In April 1962, a 25-year-old George Berry drove from his hometown of Blairsville to the new jet-age terminal at the Atlanta airport to start a job search. Years later, he could never explain why he chose the airport except that he was intimidated by the prospect of negotiating downtown traffic.
The ground floor of the modernist, turquoise-paneled terminal had a row of phone booths, probably more than the entire town of Blairsville. He wedged into one, pulled out a roll of dimes and started dialing numbers listed in The Atlanta Constitution’s help-wanted ads. Finally he got a nibble, getting hired as a city of Atlanta tax clerk, possibly the lowest rung in the city’s fledgling bureaucracy.
Twenty-eight years later, as the state commissioner of industry and trade, Berry was in Tokyo for the announcement that Atlanta had secured the 1996 Olympic games. In the three previous decades, Atlanta had gone through endless evolutions, and, in the words of former mayor Sam Massell, “vigorous friction.” Within this crucible of change, Berry had become one of the city’s and the state’s most respected behind-the-scenes leaders, serving four Atlanta mayors and two Georgia governors for whom he seemed to do everything.
He had a hand in many of the changes that modernized the city and state, from expanding the airport, building MARTA and drafting the Olympic Games, to recruiting foreign businesses on multiple international trips. During those years starting in the 1960s, he also served as a quiet stabilizing force through the civil rights movement and its aftermath.
“He had unimpeachable character and he never took credit for anything he did,” said former mayor Sam Massell, 92, who appointed Berry as the city’s chief administrative officer in 1969. “I wish I had the vocabulary to describe the quality of his service to me and the city. He made me look 7 feet tall, and I’m 5-4.”
Former governor Joe Frank Harris said: “We got along because we had similar personalities. Whether staff or General Assembly, we both wanted someone else heading up a project and getting credit for the accomplishment.”
George Berry, 82, died September 7 following a long illness. His service in Blairsville Sept. 14 is private.
He was born July 5, 1937, to Cautus and Lorena Berry. His father, a rural mail carrier, died when he was six. Growing up largely on his grandparents’ farm, Berry wasn’t immune to Tom Sawyer-like nostalgia for childhood. But in a remarkable oral history given to Young Harris College in 2009, he explained how his geographical place influenced his life.
“Early on, I began following the ‘New South’ movement,” Berry said. “Living next to North Carolina, I saw first-hand what progressive political leadership could bring. North Carolina was a progressive state, the roads were in good shape, the schools were in good shape. Meantime, across the border in Georgia, we were still following the demagogues.”
He attended Young Harris College (then a two-year school) and the University of Georgia before eventually graduating from Georgia State with a business degree.
By then, he was with the city, remaining a tax clerk just long enough to gain experience and meet co-worker Jeannine Barrett, whom he married in 1963.
From there, he moved to the finance department where he stayed for most of the 1960s. In the oral history, Berry explained that then-mayor Ivan Allen was a particular favorite of President Lyndon Johnson because he was the only Southern mayor who testified in favor of LBJ’s civil rights legislation.
“One of my jobs was keeping up with government grants,” Berry said. “So the Johnson administration [began flooding Atlanta] with federal grants of all kinds. Suddenly [I’m] running budgets about as big as the city’s general fund budget. Everybody came to me to ask if they could spend money for this purpose or that purpose.
“Some of biggest grants I was dealing with were for expansion of the airport. Therefore I got to learn the administration of the airport. That became invaluable later on.”
Berry served Allen, Massell and Mayor Maynard Jackson, bridging a welter of changing times and politics while holding many titles. He helped oversee firsts, such as the building of the city’s first large indoor sports venue, the Omni, with no taxpayer money. As the city changed from a government run by white men to one with women and black council members, he remained on his various jobs.
Subsequently, Berry found himself as an unofficial liaison between the predominantly black staffers and administrators and the predominately white business community who, Berry said, “had a rather poor understanding of the political scene, who were somewhat intimidated by it.”
Later, as the state commissioner of industry and trade, he and Harris visited about 35 countries while adding tens of thousands of new Georgia jobs annually.
After leaving the city, Berry spent 15 years working for close friend Tom Cousins and was involved in a number of projects, including the massive revitalization of the East Lake Community. He retired to the town of Forsyth in 2004, inheriting his wife’s family farm, to become a “gentleman farmer,” though Jeannine said that essentially meant, “buying two tractors to cut the grass with.”
In later years, Berry would sometimes despair of contemporary leaders who, he said, “seem to want consensus rather than making hard choices and suffering from the controversy that those decisions [incur].” But he was genuinely proud of the progress Georgia had made towards that New South he envisioned as a youngster.
“Go back to 1948 when [segregationist Governor] Herman Talmadge came to Blairsville…backed up his truck to the courthouse square and harangued us for an hour, saying our greatest challenge is maintaining our way of life. When you looked around, our way of life was poverty and ignorance and malnutrition. If you looked at the scene that day, [you saw] faded overalls and mules hitched to wagons, and compared to today you would say you were not living in the same world.”
Berry is survived by his wife Jeannine Barrett Berry, son Mark Jefferson Berry and his wife Liz of Alpharetta, and daughter, Jennifer Berry Hudgins and her husband Scott of Forsyth and five grandchildren. He’s also survived by a half-brother Jerry Penland of Gainesville.
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