April 13, 2000: This Brand of Integrity Never Goes Out of Style

Permit me a point of personal privilege.  Unless you are my age or a student of Georgia politics, you might not know the name Charles Gowen.

From 1939 until 1960, Gowen was a major force on the state political scene as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives from Glynn County.  Through his influence the state bought Jekyll Island in the late 40’s.  In 1954, he lost the governor’s race to Marvin Griffin and soon after retired from politics to devote himself to a long and distinguished career as an attorney with the Atlanta law firm of King & Spalding.

I was honored to have the opportunity to present him Gowen a special award at the University of Georgia annual alumni luncheon, which this year celebrated the 75th anniversary of his graduation.  To give that some perspective, when Gowen left Athens with his law degree in hand, the University of Georgia had less than two thousand students (it now has 34.000).  The entire state’s population (2.8 million) was less than metropolitan Atlanta’s today.  Republican Calvin Coolidge was in his second year as president and former attorney general Clifford Mitchell Walker was Georgia’s governor.

My first exposure to Charlie Gowen came in 1990 in, of all places, Biarritz, France.  We were on a University of Georgia tour and bravely I walked up and introduced myself.  “Mr. Gowen,” I said, “my name is Dick Yarbrough and I want you to know that when I became eligible to vote, I voted for you in the governor’s race.”  If I was expecting a “Gee, thanks,” I had badly miscalculated.  Instead, he said, “Young man, if everybody who told me that had done that, I would have been governor.”  Straight-to-the-point, as I was to learn, is a Charlie Gowen trademark.

While he can sometimes be coaxed into reminiscing about his days in the General Assembly, Gowen tends, at 96, to look forward and not back.  He still drives his car, still enjoys an evening out and still maintains a passion for the University of Georgia.

I have asked him several times about writing a book but he ‘s not interested.  His stories would make a great read.  Consider one of his first court cases.  Fresh out of law school, he was asked to defend a black man on St. Simons Island who had a nightclub, Sam’s Emporium, that was being encroached on by a new white development.  So many spectators showed up for the trial that it had to be moved from the one-room courthouse to the pier overlooking the ocean.  As the trial progressed and Charlie began his closing arguments, several jurors left their seats and jumped into the ocean.  They went to the rescue of a summer resident crying for help.  After the swimmer was safely on shore, Gowen finished his closing arguments and the soggy jurors found in his favor.  Sam’s Emporium was saved.

Then there was the night in 1946 when Georgia could claim three governors.  Eugene Talmadge, who had just won election, had died before he could be sworn in.  His son, Herman, was elected by the legislature to succeed him, but the State Constitution supported the succession of the Lt. Governor, M.E. Thompson.  The outgoing governor, Ellis Arnall, refused to give up the office to young Talmadge.  Word was received that a group of Talmadge supporters were coming to break down the doors and take over.  Rumors were that someone had a gun.  A number of legislators, including Gowen, were guarding the door to the governor’s office, just in case that happened.  It was a tense moment.  As he waited for the mob to approach, Gowen asked one of his fellow legislators, “Where is security?”  He wasn’t pleased to hear that the governor’s security officer had climbed out the window and was headed for parts unknown!

That story and others like it make an interesting point.  Politics were a lot more interesting in those days and maybe even more fun, but not necessarily better.  Rural Georgia dominated through the county-unit system.  Blacks were excluded from the mainstream and that misnomer, “Separate but equal”, was the law.

Today, our Legislature is more urban, has an impressive contingent of minorities and women, and is more sophisticated and progressive by light years than “the good old days.”  But one thing that deliberative body could always use more of is a few good Charlie Gowen’s.

His brand of integrity and class never go out of style.