Zell Miller, the former Georgia governor and U.S. senator who died Friday at age 86, is shown sitting on the porch of the home in Young Harris that his widowed mother built with rocks she carried from a nearby creek. The town, where Miller began his political career, said goodbye to him on Monday in the first of three memorial services scheduled this week. (KIMBERLY SMITH/AJC staff)

The town that was everything in life to Zell Miller says goodbye

And it’s here in this town of a few hundred souls where Miller, who died last week at the age of 86, will soon return to the rocky earth that shaped him.

His upbringing in Young Harris was etched into his public persona, a staple of his political speeches, a symbol of his gritty independence. And on Monday, the family and friends celebrating Miller’s life had a parting message: As much as the town defined Miller, he defined the town.

“During his lifetime, his body traveled the world,” said his son, Murphy Miller, “but his heart and soul always remained in Young Harris.”

Born in Young Harris in 1932, in the teeth of the Great Depression, Miller was just 17 days old when his father died. His widowed mother, Birdie, built the family a home near the town’s center with rocks she carried from a nearby creek.

Miller graduated from Young Harris College, just down the road from his house. It was where he met Shirley, the woman who would become his wife, and where he later returned to teach history at the school. It was in Young Harris where he started his path in public office, winning a race for mayor in 1959 and later serving as a state senator.

He grew up on stories of the Cherokee Nation carving out a civilization in these mountains, of pioneers who settled its valleys in search of freedom. In his first book and his last, he aired his love for this “scantily populated village (where) my hopes were lifted and my ability to cope were nurtured.”

And he decided, early in his life, that he would never stray far from this place even as he served two terms as governor and a stint in Washington.

It’s where his casket returned Monday and his ashes could soon follow.

“These mountains composed his soul,” said Steve Wrigley, Miller’s former top aide. “He missed them when he was away. He talked about them as if they were alive, and they certainly brought life to him. Zell never forgot where he came from, and he had a fierce pride in them.”

His family, too, was part of that mountain lore. His parents were both educators; folks here like to say they didn’t grow crops, they grew minds. He credits his mother with a fierce devotion to education, a spirit that helped him engineer the HOPE scholarship that is his defining legacy.

And just about everyone at a Monday memorial in Young Harris — where the first of three days of memorials were scheduled — seemed to have a story about Miller.

A radio host told of how his relative was Miller’s grade-school teacher. Teen-age students traded stories about the rock house where Miller grew up. A local prosecutor gave thanks that Miller had the courage to appoint her amid whispers she couldn’t do the job because she was pregnant.

“We had a few good times and a few bad times,” said Bud Nichols, a dear friend of Miller’s who talked of their teen-age exploits and shared that his great-grandfather owned the parcel of craggy land where Miller’s mother found those rocks all those decades ago.

“Zell was good to this town,” Nichols said, “and Young Harris was good to Zell.”

Despite its remoteness — it takes roughly two hours to travel the 90 some miles from Atlanta to this mountain town — Miller’s mother had a favorite saying about Young Harris: “From here, you can get anywhere in the world.”

On Monday, Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist who was one of Miller’s closest advisers, had a response to that mantra: “Yes, Ms. Birdie. You can. Your boy, Zell, did.”

That was the public side of Miller’s image. But friends and family recounted another face of the mountain man.

How he advised children on how to best drip Log Cabin syrup on doorknobs for April Fool’s pranks. How he delighted in celebrating Christmas at his childhood home. How he hid Easter eggs in tree branches so high that frustrated kids couldn’t snag them — a subtle lesson, perhaps, on keeping family members close by to help.

And how he’d celebrate the start of baseball season like a national holiday, alerting folks all over Young Harris the day in early February when pitchers and catchers would make the sojourn to Florida to start preparing for the long season ahead.

“That marked a new year, new possibilities,” said his son, Murphy, who is now a Superior Court judge in Dahlonega.

There was little that he enjoyed more than chatting with his children and friends about the fundamentals of the national pastime: the techniques of catchers, the art of a complicated swing, the cunning and speed it took to stretch a single into a double.

“And tell me, my friends,” Murphy asked, “who stretched more singles to doubles than Zell?”

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