Warner Robins honors seven in new Hall of Fame

chwright@macon.comOctober 13, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- The first class of the Warner Robins Hall of Fame has been selected and will be inducted Saturday at a banquet where former Gov. Sonny Perdue is the keynote speaker for the seven honorees, including his uncle.

The first class includes civic leaders who helped shape Warner Robins education, public safety and politics. Though all unique, Yvonne Elliott, the chairwoman of the Hall of Fame committee, said they share the common thread of volunteerism.

“It has amazed me at the time people gave with all the responsibilities of their (full-time) jobs,” Elliott said, adding all of the inductees wore more hats in civic and state organizations than they’re known for.

Elliott said the Warner Robins Hall of Fame was formed under the vision of Mayor Chuck Shaheen, who wanted the community to recognize those who helped form the city’s foundation. Warner Robins is a young city that enjoys the benefit of having many of these people still around.

“You got a lot of people living that can tell you what went on,” Elliott said.

Elliott said the banquet, held at Courtyard by Marriott, had already sold out. She said it’s one of the lessons the committee learned in its first year -- a big space is needed to honor these big names.

The honorees are: former Warner Robins Mayor Henrietta McIntyre, educator and activist Pearl Stephens, former Magistrate Court Judge Nick Lazaros, former Houston County schools Superintendent David Perdue, former Happy Hour Service Center President Frank Ryals, businessman Charles Williams and former Fire Chief Ernest W. Wood.

First woman as mayor

Henrietta McIntyre was the city’s first female mayor, after serving as the longest sitting council member in Warner Robins history.

She was one of the first two women elected to City Council in 1972. McIntyre served as councilwoman until 1994, when she was appointed to acting mayor after sitting Mayor Ed Martin was imprisoned for political extortion.

In her year at the helm, McIntyre found a way to overcome a shortfall Martin caused and proposed a city manager form of government for Warner Robins.

And though she retired from the wooden dais, McIntyre is still involved in city politics. If you’re looking for her on any given first or third Monday of the month, visit City Hall. She’ll be the tiny woman delving out knowledge to city officials and, from time to time, giving her successors a piece of her mind -- cane in hand.

McIntyre also recently led the efforts to keep Sacred Heart Catholic Church and School in the downtown area, Elliott said.

Committed educator

Pearl Stephens was a Houston County teacher in 1949. She died in 1980, at the age of 92, but her legacy of educating children has lived on through a school and descendants set on honoring her wishes.

In the 1940s, Stephens donated 1.5 acres of family-inherited land to build a school for the black children of Houston County. The original schoolhouse was built in 1955, across from the current Pearl Stephens Elementary School on Scott Boulevard. The school has been a high school, alternative school and elementary school over the years.

Most recently, family members won a battle to prevent Stephens’ name from being attached to an alternative school. The Houston County School System is restructuring elementary schools that will make the current Pearl Stephens Elementary the system’s alternative school.

The Board of Education agreed in February to rename Linwood Elementary School to Pearl Stephens Elementary School when the new structure is official.

Influential judge

Nick Lazaros helped set up the state’s magistrate courts. The Houston County Magistrate Court building on Cohen Walker Drive is named for the former magistrate judge.

Lazaros taught himself the rules of law, Elliott said. In 1971, he was selected as a justice of the peace. He subsequently helped the state structure the magistrate courts and fee system. In 1983, he became a magistrate judge.

In 1997, the Houston County Bar Association presented him with the Liberty Bell Award, which is given annually to non-lawyers who make significant contributions to the legal profession.

Elliott said Lazaros didn’t grab many headlines but was well-known behind the scenes as a passionate justice who wore his Greek heritage just as proudly. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral in 2011, according to Elliott.

Longtime superintendent

David Perdue served as Houston County schools superintendent for 20 years and helped the system evolve into one that now draws parents to the area, Elliott said.

Perdue was the valedictorian of his 1934 Bonaire High School class. Afterward he served in the military before earning a degree from Mercer University. He was principal of Warner Robins High School before leading the entire school system.

During his tenure as superintendent, Perdue created speech, JROTC, gifted and talented, and special education programs. McConnell-Talbert Stadium was built under his direction, Elliott said.

In 1993, David A. Perdue Primary School, located on Sutherlin Drive, opened in his honor.

His nephew, Sonny Perdue, was governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011.

Happy Hour hero

Frank Ryals is a former president of the Happy Hour Service Center, officially named the Houston County Association for Exceptional Citizens. He served for 23 terms as the organization’s volunteer leader.

Ryals has a heroic history that extends past his work with Happy Hour. He was a World War II prisoner of war for four months in 1945. After the war, Ryals had three sons. One was born with a mental disability due to lack of oxygen.

Ryals joined Happy Hour in 1958 while holding a full-time position at Robins Air Force Base. He helped raise money for its first building and later location, insisting Happy Hour remain in what is considered downtown Warner Robins.

Happy Hour teaches disabled people life and work skills.

Name around town

Businessman Charles Williams built some of the first businesses in Warner Robins, as well as housing for base employees.

Elliott said Williams built more than 2,000 homes after World War II for employees at Robins Air Force Base. The houses ranged in size and style, inviting base employees to purchase them and make the city their new home.

Williams opened the second city bank, Bank of Warner Robins; Williams Shopping Plaza, which is on Watson Boulevard; and Williams’ Insurance Company.

He also served in the legislature for years. He was a state representative from 1951 to 1952 and a state senator from 1952 to 1958.

First fire chief

Ernest W. Wood was the first fire chief in Warner Robins, helping the then-tiny city establish its own fire department.

Wood served in the Air Force and was an assistant fire chief at Boca Raton Army Air Force Base in Florida. When he returned home, he led a team of nine firefighters in 1959 in creating the Warner Robins Fire Department.

Before then, Robins Air Force Base provided fire protection for the city. Under his leadership, the community’s fire safety rating improved by more than half, according to Elliott.

Wood retired in 1985. His granddaughter joined the department in 2000, the only of his 13 grandchildren to follow in his footsteps.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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