extended family in Eatonton. On July 8, Army Spc. Erica Alecksen was killed by an explosion in Afghanistan. She was 21, married just shy of two years. All of Eatonton grieved. On Aug. 28, her father, Lars, died while taking a bath. Physicians said it was a heart attack, but everyone else said the 51-year-old died of a broken heart: Without Erica, he didn’t want to live. Doria, Lars’ wife and Erica’s mother; and Charles, Lars’ son and Erica’s sister, were left to sort out their sorrows.

Mark Davis reports:

EATONTON — Tomorrow, Doria and Charles Alecksen will do what they’ve done so many times before. They’ll assemble chairs in a circle in their backyard. They’ll collect boards, logs and any other cast-off wood they no longer need. Mother and son, they’ll welcome friends and relatives to their home in the Putnam County countryside to bring in the new year with a bonfire.

With the flames rising into the night, Doria, Charles and others will bid farewell to a year that brought a double helping of heartache.

For Charles and Doria, the deaths of Lars and Erica created personal holes that time may never fill. How do you replace a daughter or the father of your children? Who can take the place of the sister with whom you shared giggled secrets, or the man who helped you earn the Eagle Scout badge?

Their lives changed in other ways, too. Lars and Doria’s marriage wasn’t serene. Lars’ death, said some of Doria’s relatives and closest friends, freed her from a volatile relationship.

For Charles, his father’s passing meant he no longer had to strive for his dad’s approval — something Lars didn’t always freely give.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Doria and Charles sat in their living room, where Doria had erected a wall of wrapped presents. Christmas Day was a couple of weeks away.

“I’m doing good, doing good,” she said. “If I can just make it through the next two weeks, things will get a lot easier.”

Charles is making progress, too. One night earlier this month, Doria came home to see a handful of Charles’ classmates in the yard, wrestling under the glare of a spotlight — helping, in their own loud way, to fill a vacuum in their buddy’s life.

It was a happy distraction, a loud reminder that life must go on. As it will tomorrow night.

“Bonfires on New Year’s Eve are pretty standard around here,” said Doria. “I don’t think Lars and Erica would want it any other way.”

Next week: Acquitted of murder 12 years ago, a Gwinnett native starts a career in law.

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