Former AJC editor Jim Wooten was a voice for conservatives

Dies at 78
Jim Wooten was a Vietnam veteran and dedicated conservative Georgia journalist who impacted the state with his reporting and by mentoring a generation of Atlanta reporters. (DAVID TULIS/AJC STAFF)

Credit: AJC staff

Credit: AJC staff

Jim Wooten was a Vietnam veteran and dedicated conservative Georgia journalist who impacted the state with his reporting and by mentoring a generation of Atlanta reporters. (DAVID TULIS/AJC STAFF)

The moment Ann Jarrett spotted Jim Wooten, she wondered, “What’s happening to me? I need to know him.” They were in a fall journalism lab at the University of Georgia, and unlike other college boys in the mid-1960s, he wore a suit, a blue oxford shirt and a tie. He dressed for work: after class, he went to his fulltime job at the Athens Daily News covering local government.

Weeks later, Ann and he started talking. By the following September, they were married and living in Macon, where both worked at the Macon News and Jim finished his final UGA course by mail. A few days after he participated in graduation, he was inducted into the U.S. Army, and eventually sent to Vietnam. Afterward, he returned to journalism becoming a long-time conservative editorial columnist for the Atlanta newspapers while also spending 24 years in the Georgia Army National Guard. He retired as a colonel and earned the Legion of Merit, one of the highest military awards for service.

James Roger Wooten, 78, died October 29 of complications from Lewy Body Dementia, a progressive neurological disease. He was the fourth of six children born to Omer E. Wooten and Annie Mae Towns Wooten and the first of their children delivered in a hospital in McRae, in Telfair County. His people had been living in the area since the 1840s.

In 2012, he told Ann what he wanted after he died, “leaving me to complete his wishes.” On Thursday, in a private ceremony at Oak Hill Cemetery in Cartersville, his body will be dressed in his military uniform, wrapped in a quilt and laid in a wood coffin along with his daughter’s baby blanket and his granddaughter’s stuffed toy cat. He will be buried in Ann’s Jarrett family plot with full military honors, including the Patriot Guard Riders of Georgia.

Larry Shealy, Jim’s best friend and former colleague, made the cherry-wood coffin. The funeral home in Acworth had told Ann they didn’t have anything resembling the design Jim wanted — six-sided, wood, with rope handles. So Shealy, who makes furniture, drew plans, saying, “It was a pleasure to do it. He was the smartest man I ever met, a person of great depth and wisdom. Our politics were 180 degrees apart, but that never got in the way of our friendship.”

Unlike other colleagues who drifted away to public relations and speech-writing jobs, Wooten never strayed from newspapers, and never left Georgia, though offered a magazine job in Washington, D.C. Instead, he worked as the Atlanta Journal’s city editor and then assistant managing editor.

“He was a wise and well-jaded supervisor of young reporters,” said former AJC political reporter Jim Galloway. “When I started at the state capitol, he gave me some of the best advice I ever got about covering a place where the backroom ruled, and voters were often presented with well-orchestrated kabuki theater. ‘If you can see it happen,’ he said, ‘you’ve probably missed it.’”

Wooten became the editorial editor at the Atlanta Journal, where he won a national award for a story he had reported about politicians looting the state pension system. Reporters called him “a tenacious columnist who kills his own meat.”

When the Journal and the Constitution newspapers merged, Wooten became a conservative columnist and Cynthia Tucker, the Pulitzer-winning liberal former editorial writer, became his boss. “In our polarized political times, it’s hard to imagine that we had the relationship we did because we disagreed on everything politically. But we got along as colleagues. He was a typical Southern gentleman, courteous and kind, never raising his voice.”

Progressive columnist Jay Bookman said Wooten was “a journalistic pro. He taught me a lot about this state, and he kept our relationship respectful even in moments when we were banging heads.”

Wooten never forgot his upbringing. He liked to shop at thrift stores and yard sales and delighted in sporting dress shirts adorned with someone else’s initials. When his parents divorced in the 1950s, the children and their mother moved into public housing in Macon, and the older kids worked to help support the family.

For his free lunch at school, he worked in the kitchen and later tallied the number of students coming through the lunch line. After finishing A.R. Willingham High School in Macon, Wooten had various jobs —in a cotton mill and a school bus assembly plant — until he landed at the Macon paper. He was always willing to help anyone he could, his friends said, even those people who hadn’t been particularly nice to him.

In 2005, Ann and he bought 120 acres of his great-grandparents’ farm in Telfair County that had been auctioned away in 1933. They built a cypress-wood house, “and Jim went back and forth a lot,” Ann says. “He had a full life there.” In south Georgia, he attended a Methodist church when he was in town. He had a large vegetable garden, growing and canning tomatoes. He made and froze squash casseroles using his homegrown yellow squash and onions. He pickled okra. Friends like Larry Shealy would occasionally spend a weekend visiting and fishing.

A few years later, the Wootens bought and restored the dilapidated Telfair County home of four-time Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, which included not only the house but also 275 acres of mostly trees. Having retired from the AJC, Jim was involved in both the restoration of the house into Sugar Creek, an event venue, and the management of the forest land. The restoration received an award from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. Telfair County school students would visit the house for tours. The Wootens sold the house to a private owner in early 2019.

Jim Wooten was diagnosed in February 2020 with a very aggressive form of Lew Body Dementia. He “bounced back” for a while, Ann said, while he lived in a memory-care unit at Presbyterian Village in Austell. There, he would help in the kitchen, emptying the dishwasher and setting the table. As the disease progressed, his memories and abilities left him, and he spent the last six months at Austell’s Azalea Gardens.

The week before Wooten died, his daughter Jennifer Faur and granddaughter Stella Faur were visiting. He looked at them and said, “I love you, sweetheart,” a rare coherent sentence.

In addition to his wife, daughter and granddaughter, Jim Wooten is survived by his sisters, Joyce Jump, Betty Bush, Rita Galloway and Debbie Wood, as well as numerous nieces and nephews. A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, November 11, at 2 p,m. at Georgia Funeral Care and Cremation, 4671 South Main Street, in Acworth. The funeral home chapel has a capacity of only 75. Plans for a reception will be announced.