Apr. 6, 2003: Goodbye to Two Great Men

The state of Georgia lost two great men recently. Charles Gowen, a former state legislator from Brunswick and one-time candidate for governor, died on March 31. He was 99 years old. That same day, Dr. William Suttles, 82, from my hometown of East Point, also died. Dr. Suttles had served as provost and as acting president of Georgia State University. Men of their stature are not easily replaced.

Both crossed my path and I am richer for the experience. Charlie Gowen was my hero. I have no better memories than of the times I spent in his company, listening to him talk about the wild world of Georgia politics in the 1930s and 40s. Not that it was an easy thing to get him to do. Mr. Gowen didn’t live in the past. He would much prefer to talk about his beloved Georgia Bulldogs, a passion we shared.

It was not until I had known him for several years that I learned he was instrumental in the state’s purchase of Jekyll Island in 1947. As state representative from Glynn County, Mr. Gowen had backed M. E. Thompson for governor during the “three governor” dispute of 1946. Thompson, who was Lt. Governor, Governor Ellis Arnall and Herman Talmadge, son of Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge, all claimed the seat upon the death of the elder Talmadge before he could be sworn in. Thompson ultimately was victorious and Representative Gowen used his support of the new governor as leverage to get Thompson to purchase Jekyll Island for $675,000, one of the most significant real estate transactions in the state’s history. I have always felt that Mr. Gowen never got proper credit for his role in the Jekyll Island purchase. On the other hand, getting credit was never important to Charles Gowen. For all that he accomplished in his life, he had precious little ego.

I met Dr. William Suttles when I was a freshman at Georgia State and he was dean of men. It was not a happy meeting. At that time, ROTC was required of all freshman and sophomores. I may have been the worst cadet in ROTC history. My bad attitude eventually earned me a trip to Dean Suttles’ office, where I presumed I would get a stern lecture. Instead, I was promptly expelled. As I tried to think of how I would explain this shocking development to my parents, Dean Suttles said, “Young man, go home and think about your behavior. If you believe you can get your act together, let me know and I’ll let you return to school.” I was back the next day much more contrite than I had been the day before. I found that ROTC was not nearly as unpleasant as a trip to Dr. Suttles’ office.

Years later, after I had spoken to an Atlanta civic club, Dr. Suttles came up, shook my hand and said I looked familiar. I told him of that traumatic day in his office. He was surprised such a button-downed businessman could have been a behavior problem and pleased I would admit that fact to him. Looking back on that conversation today, I realize that I was only one of countless young people who he influenced in a positive way.

While known as a distinguished educator, Dr. Suttles considered himself a Baptist preacher at heart, conducting services around the state for more than 50 years. While handling the usual duties that befall ministers — weddings, funerals, counseling and the like – he never took a salary for his efforts. Ministry was his gift, as was saving the college career of know-it-all freshmen with bad attitudes.

My friend and minister, Dr. Gil Watson, reminded me recently that we should seek out those who have made a difference in our lives and let them know how much we appreciate what they have done for us. I am going to do a better job of that in the future because there are so many people to whom I owe so much. Today, I honor the memory of two outstanding men who had a significant influence on my life. Bless them both. They will be sorely missed.