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By Mark Davis, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)

Former Georgia Governor Carl E. Sanders, Sr., a statesman, businessman and philanthropist, champion of education and better government, died Sunday. He was 89.

As a young man, Sanders gave up his role as a quarterback at UGA to go off to fight a war, now nearly 70 years gone. He learned to fly a bomber, which he named in honor of his home state. He dated a Hollywood starlet. He became a lawyer, then a lawmaker, then a governor — all by the age of 37 — then went on to become a leading business figure.

As a state representative, Sanders beat a segregationist political machine, bringing a moderate Democrat’s voice and vision to Atlanta. As a state senator, he urged then-Gov. Ernest Vandiver to desegregate Georgia’s public schools. As a governor, he oversaw a period of unprecedented growth, underscored by the growing demands of an increasingly urbanized state. Schools and airports flourished during his tenure. Big-time sports — the Atlanta Braves and Falcons — came to Atlanta while he was in office.

As a businessman, he and two partners took about $300 and launched a law firm that now employs about 600 attorneys and has offices from Atlanta to Hong Kong.

Sanders spent his final working years looking at the Atlanta skyline from his 52nd-floor office. On clear days, he could easily see Stone Mountain. But he had a harder time discerning his legacy.

“Georgia is a different place today,” Sanders said in a 2006 interview, when he was nearing 81. “In some ways, it’s better; in some ways, it’s not. It’s certainly bigger.”

Georgia, better and worse, owes much to Sanders.

A reformer, Sanders helped bring a progressive government to Georgia, which had been dominated by lawmakers from rural areas. He sought to create a New South.

Sanders was born May 15, 1925, in Augusta, the eldest of two sons. His father, Carl T. Sanders, was a salesman and later a member of the Richmond County Commission. His mother, Roberta Sanders, worked at a dime store.

He was a rangy kid, recalled Doug Barnard, who served as Sanders’ executive secretary, and, later, as a congressman from Augusta. Barnard grew up on the opposite corner from Sanders, and the two walked to Richmond Academy together. He remembered a boy who was fast and strong.

“Carl emerged as the best athlete in the school,” Barnard said in a 2006 interview.

He parlayed that athletic ability into a scholarship at UGA, where in 1942 he was a left-handed quarterback on the freshman football team.

The next year, he surprised coaches and friends when he left Athens to join the Army Air Forces, which trained him to pilot B-17 bombers. He named his bomber “Georgia Peach.”

Sanders sent letters to his boyhood pal from his base on the West Coast. The young flyer found an enviable way to spend his off-hours. “He was dating a starlet,” said Barnard. “I said, ‘Damn, Carl, you’re the luckiest fellow I’ve ever known.'”

Sanders never flew the “Peach” over Europe; the war wound to an end by the time the young pilot was ready to deploy overseas. He returned to UGA in 1945, where one night, hanging around outside a sorority, he bumped into a girl from Statesboro. He and Betty Foy married in 1947, the same year he finished law school. He was admitted to the state bar in 1948.

The newly minted lawyer went to work at an Augusta law firm. He also began eyeing the political landscape.

In 1954, Sanders ran for the state House against a candidate from the Cracker Party, a segregationist organization that controlled most of the political machinations in Augusta and Richmond County. Recalling the victory, five decades later, still pleased him.

“We broke them,” he said.

In 1956, he was elected to the first of three terms in the state Senate, representing Richmond, Glascock, and Jefferson counties. There, he caught the eye of Vandiver, then the lieutenant governor. Two years later, the pair went after corruption in the administration of Gov. Marvin Griffin. Sanders chaired a Senate investigation into the administration’s road projects deals, and the resulting publicity was so bad that Griffin’s hand-picked successor declined to run for governor.

Vandiver assumed the governorship in 1959, and Sanders became his floor leader, then the Senate’s president pro tem.

In 1961, another lawmaker — Zell Miller — joined Sanders in the Senate, and was immediately impressed by the Augusta legislator.

“He was so distinguished,” recalled Miller, who went on to his own stint as governor and later became a U.S. senator.

Sanders was distinguishing himself beyond the Capitol, too.

In 1959, a federal judge had ordered the Atlanta Board of Education to submit a desegregation plan. A statewide commission also recommended the repeal of segregation laws as a “local option.” Georgia, like other Southern states, was in turmoil.

Vandiver called 60 advisers to the Governor’s Mansion to discuss the state’s options. Desegregate, per court order, or close? Fifty-eight, according to historic accounts, urged the governor to defy the government and close schools. Two — House Floor Leader Frank Twitty and Sanders — recommended desegregation.

Closing the schools, Sanders said, “would have created a generation of illiterates.”

Vandiver listened to the minority, shutting schools long enough to allow a special legislative session, during which lawmakers amended segregation laws.

A lifelong Baptist, Sanders said he decided to run for governor after asking for divine guidance. It came in 1962, when the legislature was in a special session studying the state’s county unit electoral system, which critics said unfairly favored rural areas over urban centers.

After working out at the downtown YMCA, Sanders said he paused to pray over his political plans before returning to work. After conferring with the Almighty, Sanders, who’d originally declared to run for lieutenant governor, set his sights a notch higher. He would run for governor.

Those were anxious days. Martin Luther King Jr. had been sentenced to jail for attempting to desegregate public buildings in Albany. Former Gov. Griffin, an ardent segregationist, was running again in the Democratic primary. The issue of race was an undercurrent never far from the surface.

In a 1962 speech, Sanders declared, “Whether it be Marvin Griffin or Martin Luther King, I will not tolerate agitators nor permit violence or bloodshed among our citizens regardless of color or creed.”

Sanders easily won the 1962 primary, and the general election. He was 37.

Sanders, recalled Miller, was young, but decisive. He “was the last governor to so totally dominate the Legislature.”

When he took office in 1963, the state Constitution forbade governors from succeeding themselves, meaning he had only four years to put his agenda into effect. As governor, he said, “you had to be decisive. I did things rather promptly.”

The Sanders administration built 6,000 classrooms, hired 10,000 new teachers and raised annual teacher salaries by an average of almost $1,500 — no mean amount of cash four decades ago. He increased the state’s income from $445 million to $617 million. He also got lawmakers to increase the tax on alcohol and tobacco. When he left office, the state had a $140 million surplus.

Sanders also turned his attention to how the government operated — too slowly, he decided, and without much public input.

He appointed a Governor’s Commission for Efficiency and Improvement in Government. The panel oversaw reforms in the state’s prisons, mental health, merit system, and highway department, now the Department of Transportation.

He also helped turn Atlanta into a big-time sports market.

Sanders recalled getting a 1963 telephone call from Pete Rozelle, then the commissioner of the National Football League, who told the governor he wanted to establish a new franchise in Atlanta. Did the governor know of anyone capable of ponying up $4 million to create a team?

Sanders called a college buddy, Rankin Smith, and asked him if he’d be interested. Smith said yes, and the Falcons landed in Atlanta.

Baseball, too, flourished; the Milwaukee Braves became the Atlanta Braves during Sanders’ tenure.

Bill Shipp, a longtime political writer, editor and television commentator, said he considered Sanders the best governor to serve during his lifetime.

“He projected the right image for Georgia,” said Shipp.

Miller concurred: “He did more for the state than anybody I know.”

Stories of Sanders’ legislative acumen and arm-twisting abound. According to Shipp, Sanders once called a balky legislator into his office and delivered a barely veiled threat: Stick to my legislative priorities, or watch funding for your district dry up. Shaken, the lawmaker returned to the House and said he’d seen the light; he was firmly in the governor’s camp.

And when the chairman of a House committee pocketed a bill that would have allowed mixed drinks in Atlanta, effectively killing the legislation, Sanders acted quickly: He had the State Patrol pick up the lawmaker. Thus did mixed drinks — and a booming convention business — come to Atlanta.

Reminded of those incidents, Sanders chuckled: “I now look back and wonder how we got so much done.”

Sanders had a chance to stand firmly behind the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, but did not. After Congress passed the act, he issued a statement:

“Now that the civil rights legislation has been signed into law, let me reiterate my previous statement that I do not believe you can legislate morality. I hope that the enforcement of these laws will never be needed in Georgia. And so long as mutual respect among all citizens continues, there should never be a need for this type of law.”

Four decades later, Sanders held steadfast to that belief.

“I don’t believe you can legislate morality,” he repeated.

In 1967, as his tenure under the Gold Dome neared an end, Sanders and two partners created Troutman, Sanders, Lockerman & Ashmore.

“I don’t think we had $300 between us,” Sanders recalled.

Four years at the Capitol had not enriched the governor, Shipp agreed. “He (Sanders) was a pauper.”

Yet even as he worked to find clients, Sanders felt the pull of politics. In 1970, he ran for governor again. His opponent: Jimmy Carter of Plains.

The Democratic primary was not a polite one, with Carter portraying Sanders as a big-city type beholden to urban interests. He called himself a conservative Democrat — Sanders, a liberal. The tactics worked. Carter won the primary and general election, which helped spring him to the Oval Office in 1976.

That 1970 campaign, Sanders admitted, never lost its sting. “He (Carter) is not proud of that election, and he shouldn’t be proud of it,” Sanders said.

Carter declined to comment for this article.

The election done, Sanders turned his attention to business, securing, among others, Georgia Power and the Southern Co. as clients. The firm, today called Troutman Sanders, now has more than 600 attorneys. In 2006, Sanders said, he expected the firm to make $300 million in billings.

In 2002, when he was 77, Sanders endowed the Carl E. Sanders Chair in Political Leadership at UGA’s School of Law. “I intended to do this when I passed,” the former governor said in a 2002 interview, “but I made up my mind: Why wait till that happens?”

Sanders and his wife reared their two children in an Atlanta house that once belonged to golfing great Bobby Jones. A bust of Jones rests in a downstairs room.

“I go down there every now and then and wait for him to help me” with some golf tips, Sanders said. “He hasn’t shown up yet.”

Sanders lived a full, good life, he said. In that 2006 interview, he paraphrased scripture to describe his time on Earth:

“Unto those to whom much is given,” he said, “much is required.”

Sanders paused, looking toward Stone Mountain, looking back over the years.

“I’m enjoying my life,” Sanders said. “I’ve been given so much.”

Photo via Flickr.com

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir.

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