Longest-Serving Legislator Takes Upbeat View
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
When Hugh Gillis first got himself elected to the Georgia legislature, stump speaking was a political art form, Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House and the attack on Pearl Harbor was nearly a year away. Sixty-one years later, Gillis, 83, is still helping to make laws for his state -- and his status as the nation's longest-serving state legislator gives him a certain perspective.
As he sees it, the current budget problems afflicting Georgia and more than 40 other states are nothing much. "We can live through it, and I think we're going to survive unless it gets worse," he says.
Gillis started his legislative career at 22 after graduating from the University of Georgia. He recalls that the country was just emerging from the Great Depression when he went to Atlanta to serve in the state House in 1941.
"There was no money at all as far as state government was concerned. The state treasury was depleted. That was one of the worst times I've ever known," he says.
In the six decades since, television and the computer have transformed daily life. Americans have walked on the moon. The country has gone through four wars and is in the midst of fighting a fifth.
Georgia, an impoverished backwater in the 1940s, is now a leader of the new South. The state has a cosmopolitan population, a rich and diverse economy and sprawling Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta is an international crossroads.
Gillis, a timberman by trade, represents a rural area 155 miles southeast of Atlanta on the Jim L. Gillis Highway named for his father, who was also a state legislator.
He served 12 years in the state house and one term in the senate in the 1950s. He was sent back to the senate in 1962, and has served continuously since then.
Gillis's political career spans 12 U.S. presidencies. The secret of his success ."I try to stay in contact with the people. I'm available 24 hours a day," says the Soperton solon, whose telephone number is listed in the phone book.
Gillis, a Democrat, is recognized for championing rural healthcare and helping to start a dental school. He also serves as the chairman of the Senate's natural resources committee, where he works to protect the lands and waters he's enjoyed as an outdoorsman.
Sen. Terrell Starr of Jonesboro, president pro tem of the Senate, says Gillis is "not flamboyant and doesn't make a lot of racket. That may be why people respect him. He still carries a lot of weight."
A widower who remarried last year, Gillis underwent two operations last summer but says his health is good. He's fit enough to walk a few blocks to work each day, and colleagues say his persuasive power hasn't diminished either.
Gillis boasts that he's never lost a legislative battle, and doesn't propose anything "if I don't know I can pass it."
In the 1970s, Gillis took on and defeated then-Gov. Jimmy Carter in a state government reorganization fight.
Carter "wanted to abolish the forestry department which was kind of my field of business," he says. I stopped that. He (Carter) tried it two or three times, but got beat every time."
Gillis is a lontgime friend and ally of Carter's old nemesis, former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, who achieved national prominence in 1964 when he closed his Atlanta restaurant rather than desegregate it.
"Of course he had a reputation from the press of being racist," Gillis says of the onetime firebrand governor. "But he appointed more blacks to state government positions than all the governors combined before him."
Gillis says one of the biggest changes during his political career is the imposition of legislative ethics standards that have brought a halt to vacation getaways paid for by big timber companies and other businesses.
"We always enjoyed visiting on the coast," Gillis says. "They all had clubhouses and employees down there, and had deer hunts and quail hunts, and so forth, and it was enjoyable. I enjoyed it, but we just don't have the personal contact with them anymore."
Gillis, who has one son serving as a state judge and another as a county commissioner, says he thinks about retiring now and then, but never for long.
"My territory seems to be satisfied, so I haven't heard of anybody wanting to jump up and run (against me) right now. Of course that could happen any day," he says.