My mother has a saying: “Don’t send me flowers when I’m gone.”
It is a reminder to honor people while they are living. Don’t wait until the florist has to deliver lilies to the funeral home. Folks deserve shout-outs while they’re still around to hear them.
So, it is with a sense of regret, I will share a couple of personal stories about Zell Miller two weeks after his passing. He changed my life in significant ways, and I never took the opportunity to tell him.
He was indirectly responsible for the publication of my first book, “True Gris.” And he gave me encouragement at a time in my career when it made a difference.
In 1997, Richard Hyatt, a writer from Columbus, came to the Macon office of Mercer University Press. He was editing his book “Zell: The Governor Who Gave Georgia HOPE.”
Richard asked if I could help with some research. To show his appreciation, he later took me to lunch at The Grey Goose Players Club on Forsyth Road.
Over a Gooseburger and fries, I picked Richard’s brain about the world of book writing. I told him I aspired to be a published author. I dreamed of having my name on the spine of a book. I wanted a Dewey Decimal number at the library.
He leaned across the table.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” he asked.
Things then began happening so quickly my head was spinning. That afternoon, John Mitchell Sr., who was vice president at Mercer, contacted me to tell me to expect a call from Cecil Staton, the publisher at Mercer Press.
By the end of the week, I was in Staton’s office discussing a book contract.
Not long after that, Gov. Miller sent me a copy of his book, “Corps Values,” a collection of principles he had learned as a young recruit in the Marine Corps.
At the front of the book, he inscribed these words: “To Ed Grisamore – A ‘Real’ Writer. I wish I could weave words like you do. Good luck with your book. Your friend, Zell Miller.”
I now have published nine books, and maybe one day I will write another. But I might never have gotten the kick-start I needed had it not been for those kind words of affirmation.
Another turning point came when I heard Miller speak at a Georgia Press Association luncheon in Atlanta during the General Assembly.
He spoke about the importance of being punctual. He said in all his years as governor he had never been late to a meeting.
That made a tremendous impression on me, since I always seemed to be running a step or two behind where I needed to be and when I needed to be there.
Miller was probably the busiest man in the state, yet his trains were always running on time. I remember thinking if he could be early, I should discipline myself to do the same.
At Miller’s memorial service in Atlanta, his grandson, Bryan Miller, gave a eulogy by sharing a letter his grandfather had written to family members on his 70th birthday in 2002 called “Some Lessons Learned by 70.”
He urged them to show gratitude, and to have a sense of family, place and humor. He asked them not to whine and to listen more than they talked.
Of course, punctuality was a centerpiece on his list.
“Being on time will be noted and will impress people,” said Bryan Miller, reading the words of his grandfather. “Being late is a very rude thing to do. It says to other people, my time is more important than your time. A person who is always late is a selfish person.”
Bryan Miller called his grandfather a constant learner and gifted teacher. Zell Miller left other legacies. Not only has the HOPE Scholarship greatly benefited families such as my own, it has served as an incentive for thousands of the state’s best and brightest students to stay home and attend Georgia’s colleges and universities.
He also was instrumental in bringing the Georgia Music Hall of Fame to Macon. It’s sad that it’s now gone, but it wasn’t his fault it failed to attract enough support to sustain itself. He was an “idea” person with high ideals.
When Miller left the governor’s office in 1999, he had an 85 percent approval rating, making him the most popular governor in the nation. Those are poll numbers we likely will never see again by an elected official.
I’m late with the flowers, but I’m a better man for having had him touch my life in ways I wish he had known.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.