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‘Mr. Ben’ was a cantankerous Georgia hero

POSTED: February 6, 2017 4:55 p.m.

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 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 the seal safe while the mess was figured out, tucked it under the cushion of his wheelchair and hid it there.

“Sitting on it like a setting of duck eggs,” the colorful Mr. Ben later told journalist Celestine Sibley.

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.”

A few years later, I was interning during the legislative session for a man who would become one of the South’s great heroes, Lt. Gov. Zell Miller. He is one of my heroes, too. I had gone to the basement of the Capitol to obtain my photo ID when I hurriedly rounded the corner and collided with Mr. Ben’s wheelchair. I gathered myself up, scared to death.

“Well, young lady,” he thundered. “What brings you to the Capitol on such a cold, icy winter’s day?”

I stuttered, explaining that I was working in the lieutenant governor’s office. “Hmmm,” he mused. “Well, good luck. You’ll certainly need it!” With that, he rolled away down the marbled hall.

History has probably long forgotten that Speaker of the House Tom Murphy and Lt. Gov. Miller 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. The actual footage is used at the end of his biographical movie.

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.

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