A while back, the chief tax assessors from counties throughout Georgia asked me to speak to their gathering at Jekyll Island. We frequent the Golden Isles but we are normally on St. Simons or Sea Island so it had been a few years since I had been on Jekyll.
It is a beautiful island but my favorite moment of discovery was learning that one of its streets in the village is named "Ben Fortson Way." Most of you have probably never heard of Ben Fortson but let me tell you a bit about him and what he meant to a young girl.
"Mr. Ben", as he liked to be called, was a 24-year-old graduate of Emory University when, in 1928, he was paralyzed in a car accident. For the rest of his 74 years of life, he was confined to a wheelchair. He was appointed secretary of state in 1947 to fill the unexpired term of John Wilson, who died in office. Mr. Ben, never seriously challenged, would also die in the office, having served 33 years. For students of history, he is remembered in the "three governor controversy of 1947" when Eugene Talmadge died before taking the oath and two men, including his son, Herman, claimed to be governor. But no man could be proclaimed governor without the great seal of Georgia. Mr. Ben, to keep it safe while the mess was figured out, tucked it under the cushion of his wheelchair and hid it there.
I will always remember Mr. Ben in my three youthful encounters with him as a version of cantankerous Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life. He suffered no fools yet he had a heart for children. When I was 12, he spoke at my 4-H camp. He was old, withered and no-nonsense but he said something that day that I have carried in my heart ever since.
"Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. When I was paralyzed, all the doctors declared that I would live only a short time. But I showed ‘em. I outlived every one of them."
History has probably long forgotten that then Speaker of the House Tom Murphy, and the lieutenant governor were warring in a bitter battle of wills that played out in tremendous fury on newspaper front pages daily. During that session, the House and Senate voted to make "Georgia On My Mind" the state song but stipulated specifically that it was the Ray Charles version. Mr. Charles was invited to sing the song to the legislators and staff at the capitol.
I was there that day when Mr. Ben, two months shy of death, rolled up to the microphone and drawled in a deep baritone, "Mr. Charles, I congratulate you for you have done what no one else has been able to do. You have brought the speaker of the House and our lieutenant governor together on the same platform!"
Ben Fortson Way. Yeah. That’s perfect. He always had a way about him.