Funeral is Friday for Hugh Gillis, Ga.’s longest-serving lawmaker

hduncan@macon.comJanuary 2, 2013 

Hugh Gillis, Georgia’s longest-serving lawmaker, died on New Year’s Day at age 94.

The Soperton Democrat, whose grandfather helped found Treutlen County, served more than 55 years in the Georgia General Assembly, most of that time as a state senator. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Gillis’ record places him among the longest-serving state legislators in the nation.

Gillis helped create the Mercer University School of Medicine and served on its board of governors from the time it was founded. He was awarded an honorary doctor of laws from Mercer in 2001.

Kirby Godsey, Mercer University’s chancellor, said Gillis’ desire to improve rural health care drove his support for the medical school, which state funds helped start. Its initial mission was to offer primary care to underserved parts of the state.

“The majority of those thousands of graduates do serve in the underserved areas,” he said. “More of Mercer’s medical school graduates remain to serve the people of Georgia than those of any other medical school in Georgia, including the public schools.”

Godsey said Gillis served on the medical school’s board of governors for about 30 years.

“I talked with him many times as we shaped the mission of the school,” Godsey said. “As issues came before the General Assembly, he was a vocal and influential advocate. Perhaps no one in the Legislature was respected more than Hugh Gillis.”

According to his obituary on the website of Sammons Funeral Home in Soperton, during his tenure as a senator Gillis was elected president pro tempore for six years. He served on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and he chaired the Natural Resources Committee for more than 20 years. After his 2004 retirement, he served five years on the Georgia Ports Authority.

DuBose Porter of Dublin, who served as Gillis’ counterpart in the House for 22 years, said it’s hard to measure Gillis’ impact on rural Middle Georgia.

Besides championing rural health care, Gillis was an advocate of the technical college system and was instrumental in establishing Southeastern Technical College.

“That’s all about job training, and that’s probably improved the lives of people in central Georgia almost more than anything else,” Porter said.

Gillis’ chairmanship of the Natural Resources Committee was a natural outgrowth of his family’s farming and timber background.

He helped drive establishment of the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority, which provides loans and grants to local governments so they can improve their water and sewer systems. Porter remembers what was being dumped in Georgia’s rivers before that.

“Why we have the clean water and clean air in Georgia is in large part because of Hugh Gillis,” he said.

Porter said Gillis also supported the establishment of public fishing areas and wildlife management areas throughout the state. His role in developing that system was acknowledged when a Laurens County public fishing area was named after him in 2003.

“He realized the state was changing, and we needed to balance our natural resources with the growth,” Porter said.

Another Middle Georgian with a family timber business, Republican Sen. Ross Tolleson, also regarded Gillis as a mentor. Tolleson took over chairmanship of the Senate Natural Resources Committee after Gillis retired.

“He is how you’re supposed to conduct yourself as a legislator,” Tolleson said. “People like him just don’t come along every day. They’re not focused on themselves. They’re focused on what they’re elected to do. I can’t even put it in words, he’s so awesome.”

Tolleson, who won office at a time when Republicans were gaining control of state government for the first time, could have chosen not to work cooperatively with people who had different views.

But he said Gillis’ example helped him develop into a politician who focuses on common ground.

“What I really learned from him was how to be a balanced person and lead, and respect people when they came to my committee, and respect other people’s opinions,” Tolleson said (acknowledging that he still regrets the one time he lost his temper in committee). “You watch people like him and you really see what a leader is about, instead of just trying to climb the ladder. He was always great to sit and listen to, because he spoke wisdom, not politics.”

Porter said Gillis took him under his wing when Porter was first elected.

“He just let you know that your word is everything,” Porter said. “No one’s trust was more significant than Hugh Gillis’.”

Gillis was so popular among his colleagues that he was the only Democrat to retain chairmanship of a major committee when Republicans took control of the Senate. And despite being a very conservative Democrat, he rebuffed overtures from Republicans who wanted him to switch parties.

In a 2003 interview, Gillis told The Telegraph: “They came by to see me, wanting me to switch. But I told people I was born a Democrat and will die a Democrat. I won’t go back on my word.”

Funeral services for Gillis will be held at First Baptist Church of Soperton at 2 p.m. Friday. The family will receive friends at the funeral home Thursday from 5-7 p.m.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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