Former Georgia Governor Zell Miller passed away last Friday at the age of 86. Miller was elected Georgia’s seventy-ninth governor in 1990 and served as lieutenant governor before that for sixteen years—the longest anyone has held that post in Georgia. It’s probably fair to say that no other occupant of the governor’s mansion had as much appreciation for the office and the home that came with it upon entering as Miller. As a tribute, we’re featuring an excerpt from the chapter on the Millers in Memories of the Mansion: The Story of Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion by Sandra D. Deal, Jennifer W. Dickey, and Catherine M. Lewis.
Perhaps the favorite guests of the Millers at the mansion were the high school students that the governor and his wife hosted each spring. Zell, whose parents met while teaching at Young Harris College, and who had taught there himself after completing his degrees at the University of Georgia, had a deep appreciation for students who worked hard to succeed. He wanted to do something to honor them, and in the spring of 1991, he and Shirley decided to invite the top graduate from every public and private high school in Georgia to attend a special “Valedictorian’s Day” reception at the mansion. In that first year, they did not know better than to invite every valedictorian in the whole state to come on the same day. Groups of students lined up at 10:00 a.m. outside the mansion gates for an event that did not begin until 2:00 p.m. As they greeted each student and asked where they were going to college, the Millers and their staff members were dismayed to learn that most were leaving the state.
Zell had been discussing the possibility of using a lottery to fund education, and the valedictorian event gave him the ammunition he needed to promote the lottery as a source of funding to help keep Georgia’s best and brightest students in the state. That idea became the HOPE Scholarship program (the acronym stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils’ Education), the most generous scholarship in the nation. It was paid for by the state lottery, as approved by a constitutional amendment in 1992. Miller directed most of the money to scholarships for students who maintained a B average. The remaining funds went to prekindergarten programs. When asked how he came up with the idea, Miller said he was inspired by observing the curiosity of his own young grandchildren and realized that the current school system was not adequately challenging them.
Toward the end of his second term, around Christmas in 1997, the Millers were surprised by two new additions to their family. Their longtime friend A. D. Frazier, who had been the chief operating officer of the Olympics, called Steve Wrigley to reveal that he was going to surprise the Millers with two six-week-old yellow Labrador puppies. Wrigley recounts the story:
Keith Sorrells was the head of Miller’s State Trooper unit, and we were afraid that Governor Miller would get mad. He did not like surprises. When Frazier brought them to the podium, Zell was not pleased. There is a photograph of both him and Shirley holding one dog each, and he has this sourpuss look on his face. Well, it only took them a day to fall in love with those dogs. Frazier had named them Pierre and Thomas after the Lieutenant Governor Pierre Howard and the Speaker of the House Tom Murphy. But Miller changed those names to Gus and Woodrow, after his favorite characters in Lonesome Dove. Those dogs lived to be 13 years old, and he talks about them in his final State of the State speech.
Zell fondly remembered that one of his favorite things to do was to walk the mansion grounds with the dogs.
In 1998, the Millers began making plans to leave the mansion at the end of the governor’s second term. It was an emotional departure. “We have tried to open this house to a lot of people,” Shirley told the reporter Colin Campbell, and indeed they had, from heads of state to high school students. At an event honoring his twenty-five years in politics, Shirley unveiled a portrait of Zell painted by Thomas Nash, a portrait artist from Roswell. The portrait showed the governor wearing a blue suit with his Marines pin on his lapel and standing next to the rock house that his mother had built more than sixty-five years earlier in Young Harris. Joking about the governor’s rusty driving skills, his press secretary, Rick Dent, warned the attendees “not to get in his way because he hasn’t driven in quite a while.” Reflecting on his political career, Zell paraphrased a quote from one of his favorite fictional characters, Gus McCrae, from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove: “Quite a party, my friends. Quite a party.”
Zell and Shirley moved back to the rock house, and he began teaching again. The governor explained: “I’m doing exactly what I planned to do all along. No melancholy. No nostalgia. I’ve always known I was going back home.” With years of politics behind him, Zell returned to his great love—the classroom. He taught at Emory University, the University of Georgia, and Young Harris College. Miller described a leadership class as focused on “a combination of philosophy, literature, history, practical everyday living and Marine Corps boot camp.” One reporter summed up Miller’s legacy: “The governor has always been a true son of the South, with all the quirks and contradictions that phrase implies. His speech and mannerism reveal him as a product of an old Georgia that is quickly disappearing, yet in his foresight he has ushered the people of his native state to the brink of a new millennium well prepared for whatever the future might bring.”
Excerpted from Chapter 8 (“From the Mountains to the Mansion”) of Memories of the Mansion: The Story of Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion by Sandra D. Deal, Jennifer W. Dickey, and Catherine M. Lewis