Four ex-governors, a widow, and Bill Shipp

As social affairs go, nothing draws a crowd like a funeral or a good hanging.

Bill Shipp’s 80th birthday party was a little of both, and so was exceptionally well-attended on Tuesday.

In the basement of a Smyrna bank, four former governors of Georgia, whose terms stretched from the early ‘60s to this new century, gathered to pay homage to the political columnist they loved to hate - and the man who chronicled much of their own careers.

The magnitude of the crowd was startling. Max Cleland, the former U.S. senator, was there. Harris Hines, the new presiding justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, gave the opening prayer. The place was so filled with notables that Vince Dooley, the former Bulldog football icon who once toyed with the idea of running for U.S. Senate, wandered in and out of the room, barely causing a ripple.

All this to honor a man whose pen, some of them would swear, had been dipped in their own blood. “We used to say that if Bill Shipp needed a thousand words, even his momma ain’t safe,” said one of the youngsters, 65-year-old former Gov. Roy Barnes. “All of us in public life, we were all kind of glad when the ink went out of your pencil.”

It was the celebration of a time as much as a man - a period when newspapers had the combined clout of cable TV, Twitter, blogs and the backyard fence.

Shipp worked for The Atlanta Constitution, then the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, from 1956 to 1987. But his journalistic influence began before that, and lasted long after. In 1953, as an editor for The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s campus newspaper, Shipp criticized Gov. Herman Talmadge’s decision to bar a young black man named Horace Ward from enrolling at the UGA law school.

By strange coincidence, it was only then that a Talmadge-controlled draft board decided Shipp was just what the military needed. He would spend the next two years making sure that not a single Chinese Communist ever crossed the West German border. Ward was drafted, too.

Life is full of coincidences. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter would make Ward the first African-American in Georgia to serve on the federal bench. On Tuesday, Judge Ward, now 86, had a seat in front of the birthday boy.

But it was the interplay between Shipp and the former governors that provided the spectacle. Carter wasn’t there -- the only break in the timeline.

Neither was Sonny Perdue, whose first executive order as the first Republican governor in modern Georgia history was to bar his staff from speaking with Shipp.

But Carl Sanders, 88, who was elected in 1962, expressed thanks to Shipp for backing his early efforts to lead the state away from the days of segregation.

“I didn’t know Bill from Adam’s housecat, but he supported me when I was elected,” Sanders said.

Former Gov. Joe Frank Harris, 77, praised Shipp’s unique ability “to distort accurate information.”

But it is considered high manners in the South to pray for those who disagree with you. Harris, a devout Methodist, would often hand off communication with the Almighty to his wife Elizabeth, who appeared to have a better connection. Elizabeth Harris wrote the names of her prayer targets on Post-It Notes, then attached them to her bedroom mirror.

“Bill Shipp was at the top of that mirror. He remained there for eight years,” the former governor said.

And then there was Zell Miller, 81. At first, George Berry, one of Shipp’s best friends and the former state commissioner of industry and trade, said the man who founded the HOPE scholarship didn’t feel up to speaking.

Berry offered an explanation. Years ago, when Miller was still lieutenant governor, Bob Short, a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, had persuaded Miller to give a speech at a conference held in delightfully warm climes.

In his column, Shipp wrote that he had it on good authority that “the governor was in the Caribbean in the company of a known drug dealer.” After the laughter died, Miller stood and announced that he had changed his mind. He did have something to say. It was a nervous moment.

Those who knew them understood that Miller and Shipp had exchanged famously harsh words over the years. Miller had once offered to do something other than dance on Shipp’s grave.

But in front of a crowd that once made up the largest part of Georgia’s political elite, the ex-Marine made an about-face that he wanted to become part of the historical record. “I love him. I love him very much. There’ll never be another one like you. I love you, Bill,” Miller said.

It was a sobering moment on an August day that, despite the heat, carried the feel of fall turning to winter.

The room was filled with a generation that is not yet ready to leave, but hovers near the exit.

Betty Russell Vandiver, widow of former Gov. Ernest Vandiver, felt it. In 1960, her husband had sealed his political career by not fighting a court order to allow two African-American students -- Hamilton E. Holmes and Charlayne Hunter - to enroll at UGA.

The man who wouldn’t let Georgia go the way of George Wallace’s Alabama died in 2005, and his wife had lost touch with many of those present. The governor’s widow understood this was a last chance.

“Once you get out of politics, you’re out of politics. You don’t get many opportunities to see your friends. And they die away and you don’t even know it,” she said.