Ray Gunnin, laid foundation for 21st century Gwinnett, dead at 92

Gwinnett County of the 1950s and 1960s was typical of rural Georgia — farmsteads, pastureland, wooded tracts, and dotted with a few small towns. Gravel roads were common. Chickens roamed front yards. The Ku Klux Klan was active.

But Ray Gunnin envisioned something different, said family and friends. The longtime county commissioner, environmental, civic and political activist and developer imagined a bustling, suburbanized and diverse county. He then set to work to help bring that to fruition, even as some opposed the changes.

“He was very forward thinking and ahead of his time,” said daughter Gail Logue. “He just knew that Atlanta was destined to grow north.”

Family members said the stars aligned for Gunnin. As he rose through the ranks at Southern Bell to become a long-range planner with an eye on the future, he got involved in local politics. He servied as a county commission (1968-78), helped lay foundations for services such as the county fire department, served on state and national government boards and developed subdivisions to boot.

“I could probably write a book about Ray,” said longtime friend Raymond Mattison. Their association began when Gunnin, after spearheading creation of the fire protection district that evolved into today’s Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services, hired Mattison as its first chief. The two men shook hands over the deal at Gunnin’s kitchen table.

Gunnin was instrumental in establishing the recreation department and water system, and helped the campaign for federal permission to withdraw water from Lake Lanier. Creating parks and cleaning up trash in his Norcross-area district also became a part of his legacy.

“A lot of that (illegal dumping) was happening on the land that became Jones Bridge Park. It was really common then. He’d go to places and dig through the trash until he found an address or a bill. He’d then get people prosecuted for illegal dumping,” Logue said.

Gunnin died June 30 at 92 after a battle with prostate cancer and strokes while living in Colorado with Logue and her family. He is survived by Logue, his his son and their spouses, a sister, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Family members say Gunnin was born raised in Cobb County and moved to Gwinnett in the late 1950s.

After arriving, Gunnin led a study that recommended the county commission be expanded from three full-time representatives to five mostly part-timers (except for the chair). After voters approved the change, he was elected to the first-ever five-member body, said Elliott Brack, publisher of the online Gwinnett Forum.

Gunnin’s concern for the environment showed up in the development of residential neighborhoods, starting with land his parents had owned. He would prep the property, have roads and utilities put in and would then sell it to builders. As he did so, he kept an eye on land use, drainage and other environmental concerns.

Related to that, Mattison recalled the time Simmons Mattress proposed moving its company headquarters to a site along the Chattahoochee River in the 1970s. Gunnin pushed the company for an extensive list of water, building sprinkler, road and other improvements.

“When (the Simmons director) left, the other commissioners told him he had run Simmons out of the county. But a couple weeks later (the director) announced ‘I’ve made my decision, and it is to come to Gwinnett because you believe in quality growth,’ " recalled Mattison.

Gunnin’s quality-of-life concerns earned him a place on President Jimmy Carter’s list of people considered to head the federal Environmental Protection Agency, family members said. Gunnin proposed to have the then-Norcross-Tucker Road renamed as Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

But the push for change came with a price.

“A cross was burned on our front lawn,” said son Ray “Bill” Gunnin, Jr. “There was apparently concern over some people who were being invited to the county. "

Also raising the ire of some was his father’s help with voter registration drives in a minority-dominated neighborhood, as well as his being instrumental in the creation of Best Friend Park adjacent to what was then one of Gwinnett’s poorest areas.

“He wanted to give the kids something to do,” said Bill Gunnin.

Mattison says in later years, he asked Gunnin why took a chance on hiring him, then a 25-year-old Air Force firefighting veteran without extensive experience to helm a civilian department.

“He just looked at me,” recalled Mattison, and said " ‘Raymond, I knew what I was doing.’ "

No public memorial is planned, but the family plans a small, private memorial at some point in the future.