Willie Edmondson rose from poverty to lead his hometown, LaGrange

Willie Edmondson, the former mayor of LaGrange, Georgia, also served his area as a city councilman, pastor and advocate for business development.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Willie Edmondson, the former mayor of LaGrange, Georgia, also served his area as a city councilman, pastor and advocate for business development.

When Willie T. Edmondson was elected the first Black mayor in the history of LaGrange, he addressed being a “first” on election night.

“He said, ‘Y’all know what color I am; I don’t have to say it. I just want to be the mayor for all,’” recalled April Ross, owner of LaGrange TV station BeeTV 33.

A longtime Baptist pastor, LaGrange City Council member and owner of a LaGrange funeral home, Edmondson died Feb. 16 at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta; he was 70. His son Jocies Edmondson said the family is waiting on tests that will determine a cause of death.

“He was always a steady hand and a calm voice,” said U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-GA, who worked with Edmondson for more than 20 years in his roles as Baptist pastor and mayor.

“He had an acute sense of fairness and right and wrong; he was a good example of putting others ahead of yourself,” Ferguson added. “He had a big vision for the community, and he was willing to do the hard work and have the tough conversations to make those visions happen. At the core it was about making sure people in the community had access to jobs and good opportunities.”

“His presence is going to be missed in the Troup County area.”

William Thomas Edmondson was born Jan. 24, 1954, in Antioch, Georgia, the son of Gussie Frank and Arizona Edmondson. His son Jocies recalled that “he came from a very, very poor family. When he was a kid, they didn’t have enough money for Christmas. Month after month there was no money. All the way till June. Then he got a Playmobil little toy dashboard with windshield and steering wheel.”

“It is still in the family to this day,” he continued. “Whenever he needed to reflect on where he came from, he would go and look at that Playmobil. And that brought him peace and brought him comfort.”

Edmondson moved with his family to LaGrange when he was 12 years old and lived the rest of his life there. The city of about 30,000 is 60 miles southwest of Atlanta and the county seat of Troup County.

In 2017, when Edmondson was a city council member, LaGrange made national news when police chief Lou Dekmar publicly apologized for the role the police department played in the 1940 lynching of a Black man, Austin Callaway, calling it “a dark chapter in our history.” The extraordinary apology, delivered in a packed LaGrange church, was believed to be among the first for a law enforcement agency in the United States.

Edmondson attended West Georgia Technical College and became a nurse at City County Hospital (now Wellstar West Georgia Medical Center).

He married Glenda Simpson, known to her friends as Faye, in 1973, and the couple had four children: Antonio, Jocies, Kimberly and Mercades.

Pursuing a call to the ministry (his father had also been a pastor), Edmondson studied at Morehouse College School of Religion and Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He graduated from Fountain International Seminary in 2010 and received his Ph.D from Jehovah-Jireh Bible Institute of Higher Learning in 2018.

“Some people called him Dr. Edmondson but most everyone called him Willie T.,” said April Ross, who was a parishioner at Bethlehem Baptist Church, where he served as pastor for 40 years.

“He taught me to pray about everything,” Ross said. “He’d say ‘People can give you their opinion, but God will give you the answer.’”

“He wore his faith on his sleeve, and he was proud of it,” Ferguson said. “He lived to serve other people.”

After about 20 years as a nurse, Edmondson attended Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service and began working at Lakes-Dunson-Robertson Funeral Home in LaGrange. In 2002, he purchased the mortuary. In 2014, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to the State Board of Funeral Service, and he served there until 2023.

“I once asked him ‘You’re the owner. Why do you come to every funeral, and sometimes you’ll have like four funerals a day?” Ross recalled. “And he said, ‘These families, when they come, they are hurting, and I need them to see my face, that I care.’”

Survivors include his mother Arizona Edmondson; sister Tommie McKeever; wife Faye Edmondson; sons Antonio (Kristy) Edmondson and Jocies (Keshia) Edmondson; daughters Kimberly (Rashad) Little and Mercades (Joavious) Avery; and 11 grandchildren.

The city of LaGrange held a motorcade funeral procession Wednesday with city employees standing at attention on a route that led eventually to Bethlehem Baptist Church, where a celebration of life was held.