Last week Macon lost a giant of a man that most residents didn’t know. He was, like most leaders, quiet. Most of the positions he held, while high, were not of the type where the spotlight burned brightly, but where the hard work involved benefitted the entire community. His name? Willie “Bill” Odom Jr.
During his homegoing service Friday, words such as “inspirational” “Renaissance man,” “knew how to make things happen” and “mentor” were used to describe him. He was, through my own experience, someone who -- when he decided to say something -- made you shut up and listen.
I won’t repeat his entire obituary here, but I would like to point out a few notable items and the times in which he accomplished them. It was noted by the Rev. Richard Pouge, who gave the eulogy, that he had known Odom for 44 years, and during that time, he appeared to be a “finished product.” Remember that. I’ll get back to that later. Right now there’s another 44 I want to talk about. The year Odom joined the Navy was 1944.
Of all the military branches, the Navy resisted black servicemen the most. Black leaders charged the Navy of having its own version of Jim Crow, allowing blacks to only serve as mess attendants. Pastor Pouge said Odom didn’t get “bitter, he got better.” How did he do that? He did it the old fashioned way: education.
Off to Nashville, Tennessee’s Fisk University he went after leaving the Navy. He wanted to be a doctor and was accepted at Meharry Medical School, but he put those dreams away to support his wife and family and went to work for the post office. He started at the bottom and ended up as postmaster in Albany. What a climb.
Odom wasn’t finished. I’ve often said the toughest elected position in any government structure isn’t mayor or commissioner. It’s not governor or state legislator. It’s being a member of a local school board, and after filling Robert Brown’s unexpired term on the board, Odom was elected twice more and served as its chairman twice.
Odom also served on the Macon-Bibb County Hospital Authority, again as chairman during his tenure, and helped develop neighborhood health centers in underserved areas. He has done his work, but, as Pastor Pouge said, as good as he was, Odom wasn’t a finished product. As I looked around at the faces at the funeral, I couldn’t help but wonder, where is the next generation of Bill Odoms?
We are sorely in need of people of his character in all areas of community and civic life, but it seems, at least to me, that there are few willing to step forward and take on the burden of public life. The key word is “burden.”
Last Thursday, while speaking to the Houston County GOP, I mentioned that candidates spend their time, effort and money running for office, but few people give a damn. They had a breakdown of the turnout in the seven precincts that make up District 146 that will be decided in a runoff Tuesday. One precinct had a turnout of 8 percent. That’s just bad. Why would anyone put themselves through such torture when the majority of people they’ll represent don’t give a hoot?
Also, once in office, they’re a sitting duck. There is no such thing as constructive debate anymore. It’s mud-slinging and name calling 24/7, and it generally comes from those who know least about a given subject. You have to have a thick skin, and everyone around you has to have a thick skin, too.
People you don’t know feel free to tell you what’s on their empty minds on social media. And please, don’t confuse them with facts -- real facts, not the meanderings of opinion based on something partially heard or seen on their favorite TV or radio program designed to affirm either the total falsehood or half-truth they already believe.
Yes, it takes a special kind of person to volunteer for that kind of abuse, and Odom got his share. But he handled it all with class. Pastor Pouge made another interesting point during his eulogy. To paraphrase, what are we doing now so that our name can be remembered? What words will be used after we have passed on to our reward to describe us? Will character, honor, respect and love be among them?
We all have our work cut out for us. I know I do. Rest in peace, Bill.
Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet @crichard1020.