3/28/18 - Atlanta - The Executive State Funeral Service for Zell Miller was held in the Rotunda of the Georgia State Capitol this morning. Speakers were Gov. Nathan Deal and Sec. of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Ex-governors lead state funeral for Zell Miller

A day after three former U.S. presidents paid tribute to Zell Miller, a pair of ex-governors presided over an executive state funeral for their friend at the state Capitol.

Gov. Nathan Deal and Sonny Perdue bid farewell Wednesday to the former U.S. senator and two-term governor who launched the state’s HOPE scholarship in a solemn ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.

“To the family, let me just say thank you for being a part of his life, for being a part of the fabric that has made,” said Deal, who paused to fight back tears, “made our state great.”

Perdue, who was elected to the first of two terms in 2002, said Miller’s rise in Georgia politics heralded “the beginning of a new era” for a state that was just muscling into its own.

“Georgia was still really coming out of the old vestiges of the Depression, and many people still considered Georgia a backwater state,” said Perdue, who is now Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary. “He put Georgia on the rails to become a modern state.”

It was the last of three memorials for Miller, who died Friday at the age of 86. He was honored at a ceremony in his hometown of Young Harris on Monday, and George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton each eulogized Miller Tuesday at an Atlanta church.

Former President James Carter reflects on the life of former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller.

Those services were emotional, but tinged with humor. Carter quipped about his “off and on” friendship with his sometimes-rival. And Bush joked about Miller’s high approval rating, saying “take it from me, that’s not typical for a politician.”

The Wednesday service felt more formal. It was held in the Rotunda under tight security - Georgia State Patrol officers cordoned off parts of the building - and soft sobs could be heard when a bugler played “Taps” from a balcony.

“In these sort of occasions, you like to tell funny stories and anecdotes about what happened. With Zell Miller, there weren’t many funny times – it was all business,” said Perdue. “If you were summoned to the second floor” – where the governor has his office – “you better be ready.”

That happened to Perdue once when, as a state senator, he shifted money from a budget proposal that would have benefited the Savannah ports. Miller was furious.

“I got called by the governor … that money got put back in as you might imagine.”

The Capitol Rotunda was crowded with dignitaries who wanted to give Miller a last sendoff. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and former Sens. Sam Nunn and Max Cleland were there. So were former aides and advisers to Miller. Dozens of others in the quiet halls of the statehouse craned their necks to take in the ceremony.

At the ceremony’s end, Miller’s wife Shirley and his son led a long procession out of the Capitol and into waiting cars, accompanied by music from a bagpipe. His remains were whisked to Cumming, where the family held one final service - this one, in private.

Some back at the Capitol were left struggling for words.

Said Perdue: “What do you say about the man who gave Georgia hope?”

More recent AJC stories on Miller:

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

Three presidents lead a high-powered crowd at Zell Miller’s funeral 

The 14 lessons Zell Miller wanted his family to know 

Two Zell Miller stories that didn’t make his obit 

An appreciation: How Zell Miller helped shape an AJC reporter’s life  

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