Over the past few weeks, two special people who I have known for as long as I can remember have passed from this life into the next; one unexpectedly and the other not as much so. Both men were unique in their own way, yet their qualities and character were similar, and they left a legacy of strong families, many friends, tremendous accomplishment and a better community than the one they inherited. That both of them made an impact on me as an individual goes without saying, because the collective accomplishments of great men are often built on the individual lives they touch along the way. Mac Collins and Johnny Carter both fit that description well.
I don’t remember when I first met Mac; rather, I think I just came to know him as the father of children I went to school with. His oldest daughter Crystal and I were the same age and in the same classroom for many years, while his other children, Mike, Andy and April were younger. Mac and his wife, Julie, were both involved with their kids and their school, like many of the parents were, but Mac had a bit of that “John Wayne” quality about him, something larger than life in his persona. Kids naturally respected him and liked him, and I found out years later that the same held true for adults.
My grandfather the pastor often spoke highly of Mac and his successes in life. He performed their wedding ceremony, remembering that they started out with very little but eventually built their business into something of substance that reflected a lot of hard work and sacrifices to get it there. My grandfather liked stories with that kind of theme and he admired those who could balance hard work and long hours with the needs of a growing family.
Mac eventually went into politics, first as a County Commissioner and later as a State Senator. Our town was proud of its local Senator, who walked the corridors of the Georgia Capitol with the confidence of one who knew he was where he belonged, even as a member of a very small political party at that time. Every year, our local fire department attended the annual “Firefighters Appreciation Day” at the Capitol, and every time we went, there was Mac waiting to greet us, to show us around the Capitol, to introduce us to the Governor and to have lunch with us. He made us all feel appreciated and special. When Mac decided to run for a Congressional seat in a contentious election year, he found that his straightforward, concise and business-minded ways, combined with his discernible interest in his constituents and their needs was the combination people were looking for, and he found himself elected to Congress.
Anyone who thought Congress would change Mac Collins didn’t know him very well. He took with him the same work ethic and values he was known for, at a time when those qualities were still respected in Washington. Whether serving in the minority or majority party, Mac was still Mac. I called his office once, needing some information about something. Mac himself called back within the hour, with information he could have easily assigned to a staffer to do. That was his personal touch, that he never lost his connection with everyday people and it was always great when he would come home from Washington and you would hear that distinctive voice in the lobby of the church, as he returned to reconnect with his spiritual family and recharge his batteries.
Mac and Julie made my first trip to Washington a memorable experience, as I travelled with a group of Chamber of Commerce Presidents on a two-day fly in trip to hear from Congressional leaders, US Chamber executives and others. I think he might have been a little disappointed I chose the National Cathedral tour that Julie was hosting over the Capitol tour he was leading, but I’ve always been a sucker for a big church and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see and pray in the Cathedral. Mac understood.
After a dozen years of Congressional service, Mac settled back down into local community life, still dispensing wisdom and using influence to make things better. I still have an email from him in 2010 where I sought his advice about whether to support a candidate running for Governor. Mac responded within an hour and his advice was solid, which helped me make my decision. A few months ago, Mac stopped by our offices and I reminded him of that email exchange and told him that I needed his advice again. He gave it, and I took it.
Before he left, I told him about my latest interest, to begin a restoration of our historic local courthouse, the same one Mac began his political journey from. Mac told me he couldn’t think of a better person for it, that he was proud of my accomplishments and that if I ever needed his help to call him, for anything. That was our last conversation, and one I will always cherish and remember. Thank you Mac, for being a friend and a mentor, for always taking my calls, for your wise advice and counsel, for your love of our community and for your service to our country. I won’t forget you and will always try to live up to your expectations of me.
When I think of Johnny Carter, I get an image of a true southern gentleman, always gracious, always polite, always willing to step in and help wherever needed. Johnny also worked hard to grow his business and he did so while treating people with courtesy and kindness, two tenets that should be the cornerstone of any successful enterprise. If someone asked me to name what the greatest accomplishment of Johnny Carter was, knowing many of the things Johnny was about and had done in his life, I’d still have to say that his greatest accomplishment was that I never, ever heard a single person say anything bad about him. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment worth noting.
I remember when Johnny and his wife Elizabeth were young parents. Living just down the street from her parents, I saw the Carters pretty often, not just at the church we attended, although they were regulars there as well. Their children grew up in the church too, raised by two devoted and loving parents who doted on them. There were times I saw Johnny with his son John or his daughter Alison and I hoped someday I could be as good a father to my own children as he was to his. He was a good example of a strong father figure, something I think his grown and married children appreciate now.
But Johnny’s interest in what was good for children went beyond just his own, because Johnny also loved Scouting and through his efforts, he made sure that Scouting would be an important ministry in our church and in our community. I think his own strengths were enhanced by the discipline, training and brotherhood of being a Scout and he wanted to make sure that others had the opportunities he had to have a life with meaningful purpose. His efforts in Scouting have been recognized many times over the years but the true dividends are in the lives he helped shape.
He also found time to serve in the Rotary Club, Partners for Smart Growth and a number of other organizations that all helped build our community and make it a better place. He took a keen interest in church matters, serving on a number of boards and committees over the years and throwing himself into whatever he was asked to do or whatever he saw needed doing.
For me personally, I enjoyed just listening to him be himself, an opportunity I first got years ago at a church retreat in Hayesville, North Carolina. My wife and I had not been married long, and as we came into the dining room to eat breakfast, Johnny joined us for the meal. After asking my wife a number of questions about where she was from, Johnny told a story about something I can’t even remember now but it had us both laughing. He had a great sense of humor and an ability to express himself in a way that came across as encouraging, friendly and interested in what you had to say. For some people this art of communication is a practiced accomplishment; for Johnny, it was just natural and who he was.
One thing everyone who knew Johnny understood well was his love of flying and it didn’t take a lot to get him up in the air…a beautiful day would often be enough. An accomplished pilot, he could frequently be seen flying over town in his dark blue helicopter, giving friends rides or just exploring. I asked him one day about a certain reservoir in the county, and whether he had noticed if it was filling up when he flew over it. Johnny said “Let’s go look” and the next day I took my first helicopter ride and saw the community of my birth from a whole new perspective. That’s just the kind of person Johnny was though and I’ll never forget the experience of flying with him on a beautiful, October morning.
In these last few years of greatest trials and challenges, Johnny faced whatever life threw his way with hopeful optimism, abundant grace, quiet courage and persistent strength. He had spent a lifetime developing those attributes already, and they were there for him when he needed to draw on them.
I said earlier in this writing that I always thought of Johnny Carter as a true gentleman, and it suggests a quote that I have always liked. I don’t know who wrote it or who to credit it to, but it goes like this: “A man tries to make his mark. A gentleman strives to leave a mark. A man accepts a favor. A gentleman returns the favor. A man gives orders. A gentleman inspires. A man fits the mold. A gentleman tries to break the mold. The differences are many, but it all comes down to this: a man takes the necessary steps. A gentleman takes the extra step. The extra step makes the difference”. I think that describes Johnny well…he always took the extra step, in everything he did.
It’s hard to put into words the loss our community feels at the untimely passing of two great men who were leaders, friends, parents, colleagues and more, to so many people. If there are lessons I can draw from having known them both, or attributes of each that I could emulate, it would be love of community and country, love of family and friends, service above self and to try to be a good example to others. Neither one of them changed the world, but both of them changed a lot of lives, one at a time, over many years and I have to think that in the big picture, they made a huge difference along the way.
They both did for me.