Former Gov. Zell Miller is 81 now and walks with a cane and a slight stoop. He rarely makes public appearances.
On Wednesday, however, the man considered the father of Georgia’s lottery — and by extension the nationally lauded education programs it pays for — came down from his mountain home to take center stage at a celebration of the lottery’s 20th anniversary.
“That it would come to this type of fruition, means a lot,” Miller said, referring to the almost 3 million kids who have benefited from the lottery-funded HOPE college scholarship and pre-k programs.
“The lottery has taken this program and fortified it, and Gov. Nathan Deal has fortified it and made it stronger for longer.,” Miller said. “You’ve got the strongest HOPE Scholarship you’ve ever had — they’ve got it in the strongest position it’s ever been in and I don’t think you’re going to see anything ever happen to it.”
Deal proclaimed it “Zell Miller Day” across Georgia as he, Georgia Lottery officials and dozens of state dignitaries feted Miller.
They lauded the self-proclaimed “dreamer” who took an idea inspired by his mother — that any Georgian can go anywhere with an education and a little financial support — and blended it with a hugely successful lottery.
After prize money and operating expenses are subtracted, the lottery now drives more than $900 million annually into state coffers toward HOPE and pre-k.
“He is one of the legendary figures in Georgia,” Deal said of Miller, who over the years developed a pragmatic and shrewd — if sometimes inconsistent — reputation in a political career that also took him to the U.S. Senate.
“I was glad to be able to see him today,” Deal added. “We had a few other events in the past several months he had not been able to attend.”
Age has slowed Miller physically, but not intellectually or emotionally if Wednesday was an indication. His family — some four generations’ worth — turned out for the event at the Zell Miller Learning Center at the University of Georgia.
Both Miller and Deal, among others, had to pause several times to collect the words colliding with tears in their throats.
In one of the most poignant moments, Miller recalled his mother’s encouragement, which he said rooted his push to start the lottery and seed the dreams of others.
“My mother, who saw the good in everything, would say with exclamation, ‘You know what’s so great about this place? You can get anywhere in the world from here!’” Miller said of his family’s life in the mountain town of Young Harris, where Miller and his wife Shirley still live.
“And we could,” Miller said. That belief “took me to [the state Capitol], it took to the national Capitol in Washington. It did take me everywhere I could go in this world.”
Now, it’s the turn of Georgians like Deep Shah. A HOPE scholar, UGA grad and recent graduate of the Harvard Medical School, Shah said he felt part of a generation that had been affected “in an incredible way that can only be expressed as gratitude.”
Shah moved back to Georgia to train, pulled in part, he said, by that gratitude.
“I was 7 years old when (HOPE) was initiated. And I really don’t think the benefits of it will be seen for generations and lifetimes.”
At Wednesday’s gathering, Democrats and Republicans crowded the room and gave Miller three standing ovations.
To be sure, both the lottery and HOPE have faced challenges, with more ahead. The financial strain of rising demand and tuition forced a 2011 overhaul of HOPE that cut award payouts and tightened eligibility.
The scholarship’s focus shifted somewhat since Miller started it with an income cap of $66,000 — the combined income of two teachers. That was raised to $100,000 before being eliminated years ago when it became clear the lottery would be successful. State leaders including Deal now stress that the award should remain merit-based, not need-based, which Deal fears would make it sound like an entitlement program.
Miller said he agrees.
“I think merit is the way to go,” he said. “When I came up with the name HOPE — Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally — I’m for it being on merit.”