For a little more than 12 years, Gary McConnell was the director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), responding to Georgians in need after disasters.
During his years of service, if a tornado danced its way through the state, McConnell followed its route, offering flattened communities state assistance and coordinating resources with other agencies. If a hurricane brought catastrophic rain to South Georgia, McConnell would be on the ground before the waters receded. It was often difficult for him to meet people whose houses and businesses had been destroyed.
“Encountering people who had lost everything, he had such compassion, he would tear up,” said Lisa Grovenstein, his former public relations director. “He was dedicated to people and to helping people.”
McConnell, 78, died July 10 in a Rome hospital after a long illness. He was born in Chattooga County, the son of John Frank McConnell and Margueritt Rea McConnell.
His father was the county sheriff, and Gary McConnell began his law enforcement career by helping his father when he was young. When his father died unexpectedly, McConnell, only 21, took his place, becoming the state’s youngest sheriff.
At six-foot-six, McConnell was hard to miss. Like his father, he worked to bust up illegal moonshine stills scattered in the backwoods of hilly Chattooga County. He dealt with the Dixie Mafia. He handled the Corpsewood Manor Murders, in which two would-be robbers murdered a gay couple from Chicago who had built a castle-like home on 40 isolated acres.
Like his friend, the famous defense attorney Bobby Lee Cook, McConnell was a staunch Democrat. Governor Zell Miller appointed him to head GEMA in 1991. During his first few years, he dealt with three tornadoes, a windstorm, a blizzard and two floods — including the massive 1994 Albany flooding in central Georgia. During the Albany flood he led the recovery effort of more than 400 bodies that washed up from a cemetery. He was head of the Georgia Olympic Law Enforcement Command during the 1996 Olympics. Former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Ron Martz remember McConnell “as very professional and very understanding of the media’s role during the Olympics. He was very easy for us to deal with.”
McConnell’s fears of a terrorist attack during the Olympics were realized when a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park exploded, killing two people and injuring many others. Eric Rudolph was later imprisoned for planting the bomb.
On Dec. 31, 1999, Martz remembered, he was at GEMA headquarters with McConnell and leaders from other state and federal agencies, all of them wondering what would happen when the year 2000 rolled in amid widespread fears of a computer glitch that would melt down all things digital. Everyone was standing around, watching a clock tick down to midnight, and when nothing disruptive happened, McConnell said, “Well, I guess that’s it, let’s go home.”
In 2002, the owner of the Tri-State Crematory in Noble was found not to have cremated dead bodies but to have left them in shallow graves and in a pond on his property. Some 242 bodies were recovered, and McConnell vowed to drain the pond to find others. Always skilled at securing governmental resources, he asked for $5 million in federal aid to deal with the disaster.
After retiring when Sonny Perdue took office as governor, McConnell for several years did private consulting about emergency management planning. Reverend Wesley Privett of Summerville First Methodist Church knew McConnell a little more than a year and found him to be “one of the most humble men I ever met. He was a very kind man who came to church every Sunday with his wife.”
Lisa Grovenstein remembered that a detail of prisoners came into GEMA headquarters to clean and empty the trash cans. Every Thanksgiving, McConnell would buy a Thanksgiving meal for each of them, “because he recognized and appreciated what they were doing. He would take our whole office to lunch as well during the holiday season out of appreciation. He made you want to do your best for him.”
Survivors include his wife Lyndell Diane McConnell, his daughter Rebecca Rea and a grandson, Levi Cobb. Those who wish to may donate contributions to the Georgia Sheriff’s Youth Homes, #1000 Sheriff’s Way, Madison, Georgia, 30650, or online at https://georgiasheriffsyouthfoundation.org.