Larry Justice, former Bibb County commission chairman, dead at 74

Former Bibb County Commission Chairman Larry Justice, who held office for 28 years before his retirement from politics in December 2000, died Tuesday. He was 74.

Justice, who had been battling cancer, died at 1:10 p.m. at Coliseum Medical Center, Coroner Leon Jones said. Jones called Justice “one of the great leaders of this community.”

Commissioner Joe Allen said he learned the ropes from Justice and declared that he “will go down as one of the best commissioners we ever had.”

Allen said Justice always sought ways to improve the county, working with state and national associations of commissioners. Justice also pursued consolidation efforts after initially fighting them. Just two weeks before his death, voters in Macon and Bibb County approved a referendum to combine Macon, Payne City and the county into one government in January 2014.

Commission Chairman Sam Hart recalled Justice as a strong-willed, personable man. Both Hart and Allen said Justice taught them to “count to three,” ensuring that they had a majority of the five commission votes supporting their endeavors.

Hart said Justice also believed in consensus building.

“You could disagree with him, but you weren’t disagreeable,” Hart said.

Bill Vaughn, a former county finance director and chief administrative officer, worked closely with Justice and with Tommy Olmstead, who succeeded Justice as commission chairman. Olm­stead died in June.

Justice “did a lot for the community, especially as chairman of the board of commissioners,” Vaughn said. “He really worked well with the other commissioners.”

Vaughn said he kept in touch with Justice and his wife, Shirley, especially after Justice’s health began to fade.

Justice was first elected as a Republican in a 1968 countywide election. In one of his first roles, he discovered that a county-run farm couldn’t supply fruit and vegetables to local nursing homes and orphanages cheaper than they could be bought wholesale. The farm was closed and became the Ocmulgee East Industrial Park, which drew employers including Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., the YKK zipper manufacturing company and Geico.

Justice was among the local leaders credited with creating the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department.

“We went from zero to seven fire stations, and we located them where the growth was,” Justice said in 2000.

As a Republican, Justice was defeated for the first and only time in 1976, when voters flocked to the polls to vote Jimmy Carter into the presidency as a Democrat. Justice returned as a Democrat in 1980 and returned to the commission. He was sworn in as the full-time chairman of the Bibb County commission in 1990, at age 52, after the death of Emory Greene.

Justice also led the Macon-Bibb County Road Improvement Program, which was opposed by activists who filed -- and lost -- a federal lawsuit. Interstate 475 was later named the Larry Justice Highway.

Justice remarked on his legacy upon his retirement in 2000.

“You show me an elected official who’s loved by everyone in the community, and I’ll show you an elected official who doesn’t do anything,” he said at the time. “I don’t apologize at all, because I think I was looking at what was best to accomplish the future growth of Bibb County.”

Tom Moody remembers Justice’s hair turning gray at Lanier High School in the 1950s when they became friends. He reflected on how white it was when he saw Justice in the hospital last week.

Moody, who also worked with Justice on the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority decades after high school, said Justice loved most everyone. Justice struck up lasting relationships with people everywhere -- even in Japan, where he worked with officials from YKK.

“He loved everybody down at the courthouse,” Moody recalled. “I don’t know of a soul down there, in my 30 years of going in there, that couldn’t go to him with a problem.”

Hart’s Mortuary at the Cupola, 6324 Peake Road, is in charge of arrangements.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.