WNEG Tuesday Commentary with Billy Chism

 

A crowd gathered last week at the Stephens County History Museum, located at the historic train depot in Toccoa, for the unveiling of a plaque denoting Oak Hill Elementary School, the last African-American public elementary school in the county. The school closed in 1967.

8/20/19

A part of Stephens County history came alive last week with the unveiling of a plaque at the Stephens County History Museum recognizing Oak Hill Elementary School and the teachers who taught there.

If you are unfamiliar with Oak Hill, it was an African-American elementary school for grades one through seven built in 1955. When it closed in 1967 with the arrival of school integration, it was the last African-American elementary school in the county.
Most of us know the storied history of Whitman Street High School, the African-American high school in Toccoa that operated for decades before it closed in 1968.

But a group of Oak Hill alumni wanted their school to be remembered, and now it has.

These were among the key people who worked to organize an Oak Hill alumni group and to get the school recognized in the Stephens County History Museum. From left are Hayward Cochran, Roy Richie, Terry Hammond, Thomas Richie, Walter C. Richie, Charlene Echols, Frances Smith (seated), Rachel Burton, Shirley Combs, Peggy Combs, Doris Prather, Calvin Combs, Shirley Lippitt and Jeraldine Hayes.

But it took the work of several Oak Hill School alumni, working with a longtime history professor at Toccoa Falls College, Dr. David Jalovick, along with the the support of the Stephens County Historical Society.

The late Bill Rice of Toccoa provided the spark to make it all happen. In 2016, Rice put several Oak Hill alumni in touch with Jalovick, whose history students had been interviewing a number of African-American senior citizens in the county.
Rice’s father had taught at Oak Hill, located on Defoor Road near Avalon, and at other small African-American elementary schools that once dotted the county.

Jalovick, speaking briefly at the unveiling last week, said the Oak Hill alumni group “had for some time been interested in keeping alive the legacy of the school which had meant so much to them.”

He continued: “They were concerned about the way their former school building and surrounding property had been neglected and fallen into disrepair.”

Jalovick added: “There was a desire to create some type of alumni organization that could facilitate events bringing together former classmates, as well as initiate efforts that would recognize the significance of the school as a historic landmark.”

The plaque that was unveiled at the Stephens County History Museum on August 15, 2019.

Among the alumni to get the ball rolling in the summer of 2016 were Peggy and Calvin Combs, Rachel Burton, Belinda Smith, Charlene Hayes Echols, Thomas and Walter Richie, Clay Perry, Terry and Jerry Haymond, Gregory Dooley and Shirley Lippitt. Since then, many others have joined in.

Charlene Hayes Echols, standing, is president of the Oak Hill alumni group. Frances Smith, seated, is one of her teachers. At age 96, Ms. Smith is the last living teacher who taught at Oak Hill Elementary. She went on to teach at Big A Elementary, where she retired.

Most remarkable is that one of the teachers at Oak Hill, Ms. Frances Smith, attended the unveiling of the plaque last week. She is 96 years old, and the only teacher from the school still living. She later taught at Big A Elementary, where she retired.
“I appreciate what you have done, and I hope others feel the way I feel about this,” she said.

Ms.Smith added: “This is a great day. I never thought I’d see it. When you get old, you start thinking about these things and their importance. When you’re young, it doesn’t matter as much.”

A closeup of the Oak Hill Elementary School plaque shows a photo of the teachers at the school, the last segregated elementary school in Stephens County. From left are William (Chelcie) Rice, Annie Graham, Georgia Mae Payne, unidentified, Helen Kay, Frances Smith and Lillian Reese.

Indeed, many people today do remember Oak Hill Elementary and recognize its significance.

The Oak Hill alumni group meets at Shirley’s Sole Food Cafe the second Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m. These fine people wanted to preserve a special part of Stephens County history, and they have.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roy Gaines relaxes at home in Toccoa’s Pine Valley subdivision. He is holding one of many notebooks filled with his WNEG commentaries aired on WNEG radio and television.

8/13/19

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Roy Gaines for about an hour. We had an enjoyable and stimulating conversation. His mind is sharp and his interest in Toccoa remains high.

Roy Gaines served nine years on the Toccoa City Commission, with three terms as mayor. When I came to Toccoa in the fall of 1973, I covered the Toccoa City Commission for The Toccoa Record.

That’s when I got to know the Big 3, as I described them. Back then, the city had only three commissioners. They were Roy Gaines, Lucius Alewine and Troy Bowen. Mr. Bowen was mayor that year.

The next year, 1974, Mr. Gaines was in the rotation and was appointed mayor for the first time.

But he didn’t wait until his third year in office to make something happen. He had campaigned about cleaning up the local streams, where the City of Toccoa at the time was dumping raw sewage.

“Something had to be done,” he told me.

And Gaines, Alewine and Bowen voted to put the city in debt to build two sewerage plants that would treat this raw sewage before it was returned to the local waterways.

“Some citizens didn’t like it, because we added a sewer charge to their water bill,” Gaines recalled. “But all three of us felt what we were doing was right.”

And, of course, it was the right thing to do – for many reasons.

In 1977, Gaines became mayor again, and that was the year the dam gave way at Toccoa Falls. He and the other two city commissioners played a big role helping the college get state and federal assistance, which went a long way in keeping the college going.

At a 1977 press conference at Toccoa Falls College, Toccoa Mayor Roy Gaines, seated at far right, introduces Georgia Governor George Busbee, seated next to Gaines. On the the same day as the dam broke above the falls on Nov. 6,1977, the two men had just walked through and witnessed the devastation at the college campus. A total of 39 people died in the flood. – Photo by Billy Chism

 

Roy Gaines grew up on a farm in Hartwell, and could handle a team of mules with the best of them.

At age 19, he became part of the Greatest Generation who fought in World War II. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1944 when the war in the Pacific was really heating up.

He was part of two major battles in the Pacific: Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Roy said “divine intervention” kept him from being killed. A plane went down on his battleship, and the fiery crash came close to engulfing him.

“The good Lord was looking after me,” he said.

After returning from the war, Gaines moved to Toccoa, where he and his brother, Chuck, worked for a small radio station owned by R.G. LeTourneau.

In 1956, Gaines and his brother started a new radio station in Toccoa, with a frequency of 630 on the AM dial. The station was named WNEG, which stands for Wonderful Northeast Georgia.

Almost 30 years later – in 1984 – Gaines rolled the dice and started Toccoa’s one and only television station. His new Channel 32 became a CBS affiliate.

For more than a decade, Toccoa’s television station covered news and sports throughout Northeast Georgia.

I remember Jennifer Cathey and her nightly newscast, and Mack Poss heading up the Friday night high school football coverage.

The television station eventually was sold in 1995 to the University of Georgia Foundation, and the station was moved to Athens. Since then, it has been sold again and now operates as a cable channel out of Maryland.

A few years after selling the TV station, Gaines sold WNEG Radio. The AM and FM station is now owned by Art Sutton, CEO of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting, headquartered in Toccoa.

Roy said he is “proud of our local radio station and the success it continues to have.”

And he’s proud of his daughter, Connie Gaines, WNEG’s morning show host and the station’s operations manager.

“She enjoys what she’s doing, and that makes a big difference,” her father told me.

Gaines still feels his biggest accomplishment was cleaning up the creeks in Toccoa.

“I’m thankful for Toccoa and Stephens County,” he said, “We’ve come a long way.”

Roy added: “This community has been good to me, and I’ve tried to be good to it. My father always told me: If you make a good living in a community, you need to give something back in return.”

Roy Gaines has given plenty in return, and we all should say: thank you.

And that’s something to think about.

 

The City of Toccoa’s Doyle Street Pool offers a great place to cool off. The pool will remain open on weekends through Sunday, August 25.

8/6/2019

It’s been a long, hot summer. Thank goodness for the City of Toccoa’s Doyle Street Pool.

The new pool has been in operation for five full summers and the attendance has remained high…. about 550 to 600 people per week.

One main reason for the pool’s success has been the staff – the people who run the front desk and the lifeguards who keep the place orderly and safe.
That staff, since the new pool opened in late August 2014, has been provided by Camp Fire Georgia, the nonprofit organization that operates the Camp Fire Camp in Toccoa.

Lifeguards walk the pool, in addition to sitting in the lifeguard stand.

The City of Toccoa last year signed a three-summer contract with Camp Fire, so they will continue to run the pool for the next two summers and most likely many more.

This appears to be a fine decision, because the Camp Fire staff have proven they know how to keep the pool and the Art Deco pool house looking brand new.

Elaine Brinkley, executive director of Camp Fire Georgia, manages the 10 lifeguards and five others who work up front. She also is the certified pool operator for the Doyle Street Pool. All public pools in Georgia are required to have one certified pool operator.

Brinkley told me she takes the health and safety of swimmers very seriously.

Swimmer Jace Vandiver, 7, with Elaine Brinkley, executive director of Camp Fire Georgia. For the last five summers, Brinkley has coordinated the staff who operate the Doyle Street Pool.

I also talked with lifeguard Rosemary Huff during her break. She’s a Toccoa resident and will be a sophomore at Piedmont College.

Rosemary said she enjoys talking with so many different people each week. She usually works 36 to 40 hours a week, and takes her job very seriously.

“We get lots of compliments of how well Camp Fire runs the pool,” she said.

Dana Walker, retired teacher from Big A Primary School, has run the front desk and pool house since Camp Fire took over.

“I love seeing the children during the summer. They have a lot of fun,” she said.

Berthenia Scott, who does accounting and manages the kitchen staff at Toccoa’s Camp Fire camp, was among the volunteers helping out at the “Back to School Splash” last Saturday.

She added: “This is really a beautiful facility and pool. The City of Toccoa should be very proud.”
Although school has begun, the Doyle Street Pool will remain open on weekends through Sunday, August 25. Hours are 4 to 6 p.m. each Friday, noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 1 to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

These young swimmers took advantage of the “Back to School Splash” held last Saturday at the Doyle Street Pool. They are Kerry Wood, left, and Gavin Simmons, both age 10.

This is a great time to visit the city pool and go for a relaxing swim. Adult admission is only $3. You can’t beat that.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Brian Akin and Chuck Wright are each beginning a second five-year term on the Stephens County Development Authority. It is a voluntary position.
Akin serves as chairman of the Authority, and Wright is treasurer.

7/30/2019

Two Stephens County residents were reappointed earlier this month to serve another five-year term on the Stephens County Development
Authority.

They are Brian Akin and Chuck Wright. Akin is the CEO of North Georgia Credit Union, headquartered in Toccoa. Chuck owns and operates Bulldog Car Wash in Toccoa.

I sat down with these two Toccoa businessmen last week to talk about their work on the Stephens County Development Authority as at-large members.

What do they do in this volunteer position? What are some recent successes? What are their goals for this year and the next?

The Development Authority consists of five members – two at-large members appointed to five-year terms by the county commission and three others who serve one-year terms.

The three serving one-year terms are the current Toccoa Mayor, the current Stephens County Commission chair and the current board chair of the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber of Commerce.

As noted, Akin and Wright serve as the two current at-large members. The other three members are Gail Fry, Dean Scarborough and Jeremy Spradlin.

Tim Martin is employed as the development authority’s executive director, a position he has held since 2008. Martin reports to the Authority members and has an office downtown on West Doyle Street.

I asked both Brian and Chuck what was their biggest surprise when they began serving on the development authority back in 2014.

“It was how busy we were,” Chuck said. “We spent a lot of time on the phone talking about different prospects.”

Akin echoed Chuck’s sentiments.

“We get a lot of looks from different industries, but this is very competitive,” Akin said. “You may think you know how competitive it is, but it’s more competitive than you could ever imagine.”

In fact, Akin pointed out that in the time he has served on the Authority, “there hasn’t been a time when we weren’t pursuing several leads. We get lots of action, but obviously you can’t land them all.”

Indeed, the odds of landing most of the prospects are low, simply because of the competitive nature of this business.

For instance, in the last 12 months, the Authority pursued a total of 19 prospects. One small business was brought in and three others remain active. The remainder, for the most part, went elsewhere or were dropped.

But the development authority hit the jackpot in 2015 when it landed two major manufacturing plants.

Sark Wire, headquartered in Turkey, opened a new facility in Stephens County in 2015 and have been making copper wire for automobiles, aircraft and many other uses. It employs 80 people.

Nifco KTW, a German auto-parts company, invested $27 million in their new plant and put 200 employees to work in 2015. Since then, they have invested another $40 million in an major expansion and now employ close to 400 employees.

These were big catches. But existing industry is important too. And they can create new jobs too

A few years ago, ASI – formerly Gem Southeast – built a sprawling, modern plant and increased its workforce to 500 employees, making it the county’s largest manufacturing company.

So what has been the most rewarding part of serving on the Authority?

Chuck appreciates the leadership of the City of Toccoa and Stephens County.

“I really like it when they come together to get the job done,” Chuck said. “We have excellent leadership among the city, county and chamber.”

Akin said his biggest reward “has been seeing new jobs return to Stephens County after the 2008 crash.”

He also praised executive director Tim Martin, saying “Tim works tirelessly to bring in new prospects.”

The Authority’s immediate goal for the coming year is to buy land with utilities in place to attract new industry. The upcoming SPLOST election, if approved by voters in November, will provide funding to do this.

Another goal is to continue the efforts to bring in a top-tier motel to the county – such as a Hampton Inn, Marriott Courtyard or Holiday Inn Express.

Finally, I asked both Brian and Chuck why they chose to serve without pay for another five-year term.

“I just want to see our community continue to thrive,” Akin said.
Chuck put it this way: “I volunteer so my kids will have the choice to move back home. Brian and I both care about this community, and a lot of other people do too.”

And that’s an important part of bringing in new jobs – we all need to tell the positive story of Toccoa and Stephens County. You never know who’s listening.

And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

 

Saturday night crowd enters Toccoa’s historic Ritz Theatre last weekend.

7/23/19

The Ritz Theater in downtown Toccoa came of age this past weekend.

It was a glorious weekend for the Ritz, but first, let’s go back in time.

To begin with, I wasn’t around when the Ritz Theatre first opened. But how I wish I could have been there. The year was 1939. Toccoa was bustling –  with two major industries – Coats & Clark and Wabco – coming to town a couple of years before. 

Ah, 1939. The carpet in the Ritz was new. The screen was big. And it was the grandest place you could imagine. At least that’s how I imagine it.

From 1939 through the 1960s, the Ritz, I’m told, was the place to be. People of all ages flocked there. 

By the time I arrived in Toccoa in the fall of ’73, the Ritz had seen its better days. I went there from time to time, though, and remember seeing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975. 

By then, the carpet was worn out. The curtains sagged and were frayed. The place needed a lot of work. Soon afterwards, the Ritz closed its doors. The movies stopped.

But a local community theater group was formed and begin staging plays from time to time at the Ritz. Somehow this old theatre kept giving and giving… although not much was put back in.

Finally, a local group – the Currahee Arts Council – purchased the building from the Schaefer family, who donated half the value. It took a bank loan to come up with the rest, and lots of fundraisers to repay the loan.

Alton Adams of Toccoa played a key part in all of this, and saved the building from being torn down. The Ritz was renamed the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts.

Adams and others kept the place open. But it was tough sledding. And the building continued to deteriorate.

Finally, in 2012, the future of this Toccoa landmark was assured when the Fox Theatre Institute selected it for a preservation grant. 

The City of Toccoa assumed ownership in 2014 and began extensive renovations to both the interior and exterior. Another grant from the Fox paid for a new marquee, built to mirror the original marquee. The new one is digital… and spectacular.

Today, Main Street Toccoa operates the Ritz and does a fabulous job bringing in musical acts, movies, local shows and much more.

The view from the newly-renovated balcony at the Ritz.

Last Friday morning, the City held a ribbon cutting to denote the completion of the final renovations. The balcony was restored, adding some 80 new seats. The dressing rooms below the stage also were remodeled.

Edgar Loudermilk Band performed to a full house last Saturday night at the Ritz Theatre following a 40-minute film featuring excerpts from Ken Burns’s latest PBS documentary,” Country Music,” which debuts on Georgia Public Broadcasting Sunday, Sept. 18.

Last Saturday night, the Ritz hosted a 40-minute film – compliments of Georgia Public Broadcasting – promoting a new Ken Burns documentary about Country Music. The film had the audience laughing, crying, hooping and hollering.

As the film ended, the talented Edgar Loudermilk Band performed live on stage. The place was packed. The crowd loved them.

As everyone left for the evening and headed for their cars, I looked back at the Ritz and thought to myself: “Baby, you’ve come a long way.”

Indeed, the historic Ritz Theatre came of age last Saturday night. And so many people made it happen. 

And that’s something to think about.

 

NASA’s Apollo space program provided mankind with the first photo of our precious planet, suspended in the blackness of space. 
Photo by NASA

7/16/19

In the summer of 1969, my high school friend, Bob Whaley, and I loaded up Whaley’s Ford LTD sedan and made our way to Statesboro, where we started summer quarter at Georgia Southern College, a week after graduating from Pelham High School.

Many nights on campus, we gathered in the dorm’s social room to watch the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. We had kept up-to-date with Apollo 11, and we knew this would be the rocket to take man to the moon.

We soon learned the dates of the scheduled launch from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

In fact, we talked about driving to the Cape to watch the launch.

“It will be historic,” Whaley kept reminding me.

We decided to do it.

But we would have to miss either two or three days of classes. I was all for it, although my math class was going poorly and I was barely passing. Then, my history professor announced a big test on launch day.

“I can’t afford to miss this test,” I told Whaley.

He understood. We cancelled our trip south.

Instead, we drove to Pelham that weekend. On Sunday night, July 20, my father and I tuned our black-and-white television set to CBS and we watched in our den as Cronkite reported live the events about to happen.

I remember watching the hatch open on the lunar module and seeing Neil Armstrong step down the ladder. Then, Armstrong leaped onto the moon’s surface.

Walter Cronkite removed his glasses, and remarked, “Oh, boy!”  He was overjoyed. I had never seen him quite like that.

My father simply looked at me and smiled. I was happy. Happy the mission had gone well and happy my father and I had this special time together.

I then went outside in the darkness and looked at the moon.

Like millions of others who watched television that night, it truly was a historic moment.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

My Beatle albums include three favorites: Sgt. Peppers, the White Album and Abbey Road. These 45’s also bring a smile. They include Please, Please Me, If I Fell, Can’t Buy Me Love and Hey Jude.

7-9-19

Patti and I recently drove to Habersham Hills Cinema to see the movie, “Yesterday,” a just-released romantic comedy with the premise: What if The Beatles and their music never existed?

In the movie, set in 2019, a 12-second blackout occurs worldwide. After that, nobody has ever heard of The Beatles or their music, except for Jack, a struggling musician in a small English village.

Jack soon realizes he the only one who remembers all those great Beatle songs, and he starts performing them. Before long, Jack has captivated the world. Things then get really complicated.

Some reviews have made light of the movie and its wacky premise, but I’m here to tell you: it’s a fun movie. And it got me thinking about how much the Beatles and their music have meant to me over the years.

I still remember the first time I ever heard a Beatles song. I was riding in my parents’ car on the way to school. Mama was driving and I tuned in to the local radio station, WCLB, serving Pelham and Camilla.

Here I was in flat, rural Southwest Georgia, listening to “Please, Please Me.” I had never heard of the Beatles, but I liked the song because the music was upbeat, different. The lyrics grabbed me.

It wasn’t long before Beatlemania exploded around the world. In 1965, I so wanted to see The Beatles live in concert. My parents said no way. I was in the eighth grade.

But the Lennon and McCartney tunes continued to get inside my head and my heart like no other, from “If I Fell” to “In My Life” to “Here, There and Everywhere.”

During my high school years, the Beatles and their music began to change, and I went along for the ride. Somehow, everything that John, Paul, George and Ringo recorded seemed right.

Beatles music, for me, never grew old. I never stopped listening to them, even as the music world moved on.

And yes, the movie “Yesterday” has a happy ending and that’s good. But mainly, I enjoyed hearing Jack perform all those wonderful Beatle songs – still as fresh today as yesterday.

And that’s something to thing about.

 

 

Eureka Gober, the Stephens County registrar and elections superintendent, said her job is to serve the people of Stephens County by insuring an accurate election process.

7/2/2019

The Stephens County Commission, in my opinion, has made an error in judgement after deciding to remove funding for an assistant in the local registrar’s and elections superintendent office.

Let’s look back at 2016, when Bill Cochran was named to serve as the registrar and elections superintendent for Stephens County.

Bill worked in this capacity for three full years, beginning in January 2016.
During these three years, he had an assistant in the registrar’s office for the entire time he was working.

This means he had a full-time assistant in 2017, when there wasn’t a single election. There could have been a city election. But the incumbents up for reelection had no opposition, so no election was held.

Despite no election in 2017, the county continued to fund an assistant for the registrar’s office, and Bill Cochran had an assistant for that year.

Now, we have a new registrar and elections superintendent. Eureka Gober was sworn into office by Judge Russell Smith in late December and she began running the office in January.

You may recall we had to have a special election in early December because of irregularities in the voter lists in Habersham and Banks counties.
Soon after Ms. Gober got into office in January, we all learned there would be yet another election in April. Again, voter list irregularities in Banks and Habersham came to light, resulting in a third election.

So before Ms. Gober could hardly get her feet wet, she was planning for another state House election.

That election was held on April 9th and, once again, Stephens County’s election results were accurate and our voter list was in order. At no time has Stephens County’s voter registration list found to be inaccurate.

With this history in mind, think about the decision made last week when the Stephens County Commissioners voted 4-1 to remove funding for the registrar’s assistant.

What was the reason for their decision? Well, I talked with county commission chair Dean Scarborough, who told me there would be only “one small election” this year, an election in November to decide whether to approve a Special Local Option Sales Tax.

Well, actually there could be a second election this year, if any three City of Toccoa commissioners whose terms expire this year have opposition. The city usually contracts with the county for these elections, so it’s up to the county to run the city election.

So, we could have two elections in 2019, followed by a presidential primary election in March 2020 and then the presidential election in November 2020. And don’t forget we will have new voting machines.

You just can’t call in a poll worker to do much of the preliminary work needed before an election. They must be trained, and training takes time.

So, let’s review. Bill Cochran had an assistant in his office for three years, including 2017, when no election held. But he still had an assistant, and with good reason.

When I asked county commissioner James Addison why the county chose to take away funding for an assistant, he told me there would be only one election this year.

I reminded him there could be two, but even more importantly, Bill Cochran had an assistant in 2017 when no elections were held in the county.

Addison then told me the election results in the April special election took too long to tally. Habersham and Banks got their results in sooner, he said. That may be, but the main thing was our election results that night were accurate. And our voter registration list has always been accurate.

I’m here to tell you, in our prevailing political climate nationwide and need I say more, this is not the time to take away an assistant in the registrar’s office. Of all times, this is the time to make sure we continue to do things right.

We must give Eureka Gober our support. Not take it away.

County commissioner Debbie Whitlock, by the way, voted against adopting the new county budget, citing lack of funding in the District Attorney’s office and the reduction in the registrar’s office.

When speaking to me about the registrar’s office, Whitlock said:
“We need a full-time person in there as an assistant. Somebody we can train.”

As for Eureka, this is what she told me last week: “I plan to take one day at a time and do my job for eight hours each day. I’m not a quitter. I’m here for the long haul.”

For this Tuesday’s Commentary, I want to end with this: I believe the county should be fair and treat Eureka Gober the same as they did Bill Cochran. He had a full time assistant working 30 to 40-hour weeks during the three years he served. Ms. Gober deserves the same.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Construction work on the exterior of the old Albemarle Hotel in downtown Toccoa began earlier this month, returning the front entrance to it’s former appearance.

6/25/2019

I’m seeing something in downtown Toccoa I thought I would never see.

It’s the exterior renovation of the old Albemarle Hotel, located right downtown at the corner of Tugalo and Alexander streets.
I had to take some photos after driving by. I couldn’t believe it. You can see a couple of my photos on WNEG’s website. Just go to Tuesday Commentary on the menu.

I’ve been hoping for a long time that the City of Toccoa would condemn the building and tear it down. Build a park there. Do something.

I’d seen the deterioration of the old three-story brick building for more than 45 years, and I never thought I’d see what I’m seeing now.

That being said, I want to admit; maybe I was wrong about tearing down the Albemarle.

I never thought any work of any significance would happen.
But the city pressed on the matter, and held the owner’s feet to the fire. The owner then showed plans, saying she would replace the roof, replace the many old, rotten windows, and even return the front porch to its original appearance.

The wooden railing above the front porch was part of the original look, and now the railing is back.

Not going to happen, I thought. Well, I was wrong. Let me repeat, I was wrong. And I’m glad I was wrong.

I like what I’m seeing. Real work is going on. A new roof has been installed. The windows are being replaced. It already looks better from the outside.

But it was the work on the open-air front porch that made me stand up and take notice.

When the little wooden railing went up atop the porch – like you see in the old post-card pictures of the Albemarle from its heyday in the 1940’s – well, I could see the potential.

There’s a long way to go. But can see the possibilities. Before, I couldn’t see them.

So I’ll say it again. I was wrong. And I hope the Albemarle can be saved. At least for now, that’s how I feel.

And that’s something to think about.

 

Dean Scarborough, chairman of the Stephens County Commission,listens during last week’s first reading of the FY2020 county budget. The final reading of the proposed budget and a final public hearing will be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, at the historic courthouse.

6/18/2019

The Stephens County Commission met last week and rolled out its budget proposal for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1 and ends June 30, 2020.

 

At that meeting, the county commissioners held the first of two public hearings on the general fund budget – which totals $16.4 million.

 

Usually, by this time of year, the county budget is pretty much a done deal. Of course, the reason for the public hearings is to give citizens an overview of the budget – both revenues and expenditures – and to give anyone a chance to comment.

 

Last week, Stephens County Registrar and Elections Superintendent Eureka Gober appeared before the county commissioners to offer her comments on the proposed budget. She was concerned about a major cut in her department – a 30 percent reduction, to be exact.

 

She wasn’t the only one concerned. So was I.

 

Essentially, the county commission is looking to eliminate the two part-time employees in the Registrar’s office. In other words, the only person working there beginning July 1 would be the Registrar.

 

This is not the time to reduce staff in the elections office. When you think about recent problems with elections in other Georgia counties, it is more incumbent than ever to insure there is adequate staff in Stephens County

to get the job done… and get it done accurately.

There will be at least three local elections occurring in fiscal year 2020 – a SPLOST election and a city commission election this November, and a presidential primary election in the spring of 2020, the date which hasn’t been decided and probably won’t be decided for awhile since the voting machines haven’t been purchased by the state. The presidential election will follow in November 2020.

 

In addition to the upcoming elections, the Registrar’s office is constantly dealing with voter registration applications, which mainly come by mail from the state to the local Registrar’s office nearly each day. These applications are from people who register to vote when they get their driver’s license, or even from students on a college campus who are offered voter registration forms. Somebody has to verify all of these, and it falls to each county.

 

On top of all this, the state of Georgia will begin using new voting machines in time for the presidential primary election, and training will be involved – for staff, for poll workers and for citizens.

 

We’ve seen first-hand the debacle in Habersham and Banks counties in our recent state representative race. Stephens County didn’t have these problems, and we don’t want them in the future.

 

Replacing needed staff amounts to $37,000. This is minuscule compared to the county’s overall general fund budget of $16.4 million.

 

The county did set aside $250,000 in its proposed budget for unexpected expenditures. I say take $37,000 from the unexpected expenditure budget and put it in the elections budget.

 

In our state and nation, we must insure we have accurate voter registration lists and accurate election results. This begins at the county level.

 

Consider this: the entire registrar and elections budget for fiscal year 2020 is proposed at $90,936. Restoring part-time staff would add $37,000 to this budget.

 

 

County commission chair Dean Scarborough noted after the June 11 budget hearing there is possibility the county could reinstate the funding for the Registrar and Elections office after the second reading of the budget, which occurs next Tuesday, June 25.

 

Let’s hope our county commissioners realize that retaining staff in the Registrar and Elections office is the best course of action for our county.

 

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

These pilots and navigators from Duke Field near Eglin Air Force Base flew into Toccoa on D-Day to climb Currahee Mountain. (Photo by William Tucker)

6/11/2019

Last week, world leaders gathered in Normandy, France, to commemorate the 75 anniversary of D-Day, the largest invasion in the history of human warfare.

Also gathered in Normandy were World World II veterans, along with the families, and thousands of visitors. They traveled to France and to the beaches of Normandy to remember those Allied troops who gave their lives in the cause of world freedom.

In all, 156,000 troops from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and other Allied nations were involved in the D-Day assault on June 6, 1944. They plunged themselves onto the European continent to break Hitler’s grip on Nazi-occupied France.
In all, more than 4,400 Allied soldiers were killed by Nazi Germany on that single day in 1944. Thousands more were injured.

The night before the D-Day invasion began, U.S. and British paratroopers dropped out of the night sky to secure inland positions and establish bases they could protect.

The hardiest bunch of these paratroopers – Easy Company – trained at Camp Toccoa at Currahee. That’s why – at the Currahee Military Museum in Toccoa – we commemorate D-Day every day.

The entrance to the Currahee Military Museum in downtown Toccoa.

Camp Toccoa was established by the U.S. Army in 1942 during some of the darkest days of World War II. The sole purpose of this camp – located at the base of Currahee Mountain near Toccoa – was to train young men to jump out of airplanes and then fight the enemy with all they had.

Each day, these soldiers ran three miles up Currahee Mountain, and ran three miles down, as part of their rigorous training.

That’s why Currahee Mountain, even today, is sacred ground for those serving in active military duty.

Volunteer Ray Ward gives a tour for D-Day visitors at the Currahee Military Museum.

On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, a group of 42 Army Rangers from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, boarded a chartered bus to Toccoa. And yes, when they arrived here these Rangers from the 101st Airborne Division ran three miles up and three miles down Currahee Mountain. Afterward, they toured the military museum and then enjoyed a spaghetti lunch at X-Factor Grill.

Later that day, a group of 12 pilots and navigators from Duke Field near Eglin Air Force Base in Florida flew two planes into Toccoa.

William Tucker picked up this group at the airport and hauled them to Currahee Mountain. There, they ran three miles up, hoisted a large American flag at the top for a group photo, then ran down. They also toured the military museum and had an early dinner at X-Factor Grill.

Rosemary Miller has volunteered at the Currahee Military Museum for 12 years. “I love it here,” she said. “This is my second home. You never know who’s coming through the door. We’ve had people visit from Europe, South America… really, from all over the world.”

All this to say, we have a very special World War II military museum in Toccoa. Even more so, we have Currahee Mountain and the new Camp Toccoa at Currahee.

For so many, Currahee Mountain is sacred ground… a special place.
It should be. And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

Jeraldine Hayes of People First in Stephens County with volunteers Richard Garner and his 12-year-old son, Colby Garner, helped out at the annual People First fishing rodeo.

6/4/2019

I am always amazed at how many people volunteer in Stephens County.

No matter what the cause or concern, so many people are willing to give of their time, their talents and their heart.

I know it’s not just a Stephens County thing. All across America, our friends and neighbors pitch in to help others.

One such organization in Stephens County has been going strong for 20 years. It’s People First, an advocacy group for persons with disabilities.

Jeraldine Hayes has led the local volunteer organization for the last 20 years, and she’s still going strong. She said disabled citizens have special transportation needs, not to mention care needs.

“They are better off living in our community, and at home, if that’s possible,” she said.

Every year, People First of Stephens County holds a fishing rodeo at Jim and Ruth Rhoades pond on North Avenue south of Toccoa.

 

Volunteers, like Jerry Snell at right, helped things go smoothly.

 

This year the pond was stocked with catfish. A total of 30 people with disabilities came out to fish, despite the early morning heat. Not as many fish were caught as usual, but it was a still a fine day to be outside doing something fun.

And there were cash prizes. One hundred dollars for largest fish caught, $75 dollars for most fish and $50 for smallest fish.

Sandra Sullens shows off her catfish. She won $100 for catching the largest fish.

 

What was most amazing is there was a volunteer for every single person fishing. So, 30 people fishing… and 30 volunteers. And there were other volunteers grilling hot dogs, bringing in cakes and setting up tables for door prizes.

 

It was heartwarming to see a volunteer bait a hook or simply encourage the folks who were fishing. Many have been volunteering for years.

Debbie Boyd won $75 for catching the most fish – five.

And that’s the thing about volunteering. Sure, it helps others who need it. But it also does something for the volunteer.

Volunteers look beyond themselves and their own wants and needs. Instead, they see the needs of others and do something about it.

Ramon Cannon caught two fish, but his little bream won him $50 for the smallest fish caught.

We are truly blessed to have so many volunteers in Toccoa and Stephens County. They are found in civic clubs, in churches, in organizations that fight diseases, in organizations like People First.

 

Jorie Hayes enjoys the fellowship.

If you don’t volunteer, try it. It may change your outlook on life.

 

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 

Utilities director Harry Scott directs both the natural gas and water and wastewater department. He has served in this capacity for eight years, but has been with the city for almost 20 years.

5/28/2019

The City of Toccoa is doing what all good cities do.

 

They are providing a high level of service to our citizens – with its water and wastewater operations, natural gas operations, trash pick-up, public works, police and fire departments and much more.

 

At the same time, the city is meeting its financial and debt obligations – and I’m specifically referring to the debt that incurred in 1998 when the City Commission voted to expand its natural gas operations by constructing a northern gas pipeline to Franklin, North Carolina.

 

The debt for this northern gas line debt totaled some $35 million dollars and became a major cause for concern. The reason for that concern: the debt was so massive. The first debt payment was made in December 2000. Since that time, approximately $2 million dollars a year has been needed to service that debt.

 

For many years, any excess revenue from gas sales was applied to meeting those monthly natural gas debt payments.

 

City Manager Billy Morse noted that the gas fund “has always been able to meet these debt obligations without any transfers from the general fund.”

 

No tax money, he said, ever has gone to repaying this debt.

 

City manager Billy Morse has guided the city since 2002, except for a brief break several years ago.

As sections of the gas line were completed, new customers hooked on. Once the total project was completed in April 2000, more customers were added. Steadily, new customers have brought in more revenue to the city’s gas fund.

 

The best part, this has been new revenue. It is coming from users outside the city – in Habersham and Rabun counties in Georgia and the City of Franklin in North Carolina.

 

I have a confession. As a citizen, I was opposed to the northern gas line because of the huge financial risks involved. Now, looking back, I believe the extension of the city’s natural gas operation has been one of the best things the city has ever done.

 

Even better news: this massive debt finally will be paid off in 2024. The city has five more years to service this debt – and the debt is still costing the gas fund $2 million dollars annually.

 

In the meantime, last week the Toccoa City Commission approved its new operating budget of $30.7 million dollars. The new budget year will begin July 1, 2019, and run through June 30, 2020.

 

The city’s operating budget includes the general fund, water and wastewater fund, natural gas fund, solid waste fund and Lake Toccoa facilities fund.

 

Of all these funds, the natural gas fund is the largest at $11.3 million dollars – and the natural gas department is expected to contribute $1.5 million to the city’s general fund next fiscal year. This is coupled with the $2 million dollars the gas fund will pay in the next fiscal year to reduce the debt.

 

The water fund also contributes to the city’s general fund, and is expected to  transfer $2.3 million to the general fund.

 

All this to say, the city’s water and natural gas departments not only provide vital services, these departments help pay for other city operations.

 

This keeps all our city’s services high, and property taxes relatively low. It only will get better when that final natural gas debt payment is made in  June 2024.

 

As for the city’s financial position right now, here’s what city manager Billy Morse had to say: “The City of Toccoa’s financial condition is, and has been for several years, strong and stable. Over the past year, we’ve seen increases in sales tax revenues. This indicates our local economy is slowly starting to grow. We feel this is a positive step forward, and we’re optimistic this growth will continue in the coming months.”

 

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 

Rylee Duncan is one of 248 seniors at Stephens County High School who will
graduate this Friday, May 24. She plans to attend the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega.

5/21/2019

Across our country, high school graduations are taking place in these final weeks of May.

Here at home, a total of 248 seniors at Stephens County High School will
be part at this great tradition.

Their graduation ceremony will be held this Friday evening, May 24, at the Indian stadium, known as the Reservation. The event will begin at 8 p.m.

If thundershowers are in the forecast, the ceremony will be moved inside to the high school’s Currahee Arena. Overflow seating and live streaming will take place in the adjacent Tugaloo Center of Performing Arts.

For these 248 seniors, this is a special time in their lives, and in the lives of their families.

Principal Scott Kersh praised the SCHS Class of 2019, saying he is “proud of the way this class has shown so much varied talent with regards to academics, the arts and athletics.”

He noted that a number of class members have received big scholarships, some worth well into six figures, including some full rides in Division One schools.

Three graduates from Stephens County High will attend Georgia Tech. Three others are headed to the University of Georgia. Many others will begin their higher education right here at home at North Georgia Tech.
Senior counselor Becky Jameson noted that the valedictorian in this year’s senior class is Monique Gautreaux. The salutatorian is Nikko Beady.

“One thing uplifting about this class,” Ms. Jameson said, “is the family
atmosphere among them. They really care about each other as individuals.”

Principal Kersh added: “The thing l’ll miss the most about this group of seniors is the fun they always brought to our school. They are a lively bunch with a big sense of humor. I know they will give their best at whatever they’re involved in.”

It takes the whole community to get these young people to this point.
I’m sure many of you have had an impact on their lives through the years.

This guidance, love and support needs to continue as they take a big
step forward this Friday.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

5/14/2019

Being yourself is enough, and let me tell you why.

I remember a time when I was in high school – and that was a long time ago – when I realized not all of my classmates liked me. This realization came about when I was in the tenth grade.

Well, what to do? After thinking about it, I decided the thing to do was nothing. I felt pretty comfortable just being me, and I had friends who liked me just the way I was.

So, that’s what I did. I just kept on being Billy Chism, a nerdy little guy who was upbeat most of the time and enjoyed being with all kinds of people.

If a few of those people didn’t like me, well, that was okay, too. It wasn’t like I was being mean to them, or doing anything out of the ordinary. They just didn’t like me.

Now, 50 years later, I wouldn’t change a thing. When I look back, I realize that being yourself is always enough, if you treat other people with kindness and respect.

Now, being yourself doesn’t mean we don’t change as time goes by. We learn from our mistakes, and hopefully, we get a little wiser.

I remember during my working years I had all kinds of job titles. Sometimes those titles made me think that’s who I was. But underneath it all, I was still just Billy Chism. I am a father, a grandfather, a husband, a brother, a son-in-law. This is who I am, and that’s important.

So be yourself, and be proud for just being you. Being yourself is always enough. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

Toccoa City Commissioners and Stephens County Commissioners held a joint meeting April 16 at the historic courthouse to kick off their upcoming SPLOST VII discussions. Also attending were the mayors from the towns of Martin and Avalon.

5/7/2019

I want you to know about something important taking place next Monday, May 13, involving local taxpayer money.

It will be a discussion between the city and the county on the next Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, known as SPLOST.

The next SPLOST vote is set to happen this November.

It will be known as SPLOST VII, because it will be the seventh time voters in Stephens County have been asked to vote on such a city-county request. All previous votes have been approved.

This local option tax provides for a one-penny sales tax to be collected in Stephens County for projects that support the City of Toccoa and Stephens County government. Even the towns of Martin and Avalon get a small percentage from this tax.

As you probably know by now, SPLOST votes take place every six years, usually a year before the previous SPLOST collections run out. Collections of the one-penny tax on SPLOST VI will end in November 2020.

According to Phyllis Ayers, county administrator and county finance director, SPLOST VI has been bringing in $3.2 million dollars a year from the penny tax.

Ayers said it’s difficult to project collections for the next six years, but has provided several scenarios. One of these projections would bring in $22.5 million in the next six-year period, based on collections increasing
3 percent annually.

A meeting was held at the historic courthouse in mid-April to discuss the next SPLOST. At this meeting, both city and county commissioners shared its lists of needed projects they would like to see funded by the new SPLOST.

City and county officials on April 16 reviewed an initial list of projects each government put forward for the SPLOST VII vote to be held this November.

Ultimately, a list of projects must appear on the ballet so citizens will know what they are voting on.

The cost of the county’s initial list of projects totaled $19.5 million. The cost of the city’s initial list totaled $9 million. Add these together – and throw in some funds for the towns of Martin – you have an initial proposed total spending package of $28.5 million.

Bottom line: $28.5 million on the spending list vs. collections of $22.5 million… a $6 million shortfall.

So, the city and county will meet at Toccoa City Hall next Monday, May 13, immediately following the regular city commission meeting that starts
at 5 p.m.

At that time, the city and county commissioners will hold a joint meeting and the public is invited to attend. It’s not a public hearing, but the meeting is open and will give you plenty of insight into the priorities of our city and county governments as they plan for the next SPLOST vote.

It’s obvious both the city and county must whittle down its project lists.

Right now, the price tag for county’s big projects are $6 million dollars for roads and bridges, $5.4 million for economic development, $2.8 million for rural fire departments, $2.2 million for Sheriff’s Office vehicles, 1.5 million for ambulance service, $600,000 for a new government building and $300,000 to upgrade the Stephens County Senior Center.

As for the City of Toccoa, city commissioners are looking at $5 million dollars to help finance an upgrade to the Eastanollee Creek wastewater plant, $2 million for roads and bridges and $2 million for a new fire truck, new police cars and police equipment.

Some of these projects may bite the dust. Others may be reduced.
There are difficult decisions to be made.

As a citizen, come listen to the discussion. Be informed. Later, give your own opinion to the city and county commissioners.

In a few months, the ballot must be prepared and must include the official project list that the SPLOST will fund.

Now is the time to make your thoughts known. The more we participate in our local government, the better government we will have.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

Stephanie and Gary Cortellino enjoy the front porch of their home on East Tugalo Street.

4/30/2019

Have you ever wondered how some people wind up living in Toccoa?

Especially retirees who move here from another place. How did they hear about us? What made them decide to come here?

Well, there are times, maybe, when Toccoa finds the retired couple. That’s the unusual story of how Stephanie and Gary Cortellino came to live here.

Let me fill you in. Gary, originally from the Queens borough of New York City, came south after college and began working in the late 70s with the DeKalb County Police.

While in Atlanta, he met his future wife, Stephanie. She was from the small town of Bremen in Northwest Georgia. She had moved to Atlanta after finishing her studies at UGA.

Stephanie and Gary met in 1979 and were married in August 1980. They eventually moved to Gwinnett County. Gary completed a 30-year career with DeKalb County Police, retiring as a detective lieutenant.

Stephanie had a successful career in education, and was principal of Walnut Grove Elementary School in Gwinnett County when she retired.

As they neared retirement, they were living in Grayson in Gwinnett County. They knew they wanted to move, so they put their house on the market.
It sold quickly, forcing them to move into an apartment.

It was 2015, and they began looking for a house in Northeast Georgia, a place with less traffic and less people. But also a place with a downtown they both could enjoy. And, they didn’t want to be too far from their three daughters and five grandchildren, all who live in metro Atlanta.

“We had a real estate agent from Gwinnett County,” Gary explained, “and he took us to several towns in Northeast Georgia.”

They finally found a house they really liked near downtown Clarkesville, and made an offer. After making the offer, they had some time to kill, so Gary and his wife, along with realtor, began driving out of Clarkesville and decided to have lunch somewhere. They realized they were headed to Toccoa, so they continued to drive until they reached downtown.

“We had lunch at B.J.s,” Stephanie recalled, and she noticed the Band of Brothers posters on the wall and references to Currahee Mountain.

After lunch, Stephanie and Gary walked downtown, just passing the time.

“That’s when I looked, and I knew it was a sign,” said Gary.

Actually, it was a sign. It was a small Amtrak sign.

He learned that Toccoa was an official Amtrak stop on the main Amtrak line going from Penn Station in New York City to New Orleans. His brother loved trains and always took Amtrak. Gary loved the fact that Toccoa had an Amtrak station right downtown.

The Cortellino home on East Tugalo Street has plenty of curb appeal, with a beautiful lawn, accented with nice shrubs and flowers.

While the couple continued their walk in Toccoa, they got a phone call saying their offer on the house in Clarkesville had been turned down. Someone had outbid them.
That’s when they happened into C.K. Morgan, a gift shop in Toccoa. Stephanie heard a woman talking, and told her husband: “I know that voice.”

Sure enough, she discovered the shop owner was Michelle Whiten, her sorority roommate at the University of Georgia. Michelle immediately recognized Stephanie as well, even though they hadn’t seen each other
in 40 years.

Well, it was another sign Toccoa might be calling.

Long story short, that same day the couple found a house for sale on East Tugalo Street. They called local realtor Stephen Caudell, and before you know it, they made an offer and were living in Toccoa.

They’ve now been in Toccoa for four years, and couldn’t be happier. They’ve met a lot of people, many through St. Mary’s Catholic Church. They know some of the folks at city hall and in county government and speak highly of them. And they enjoy the folks at the senior center.

They remember the day they registered to vote, got their address changed on their driver’s licenses and got their cars registered in Stephens County.

“We did all of this just walking around town,” Stephanie said.

Gary added: “It would have taken two full days doing this in Gwinnett County. We did it all in couple of hours, and never got in our car.”

But here’s the deal. They never knew how much was going on in Toccoa.
“That was our biggest surprise,” Stephanie said.

“We enjoy reading The Toccoa Record and I love listening to Connie Gaines on WNEG,” Gary added. “She plays great oldies in the morning. And we learn a lot about what’s going on.”

Stephanie and Gary relax in the kitchen with their “Toccoa wall.”

They enjoy going to the Ritz Theatre, the Ida Cox summer concerts, the library, concerts at the Georgia Baptist Conference Center and concerts at Toccoa Falls College. They’ve even discovered Greenville, S.C., and buy season tickets for performances at the Peace Center.

So why am I telling you this story about the Cortellinos?

Because I think their story is a great one. It reminds those of
us who were born here, or have lived here a long time, that Toccoa and Stephens County really does offer a lot to residents.

The only thing that would make the place perfect, remarked Mr. Cortellino, whose grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Italy, would be a nice Italian restaurant in downtown Toccoa.

Who knows? I think a small miracle brought the Cortellinos to Toccoa. And I believe more good things are within our grasp, including an Italian restaurant.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Newly planted oak trees at the corner of Pond and Tugalo streets will provide wonderful shade and a soothing view in the years to come for this part of downtown Toccoa.

4/23/2019

I remember the first Earth Day celebration – which took place in cities across the country and really, around the world.

I was a student at the University of Georgia, and it was in the spring of 1970. I remember seeing a small group of students on campus in front of the Tate Center with signs and banners proclaiming Earth Day. Some signs bemoaned the state of our own environment in the United States.

I wasn’t a part of this group, but I understood where they were coming from. For many years before that first Earth Day celebration took place, CBS News and Walter Cronkite ran story after story of the horrible pollution problems in America – from rivers thick with industrial pollution to smog enveloping many large cities through the country – including Atlanta.
There was a “who cares?” attitude from many business and industries who thought the streams and rivers of our country were their personal sewer, where they dumped all kinds of waste, much of it toxic to fish and wildlife, not to mention humans.

The next year, President Richard Nixon called for the start-up of a new federal organization, the Environmental Protection Agency. The person to lead the EPA would sit on the president’s cabinet. The EPA’s mission was to insure our country had clean air and clean water, and that our land was not exposed to industrial waste and health hazards.

Guess what? This federal agency did its job in a deliberate, sure manner. Our rivers and lakes slowly became cleaner. Our air became more breathable. And our land less spoiled.

Yes, for almost 50 years, our government has worked to make our country cleaner and better.

Trees add beauty to our city, and also help reduce carbon dioxide in the air. Trees also help cool things down in the summers.

But all is not perfect. Our EPA is under seize today, with the head of the agency a former coal lobbyist. When a nation is trying to reduce fossil fuel usage for more clean, efficient energy, why in the world would a coal lobbyist be put in charge of the very organization charged with keeping our environment clean and healthy?

But our environmental challenges are not just here at home. Globally, we have removed much of the rain forest that grows near the equator. This deforestation began years ago in Brazil, and has spread around the world with far-reaching implications.

This includes the loss of millions of plant species, on the verge of becoming extinct due to deforestation. And this crisis is precipitated entirely by man.

In 1988, National Geographic magazine, celebrating 100 years of publication, ran a cover story with the headline: “Can Man Save This Fragile Earth?”

Although some positive changes have come about since the late 1980s,
we continue to burn massive amounts of coal, oil and gasoline, not just in the U.S., but globally. And continued growth around the world means less forests.

Make no mistake, the world is heating up. I was in Alaska in
2001 and saw for myself the melting ice. I saw the vanishing glaciers. Recent scientific data has confirmed the arctic is warming twice as fast as any other place on the planet.

Globally, climate change is happening right before our eyes – with supercharged hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, heat waves and torrential rains, such as the rainfall last Friday when we got almost six inches in a 12-hour period.

Despite all this, I have to hope our younger generations, who better understand the many problems we face, will take positive steps to turn the tide. I hope they will discover the technology to make things better.

But what can we do right now? For one thing, we can let our elected officials know that global warming is an issue worth their concern.

One of my favorite trees in Toccoa is this towering white oak at the entrance of the Doyle Street Park, next to the American Legion Post.

But maybe the best action we can take is simply to plant a tree (best done in January or February around here). But we also can plant a garden in your backyard this spring, no matter how small or humble that garden may be.

Somehow, nature has a calming effect on our brains. Being outside in nature can even have healing powers. So dig in the dirt. Plant some bushes and a few flowers. Maybe a tomato plant. Spend time in nature and enjoy the natural world that surrounds you. You’ll be glad you did.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Chris and Laurie Erwin (above) have spent a lot of time in Toccoa. Mr. Erwin, a former school superintendent in Banks County, won a decisive victory last week to become the newest member of the state House of Representatives. He will represent District 10, comprised of all of Stephens and Banks counties and a portion of Habersham County.

4/16/2019

It’s finally over. No more court battles. No more elections for awhile. And finally, after a third election, somebody to represent Stephens County in the General Assembly.

Chris Erwin won all three elections. He will now represent District 10 in the Georgia House of Representatives, having missed most of this year’s legislative session due to a court order and another re-do election.

In the last election held last week, Erwin defeated incumbent Dan Gasaway in a big way – with Erwin receiving a high percentage of the vote in all three counties, something rarely seen in a State House race.

In all, Erwin got 4,586 votes to Gasaway’s 1,490. Yes, you heard right. Erwin received 3,096 more votes than Gasaway.

From a percentage standpoint, Erwin received 75 percent of the total vote in the district.

Stephens County voters flip-flopped from the first election held back in May 2018. This time, Stephens County backed Erwin solidly, giving him 66 percent of the vote. Habersham voters gave Erwin 76 percent of the vote.
And in Banks County, home to Erwin and Gasaway, voters gave Erwin an incredible 85 percent of the vote. So Erwin won easily in all three counties.

So, what does this all mean?

I believe the vote totals are telling.

Voters across the district gave their strong support to Chris Erwin, a quiet-spoken individual who led the Banks County school system for more than a decade. Erwin is known for his leadership abilities and his fairness dealing with others.

Now, Erwin is our State Representative. And his impact on Stephens County and the rest of the district can be significant if we all work together.

I’ve said this many times and still believe it to be true, the state legislature has a bigger impact on the lives of Georgians than the federal government.

Erwin will play a key role in helping Stephens County to move forward, especially with the cooperation of city and county government officials and others.

There are so many areas where Erwin can play a big role – in health care, education, highways and highway safety, economic development, job creation.

I believe Erwin will provide the kind of representation our citizens deserve.

After his win, Erwin made this comment: “Now is the time for our community to move together and unite around the things that are important to our future.”

He’s absolutely right. We’ve got many great opportunities within our grasp. We just need to work together for the greater good.

And that’s something to think about.

 

Stephens County is home for many of us. Surrounding counties are familiar too. But what about those other places?

4/9/2019

Today’s Tuesday commentary is going to be a little different.
We’re going to talk geography… on the local level.

I have a theory about living in Georgia counties, and it boils down to this: we are most comfortable at our home, sweet home.

Here’s my county theory: residents of the county where they live obviously are quite familiar with their own county, but also feel comfortable when visiting the counties that adjoin their own.

However, most folks know very little about what goes on beyond those adjoining counties.

Let’s use Stephens County as an example. For us, we are surrounded by Habersham, Franklin and Banks counties in Georgia and Oconee County in South Carolina.

Now stay with me. We feel pretty darn comfortable crossing the Habersham County line. And we’ll travel to Franklin County at the drop of a hat. A trip to Lavonia is a breeze. And it’s no big deal driving to Westminster and even into good old Seneca in Oconee County, South Carolina.

Banks County – well, they have all those outlets, so folks are used to going there too.

Once you go beyond these adjoining counties, we don’t know those places very well.

As an example: the counties below Franklin County, we just don’t know much about Madison or Hart counties. And really, once you go north of Habersham County, and venture into Rabun, Towns and Union counties, we’re not really tuned into those places, either.

Now, there are exceptions to my county theory. For instance, folks from Stephens County feel pretty comfortable in Hall County… and that has a lot to do with the nice four-lane highway to Gainesville, and the fact they have all those medical facilities.

What does all this mean? Absolutely nothing, really. Except to say we’re most comfortable close to home. And staying close to home… well, that’s a good thing.

And that’s something to think about.

 

New book by Barbara Brown Taylor offers much to think about.

4/2/2019

I just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s newest book, titled “Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others.”

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest who served in one of those large Atlanta churches before moving with her husband to Habersham County, where she became the rector of Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville.

In 1998, she left the world of pastoring her tiny, but growing congregation and all it entailed (baptisms, marriages, funerals) to teaching students a course called Religion 101 at Piedmont College in Demorest.

She continued in her new role as a teacher for almost 20 years, retiring in 2017.

As Barbara Brown Taylor pointed out in the book’s introduction: “This is not the book I set out to write. I wanted to write a book about teaching religions to undergraduates at a small rural college in northeast Georgia, with students in all the starring roles.”

But Taylor noted: “Fortunately, that book refused to be written. What took place is a book about the teacher of the class, not the students, and what she learned about the high cost of seeing the divine mystery through other people’s eyes.”

And as TIME magazine noted: “Few souls are as synched to the world’s mysteries as Barbara Brown Taylor.”

Taylor writes about many of the experiences that took place during the teaching of these classes, which included field trips to a Hindu temple, a Buddhist monastery, an Islam place of worship, a Jewish sanctuary.

But make no mistake, this is not a book about the world’s religions.
The late Huston Smith already wrote that one years ago, simply titled “The World’s Religions.”

In “Holy Envy,” Barbara Brown Taylor has much to say and circles back to her own religion, Christianity, and what it means to be human.

Much of it comes back to love. Not what I have done, not what I believed, not what I have achieved, but how I have discharged the common charities of life, as Henry Drummond noted in the late 1800s in his little book, “The Greatest Thing in the World.”

In her final chapter, Barbara Brown Taylor returns to love and compassion, as well.

She recalls those verses from Matthew, Chapter 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Yes, hungry person, thirsty person, strange person, naked person, sick person, imprisoned person. We are all humans, Taylor reminds us. How we treat others – no matter who they are – truly matters.

And that’s something to think about.

03/26/2019

Sometimes I put off writing my Tuesday commentary until the last minute.

There are several reasons for this. One, I’m simply procrastinating… putting off something I should have done several days ago.

Or, maybe I’m just busy doing other things.

This week, I’d like to think it’s because I’ve been pondering what to say… to you – my radio audience. Will it be worth listening to?

I’d like to think I’ve gained a little wisdom over the years. So what could I say today that might make an impact on your life?

Now, that’s a tall order. But here goes.

First, I want to talk about family. Families of today are different than anytime in my lifetime. Some of us have close-knit families, while others may have little family at all.

So what is family? After a lot of thought, I think family can be those people who care about you. By the same token, if you care about someone and help them – maybe when they’re at the end of their rope, or simply need someone to listen and to care, then, you become their family.

We’re all the family of man… and woman. We have the same wants, the same needs … no matter who we are.

Think about it… we all enjoy a good meal; we all enjoy seeing our children do okay; we all want someone we can talk to… someone who will listen to us. And, for most of us, we have a conscience that silently guides us in doing what’s right.

I came across a poem written years ago by Dorothy Law Nolte. The title:
“Children Learn What They Live.”
You may have heard it at some point in your life. Here is a portion of it:

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.

If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.

If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.

If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.

Now, the poem flips to the positive side:

If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.

If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.

If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.

If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.

If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.

If children live with fairness, they learn justice.

If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.

If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.

If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

I don’t know your background, but I believe if we can reach out to others when they need it most, we can be family to them.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Rick Phillips, center, with former UGA quarterback Eric Zeier, left, and NFL Hall of Fame member Billy Shaw at the recent BSA American Values Dinner. Shaw introduced Phillips, and Zeier gave the keynote speech.

3/19/2019

Rick Phillips has meant a lot to our community. A good-hearted fellow, Rick goes about his business quietly.

He grew up in Toccoa, and after graduating from Stephens County High School in 1972, joined the U.S. Army. Little did he know what the future would hold.

Phillips started out in the Military Police. He later became a nuclear security specialist in the military, serving in both Germany and South Korea. When he returned to the States, he continued in law enforcement at Ft. McPherson.

Phillips moved into the private sector in the mid-80s. In 1990, he founded his own security company, specializing in white-collar crime investigations. He built that company for 15 years, then sold it, retiring to Toccoa.

Two years later – in 2002 – he founded The Phillips Group, specializing in security protection for selected clientele. The company, based in downtown Toccoa, is located in the Regions Bank building, which Phillips bought and remodeled.

Since returning home, he has acquired seven downtown buildings and restored them. He believes in our downtown.

Rick and his wife, Letha, also purchased the Java Station, insuring this favorite community coffeehouse remains financially strong.

Rick Phillips and his wife, Letha, of Toccoa pose for a photo following the American Values Dinner, hosted by the Northeast Georgia Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Phillips received the Distinguished Citizen Award at the event held on March 14.

Beyond that, he has made numerous financial donations over the last 19 years that have benefited our community.

For these reasons and more, Rick Phillips was recognized last week by the Northeast Georgia Council of the Boy Scouts of America, presenting Phillips and two other area men – Dennis Cathey and Wes Dodd, both of Habersham County, with the Scout’s Distinguished Citizen Award.

Billy Shaw of Toccoa, one of Rick’s good friends, presented Rick to the group of some 200 people attending the Scout’s American Values Dinner.

Shaw described Phillips as “one of the most compassionate persons I have ever met. He has been willing to share the blessings that have come his way. Not only material gifts, but he has shared his time mentoring other business people.”

After receiving his award, Phillips, who is 64, said these words: “I’m honored and humbled. I love my hometown.”

Rick Phillips stands in front of his property on East Doyle Street (former Pruitt Park). Phillips plans to turn the grassy area into Veteran’s Park, memorializing his older brother, William, a captain in the U.S. Army who died in combat in Vietnam.

He added: “For 18 years I tried to leave Toccoa, then I spent 28 years trying to get back home. I wish my mom and dad were alive to see what this kid from cotton mill hill has done. I was raised right… even though we were a poor family. But God has blessed me, not just me, but my wife Letha, too.”

At this point, I’d like to say we’re fortunate Rick decided to return to his hometown. He’s made a real difference in Toccoa and Stephens County, and I believe the best is yet to come.

And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

Litter seems to be everywhere you look these days.

3/12/2019

Every now and then, WNEG Radio receives suggestions from listeners about possible topics for my Tuesday Commentary. All are appreciated.

Recently, WNEG received a thoughtful letter from Edward Watson of Toccoa. He described a “serious problem” in our community.

Mr. Watson’s complaint: litter, litter and more litter… everywhere you look.

Here’s what Edward Watson wrote:

“I have had visitors to my home for the last several years since I have lived here. Everyone says Toccoa is a nice place. The people are welcoming and friendly. But the true beauty is obscured by the overwhelming amount of litter pervasive throughout the city, regardless of what part you are in.”

“Toccoa has a litter culture. I have seen people empty their cars of litter right onto the parking lots at every plaza and shopping center, toss litter from moving vehicles, and routinely discard their garbage right to the ground.”

“Add on top of all this, on trash collection day, our collectors are going so fast that whatever falls out of the garbage truck and onto the streets is left there. I have witnessed this on many occasions.”

His letter continues:

“Litter has accumulated in empty lots, city roadsides and right of ways. Even some businesses have allowed it to build up, with no eye to clean it up. The devil is in the details, and some of our local businesses should be ashamed and embarrassed at how litter is destroying their appeal. And, at the same time, destroying Toccoa’s appeal to visitors.”

So there you have it, Mr. Watson’s letter. He also called on the city and county to do a “massive outreach and education program.”

Plastic bottles are only part of the trash found in
parking lots around town.

Here’s my take on litter. It’s almost impossible to get someone to stop being so thoughtless. I believe it’s only a small minority who thinks the earth is their trash container.
I believe the best approach is simply attack the litter problem every day – the city, the county, organizations, businesses, local citizens who care.
From time to time, I see people in neighborhoods with trash bags patrolling their street’s right-of-way. Good for them. I know some businesses keep their front entrances clean and inviting.


The less litter there is, the less likely someone will throw something out. But sooner or later, litter will appear, come what may. Just ask the folks at Keep Toccoa-Stephens County Beautiful. They’ve battled this problem for years. You pick up litter on a roadside. In two weeks, the litter returns.
We can’t stop it. All we can do is our part… to pick it up, clean it up, do whatever we can.
And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Seniors Akshar Patel, left, and Nikko Beady enjoy the final session of the youth leadership program.

3/5/2019

What’s on the mind of today’s young people?

What changes would they like to see in our community?

Well, I got to hear the thoughts of 24 high school seniors from Stephens County High School, who recently completed a youth leadership program.

The program is sponsored by the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber of Commerce.

In one session, the students were asked what needs changing in our city and county.

Here are some of their answers: Eliminating illegal drugs, addressing school dropout problems, doing something about gangs, more entertainment options.

Also, concern about abandoned buildings around town. Not only abandoned buildings, but abandoned people. They talked about social and economic barriers that exist for many in our community. The isolation some feel. The need for more mental health care.

Stephens County High School senior Breanna Leverett talks about dealing with change.

The session, led by Cynthia Brown of North Georgia Technical College, also addressed this question: What could be done to bring about positive changes?

The high school seniors offered these responses:

More career-oriented jobs in our county.
Connecting more with 18 to 24-year-olds.
More volunteering.
Beautifying our city and county. A lot less litter.
And I like this one, “Act on it.” Yes, do something. Take action.

Student Alex Duran speaks on leadership.

In their final class held last week, the youth leadership group met with the 14 Stephens County residents participating in the adult leadership program.

The youth enjoyed being part of the older group – made up of local citizens in their 20s, 30s and 40s. And the adults enjoyed mixing with these high school seniors.

To really appreciate these students, you needed to be inside the Mitchell Allen Room and hear them talk and engage with others. Their ideas were solid. Their energy and enthusiasm were contagious.

I sensed everyone in the room – both teenagers and adults – were dead serious about making our community a better place to live and work.

Sykia Teasley, a senior at Stephens County High School, is one of 24 SCHS seniors in the Youth Leadership Toccoa-Stephens County program. She joined the U.S. Army last November, and after graduation will report to duty.

This combined session – led by Tim Martin, executive director of the Stephens County Development Authority – focused on leading change in
our community. The youth and adults talked about the role of a leader.

The question was asked: Who is a leader?

One student said anyone who sets a positive example for someone to follow is a leader. Let me repeat: Anyone who sets a positive example is a leader. We all can be leaders.

And that’s something to think about.

During a recent youth leadership session, high school senior Kaylee Sellers models a set of shoulder pads. The pads were presented by Ben Keith and Dustin Keeling, the owners of Savage Innovations, a Stephens County company that produces a plastic product used by major college football teams. The product holds a GPS tracking system that attaches to the back of a player’s shoulder pads. Keith and Keeling talked to the youth about their new 3-D printing firm and their business philosophy.

 

 

 

The WNEG staff are (from left) Ken Brady, M.J. Kneiser, Phil Hobbs, Kathy Cabe, Connie Gaines and Ethan Jordan.

2/26/2019

Hello, again. I appreciate all you WNEG listeners. I know you’re out there because many of you have tell me how much you enjoy listening to the Tuesday Commentary each week.

But I’m just a small, small part – two or three minutes a week – or what goes on at your local community radio station, which broadcasts to a wide listening audience seven days a week, 365 days a year.

But I don’t have to tell you this. You already know. I’ve been listening to WNEG’s morning show host Connie Gaines for years. Connie makes our mornings go better. We also get the latest local news, brought to you by the news team of Ethan Jordan and M.J. Kneiser.

WNEG serves our community with a great team.

Phil Hobbs is vice president and general manager of WNEG and keeps the place humming. He’s a natural radio guy – and can do it all. His play-by-play of high school softball, basketball and baseball games can’t be beat.

Then there’s Ken Brady, the veteran sales manager, who works with community businesses to keep local commercials on the air and current. WNEG supports shopping local and keeps that message going strong every broadcast day.

As for Ken, he’s also the voice of the Indians football team, and has served in this capacity for more than two decades.

Connie Gaines, besides her role as an on-air personality each weekday morning, serves as the station’s operations manager.

As mentioned earlier, Ethan Jordan and M.J. Kneiser handle the local news aired throughout the day. Not many radio stations still have local news, but keeping the public informed has always been a staple at WNEG.

Finally, Kathy Cabe is the receptionist and administrative assistant at the front desk, and keeps the place organized.

So there you have it, the team at WNEG. I appreciate them and know you do too. But in the end, it’s you – the listeners – who make it all possible.

So thanks for listening to WNEG every day. This radio station believes in our community and they believe in you.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Stephens County Registrar Eureka Gober is excited about her new job.
A Toccoa native, Ms. Gober also will serve as the county’s Elections Superintendent.

2/19/2019

Eureka Gober has hit the ground running in her new position as Stephens County’s Registrar and Elections Superintendent.

Usually, she would be breaking into her new job at a slower pace, since the next election under normal circumstances would be Nov. 5, when voters in the City of Toccoa will go to the polls to elect or re-elect three city commissioners.

Instead, Ms. Gober will be overseeing an election in Stephens County
on Tuesday, April 9, in the never-ending saga of Chris Erwin and Dan Gasaway, who will be seeking for the third time the District 28 House seat in the Georgia legislature.

More about that later. First, I want to tell you about Ms. Gober. She is a Toccoa native who attended Whitman Street schools through 11th grade and graduated from Toccoa High School in 1969.

Eureka attended and graduated from Savannah State College, majoring in history and minoring in political science. She returned to Toccoa after college and began working at The Citizen’s Bank.

She later moved to Atlanta, where she worked at Wachovia and then SunTrust Bank. At SunTrust, she was a supervisor in the research and adjustments department.

These jobs, she believes, helped prepare her for the exacting work that takes place in the Registrar’s Office.

As her predecessor, Bill Cochran noted, “there’s something to be learned new almost every week in this job.”

Eureka Gober was sworn into office in December by Superior Court Judge Rusty Smith. She is the new Stephens County Registrar and Elections Superintendent, replacing Bill Cochran, who retired after three years.

Right now, she’s preparing for an election involving House District 28. This district encompasses all of Stephens and Banks counties and a portion of Habersham County.

As you may recall, Erwin won the first election way back in May 2018 by 67 votes. But a court challenge from Gasaway resulted in a re-do election, as ordered by a Superior Court judge when it was pointed out that in Habersham County, more than 67 people had voted in the wrong district.

Even though there were no problems in Stephens County in that first election, the judge ruled that all three counties in District 28 needed to vote again.

In the second election, held on Dec. 4, Erwin won again, this time by only two votes. And once again, Gasaway sued to have the election overturned, citing voting irregularities.

But in a second hearing, the judge dismissed Stephens County from the lawsuit altogether. He noted there was not one voting problem in the Dec. 4 re-do election in Stephens County. And in the recount in Stephens County, results were exactly the same.

However, that same judge ruled there were enough voting irregularities in Banks and Habersham counties to call for a third election, considering the fact that Erwin won by only two votes.

The judge also ruled that Erwin had to vacate his seat. So Erwin went to the State Capitol last week and, as he put it, “cleaned out my stuff.”
But Erwin wasn’t done. His legal team appealed the judge’s ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court, and then made an emergency motion to get a decision by the Supreme Court before the special Primary election in April.

But the Justices on the Georgia Supreme Court, all concurring, denied that motion last Friday, saying Erwin’s case was not on its docket, so there was nothing to expedite.

But the Supreme Court Justices did include in their statement that Erwin’s motion did not actually seek a stay, which would temporarily stop the enforcement of the trial court order. So there could be more legal maneuvering at the Supreme Court level prior to the upcoming April election.

What we know for sure is Erwin’s chair in the state legislature is literally sitting empty this week, and most likely will be empty throughout the remainder of the legislative session, now happening under the Gold Dome.

This means Stephens County, Banks County and a portion of Habersham County have no voice currently in the state House of Representatives. And this … during the session, which ends in March.

With all this whirling around, Eureka Gober and her staff of two part time employees are moving forward, getting ready for Election No. 3.

“We’ll start early voting in March,” Gober said. Of course, absentee voting by mail is part of the process, too.

When asked if this is what she expected in her first few months on the job, Gober just smiled and offered this:

“I’m here for our city and county,” she said. “I want to be the best Registrar this county has ever had. My staff is awesome. Our poll workers do a great job. And I’m here every day giving my best.”

In my book, Eureka Gober will do a great job as Registrar and Elections Superintendent. Like many jobs, there’s more to this one than meets the eye.

But she knew this going in, having served as deputy registrar for two years under Bill Cochran.

So most likely, a third election will be held, unless the Georgia Supreme Court issues a stay on the lower court’s ruling.

But you can be sure Eureka Gober, her staff and the local poll workers
will be ready for another election. Not only ready… you can be sure they will conduct any election in Stephens County with the same honesty and integrity that has been done in previous elections in this county.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

Frank Norton, CEO and chairman of The Norton Agency in Gainesville, gave his annual business forecast on Feb. 5 at the new Lanier Tech Campus, located along the I-985/ 365 corridor north of the Gainesville exit.

2/12/2019

Frank Norton, the CEO and chairman of The Norton Agency in Gainesville, gave his 32nd annual Native Intelligence presentation last week at the new Lanier Tech campus.

He told the crowd that metro-Atlanta’s population is coming our way.

It’s already happened in Gwinnett County, where the population will soon top one million.

During the last 20 years, this rapid growth has moved up I-85 and Georgia 400 – to Forsyth, Jackson and Hall counties.

And this growth is expected to accelerate in the decades ahead.

“We know progress can move at light speed,” Norton said.

But it can create challenges. The main challenge in Northeast Georgia, Norton pointed out over and over again, is the lack of affordable housing. He said this problem exists in every county in Northeast Georgia.

He said almost no single family housing is available in the $150,000 to $200,000 range. This lack of affordable housing… well, Norton was blunt. He calls it a crisis.

And he said a home selling for $225,000 is not considered affordable housing. He pointed out that some counties only want to build homes with a price tag starting at $300,000 or $400,000 dollars.

The new Ramsey Conference Center at Lanier Tech served as the location for Frank Norton’s 2019 Native Intelligence presentation.

He warned if this happens, there will be no housing options for teachers, firefighters, police, or other service workers who keep a county going. They all will have to drive in from somewhere else.

As for Toccoa and Stephens County, Norton pointed out that the completion of the Currahee Connector – a four-lane highway from Toccoa to I-85 – was among several major highway projects completed during Gov. Nathan Deal’s two terms in office.

“We estimate that more pavement has been laid in our region in the last eight years than the 30 years prior,” Norton said.

The good news is this new four-lane highway helps Toccoa and Stephens County when it comes to expanding existing industry or bringing in new business.

I’m sure this new four-lane played a part in the recent announcement by the Georgia Municipal Association naming Toccoa as one of nine cities in Georgia that are a great play to live, work and play.

And by gosh, we are. We have a great downtown. We have Lake Hartwell. We have beautiful rolling hills and mountain views in the distance.

The lobby of the new Lanier Tech conference center.

When I look at a map of Northeast Georgia, I see that lush, green Chattahoochee National Forest stretching from the North Carolina line down into Lumpkin, White, Habersham and Stephens counties.

These counties, along with Rabun, Towns and Union, make up the heart of the Northeast Georgia mountain area – an area I believe offers so much and makes where we live so special. We are different up here.

We’ll get our growth in the years ahead, you better believe it.

And when we do, Toccoa and Stephens County, I believe, is positioned to handle it. We have an almost unlimited water supply. We have a sensible land use plan that provides a way forward.

And sooner or later, let’s hope some home builders start building some affordable housing in our county.

And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

 


A city street sign on Prather Bridge Road that needs replacing.

2/5/2019

Here we are in February and I want to get a few things off my chest. Let’s just call them my personal pet peeves.

Do you remember pet peeves? At my high school, senior class members listed their pet peeves in the yearbook. Things like 6th period English, rainy days, stuck-up people, dead car batteries.

Well, I’ve got a few pet peeves here in Toccoa and Stephens County.

At the top of my list is what I consider mistreatment of animals. When I see a dog chained up in a yard, or put in a small cage all day and night, well, that just doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve even heard that Ping, the black lab at the city golf course, was chained up for awhile. He’s not anymore.

If someone wants to own a dog, then he or she needs to have a fenced-in back yard, or a place big enough for them to run and play.

Now… I’m going to turn my attention to trash pickup and some of our residents.

I’m sure you’ve seen the city dump truck, the one equipped with a big steel arm with a claw at its end. This truck is for picking up trash that will not fit in the roll-out garbage containers. Things like old bicycles, rusted-out grills, playpens, beat-up screen doors, appliances.

City of Toccoa garbage containers are meant to be rolled back
to the home or business after garbage pickup. However, these containers and others on Falls Road, one of the entrances to our community, appear to have a permanent home on the side of the road.

Recently, I’ve seen our residents put out things like a shoe box or a soft-drink carton, and then pile up other loose trash that doesn’t belong on the street. These items belong in your city garbage container. Can you imagine the city dump truck stopping to pick up a soft-drink carton and other loose trash with that big claw? Add a strong wind to the equation and what happens to that loose trash. Not good. Not good at all.

Just as bad are residents who put out their larger items on the street on the wrong day. Everyone knows – or should know – what day is their day for big-item trash pickup.

If your day is a Wednesday, put your old mattress out on Tuesday. Don’t wait until Thursday to throw it out. Who wants to look at a mattress for a week? It’s just common sense.

Finally, I’m going to pick on the City of Toccoa a little bit. It’s times to stripe your parking lines downtown. They faded to the point of disappearing all together. It’s a little thing, but darn it, get ’em re-striped.

And while I’m talking about streets, the city needs to start replacing street signs. Some are faded out. Others are missing. We deserve street signs we can read, and that includes faded-out stop signs.

One sign needs to go all together… it’s the City of Toccoa’s public works sign on Falls Road that gives the direction to the public works department. For one thing, it’s rusted out to the point you can’t read it.

And another, why have this sign at all? Don’t the city garbage truck drivers know where to go to park their trucks at night? They don’t need a sign.

I know these are small things. I’m aware that our city has provided reliable natural gas during these cold, cold days – natural gas that keeps our homes and businesses warm. And we have reliable city water and sewer service.

But let’s make 2019 the year of taking care of the little things. Which reminds me, those city garbage containers need to be rolled back to your home or business after trash pick-up that day. That’s why they are equipped with wheels.

Nobody wants to see these containers sitting around for several days, or in the case of Falls Road, permanently sitting on the sidewalk. Roll ‘em back.

Yes, let’s take care of the little things. It’s going to take all of us to do our part. And that’s something to think about.

 


Dean Scarborough, beginning his 11th year in office, is serving as chairman of the Stephens County Board of Commissioners in 2019.

1/29/2019
Dean Scarborough, a name most people in Stephens County recognize, has begun his 11th year on the Stephens County Board of Commissioners.

This year, he is presiding as chairman of the county commission. And Scarborough should feel comfortable in this job, since this is his fourth time as county commission chair.

Many in our community remember when Dean Scarborough came to town in 1982. He owned and operated Scarborough’s Men’s Shop downtown for 24 years, and he and his wife, Dee, remain active in our community.

Since Dean had a business downtown, he became involved in Main Street Toccoa and the Downtown Development Authority. This civic involvement led him to run for office in 2008.

He was first elected to a two-year term when the county expanded from three to five members. He was re-elected to a four-year term in 2010 and re-elected again in 2014. Last year, he was re-elected to a fourth term, which will run through 2022.

When asked how the county commission has changed over the last ten years, Scarborough laughed and reminded me to travel back in time.

In 2008, the nation’s economy took a nose dive. So did the local economy, and it took some six years before any growth in the local tax digest took place. In fact, our tax digest decreased each year for several years.

It was rough meeting the county’s needs due to a tight, whittled-down budget.

Scarborough credits county administrator Phyllis Ayers, named to that position in 2011, for getting the county operating efficiently and staying in the black, as she worked closely with each county department.

“Phyllis is a Stephens County native who has a heart for the people of this county,” Scarborough said.

He added: “She has brought the county forward in so many ways.”

Of course, it also takes a county governing body with a vision for the future, and it’s my view that Dean Scarborough has been the driving force in keeping the county looking ahead, while staying on track financially.

He admits that keeping the budget under control has been his biggest challenge, even when growth in the tax digest returned in 2015.

“Every department wants more money every year, but there’s not more income every year,” he said. “Our main revenue comes from sales taxes and property taxes, and the growth in both of these has been relatively slow.”

Despite this, the county has remained financially solid, Scarborough said.

When asked what he’s most proud of during his ten years in office, Scarborough was quick to point out – “our land use policy.”

“With the adoption of land use,” Scarborough said, “we are now able to control a lot of things that weren’t controlled in the past — but now, we still have to deal with these problems created years ago. This plan helps us avoid those things in the future.”

He added: “And our plan protects us from the things we don’t want in the county.”

Scarborough pointed out that a new SPLOST initiative – the seventh one – is expected be put on the ballot in 2019. This would be to continue the local option sales tax – a penny on the dollar.

When asked what county projects might be on the ballot to fund, Scarborough said this list hasn’t been finalized, but added things like fire protection, emergency services and ambulances, vehicles for the Sheriff’s Office… all of these are almost a given. The same with the funding for the maintenance of county roads and bridges.

All in all, Scarborough is proud of the county’s efforts to provide local citizens with a variety of services.

“Like Phyllis, I have a heart for this community,” he said. “I want to make sure we live within our means, but I also want to continue making this a great place to live.”

Dean Scarborough has a track record of doing just that. And that’s something to think about.


Gail Fry is looking forward to serving as the mayor for the City of Toccoa in 2019.

1/22/2019

The City of Toccoa has a new mayor for 2019. Gail Fry was selected by her fellow city commissioners to serve in this capacity.

If you recall, Ms. Fry also served as Toccoa mayor in 2014. That year, she made it a point to promote our city every chance she got.

The Toccoa native hopes to do the same in 2019.

“I consider the mayor’s job as being the ambassador for the city,” she told me.

When asked what she is most proud of after serving seven years on the Toccoa City Commission, Fry put it this way: “The main thing is we have a cohesive city commission. We work together well and listen to each other.
It’s okay to disagree and we do at times. But we all see the big picture – doing what’s best for this community.”

Fry was quick to point out another great thing that happened during her tenure. Here’s what she said: “It was bringing Billy Morse back as our city manager. He knows our city and cares about it. He has great people skills. Not only that, he has such institutional knowledge and is so well-respected throughout the state. Billy Morse simply knows how to get the job done.”

Fry noted that in the last few years – the city has developed a “really good working relationship with the county.”

“After all, we’re all part of the same community,” she said.

Fry is a retired educator – with 40 years in the local school system. She was principal of Big A Elementary School for five years.

Both she and Terry Carter joined the city commission at the same time – in 2012. Since that time, Fry said the city has done a lot to improve the quality of life for its citizens.

“We restored the Ritz Theatre. We brought back the golf course. We remodeled Reflections at Lake Toccoa And we built a new city pool from scratch. Last summer we had 10,000 kids swimming in that pool. The Ritz is going strong and Reflections has become a popular event center. In fact, we already have 39 weekends booked at Reflections this year.”

Fry said more work is expected to happen soon at Lake Toccoa. A wooden pavilion overlooking the lake will be built this year. So will a fishing pier.

On another front, Fry pointed out the city will continue its efforts in code enforcement when it comes dilapidated houses, commercial buildings and lots.

“Some 80 structures in the city have been demolished in the last few years,” she said.

Still, a number of challenges face the city, according to Fry.

She pointed out that aging infrastructure is a problem, noting that the city’s wastewater plant needs updating and the price tag for this modernization is $9 million dollars.

“Our goal is to continue to provide quality services to the public, whether its water, sewer or natural gas,” she said. “That’s why we will be looking to put some of these major infrastructure projects on the next SPLOST vote, which should be on the ballot in November.”

As mayor, Fry has her plate full this year. And she’s charging ahead .
“I feel like I’m serving the people and making a difference,” she told me.
To that, I say, what more could you ask for? And that’s something to think about.


Roger Forgey worked 15 months as Chief Executive Officer of Stephens County Hospital, where he turned around a dire financial situation. His last day at work was Jan. 9, 2019.

1/15/2019
Stephens County Hospital will get a new chief executive officer in April.

Right now, I want to comment on the man who led Stephens County Hospital for the last 15 months.

Roger Forgey was brought in as a consultant by the hospital’s board of directors in August 2017 to make recommendations to turn around the dire financial situation our community hospital found itself in.

Jim Halsey, respiratory care manager at Stephens County Hospital, thanks Forgey for his leadership. Forgey made it a priority to communicate with all employees on a regular basis.

Three months later, in October 2017, the board realized Forgey’s strength as a leader and named him chief executive officer. This put him in charge of the hospital’s finances and operations. He was on the hot seat.

At the time, Forgey faced a daunting task. Patient volume had dropped by 30 percent, caused by a number of complicated factors.

But the financial numbers spoke for themselves. In 2016, our hospital suffered a loss of $5 million dollars. In 2017, the loss was $5.2 million. And the hospital was on track in 2018 to lose $8 million.

Yes, the financial situation was dire… so dire it led the Stephens County Commission to back $15 million dollars in revenue bonds sold by the hospital… $10 million for operational expenses and $5 million for capital improvements.

In essence, the county’s decision meant that if the hospital was unable to repay the bonds and interest owed on them, the county would be on the hook, and ultimately the Stephens County taxpayers.

So Forgey had his work cut out for him… and then some.

As the new CEO, he immediately put a plan in place to make the hospital operations sustainable. And Forgey and his new leadership team at the hospital methodically began to implement that plan.

Did I mention all this happened in a 15-month time span?

When all was said and done, approximately 85 positions were eliminated at the hospital, cutting $3 million dollars in expenses annually.

That $8 million projected loss in 2018 didn’t happen. Instead, the hospital showed an $800,000 loss at the end of the 2018 fiscal year, and is on track in 2019 to make a slight profit.

Angie King, senior director for medical outreach and rehabilitation at Stephens County Hospital, hugs Roger Forgey at a retirement breakfast. King noted: “He made all the difference in the world” after taking over as hospital CEO.

Although staff was cut, a committed group of 400 full-time employees, along with another 70 part-time employees, remained. These employees bought into Forgey’s plan of action and things began to happen.

“One thing was key,” Forgey told me in a wide-ranging interview last week, “we had to eliminate the reasons why the people of Stephens County would leave for care when the same care was provided locally.”

With this in mind, the new team recognized a number of changes had to be made. The starting point was the emergency room.

Forgey told me: “Since we implemented our changes in the ER, wait times have improved remarkably. The wait time from door to doctor – that is, the time it takes from when you walk in the door until you see a doctor – has dropped from an average of 93 minutes to 18 minutes.”

But the ER wasn’t the only operation rebooted.

“We overhauled system after system,” Forgey said.

Thinking about these changes, Forgey commented: “I’m grateful to our entire staff. They trusted the leadership team to make the changes we needed to make.”

In our interview, Forgey told me that telling employees up front what he was doing was essential in getting them to buy in to the changes.

“You’ve got to let your employees know what’s going on,” he said. “and keep them informed on a regular basis, not just one time. You’ve got to keep the local doctors informed too, and, really, the entire community. ”

As I see it, leadership – in its essence – is a transfer of belief. As a leader, Forgey accomplished this by getting employees on board, and hopefully the community.

 

Samantha Rickman, left, director of community relations at Stephens County Hospital, enjoys the moment as retiring Stephens County Hospital CEO Roger Forgey opens well-wishing cards and gifts. James Addison, new Stephens County Commissioner, looks on.

 

And Forgey believes the time will be right in the future for a partnership with a larger medical institution. But he said the timing must be right.

“Stephens County Hospital must constantly re-invent itself,” he said. “No hospital today can stand still.”

Forgey noted that although the hospital is on track to make a profit this fiscal year, there’s no room for complacency.

Stephens County Hospital’s finances are still fragile, he said, but noted that the hospital is paying off those revenue bonds each month, and overall is positioned to succeed.

I personally want to thank Roger Forgey and the board of directors at Stephens County Hospital, who appointed him CEO. In my view, Forgey and the employees helped save our hospital… at least for now.

We should do all we can to help them succeed.

Last week, on the same day Forgey retired, the hospital board selected a new CEO. He will be coming in April.

His vision – and the board’s vision – will be needed to build on what Roger Forgey began.

Our hospital cannot afford to stand still. The new CEO must have a vision, and be able to transfer his beliefs to the employees and the community. He must hit the ground running.

And that’s something to think about.


We are given one day at a time, and must choose how we spend that day.

1/8/2019

Hello, listeners. I’ve taken the last two Tuesdays off, but glad to be back on the air at WNEG AM and FM and glad you’re tuned in.

We are a week into 2019, and I want to share some personal thoughts with you.

Right now, I realize each of us are in a different place in our lives. You may be young, middle aged or a senior citizen.

No matter how old we are, or really what our circumstances are at the moment, we have a new year before us.

I believe we only are given one day at a time, and how we live each day will determine what kind of year we have.

Now, I realize some of you may be battling sickness.

Others of you may have lost a loved one, and are dealing with that deep loss.

Or, maybe your financial situation is shaky, as you try to make ends meet from week to week.

These situations are tough.

You may not be able to control what happens to you in life. But you can control how you will respond to your situation. No matter what condition you find yourself in, you can control your attitude.

This freedom to choose is what makes us human, and gives us a chance to change. We must never lose faith in the future. We must never give up hope.

With this in mind, I want to share with you some things that are most meaningful to me.

It is the simple things… like watching TV at night with my wife, Patti. Or getting a surprise visit from our son and grandson. Baby Hayes is really not a baby any more… he’s almost one and half years old.

What a great age to be. To this little guy, the entire world is a place of wonder. For many of us – myself included – we have lost some of that wonder along the way. But it’s never too late to gain some back.

It’s the little things that keep us going and make life worth living. It’s the human connection – from family and friends – that makes life worthwhile.

I hope each of you has somebody you can count on. I know there are plenty of people in this community who share with others and constantly give of themselves.

And isn’t this what life is really about – being there for others.

If you are lonely or hurting and need a caring soul, reach out to someone.

If you are a kind individual, look around and find someone who may need a human connection.

It’s a new year, and I wish for each of you the best. No matter your circumstances, remember you have the freedom to choose your attitude.

May you choose courage and hope. And that’s something to think about.


James A. Neal, Sr. – 1933-2018

 

12/18/2018

One of Toccoa’s giants has been laid to rest.

James A. Neal Sr., owner of Moss-Stovall-Neal Funeral Home, died on Dec. 6 at age 85.

I’m not sure whether leaders are born or made, but I’m sure of one thing – James Neal Sr. was a leader – no matter where he served.

He was a leader in the funeral industry, a leader at Friendship Baptist Church in Toccoa, a leader at Toccoa City Hall, a leader in the Georgia Municipal Association. Yes, he was a respected leader. But to many, he also was a real friend.

When I talked to James Neal’s older son, Jimmy, about his father, I asked Jimmy if he could sum up his father and his time on this Earth.

“Service,” Jimmy replied. “My father believed in service to others.”

I truly believe Mr. Neal’s desire to serve and help others was the key to his success when elected to the Toccoa City Commission. He was elected five times, and served a total of 22 years, a record that still stands for the longest serving Toccoa city commissioner.

During his 22 years at City Hall, James A. Neal Sr. was selected by the Commission as Toccoa’s mayor five different times. Only current Toccoa Mayor David Austin, completing 19 years in office this year, has matched the five-time mayor achievement.

Mayor Austin had this to say about Mr. Neal’s legacy at City Hall.

“He was on the Commission when I was first elected in 1999,” Austin recalled. “I looked to him to guide me, which he did. He was my mentor. I would watch him conduct a meeting and learned by example.”

Austin continued: “I also learned that Mr. Neal was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He always spoke his mind, and you always knew exactly where you stood. Our city is a better city today because of James Neal.”

City Manager Billy Morse agreed, saying Mayor Neal “was always promoting Toccoa around the state and always looking at what other communities did well so we could take advantage of those ideas.”

Morse said Neal’s lasting legacy “was securing a water supply for our community by pushing the Lake Yonah water project.”

Yes, Neal made decisions that moved Toccoa forward. He was a bold thinker and a bold leader.

He attended Whitman Street High School in Toccoa and graduated in 1952.

“There were 17 seniors in his graduating class, and all but three took the train north after graduation,” his son Jimmy recalled. “They left Toccoa as quickly as they could.”

“My father told friends he planned to stay in Toccoa,” Jimmy continued. “He said he wanted wear a suit every day and make a living in Toccoa serving others.”

Mr. Neal did leave Toccoa, but only long enough to attend North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, and after that, to serve two years in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Infantry Division.

He had an opportunity for advancement with the Army, but knew what he wanted – and what he wanted was a life in Toccoa and a life in the funeral business. So Neal returned home, and in 1956 joined Moss-Stovall Funeral Home.

This photo, taken years ago, shows James Neal and his wife, Queenelle, at a function of the Georgia Municipal Association, the organization that serves cities throughout Georgia. Mr. Neal was on the GMA board for years, and named GMA president in 1990.

 

By 1968, he had become the sole owner of Moss-Stovall-Neal, but kept the Moss and Stovall name out of respect for Bishop Moss and Mack Stovall. And during the 60s and 70s, Neal and his wife, Queenelle, began a family and reared three children in Toccoa: Yvette, Jimmy and Anthony.

Their sons later joined their father in the funeral business, and today own and operate Moss-Stovall-Neal.

James’s daughter, Yvette, of Atlanta, has many ties to her hometown. She met with many friends who told her the one word that best describes her father was integrity.

“He had integrity, and was the same in public or in private,” Yvette said. “If he would say he would do something, he would do it. He set an example for us to operate in the same way.”

Yvette said her father “always had a smile, and treated everybody as equals. He was such a good friend to so many. He did a lot for so many people, but never told anyone. He operated out of humility.”

Gervonte Brown, a young Toccoa citizen and one of Neal’s pallbearers, summed it up this way: “Mr. James A. Neal Sr. loved his family, loved his church, loved his business. loved his community. And he led with a passion. We need to speak up for the things he spoke up for.”

Finally, Agnes Oglesby described Neal as “the best friend ever. He was loyal and dependable… an encourager. James Neal was just a good man.”

Yes, this community lost a good man when James Neal died. But I know his influence will continue in our community because of the many lives he has touched.

And that’s something to think about.


The Toccoa soup kitchen and Toccoa food bank, located on Whitman Street, are now part of The Hope Center of Toccoa.

12/11/2018
The Christmas season is a time for reflection, a time for giving, a time for helping others.

But mainly, Christmas is a time for hope. So what better time than December to hold a ribbon cutting for The Hope Center of Toccoa, located in the old Whitman Street School on Whitman Street, near downtown Toccoa.

What is The Hope Center? It’s the name of the facility that now houses the Toccoa Soup Kitchen and the Toccoa food pantry, and new services – which include showers and laundry facilities.

So who’s behind these changes? His name is Steve Paysen, a local Toccoa man who happens to be married to Julie Paysen, the president of the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber of Commerce.

Steve Paysen tells the crowd gathered last week at the new Hope Center of Toccoa about additions that have been made at the center.

 

Steve travels throughout the country bringing the message of Christ to youth groups and others. He also coordinates these groups to volunteer to help others.

This led him to check into the local soup kitchen and the work it was doing.
He found out that Gary Lance had been keeping the soup kitchen going for more than 30 years, but Gary was looking to retire from his volunteer position.

“Who’s going to replace you?” Steve asked.

Gary looked at him and asked, “Why not you?”

 

Gary Lance was recognized for his 32 years of volunteer work with the Toccoa Soup Kitchen.

Long story short, Paysen got involved and began to see possibilities beyond the soup kitchen and emergency food pantry. He had a vision, but Paysen’s main strength has been involving others in our community, such as Habitat for Humanity, whose members built the showers.

Other individuals, businesses and churches have lent their support, both financially and otherwise, that has made The Hope Center of Toccoa a reality.

Toccoa Police Chief Jimmy Mize greets the two cooks – Pat Patterson (left) and Tim Holland – who keep the soup kitchen humming.

Just before the ribbon cutting last week, Paysen told the crowd of some
40 people: “What you are seeing here is the generosity of our community.”

He emphasized again and again the many caring people in Toccoa and Stephens County – the people who made The Hope Center of Toccoa possible.

What a wonderful Christmas gift this has been to our community… and what a gift to those in our community who need a hot meal, clean clothes or even a hot shower. Sometimes a little help can go a long way.

And that’s something to think about.

 


George Herbert Walker Bush, our 41st President,
died November 30 at the age of 94.

 

12/4/2018

Since I started these commentaries more than a year ago, I’ve kept to local issues, local people, local happenings.

This week I’m breaking my “only local” rule to remember our 41st U.S. President, George Herbert Walker Bush.

As you know, President Bush died last week at 94. His body will lie in state today under the rotunda at the U.S. Capitol. His funeral will be held at 11 a.m. this Wednesday at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., with burial the following day at the Bush Presidential Library on the campus of Texas A&M University.

He will be buried beside his beloved wife, Barbara, who died some eight months ago. They were married 73 years.

The elder Bush was the last president of the Greatest Generation and the last president to be a World War II veteran. In 1942, when he turned 18, he signed up as a naval aviator.

Many of you know his war experience… at age 19, he was shot down over the Pacific Ocean after flying a bombing mission. A U.S. submarine crew found him floating alone in a rubber raft and pulled him aboard.

After the war, Bush moved his family to Odessa, Texas, where he started an oil company. He craved public service, though, and over the years served as a congressman, ambassador to China, CIA director, and vice president to President Ronald Reagan for two terms.

He won the presidency in 1988, serving one term – 1989 through 1992.

The elder Bush grew up in a world where politics was a means to serve the public good, according to historian Jon Meacham.

Meacham noted that perhaps President Bush’s finest moment was working with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to end the world’s deadliest standoff, the Cold War.

When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, Bush didn’t gloat or rub it in to the world’s other superpower, the Soviet Union.

Instead, he worked with Gorbachev and other world leaders to insure a peaceful transition as Germany reunited. Bush and Gorbachev also set into motion a drastic reduction in the world’s nuclear weapons.

“Before Bush got to the White House,” Meacham noted, “a nuclear Armageddon between America and the Soviet Union was always a possibility; after him, it was unthinkable.”

These accomplishments were great. Yet, we also remember President Bush as a family man, a man who called for a “kinder, gentler” America.

He believed in duty, sacrifice and commitment. He described these as “timeless values.”

Finally, President Bush gave advice on living: “I see history,” he said. “as a book with many pages, and each day we fill a page with acts of hopefulness and meaning.”

And that is something to think about.


Andrea and Stephen Orr and their three children were among the hundreds of local residents who enjoyed last year’s Christmas Fest in downtown Toccoa.

 

11/27/18
Back when my children were growing up, I told them we needed to wait until after Thanksgiving before listening to Christmas music. It seemed like the logical thing to do. And that’s what we did.

Now, my 41-year-old daughter tells me her family enjoys the sounds of Christmas music whenever they feel like it. This year, they started listening two weeks before Thanksgiving.

And I say, why not? Looking back, my music rule seems silly. There are so many beautiful songs – from the many Christmas carols we enjoy to the long list of popular holiday favorites. “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” remind us of why we have Christmas. Then, there’s “White Christmas”, “Silver Bells” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”

If you haven’t noticed, it really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas in downtown Toccoa.

Thanks to City of Toccoa and Stephens County, our town is decked out with a variety of Christmas decorations, centered on the lawn of the historic courthouse.

And this Friday evening, Nov. 30, we all can enjoy the beautiful decorations together during the ninth annual Christmas Fest, sponsored by Main Street Toccoa.

Christmas Fest starts at 5 p.m. and will continue until 8 p.m., when the lighting of the City of Toccoa’s Christmas tree takes place. The giant tree is located on the courthouse square facing Sage Street – right across from the Cornerstone Antique Mall.

Part of this Friday’s event is the annual Festival of Trees, located upstairs in the historic courthouse.

Of course, old Santa will be on hand Friday night, talking with children, teenagers and adults alike. So you may want to update your Christmas list.

This Friday’s event also will include Santa’s express train, carriage rides, ice skating and a live nativity scene. And many stores will be open late.

So wear your heavy coats, gloves and scarves and come out this Friday to downtown Toccoa. Enjoy the sights and sounds of Christmas.

And the very next day – this Saturday, December 1, the annual Toccoa Christmas Parade gets underway at 4 p.m.

As the song says, “We need a little Christmas… right this very minute.”
And we’re getting it this Friday and Saturday. See you downtown!


I’m thankful for downtown Toccoa – a real downtown.

 

11/20/2018

Thanksgiving is upon us. In two days, we’ll be eating turkey and dressing and maybe some sweet potato pie.

I hope you will be able to share this day with someone else. I think a Thanksgiving Day meal was meant to be shared.

So, if you know someone who is living alone and has no relatives nearby, you may want to invite them over for lunch or dinner.

In the meantime, I want to take the time today to share with you some things I’m thankful for.

First, I’m thankful I moved to Toccoa in 1973 – 45 years ago this fall – as a 22-year-old single guy who got a job with The Toccoa Record. I was hired as a cub reporter, and learned more in those few years at the Record than probably in any other job I ever had.

I’m also thankful that Toccoa is located near Athens, where Patti was still in school. We were engaged and she was finishing up her degree at UGA.
Yes, I drove down to Athens on many a weekend during my first year in Toccoa.

Next, I’m thankful that the following fall, Patti joined me in Toccoa after we got married that summer. I’m thankful the school board hired her to teach at Carnes Creek Elementary.

And how could I not be thankful for the birth of our two children: Salli in 1977 and Garrett in 1981. More than that, I’m thankful Patti knew about rearing children. I didn’t have a clue, in retrospect.

Now, let’s fast-forward to today. After 45 years of living in Toccoa, I still love this place. I love that the Tugalo River and Lake Hartwell form our eastern boundary. I love Currahee Mountain – even with the towers. I love the majesty of Toccoa Falls, the beautiful creeks that run through our county, the rolling hills, the towering oak trees.

I’m thankful for downtown Toccoa. It’s a real downtown, with places to eat, places to shop, places to get your hair styled. Both the city and county government buildings are right downtown, along with the chamber office, the Currahee Military Museum, the depot and our wonderful local public library.

I’m thankful for our Stephens County Schools, the Mountain Ed campus, for Toccoa Falls College and the Currahee Campus of North Georgia Tech. These young people are our hope for the future.

I’m thankful I can hear the sound of trains rumbling on the tracks late at night, and love to see those passenger trains arriving in the night and actually stopping at our depot.

I could go on and on. But you know what, when I think about my 45 years spent living and raising a family in Toccoa and Stephens County, the main thing I remember is all the wonderful people who over the years have crossed paths with our family.

So many have enriched our lives, so many more than I could have ever conceived when I first moved here.

So, Happy Thanksgiving. Think of others. In giving, we receive.

And that’s something to think about.

 


Bill Cochran and Eureka Gober at the Stephens County Registrar’s Office at the Courthouse Annex two days after the general election. Mr. Cochran will retire at the end of this week, and Ms. Gober will succeed him as the county’s new Registrar and Elections Superintendent.

11/13/2018

A lot has been written and reported about last week’s midterm election in our nation.

I want to talk about our local election in Stephens County. After all, in Georgia each county – all 159 of them – is responsible for holding its own election. Statewide, the same national and state races are on the ballot. But each county has different local races.

That’s why every county’s ballot is unique – those local races make it so.

In Stephens County, we had no contested local races in the general election because those races were decided earlier this year during the May primaries. They will begin their four-year terms on January 1, 2019.

With no locals to vote for, the most important race by far on the general election ballot was the governor’s race. Stephens County voters did what they have done for almost two decades – they voted heavily for all Republican candidates, including governor.

Brian Kemp, the former Secretary of State, carried Stephens County with 81 percent of the vote. His Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, received 18 percent of the vote in our county.

Now that the dust has settled and provisional ballots have been dealt with, it appears Kemp is on his way to the governor’s mansion in January. But there’s still some legal wrangling going on to insure all votes have been counted.

A few days after the election, I spent some time with Stephens County’s Registrar and Elections Superintendent Bill Cochran.

This was Bill’s final election because he is retiring this Friday, Nov, 16. His replacement will be Eureka Gober, who has been working alongside Bill this past year. She was on a list of candidates given to Superior Court Judge Rusty Smith, who made the final selection.

So Ms. Gober will be in charge of the run-off election on Dec. 4.


Eureka Gober at work at the courthouse annex.

It seems appropriate at this time to commend Bill and Eureka and the group of dedicated poll workers for the professional job they have done – in the May primary election, the July runoff election and last week’s general election.

One thing we’ve learned about Stephens County voters – they like to vote early. And boy did they vote early in last week’s general election.

When all was said and done, the early votes cast represented 72 percent of the total.

As for those provisional ballots you have been hearing about, Stephens County ended up with 39 of them. Those ballots were dealt with last Friday by a five-member election committee that included a representative from each political party.

These people using a provisional ballot had until last Friday to bring in information, such as their home address, to help determine if their ballot should count.

All in all, the general election in Stephens County went smoothly when you realize a total of 8,993 local citizens voted without incident. And the longest waits last Tuesday at the Senior Center were 10 to 15 minutes tops.

In the meantime – and this is no joke – early voting starts today in Stephens County for a re-do of the state representative race between incumbent Dan Gasaway and his challenger Chris Erwin.

It’s been a long time – almost a half of year – when we first voted in this race.

The winner in this upcoming election will serve in the state House, representing all of Stephens County, all of Banks County and a portion of Habersham County.

You may recall that Gasaway, who lost that May primary election by 67 votes, filed a lawsuit after he learned some voters in Habersham County were placed in the wrong district, thus not getting to vote in this race.

In September, a Superior Court Judge ruled that all three counties must hold a “re-run” of this primary election between the two Republicans. Election day will be Tuesday, Dec. 4.

As noted, early voting in this race begins today at the courthouse annex in Stephens County. So prepare to vote again unless you’ve moved out of the county or if you voted Democratic in the May primary.

The judge’s ruling stated that residents who voted Republican in this primary and still reside in the county can vote in the re-run. Or, if you didn’t vote at all in the May primary, but are registered to vote, you also are eligible to vote in this race.

It’s all a little complicated. And I know everyone is ready for this political year to be over. But one more time at the polls is not to much to ask.

And that’s something to think about.


Voters across our country are participating in the 2018 General Election today, with both national and state races on the line in Georgia. No contested local races are on the ballot in Stephens County.

 

11/6/2018

The 2018 General Election is happening today – in Stephens County and throughout our nation. Have you voted?

If you took advantage of Early Voting, then you are among the 2.1 million Georgians who already voted in the General Election. These early votes will be counted tonight, along with the votes cast today, Nov. 6 – Election Day.

When all is said and done, Georgia will have a new governor effective Jan. 1, 2019. He or she will serve a four-year term, succeeding Gov. Nathan Deal.

There are other state races on the ballot, as well. Locally, school board members and county commissioners on the ballot who ran as Republicans will be elected or re-elected since they have no opposition.

This year’s General Election is referred to as the midterms because it the two-year period between presidential elections. All 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are up for election or re-election, and 35 U.S. Senate seats will be determined.

No matter who wins after today’s election, higher turnout is always a good thing. The more people who vote, the more representative they are of the public at large.

So, here’s my message to you today. Voting matters. In our democracy, it matters a great deal.

And guess what? Not voting is a form of voting, because you give away your power. Voting is the most powerful civic act a citizen can do.

Georgia voting stickers are a way to remind others to vote.

 

So, if you voted early, good for you. I did. But I know many people who prefer to cast their ballot on Election Day. It makes them feel part of a bigger process, where they are helping to shape our country, our state, our county.

If you already have voted today, then good for you. Remember, the only local polling place on Election Day is at the Stephens County Senior Center on Rose Lane. The polls opened at 7 a.m. and will remain open until
7 o’clock tonight.

I know it’s been a long, drawn-out political season, and most of us will be glad when it’s over.

Despite this, vote today – if you haven’t voted already. It’s so important. The best way to protect democracy is to practice it. That means voting. So if you haven’t cast your ballot today, get out there and do it.

It’s our government… it’s up to us. Every vote really does make a difference. And that is something to think about.

 


A poster advertising “Dump Your Junk” day.

 

10/30/18

We all enjoy living in a clean community.

That’s why this Saturday, Nov. 3, is so important.

The day is known as “Dump Your Junk for Free” day. If you have something in your house you need to get rid of – from old mattresses to junk appliances, really anything except tires and liquids – then bring them to the collection point at the Stephens County Road Department on Scenic Drive.

The county will accept all junk and garbage, no matter how small or large, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on this day. And it will cost you nothing to bring in these items, no matter how large or small. Just bag your small items.

The county will have large dumpsters in place, where your junk will be deposited. Not only that, Habitat for Humanity will be on site to pick up any good used items.

The only requirement for bringing in your junk is that all vehicles must have a Stephens County tag. In other words, no junk from outside Stephens County will be allowed. Your junk can be brought in by car, pick-up truck, even on a trailer.

Support for this effort, led by Stephens County government, includes the City of Toccoa, The Toccoa Record, the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber, the Stephens County Sheriff’s Office and Keep Toccoa-Stephens County Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that is doing great work.

I recently sat down with two board members of Keep Toccoa-Stephens County Beautiful – Tim Hale and Rose Means – and I learned a lot about their organization and how the City of Toccoa and Stephens County governments have picked up the pace when it comes to keeping our community clean.

As an example, both the city and the county now have prisoner crews picking up litter and sprucing up places both downtown and out in the county.

And the county operates five convenience centers throughout the county for household garbage disposal. These centers has one bin for recycling cardboard, cans and plastics. Every county citizen can use these convenience centers for free. The main one – on White Pines Road near the high school – is open every day but Sunday.

The city and county commissions also have given their support to Keep Toccoa-Stephens County Beautiful.

As for this organization, its goal is to inspire the people of Stephens County to take greater responsibility for keeping our community clean.

Rose Means and Tim Hale, board members of Keep Toccoa-Stephens County Beautiful, encourage all citizens to take advantage of the “Dump Your Junk” day this Saturday.

The organization also seeks to foster strong environmental stewardship. They believe this will lead to real improvement in the attractiveness and livability of our county.

Here’s how Tim Hale put it: “Progressive businesses often relocate to join a community that is committed to being a great place to live, work and grow. Clean and blight-free surroundings and proper respect for law and order attract progressive businesses and discourages the kind of companies that would take advantage of lax enforcement.”

Rose Means pointed out that the fight against litter and blight “is a never-ending battle.” But she and Hale both believe that the city and county’s efforts over the last eight years has really helped the cause.

The first Dump Your Junk Day in 2016 brought in 40 tons of junk. The next year 100 tons were collected. Earlier this year, in April, the amount collected grew to 150 tons – and just as much is expected this Saturday.

Hale admits it costs the city and county money to keep our community clean. But he added the cost of not getting rid of litter and blight would be much greater.

So, see you at Scenic Drive this Saturday, Nov. 3. Clean up your house and yard, and bring it in at no charge to you. It will make you feel better, and will go a long way helping to keep our community clean.

And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.


The new School of Nursing at TFC focuses on graduating Christian servant leaders who will excel in compassionate, patient-centered care.

10/23/2018

Something exciting is happening at Toccoa Falls College this semester.

That something: 21 nursing students have begun their senior year at TFC. They will be the first nursing class to graduate from the new Fetterman School of Nursing.

Deborah Alvater is the new Dean of Nursing at Toccoa Falls College, and has been instrumental in getting the program up and running.

She says the nursing school is the culmination of a vision that began 70 years ago, when Stephens County Hospital was founded. Even then, there was talk of the college having a nursing school that would benefit the hospital.

 

Deborah Alvater is Dean of Nursing at the new Fetterman School of Nursing. She was instrumental in getting the program up and running at Toccoa Falls College. The first nursing class will graduate in May 2019.

 

In the 1960s, Toccoa Falls College donated 24 acres of land to the hospital trustees – and that property is where a new Stephens County Hospital was built… and remains today.
Now, Toccoa Falls College soon will be able to provide qualified nurses to our local hospital, and other hospitals in the area.

The dream of a nursing school at Toccoa Falls College finally became a reality last fall, when the Fetterman School of Nursing opened its doors to 21 students.

It took a lot of planning and work to make this possible. It also took a major financial donation to build and equip the nursing school. This occurred when Hal and Susan Fetterman of Ohio donated $1 million, and promised another one million in their will.

 

The faculty at the new Fetterman School of Nursing at Toccoa Falls College are, from left, assistant professor Kristi Hendrix, assistant professor Angie Foster, Dean of Nursing Deborah Alvater, and assistant professor Dr. Teresa Linck.

The college held a ribbon cutting for the building last April. Four months later, in August 2017, the first nursing students began their nursing classes in the Fetterman School of Nursing building, located in the center of campus..

When these 21 students complete their studies in May 2019, they will be the first nursing class to graduate from the college.

When asked about the most rewarding part of all this, Dean Alvater replied: “Working with students who have been called by God to nursing. They view nursing as a sacred ministry.”

She says this Christ-filled compassion is what sets TFC’s nursing school apart.

“Christ and his ministry prepared the way for us,” Alvater said. “We want to show the same tenderness and love to our brothers and sisters.”

She added: “At our School of Nursing, we stand ready to make a difference in our world by sending forth the best and the brightest to care for the health of all.”

 

Nursing students at Toccoa Falls College study together in the conference room at the new nursing school building.

 

The way I see it, we are blessed to have this new School of Nursing in Toccoa and Stephens County. What an impact these 21 students will have, locally and around the globe. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 


This movie poster at Habersham Hills Cinemas promotes “First Man,” a film that tells the story of Neil Armstrong and his mission to the moon.

10/16/2018

These days, I still enjoy seeing movies in theaters. To me, nothing beats seeing a great movie on the big screen. And, the one I recently saw needs to be seen on the big screen.

“First Man” was released nationwide over the weekend to great reviews. I didn’t have to drive far to see it. The film is playing at Habersham Hills Cinemas, located up the road just 11 miles from downtown Toccoa.

This 2-hour, 20-minute film grabbed me from the first scene – both the action and the music. Neil Armstrong, as a young pilot, is strapped inside the cockpit of a test rocket that reached the earth’s thin atmosphere, then dropped rapidly back down to earth.

The film is adapted from a book by James Hansen and stars the veteran actor Ryan Goslin as Neil Armstrong. Clare Foy plays Armstrong’s wife, Janet. Both are superb.

The action takes place between 1961 and 1969. It ends with the Apollo 11 spaceflight that landed two men on the moon for the first time. We all know Neil Armstrong was the first man to touch foot on the moon’s surface. Twenty minutes later, fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin joined him.

These two navigated the lunar module Eagle to the moon’s surface after it separated from the command module, which continued to orbit the moon.

Of course, it was Armstrong whose footprint appeared first on the moon’s surface. The entire mission – from earth to the moon and back – took eight days and captivated the world.

But this movie is so much more than sending a manned spacecraft to the moon. From the beginning, we are introduced to Armstrong’s wife and his young children.

As I watched, I realized how little I knew about Neil Armstrong, much less his family. The film is an intimate story, remarkably told.

Scenes of family life are interspersed with life at NASA. And like many families, things on the inside are not always what they appear to be.

Watching “First Man” makes you realize what a miracle it was that the three-man crew on Apollo 11, commanded by Armstrong, made it to the moon at all, much less returned safely to earth.

The technology inside the cockpit of their spacecraft seems so old-fashioned and quaint – with dials and knobs and analogue devices. How the spacecraft stayed together during the eight-day mission is amazing.

There are many layers to this movie, but one stood out: the Apollo moon missions made it possible for all of us to see earth in a whole different way – as that blue marble suspended in space.

For most of human history, it’s been impossible for us to put earth in cosmic perspective. Even now, precious few have rocketed into orbit and seen the earth this way, with its thin atmosphere. Less than 600 people have had this rarified experience.

These space travelers, including Armstrong, shared similar impressions: it’s life on earth that’s so precious; all we have is each other.

That, my friends, is something to think about.

 


The leaves on this red maple tree in Stephens County have only slightly begun to change color, even as the days grow shorter. Where’s autumn?

10/9/2018

I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll have autumn this year.

What happened to those crisp mornings, when I would return from walking the dog and announce to Patti: “There’s a nip of autumn in the air.”

For the last few weeks, we haven’t come close to a “nip of autumn.”

Do you remember a time in Toccoa during the first week in October when daytime temperatures hit 92 degrees? It’s been hot, in case you haven’t noticed. Hot, hot, hot.

Many years ago, someone told me that they liked autumn because they could turn off the air conditioner, but didn’t need to run the heater either.
It was a utility-free month or two.

Well, I don’t mind paying those higher bills to Hart EMC to keep my A-C running. Well actually, I do mind. But that’s not the point.

We all live by the seasons, especially in Northeast Georgia. We expect the temperatures to gradually get cooler – during the day and especially during the evening. We expect to see the leaves on the tulip poplars turn bright yellow and orange in September. We expect to see a hint of color on the maple trees by now.

Just a few days ago, I talked with Christen Collier, a Stephens County native. He thought back to his boyhood days, remembering camping trips held in early October.

“We would pack for cold weather, especially for those early mornings when we needed extra clothing to stay warm.”

Flash forward to the autumn of 2018. Christen told me he single-handedly has been painting his house all summer long. All the while, he has fought off mosquitoes and yellow jackets. He’s still painting, trying to finish up, and still fighting mosquitoes and yellow jackets… in October.

I know we’re expecting rain later this week… at least that’s what Connie Gaines tells us the weather folks are predicting. We should get a slight cool-down with clouds and a few showers.

But I want fall. I want the air to be crisp and fresh. I want the sky as blue as can be. I want to wear a sweater in the morning.

I know it’s coming. It always does. But my friends, I just hope we don’t miss autumn all together and Old Man Winter blows in by November.

That would be rough. But at least I can take comfort knowing we’ll be back on Eastern Standard Time the first Sunday in November. Maybe by then, we’ll all get to wear a sweater.

And that’s something to think about.


10/2/2018

Every community needs a story about itself. Some places have great stories, others… not so much.

As for Toccoa, we have a great story to tell. Yes, we’ll among those fortunate enough to have a proud history: Camp Toccoa at Currahee and all that goes with it.

So many people have played a part in telling our story. I believe the roots of this storytelling about Camp Toccoa began in 1974 when county agent Fred Newman and a handful of other good souls, like Lamar Davis and Betty Swords, thought it was time for Toccoa and Stephens County to have a historical society. They felt our story needed to be told.

All in all, our town and county have a long, fascinating history. But one time period stands out like no other: those years when our country became involved in World War II – from 1941 to 1945.

Soon after America entered the war, the U.S. Army transformed an old National Guard facility into Camp Toccoa.

The camp was located near the base of Currahee Mountain. Its sole purpose was to train an elite group of soldiers to become paratroopers. This was a new kind of soldier – one who would jump from a airplane – even behind enemy lines – and then fight on the ground.

Becoming a paratrooper was no easy task.

Training at Camp Toccoa was rigorous. More than rigorous… it was intense. Only the toughest would make it. Running three miles up and three miles down Currahee Mountain each day was only part of the training.

When all was said and done, only 4,000 of the 20,000 soldiers based at Camp Toccoa during the war became paratroopers. These 4,000 men became part of four paratrooper regiments that went overseas.

Now, almost 75 years later, we still remember World War II. We remember those who trained here. We remember the D-Day invasion. We remember the Band of Brothers.

When the first Currahee Military Weekend was held in 2001 to pay honor to these veterans, there were plenty of Camp Toccoa paratroopers who returned to Toccoa.

Now – in 2018 – the years have gone by since that first weekend and old age and death has diminished the number of these brave souls.

But what hasn’t diminished is the remembrance that takes place each October, and the celebration itself. The community makes sure our stories are told, and we make sure these remaining World War II veterans are told what they meant to our nation.

Today, many active-duty military personnel visit Toccoa during the year, but especially during the Currahee Military Weekend. They come to pay homage to their forebears… the paratroopers… and to visit the Currahee Military Museum and to take in the revived Camp Toccoa at Currahee .

All this to say it’s almost time for another Currahee Military Weekend.

You can be a part of it. Follow WNEG’s reporting of upcoming events and listen to some of the live broadcasts. Even better, visit downtown this Friday and Saturday and be part of the action.

Yes, we have a story to tell. And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.
This photo from the early 1940s shows the serving lines at the annual barbecue held each fall for Coats employees and their family members.

9/25/2018

If you are a native of Toccoa and Stephens County, then you know the impact that Coats & Clark had on this community.

When I moved here in 1973 – 45 years ago – Coats & Clark already had been part of the community for more than 35 years. They were the county’s largest employer, dyeing sewing threads for consumer and industrial use.

Most folks back then just referred to Coats as the Thread Mill. And the Thread Mill meant dependable work, decent wages and something called benefits. For a cotton farmer eking out a living, the thread mill meant opportunity.

Many a family reared children, built a home, bought cars and sent their kids to college because of those steady paychecks.

In the early 2000s, Coats closed its main manufacturing plant, but a smaller spooling and zipper packaging operation remains. Today, some 90 employees still make a good living there.

But at one time, Coats & Clark employed more than 1,400 employees and during most of my career at Coats, more than 1,000 people worked there.These basketball players are suited up in uniforms that say No. Ga. Pros. Co., which stood for North Georgia Processing Company, the original name given by J&P Coats for its Toccoa manufacturing operations. c. 1940s

Most of those jobs are now overseas, and will never come back. The same thing happened in small towns all over the country.
Fortunately for Toccoa, our manufacturing base was more diversified than most.

We’ve been fortunate, too, that the Stephens County Development Authority, working closely with the city and county governments, have brought in new manufacturing firms, and also worked with our existing firms to expand.
Yes, the impact Coats had in the community is long gone. But there are still former Coats employees who live in the community, who work here, attend church here and shop in our local stores.Part of the office staff at Coats on West Doyle Street in the 1940s.

On Saturday, Oct. 6, these Coats employees are going to get together one more time – at what’s being called the Thread Mill reunion. It will held at the Georgia Baptist Conference Center, beginning at 11 a.m. and lasting until 2 p.m. There’s no program, just lunch and lots of fellowship and sharing.
If you ever worked at Coats, or your spouse did, or your mother or father did, you are welcome to attend.

But each person who attends needs to pay in advance for the lunch to be served around noon. The price per meal is $12.50 and advance reservations are required.

You can do this by going to the office at First Baptist Church in Toccoa. They will take a check or cash, and will put your name on the official list. You must make reservations and pay for lunch by this by Thursday, Oct. 4. The reunion, again, is Saturday, Oct. 6.

If you have any questions, see or call George Hosea, Agnes Oglesby, or me, Billy Chism. George and I are in the local phone book.

This could be the last time such a reunion of Coats employees will be held. So many friends and good souls have passed on. But the memories of Coats & Clark – the Thread Mill – most likely will linger for a few more decades.

And that’s something to think about.


The WNEG Tuesday Commentary has been airing for a year now on WNEG AM and FM Radio, with broadcasting studios located in downtown Toccoa.

9/18/2018

I’ve been giving the WNEG Tuesday Commentary for a year now.

When the owner of this radio station, Art Sutton, asked me about doing this commentary about local people and local issues, I was intrigued with the possibilities. After considering his request, I told him yes.

The first commentary last September was on what makes for quality of life in a community. I gave six factors I believed made for a great quality of life.

They were: 1. A safe and clean environment in which to live. 2. Access to quality health care. 3. Employment opportunities locally or close by that offer above-average wages. 4. Quality public schools and colleges located nearby. 5. Stuff to do. Recreation and entertainment opportunities.
6. Progressive city and county governments that provide dependable services.

I graded Toccoa and Stephens County and gave us a B. Today, I think I would move that grade to a B-plus. The better grade is based on the future of our local hospital. Things seem a lot more hopeful today, especially with the recent letter of intent signed between Stephens County Hospital and Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.

If things work out favorably, I would put a big, smiley face on our grade sheet and give our community an A.

Funny, how a lot can change in a year’s time.

Looking back, I recognize that I should have addressed certain issues with more gusto.

But there is one issue I have been blunt about: it’s time to tear down the old Abemarle Hotel. It is a community eyesore and this once grand old place needs to be dealt with accordingly.

I believe the City of Toccoa is now taking a positive approach to dealing with this situation. When dealing with personal property, it takes time.
I recognize this.

But I won’t be happy until I see that piece of downtown property turned into a beautiful green space. This little park in a space where the Abermarle once stood would be a nice link from downtown to our great library, planning to expand and become even more of a community resource.

At this time, I want to thank Phil Hobbs, general manager of WNEG AM and FM, who has helped me each week when I record the commentary. He is a true professional. I appreciate Phil and all the WNEG staff.

And, I want to thank each of you – our listeners – who tune in to WNEG every morning and during the day. Every week, I hear from listeners who let me know they enjoy the WNEG Tuesday Commentary.

Please let me – or the station – know if you have an idea or suggestion as we begin the second year. If you want to read past commentaries, go to wnegradio.com, click on menu and scroll down to Tuesday Commentary.

In the meantime, thanks for listening and being involved in our community.
This is the place we call home. It’s up to each of us to make it better.

And that’s sometime to think about.


Students from Toccoa Elementary School

9/11/2018

I haven’t been in our local schools this year until last week. But since I’m part of the mentoring program, I got to pay a visit to Toccoa Elementary to see my student, a third grader, who has moved up from Liberty Elementary.

Last year I had the privilege of going to Liberty once a week to see my little guy, where we read books, put together some puzzles, played a few games and generally just talked to each other.

What I learned last year, beyond my time with my student, was that Liberty, now more than 30 years old, is still an excellent school. I was impressed with its cleanliness and how all those little children in first and second grade seemed excited about being there. So did the teachers.

Now, I had the opportunity last week to peak inside Toccoa Elementary School, filled with third and fourth graders. These students seemed so much older than those first and second graders.

As I walked down the hallways at Toccoa Elementary, I got the same positive vibe that I got at Liberty. Teachers were friendly and helpful, and the school, completed in 1996, still seemed new. Like Liberty, it was clean and orderly, and had a friendly, welcoming feel to it.

When I arrived, my student was at recess. So I went to the playground and saw lots of kids running their hearts out, knocking around soccer balls or just running. It was good to see kids in the sunshine, getting to play and just be kids.

I wish every citizen in Stephens County could spend a little time in each of our five schools – Big A Elementary, Liberty Elementary, Toccoa Elementary, Stephens County Middle and good old Stephens County High.

Well, that’s not possible for most of us. But through our local radio, while sitting on your couch or while driving in your car, you can visit each school.

That’s because WNEG station manager Phil Hobbs has visited each of these five schools, and all this week the station is airing a special one-hour program featuring one school each day.

You’ll hear from administrators and teachers, met new teachers and hear from a variety of students. Some of the elementary students will perform, while the older students will tell us about classes they are involved with.

So, tune in to WNEG- AM and FM from 4 o’clock to five every afternoon this week to listen.

We’re fortunate to have our radio station air these programs about our schools. After all, there is nothing more important in Toccoa and Stephens County than the education of our children.

And that’s something to think about.

Stephens County Commissioners Michelle Ivester, Dean Scarborough and Debbie Whitlock review information from library board. Not pictured, but at meeting, were commissioners Stanley London and Dennis Bell. They all supported the proposed library expansion.

9/4/2018

I’m proud of the Stephens County Commission.

I’m proud of the 5-0 vote by the county commissioners last week in support of the planned expansion of our Toccoa-Stephens County Public Library.

The commission, which already funds the library’s annual operations, showed its further support when it agreed to deed the county-owned land adjacent to the library.

This is the paved area where the library parking lot is located, extending to the parking lot behind the courthouse annex.

This one-half acre of land would be used to build an addition to the library that would connect to the existing facility on West Savannah Street. The remaining property – behind the Annex and bordering on Sage Street – would be used for community parking.

Now, before you think the county is going to spend a lot of money on the construction of the building, the library trustees made it clear in a letter to the commission they were asking for only for the deed to the land, and no money.

If the project doesn’t work out due to lack of funding, the property would revert to the county.

So, what are the library board’s plans, exactly?

The library board wants to expand the library building – which is 11,000 square feet. The expansion would be 6,000 square feet – approximately half the size of the current library.

The Toccoa-Stephens County Public Library board plans to expand the current facility, using a combination of local private donations and state funding.

 

So why is this expansion needed? There are a number of compelling reasons, as outlined to the county commission by the library board.

The expansion would provide for additional event space for programs and community meetings. Also, it would provide more space and allow for updated infrastructure for computers used by the public.

In addition, there would be more seating for patrons, more space for technology training, more space for programs for children, and even space for quiet study areas.

The expansion also would provide better support for social networking, learning and new types of digital work. Our library wants to be the library of the future, and this expansion would meet future needs and enable this to happen.

There’s still a big challenge – raising enough local funds needed to receive $2 million in state money. The library already has $240,000 in its local building fund. But $860,000 must still be raised for the library to qualify for the state funds.

The board will seek private donations to a large extent, and hopes to reach their goal by next year.

Over the years, our community has supported its local public library – and I believe this support will continue as the library looks to the future.

In the last two years, more than 1,000 new patrons were added. Checkouts are up, computer usage hours are up and program attendance is up.

Library manager Emily McConnell and her excellent staff continue to serve the community’s needs. They hold a wide variety of programs every week a – from Read-aloud Tuesdays, to computer classes, to Teen Talk Thursdays. It’s all free and open to the public.

Yes, our library is truly a center of learning in our community, and we are fortunate to have a facility we can be proud of and a fine library staff.

Let’s hope these expansion plans will become a reality. The first step took place last week. This positive response by the county commission will go a long way in making good things happen in our community.

And that’s something to think about.


Author Phil Hudgins at book signing.

 

8/28/2018

If you’re a fan of Foxfire books, then the book “Travels with Foxfire” is one you should pick up soon.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Foxfire series, this warm, humorous paperback is a great place to start.

Phil Hudgins, a native of Hall County and retired senior editor of Community Newspapers, has written the latest in the Foxfire series, aptly titled “Travels with Foxfire: Stories of People, Passions, and Practices from Southern Appalachia.”

Hudgins traveled throughout five states – Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Kentucky – interviewing and writing about men and women you most likely have never heard of.

But Hudgins brings these fine folks to life in his wise and witty way, and you’ll be glad you got to know them better.

In all, 35 essays fill the book, and more than 100 black-and-white photos are featured.

Foxfire student Jessica Phillips contributed three of the essays. In one, she interviewed the great-great-granddaughter of Micajah Clark Dyer of Union County, Georgia. Dyer patented a flying machine years before the Wright Brothers took their invention to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

As for Hudgins, he said this Foxfire book is different from those previously published.

“You’re not going to learn how to churn butter or make a quilt,” he said.

But you’ll meet some of the darndest people you’ve ever come across – bootleggers, game wardens, turkey hunters, bear hunters, a medicine woman, a folk artist, folk singers, home cooks, writers of country music, gospel singers, a water dowser and an expert on outhouses.

Newest book in the Foxfire series, “Travels with Foxfire.”

 

Hudgins, in one of the more poignant stories, describes a small family farm in 1950, one located near the Jackson-Hall County line. He remembers it well because he spent many happy hours there as a young boy. It was the family farm, belonging his grandparents, Mama and Papa Hudgins.

Listen as Hudgins starts one story about farm life: “Papa had mules. Sometimes he had one mule; sometimes he had two. But every mule he had, I remember, was named Bill.”

“It’s all about storytelling,” Hudgins said. “That’s what I was told by my first editor, Sylvan Meyer, at The Gainesville Times. He told me he could stop anyone on the street and get a story. That’s because everyone has one.”

Hudgins continued: “And my last boss, Dink NeSmith, always said a person dies twice – the first time when their heart stops; the second time when the stories stop.”

Perhaps that’s why Herb McClure of White County, one of those turkey hunters featured in Hudgins’s book, bought several copies to give to his closest friends.

“You know,” he told me, “you can go to a seminar and hear words, but they go away. But what he wrote in this book about me… well, it will be there forever.”

And that’s something to think about.

 


For Mr. Rogers, everyone was his neighbor.

 

8/21/18

I was talking with a nice couple last week who recently moved to Toccoa. In fact, they’ve been here only three-and-a-half months.

They are grandparents, and have children and grandchildren living in the Asheville, North Carolina, area. They had been living in Georgia, near the Alabama line. They moved a lot closer to their children and grandchildren by settling in Toccoa.

I already had asked them too many questions. But they were friendly and polite, so I asked them one more: “What do you think of Toccoa and Stephens County?”

“We feel welcome here,” the wife answered, and her husband followed up with the same answer.

I was glad to hear their positive response. You never know what you might hear when you ask a question like that.

Both of them have lived in a number of Georgia communities. So they have something to compare. They told me they felt welcomed in Toccoa from the start.

They pointed out that some small communities are closed to newcomers, but Toccoa is different, they said. It is open and says, You belong here.

I agreed with them. I told them when Patti and I got married and moved here, we felt this was a community we could call home.

We’ve been here 44 years now, and have seen a lot of changes. But we’ve been blessed with some mighty good friends along the way – and although some have moved to other communities – or died – we still have friends we know we can count on, if needed.

In the past few years, we have made new friends that now seem like old friends. Like the children’s song goes: “Make new friends and keep the old ones, one is silver and the other is gold.”

Which reminds me of Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood. Many of you remember Mr. Rogers and his children’s television show on PBS. Maybe your children watched it, or perhaps you watched Mr. Rogers.

He would begin each show by putting on a red sweater, looking directly into the camera and asking: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Are you a neighbor to someone? Do you treat them like you would want to be treated? I hope so.

In a small town, I like to consider everyone my neighbor. So, I’ll close today simply by asking you, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” I hope so.

And that’s something to think about.


The procession carrying the remains of Cpl. Terrell Fuller moves through downtown Toccoa on Thursday, Aug. 9.

 

8/14/2018

All of sudden, there was news last week that the remains of a U.S. Army soldier from Stephens County were headed back home for burial.

Corporal Terrell Fuller entered the service when he was only 20 years old, and soon found himself in a cold, desolate country halfway around the globe.

In February 1951, Corporal Fuller went missing in action in South Korea, defending the Korean people there. His family from Toccoa never really knew what happened to him. The Army later reported that he was unaccounted for and assumed killed in action.

According to a front-page story by journalist Jennifer Brett that appeared last week in The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Fuller’s remains were recovered years ago, but only recently identified (in April) with DNA testing.

Amy Hix, Fuller’s great-niece, served as a family spokesperson. She told Ms. Brett of the AJC: “It’s closure to the family. It’s just a wonderful homecoming to have him come home and be buried on American soil.”

Last Thursday, the remains of Corporal Terrell Fuller were flown from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. From the time Fuller went missing until last week – 67 years have gone by.

Honolulu is the location for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Accounting Agency. This agency has spent years identifying – or trying to identify – the remains of soldiers from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Once identified, they are sent home for burial.

When a loved one’s remains are found and identified, it must be an emotional experience for the family. Fuller still has relatives living in Toccoa and the surrounding area.

Brenda Ramsey of Toccoa is Fuller’s niece. Her daughter, Amy Ramsey Hix, also of Toccoa, is his great niece. A great-great nephew, Will Grafton, is currently serving in active duty in the U.S. Army and stationed at Fort Stewart.

Grafton attended a brief service held last Thursday morning when the plane landed at the Atlanta airport. A U.S. Army National Guard honor guard conducted the service. Grafton also served as a special escort as Acree-Davis Funeral Home carried Corporal Fuller’s remains from Atlanta to Toccoa.

A public visitation with a casket bearing an Army uniform was held at Acree-Davis last Friday. Then, in a private ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, Terrell Fuller, born on Aug. 11, 1930, was finally put to rest in Stephens Memorial Gardens … on what would have been his 88th birthday. He was home at last.

Students from Toccoa Elementary School line up to return to school after viewing the procession.

The procession passed through Toccoa last Thursday at exactly 10 a.m. under blue skies and a temperature in the mid-70s.

The morning brought out veterans from all services, other local citizens and 580 third and fourth graders from Toccoa Elementary, who walked from the school to the south side of the courthouse, looking down on East Doyle Street as the procession went by.

Toccoa Elementary School principal Sheila Pressley said this was a special moment in our community, and she wanted her students to experience it first-hand.

It was a somber moment as the hearse passed.

Afterwards, I ran into William Tucker, a veteran and former commander of the local American Legion chapter.

He, too, was in a solemn mood. I asked him about Terrell Fuller.

He gave this reply: “The sacrifice Corporal Fuller gave for our country… his service in the “Forgotten War”…. it’s a reminder to us of our fallen soldiers who have given their all for our freedom.”

And that’s something to think about.

Old Glory waves high above West Doyle Street, with the extended ladders from two City of Toccoa fire trucks forming an entranceway as the procession with the remains of Cpl. Terrell Fuller passed under.

 

 


Teachers Nelson Walker and Lindsey Walker.

 

8/7/2018

Stephens County schools are back in session.

When I think of public schools, I think of opportunity and enrichment… and I think of teachers.

I think of my own mother, who taught fifth grade for many years. I think of my wife, who taught every grade in elementary school and enjoyed them all, but especially enjoyed the first graders… so eager to learn.

With the beginning of this school year, teachers have been on my mind.

That’s because I believe a teacher in a classroom can make a difference in a student’s life.

Think of your own experience in school. I bet there was at least one teacher, if not more, who affected you and made you see the world a little differently. That teacher could have made a difference in your life.
I hope so.

There are several teachers who meant a lot to me, who helped me learn more about our world and the people in it.

Today, schools and education have changed so much. Students have access to so much information, and technology is constantly advancing.

But one thing, in my opinion, remains the same. That’s the teacher in the classroom.The teacher is the one who has the responsibility of making sure his or her students learn and progress as the year goes on.

What makes the job so difficult is that they must meet the needs of every student – not just a few. Reaching every student can be frustrating when some have trouble reading or have problems at home that consume them during school.

I know a couple of young teachers – a brother and a sister – who teach in different elementary schools in the Fulton County School District. The brother has taught physical education for eight years. His sister has taught fifth grade for six years.

I asked them what they thought was the one thing a teacher must do to be successful in the classroom.

Each paused and didn’t answer quickly. They were thinking. Then, Lindsey, the fifth-grade teacher, said teachers should focus on their students. Each student should be a teacher’s main priority.

That’s why it’s important, she told me, for a teacher to be flexible. Not all children are the same, she said, so a teacher must be flexible so he or she can deal with so many situations.

Her brother, Nelson, agreed, saying that he tries to reach every one of his students every day, helping them grow and improve. The most important qualities a teacher can have, he said, are patience and compassion.

We have so many fine teachers working for the Stephens County School System – teachers who are flexible, who are patient and who show compassion. I wish them all the best this school year.

And I leave you with this quote from Henry Brooks Adams: “Teachers affect eternity; no one can tell where their influence stops.” And that’s something to think about.

 


These buildings on West Doyle Street served as a backdrop for shooting several of the scenes in the fictional town of Fireside. This photo was taken yesterday, July 30, with shooting scheduled to wrap up today.

7/31/18

Hey, were you an extra in the movie being filmed in Toccoa? Me neither. But it was still exciting seeing all the big trucks and RVs parked downtown, and knowing that somewhere cameras were rolling, people were acting and directors were shouting.

I never got close to the action, but I know a big array of extras did, including a playground scene where parents and children alike were all dressed in clothes from the 1960s.

These extras were all locals, with some 70 of them selected for this scene. More than a dozen other locals appeared in other scenes.

The actual filming began July 10 and is ending today. That’s three weeks of actors, crew members and others working morning, noon and night – in and around Toccoa.

Producer Rodney Eldridge, left, with his father, Rick Eldridge, CEO and co-owner of ReelWorks Studios, catch up on things last week in a make-shift office in downtown Toccoa.

I talked last Friday with Rick and Rodney Ethridge, the father-son team instrumental in bringing this movie to our town.

The son, Rodney, had discovered Toccoa and Stephens County earlier when he produced three made-for-TV movies here. He told me that our whole community supports film making. “That’s why I keep coming back here,” he said.

This time it was his dad, Rick, who is the executive producer and who heard about a novel, “When Last We Spoke,” written by Marci Henna of Austin, Texas.

Marci Henna wrote the novel, “When Last We Spoke,” that became the basis for the movie being filmed in Toccoa. She poses on West Doyle Street last Friday evening with Rodney Eldridge, one of the producers. Henna was on the set during the filming of most every scene. “It was exciting to see my book come alive,” she said.

 

Rick and his writing partner wrote a screen play from the novel. Then, Rick began looking at six states for possible film locations.

“But my son kept telling me we needed to stick with Georgia and look at Toccoa,” Rick said. “So we did, and here we are.”

The father added: “Toccoa is a great community, and we love being here.”

He said the Hallmark network has an option to buy this film, but no firm agreement has been made. The elder Ethridge has made six other movies for Hallmark.

But his background in the film business goes way back. Rick has been in the entertainment business for 40 years, first as a musician, then scoring music for films. This led him into the film industry, first concentrating on sound, and ultimately producing movies.

As for this film, Rick brought in a trio of terrific, established actors: Cloris Leachman, Melissa Gilbert and Corbin Bernsen.

The movie is set in the 1960s and the 1990s in the fictional town of Fireside, a small town somewhere in the South. Two young sisters are dropped off on a farm to live with their grandparents. What happens next… well, you need to read the book or see the movie.

Does our community benefit from movie making? The answer is a big YES.

The Simmons-Bond Inn has been filled for three weeks, the same for motels in town. Local restaurants have been extremely busy. Even the thrift stores benefited, supplying costumes and props.

Many business establishments, in fact, have benefited. Ron Matheson at Ionosphere Travel made flight arrangements for the lead cast members and others needing air travel to Georgia. All arrived right on schedule. All this is good for business.

Mainly though, having a movie made in downtown Toccoa was pure summer fun. It was exciting, closed streets and all.

It may be hard to believe, but the Los Angeles film office reported that in 2016, more major feature films were made in Georgia than California. That’s good for Georgia and good for Toccoa.

And that’s something to think about.


The former Albemarle Hotel building has been sitting empty in downtown Toccoa for almost 50 years. It’s time to tear it down.

7/24/2018

Today’s commentary is actually a follow-up. This time I’ll be more blunt.

It’s time for the City of Toccoa to do something about the old Albemarle building on Alexander Street.

The former hotel is in terrible condition, and getting worse with every passing year. The last time anyone lived there was the early 1970s – almost 50 years ago. And let’s face it, the place wasn’t in good shape then.

Here’s the problem. The big brick building is right downtown, next to the county government building at the corner of Alexander and Tugalo streets, the most traveled streets downtown.

It’s not like it’s hidden from view. Every day hundreds of local motorists and out-of-town visitors pass by. They look at it and must wonder how long the building will stand before the roof caves in or the window casings fall out.

This reminds me of a trip Patti and I took last year to see Niagara Falls. Seeing the magnificent falls was worth the trip. But I still remember when we first drove into downtown Niagara Falls, New York.

From the distance a tall brick building came into sight. As we got closer, it became obvious that this former hotel had been abandoned years ago. Pigeons flew into open windows, many cracked and broken. What a sad sight it was, and I still remember it. It influenced how I felt about the city of Niagara Falls.

Yes, the comparison between the two buildings is appropriate. Both were former hotels, long abandoned. Both needed tearing down.

Right now, the city of Toccoa has so much going for it … the downtown as a whole is the best I remember in the last 45 years.

The restaurant business is going strong in downtown Toccoa. The summer Ida Cox series is drawing large crowds every Saturday night. The magnificent Ritz theater is going great, and the city recently has named a new manager who has plans to take it even higher. Even the train viewing station is quaint. And I love that new Zip Code sign welcoming visitors to Toccoa.

New cheery sign welcomes visitors from the train depot – or just folks passing by – to downtown Toccoa. The City of Toccoa has never looked better, except for one spot – where the old Albemarle sits.

 

There’s just a lot of good things happening right now in downtown Toccoa, thanks to the work of the city manager, the city employees and the Toccoa City Commission.

Now it’s time for the City Commission to take action. They need to condemn this abandoned building on Alexander Street and let the chips fall where they may.

If the current owner cannot afford to do anything with the building – and I understand the reluctance to put another dollar into it – then the city should tear it down and build a village green – a place of beauty right downtown.

It could be the last piece of the puzzle downtown. No one wants to spend millions of dollars trying to refurbish this albatross. But good money could be spent one time removing the building and building a park on the grounds.

City commissioners… the ball is in your court. And that’s something to think about.


This peaceful setting that overlooks the Tugaloo River.

7/17/2018

Here it is the middle of summer of 2018, and I have a confession to make.

My confession: I’ve never been to the Tugaloo Bend Heritage Park in Stephens County until a few weeks ago. It’s been open to the public since the spring of 2014.

I love nature and I love history – and you’re not going to find a better place in Northeast Georgia that brings the two together so eloquently.

Everyone who lives in Stephens County should plan a trip to Tugaloo Bend… just to experience this special place.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this land is sacred. Historians and anthropologists tell us that Native Americans roamed this place for thousands of years.

Much later in history, the Cherokees made this river valley their home and established a town known as Estatoe on the land that overlooks the Tugaloo River.

Yes, it is on this very site that the Tugaloo Bend Heritage Park is located. Of course, you know the history of the Cherokees, and all that came later with the arrival of white settlers.

Along the way and many years later, Stephens County resident Channing Hayes acquired the property at Tugaloo Bend, where he farmed a portion of his land for decades.

Mr. Hayes understood the historical significance of his riverfront property – where the Tugaloo River made a big bend before heading toward Lake Hartwell. So when he decided to sell his land in the late 1990s, he wanted to preserve it for posterity.

This overlook offers a spectacular view of the wetlands below created by beaver dams.

 

But who would buy this 87-acre site – with its 5,000 feet of river frontage – and preserve the natural beauty of this place, as well as honor the land where Native Americans once tread and lived?

A small group of caring local citizens… that’s who. They formed the Stephens County Foundation, a non-profit organization created for the purpose of buying the Tugaloo Bend farm.

They were successful in their efforts, but it wasn’t easy. How do you generate excitement for a piece of property that hardly anyone had seen, and project a vision of what could be?

But it happened. And I know one of the driving forces in the early days was community leader Joe Ferguson.

Joe has served as chairman of the Stephens County Foundation for many years and he remains on the board of trustees. The current chairman is Tim Hale.

The land was purchased with a loan in 2002, and the loan was repaid over a five-year period with generous donations from the community.

Acquiring the land was an essential step, but much work still needed to be done. It took additional cash donations and a lot of volunteer labor, but things begin to take place.

The first structure to be built was the Mitchell Allen caretaker house. Larry Weise, former middle school teacher and coach, serves as the current caretaker and is perfect for the job. He likes people and has a deep love for Tugaloo Bend Heritage Park.

The nice pavilion can be reserved for family outings and such.

 

A large wooden pavilion came next, and was named for Mrs. Elizabeth Hayes, a longtime teacher in Stephens County. The pavilion was dedicated just prior to her 100th birthday.

Later, restrooms, a parking area, picnic area and driveways were installed, and finally walking trails were cleared.

Today, there are more than two miles of walking trails, including a handicapped accessible trail that takes you to a magnificent view of wetlands and ponds created by beaver dams.

What makes these trails so nice is that they are mostly flat and easy to walk. You can stroll in a half-mile hike through the woods to a beautiful view of the river. And the loop takes you right back to the parking area. It’s easy.

I do know that the late Roy Collier and lot of leaders and Scouts from Boy Scout Troop 77 in Toccoa did a lot of work on the trails.

If you want to experience the river, you can rent canoes and kayaks at Tugaloo Bend, and the shelter can be reserved too.

This sign on Yonah Dam Road marks the turn-in to Tugaloo Bend.

 

The park is open to the public, free of charge. Hours are every Friday afternoon, all day every Saturday and every Sunday afternoon. The park also has hosted middle school students for the last three years.

I urge each of you to visit Tugalo Bend this summer or fall. Turn onto Prather Bridge Road at First Baptist Church and drive exactly 7.2 miles.
Stay straight on Prather Bridge Road and then Yonah Dam Road. There is a big sign on the right side of the road. You can’t miss it.

You can learn a lot more when you get there. Larry and his dog Buddy will greet you, and there are plenty of informative leaflets at the visitors kiosk.

Tugaloo Bend Heritage Park is a treasure… and it was created for you and me. I’m glad I finally got there. Now it’s your turn.

And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.


The Currahee Campus of North Georgia Tech is located in Stephens County on Ga. Highway 17 South of Toccoa

 

7-10-18

The Currahee Campus of NGTC has been going strong for well over ten years now.

There was lots of excitement when the campus opened in Stephens in 2005, and students from Stephens and surrounding counties have benefited in many ways by having the campus close by.

Now, the Currahee Campus-located eight miles south of Toccoa on Ga. Hwy 17-is doing something it has not done before.

The campus is holding live demonstrations from programs in high demand areas-from automobile technology to practical nursing to robotics.

In all, the program preview will feature live demonstrations in 18 programs.

It all happens two days from now-on Thursday, July 12 from 4 P.M. to 7 P.M at the Currahee Campus. These demonstrations are perfect for interested students, and really for anybody in the community who wants to see the campus and learn more about what goes on there.

Tim Bennett, campus director, said the event is “for anyone and everyone to come see the campus, meet the instructors and see the live demonstrations.”

He added:” we certainly want any person who has expressed an interest in any of our programs and come out this Thursday and bring the whole family.”

He said the faculty will be conducting the hands-on demonstrations, and those attending will get a helpful glimpse into what NGTC offers in some of its high-demand areas.

Among these high-demand areas are CDL for truck drivers, CNC for machinists operating computerized equipment, early childhood education, heating and air conditioning, pharmacy technology, practical nursing, and robotics.

Free refreshments will be provided to all during the event-from 4 P.M. to 7 P.M. this Thursday, July 12.

I worked at NGTC when the Currahee Campus opened.

During my four years at NGTC, I witnessed over and over again how technical training changed lives.

Whether it was nursing, auto repair, cosmetology or training to be an emergency medical technician, I saw how these programs gave students the confidence and special skills required to do meaningful jobs. Of course, it took a lot of work on behalf of the students, too.

I believe the faculty and administration at NGTC is outstanding and truly dedicated to each student.

So if you haven’t been to the Currahee Campus in a while, or have never seen this beautiful state facility, do yourself a favor and visit the campus. The new main entrance is right off the four-lane to Lavonia…on Highway 17 South. You can’t miss it.

I believe in technical education. It provides the special skills needed to do so many jobs…jobs that pay well and offer a long-term future.

In Toccoa and Stephens County, we are fortunate to have the Currahee Campus right in our back door.

I hope you can visit the campus this Thursday. You won’t be disappointed in what you see and learn. A that’s something to think about.

 

 


Ed Carman, left, chief warrant officer in the U.S. Army National Guard, with Roy Gaines, a World War II veteran. Both men, Toccoa residents, spoke at First United Methodist Church on July 1 about freedom and our nation.

 

7/3/2018
As everyone knows, tomorrow is the Fourth of July…. Independence Day for the United States of America.

In the summer of 1776, our independence from King George III and England was proclaimed in those words penned by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

But the American Revolution was barely a year old at this time, and it took many more years and many sacrifices in battle before we were really free.

Otherwise, the ideals of the Declaration would have amounted to little more than words on paper.

Now, 242 years later, we can continue to celebrate that Declaration of Independence because of all the men and women who put on a uniform to defend our country.

Just a couple of days ago at Toccoa’s First United Methodist Church, two local residents spoke at their Sunday morning service – one a World War II veteran, the other a member of the Army National Guard.

Roy Gaines, now 92 years old, served in the U.S. Navy, enlisting when he was only 18. He grew up in Hart and Franklin counties and his parents took him to the train depot in Toccoa after he enlisted.

Gaines said he remembers as if it were yesterday when he boarded the train headed to Virginia for basic training. Just before he left, his mother gave him a pocket-size New Testament Bible. “Take it, read it and pray,” she told him. Gaines said he followed her advise.

Gaines, who would later would start WNEG Radio and WNEG TV, fought in two major battles in the Pacific – Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He didn’t dwell on those battles, but related how World War II helped win the war for democracy and assured freedom for people all over the world.

“Have you ever thought about how it would have been in this country if we had been defeated in World War II?” he asked.

Of course, the Allies won the war, defeating Germany and Japan.

He added: “I never though I’d ever see the day when Nazis paraded on our city streets in America displaying swastikas. They used the freedoms we fought for to disrespect our country and the thousands of lives that were lost.”

Gaines said that “America, despite its flaws, is still the greatest nation on Earth.”

Carmen has been a member of the Army National Guard for 33 years. He currently is a chief warrant officer, and when on active duty serves as a helicopter pilot on a medical evacuation team in such faraway places as Afghanistan and Bosnia.

Duty, honor, country… these are things that mean so much to me, Carmen told the congregation.

Carman cited John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961, where the young new president spoke these words: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship … to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

“I believe it,” said Carman, noting that those in the military today still bear burdens and meet hardships for love of country.
Carman told what he does in the Reserves when stationed overseas. It could be in the middle of the night or during a rainstorm… no matter the time or the weather, he flies an unarmed helicopter – marked with a red cross as a medical chopper – into harm’s way to pick up wounded soldiers.

Carman noted that “not everyone has the opportunity to do what I do. But each of you can serve in your own community – helping with Boys & Girls Club or volunteering in many other ways – and this is just as important as what I do.”

On this Fourth of July, please take time to remember those active service men and women and the veterans who made our freedoms possible.

Many have paid the ultimate price – sacrificing their life so we may live in a free country. We’ll talk more about these who died in battle in a future commentary.

Until then, have a Happy Fourth of July. And I hope we never take for granted the freedoms we enjoy each day.

And that’s something to think about.


Speaking prior to the ribbon cutting ceremony at the new ASI – Southeast facility were, from left, Michelle Ivester, chairman of the Stephens County Commission; Tim Martin, executive director of the Stephens County Development Authority; David Austin, mayor of the City of Toccoa; Brian Akin, chairman of the Development Authority, and Julie Paysen, president of the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber.

 

6/26/2018

It takes a team.
That was my thought as I looked on and listened as local city and county officials publicly thanked the owner and leadership team at ASI – Southeast on the completion of its new 150,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.
It was all part of a ribbon cutting ceremony held a couple of weeks ago. The new plant – located on the Clary Connector – represents a $16 million dollar investment and the addition of 50 new jobs.
Today, ASI – Southeast has become one of the county’s top employers. It operates four manufacturing plants in Stephens County, all located close to each other.
Total employment at these four facilities has grown to 400.
ASI manufactures a variety of products, with the new facility dedicated to making laminated partitions in a variety of colors for restrooms in commercial buildings. ASI sells these products all over the United States.
Think the new Mercedes-Benz stadium and SunTrust Park in Atlanta – both facilities are equipped with ASI restroom partitions.
So are the corporate headquarters for such well-known firms as Facebook and Google …. each of these buildings are furnished with partitions made in Toccoa.

Doug Hitchon, the chief operating officer of ASI-Southeast, stands outside the new facility in Stephens County.

Doug Hichon, chief operating officer of ASI-Southeast, played host at the ribbon cutting ceremony, and thanked the community for all it has done for ASI in Stephens County.

In addition, the company’s owner, Peter Rolla, came down from New York for the event. Rolla, who serves as president of the ASI Group, noted that the company operates 22 plants worldwide.
But he focused on the importance of the operations in Stephens County, and told how ASI got to Toccoa.
“In 1974, my father was looking for a location to manufacture furniture components in an area closer to our customers. He found a small manufacturer on Highway 123, BMR Fabricators. He (bought the company) and added the furniture components to that production and Gem Southeast was born.”
Rolla continued: “In Georgia, we found a business friendly state government that recognized and continues to recognize the importance of a stable business in a community. In Toccoa and Stephens County, we have a local government and development office that welcomed us and has helped us over the years any way they could.”
“But most importantly,” Rolla told the some 50 people assembled, “we found here a group of workers who understand that every day it is their contribution that makes a difference. And the combination of good government and hard working people is what truly has enabled us to grow. And grow we have.”

Peter Rolla, owner and president of ASI-Southeast, was on hand to make a few remarks. He lives in New York.

 

Plant manager Chad Crunkleton shows lockers built in the new plant.

 

Here’s the way I see it: It took a team to get ASI here, and today it still takes a team to make good things happen. Our local team understands the value of a solid manufacturing employer.

After all, nothing beats having a good corporate citizen that offers steady employment year after year.
And that’s something to think about.

 

County administrator and finance director Phyllis Ayers holds the official “hard copy” of the proposed 75-page county budget for 2018-19.

 

6/19/2018

Stephens County government unveiled its proposed fiscal year 2019 budget at its regular commission meeting last week, with a total spending plan that tops $23 million.

That’s a lot of money, but our county is a big operation that covers everything from the sheriff’s office and jail to roads and recreation – and a whole lot more.

So, where does the money go?

It goes mostly for the basics – essentials like law enforcement, E-911 and emergency management, ambulances, rural fire protection, roads and public works, courts, health and human services and for a multitude of other programs that make living here worthwhile – from the senior center to the library to the animal shelter.

The new budget calls for funding two new security deputies for the courthouse and one new school resource officer for our schools.

The recreation department also will be add an assistant athletic program director and will build a new therapeutic pool.

Other major new expenditures will be upgrades in information technology – a new finance software package, better data processing equipment for E-911 and new computers for all county departments.

The budget calls for an increase in spending of $2 million, compared to last year.

The remarkable part is that the county commission is calling for no property tax increase, although total spending is expected to jump from $21 million to $23 million.

How can that be, you may ask? Where’s the additional money coming from to fund the new budget.

In a nutshell, much of it will come from the $11 million fund balance the county has built over several years.

That’s why the millage rate is expected to remain unchanged in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

County administrator and finance director Phyllis Ayers says the tax digest – all taxable county property – is expected to increase only slightly this year, adding: “We’ll take that slight increase because we went through several years where the tax digest went down.”

Property taxes account for 63 percent of the revenue that funds our county government. Another 14 percent of revenue comes from local option sales taxes, paid by me and you, but also by visitors to our county.

Fortunately, both the county commission and county administrator Ayers works closely with our county’s constitutionally elected officers — the Sheriff, Probate Judge, Clerk of Superior Court, Tax Commissioner and the Coroner and others in county government. They work together and respect each other.

These relationships are important for a smooth-running operation.

The county commissioners have worked hard on making sure the proposed budget meets the needs of its citizens. The commission will hold its final public hearing on the budget at 5:30 next Tuesday, June 26, at the historic courthouse.

After the public hearing, the commissioners will vote on the budget. I hope they embrace it and adopt it in its entirety. The new budget is good for the county as a whole.
Let’s face it: no one likes to pay county property taxes, but we all want the benefits and services that our taxes pay for.

And that’s something to think about.


Patti and Harry Joiner are all smiles after last week’s movie at the Historic Ritz Theatre in downtown Toccoa.

 

6/12/2018
I grew up in a small town that had a wonderful movie theater, the Park. I loved watching movies on the big screen… especially during the summer.

When I was 10, I remember seeing Haley Mills in “The Parent Trap.” Actually, it was Haley Mills times two, since she played twins.

Other great summer movies I remember over the years include American Graffiti, Jaws, Grease, E.T. and Back to the Future.

It’s now time for summer movies at the Ritz.

Several years ago, the City of Toccoa acquired the old theater on West Doyle Street and refurbished both the interior and exterior to its former glory. Today, Main Street Toccoa operates the Historic Ritz Theatre.

All kinds of live performances are being brought there, and we’re fortunate to have these acts come to our town.

But the Ritz really comes alive, in my opinion, during the summer. That’s when the annual Summer Movies at the Ritz series takes place.

These movies are being shown each Thursday morning and Thursday night during June and July.

Patti and I went to the first movie in the series last week. The place was packed – with children, teenagers, young people, middle-aged people and old people, like me. What a wonderful sight it was.

We watched “The Greatest Showman.” Let me tell you, it was a terrific movie. The picture quality was outstanding, projected onto a big screen. The sound was even better. The new surround-sound system is excellent, and makes movie-going at the Ritz a real treat.

This week’s movie – on June 14 – will be “Paddington 2.” You might think this is just a kid’s movie, but my wife loves Paddington movies. We’ll probably be there.

The following week – June 21 – is the film, “Wonder,” starring Julia Roberts as the mom of a very special child. I loved this book, and understand the movie is just as good. Can’t wait to see it.

The last Thursday in June will feature a Spiderman movie, “Spiderman – Homecoming.” Who doesn’t like a good Spiderman flick?

On Thursday, July 5, is a movie I highly recommend to any adult.
“Darkest Hour” tells the story of Winston Churchill’s first two months as Prime Minister of Great Britain during the early days of World War Two. It’s a powerful film.

July 12 will bring “Captain Underpants.” Hey, this one is for the kids, for sure.

“Ferdinand” will play on July 19. It’s a movie about a bull who wants to sit and smell the flowers … rather than bullfight. This one is guaranteed to pull at all our hearts, young and old alike.

Finally, the last summer movie of the season will be the Disney classic, “The Lion King.”

If you want to see a complete movie schedule, you can pick one up at the chamber or city hall. Or go to www.ritztheatretoccoa.com.

Remember, movies will be shown twice every Thursday during June and July – at 10 a.m. and at 7 p.m.

Admission tickets are only $1. All concessions items are $1.

This summer movie series is real family entertainment. Your family can see a great movie and eat lots of popcorn – and the price is right.

Everyone is invited to enjoy movies at the Ritz this summer.

Many years from now, you may think back to one of those hot summer nights in Toccoa in 2018, and think about a movie that really moved you or made you smile.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Noel Pauley is the new executive director of Family Connection in Stephens County. She will coordinate the newly formed Prevent Child Abuse Stephens.

 

6/5/2018

Some topics are difficult to talk about. Child abuse is one of them.

But it’s time to talk. Not only talk, says Noel Pauley, the new executive director of Family Connection in Stephens County, but she says it’s time to do something about it.

That’s why Prevent Child Abuse Stephens has been started.

Pauley will coordinate this program, in addition to her other responsibilities as head of Family Connection locally. She formerly supervised the foster care program for Stephens County with the state Department of Family and Children services.

“I have seen the abuse and neglect of children,” Pauley said, referring to her former job with DFACS.

She also has worked as activities director for eight summers at the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home, which promotes the spiritual, physical and emotional well-being of children.

She also is a Toccoa Falls College graduate, and holds a master’s degree in counseling from Liberty University.

Now, as head of Family Connection in Stephens County, Pauley sees her job as being a “change agent.”

“I want to make positive things happen,” she told me in a recent interview.

The time for action is now, she added.

She pointed out the grim statistics that show substantiated cases of abuse and neglect in Stephens County are far above the state average.

In Stephens County, the rate of abuse and/or neglect is 12 children per thousand, compared to the Georgia average of 7 children per thousand.

Pauley put it this way: “When you think of Toccoa and Stephens County, you think of it as a good, safe place for children. It’s home, and I’m not saying we aren’t a good community. But we have a real problem when it comes to child abuse. It’s happening right here.”

She noted that the statistics from the FAITH PowerHouse for Kids in Toccoa bears this out. Last year, the PowerHouse served 306 victims of child abuse in Stephens, Habersham and Rabun counties.

Out of those 306 children, 98 children lived in Stephens County. Of these 98, a total of 68 children were seen for sexual assault, 22 were seen for physical abuse and 7 were witnesses to abuse or a violent crime.

“That’s a huge amount of children affected for a county as small as we are,” Pauley said.

Of course, these numbers are only the ones substantiated. The number that goes unreported is greater, she said.

Pauley points out that most sexual abuse is not from strangers. Instead, a high percentage of offenders are family members.

And national statistics, she said, show that at some point in their life, one in three girls are sexually abused – and one in four boys.

An awareness campaign is the first step for Prevent Child Abuse Stephens.

Partners in this effort will include DFACS, law enforcement, the local courts and the local school system.

Nobody ever expects a child to be abused, Pauley said. But it happens.

Pauley says Prevent Child Abuse Stephens will work on the front end of the problem – in an effort to stop abuse from ever happening.

The way I look at it, the task before this new organization is going to take time before it can make progress, and making progress will be tough.

Noel Pauley has the passion and smarts to tackle it. And as she says, it will take a community-wide effort.

If we can reduce child abuse – if only by a little – then it’s worth all the time and effort Toccoa and Stephens County puts into it.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

The City of Toccoa’s budget for fiscal year 2018-19 totals $33 million.

 

5/29/2018

Last week, the Toccoa City Commission held a brief meeting, where they voted unanimously 5-0 on something I think is quite newsworthy.

What did they vote to approve? It was the city’s operating budget for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1, 2018, and ending June 30, 2019. The overall budget totals $33.1 million.

That’s a lot of money. Where does all this revenue come from to fund the budget? And how is it spent?

For one thing, there are eight separate funds that make up the total budget.

Let’s look at the larger funds.

The General Fund totals almost $10 million. The fund is just what is implies… it funds a wide variety of city services, everything from police and fire departments to public works.

Revenue for funding the General Fund comes from a variety of areas, including city property taxes.

But the General Fund benefits greatly from the city’s Water Fund and its Natural Gas Fund. These two funds provide what is known as transfers to the General Fund each year.

This essentially means that these funds generate enough cash to help finance other parts of city government. Without these transfers, city taxpayers would be paying a whole lot more in property taxes.

The Water Fund budget, which includes sewer services, is $7 million. The Natural Gas Fund budget is almost $11.5 million. The Solid Waste fund seems small in comparison — at $1 million.

Beginning July 1, water rates will go up $1 per month. Sewer rates will go up $1 per month. Natural gas rates will go up $1 per month. Solid waste rates (that’s garbage and trash pick-up) will go up $1 per month.

Those increases are part of the FY 19 budget, approved by the city commission.

For you and me, that means if we use all four services – water, sewage, natural gas, and garbage pickup – our total utility bill will increase $4 a month, or $48 each year, if all other things remain the same.

When you’re talking millions of dollars in a city budget, this $48 a year may not seem like a lot. But it does bolster the city’s overall revenue. These rate hikes will bring an additional $300,000.

For some people living in Toccoa, a $4 dollar increase per month – combined with other price increases like groceries, gasoline and prescription drugs – well, it puts pressure on their own budgets. It all adds up.

The city has increased costs to deal with like everybody else. And the new budget will provide all city employees with a 3 percent pay raise. And the city will continue to fund more than 90 percent of the health care costs of each city employee.

I’m not complaining. What we get from the city are services we shouldn’t take for granted.

After all, city and county residents depend on the city for clean drinking water every day, 365 days a year. We depend on reliable natural gas, especially in the winter, to heat our homes.

The same with garbage pickup and debris removal. What would we do without it?

And sewer service means we live in a cleaner, healthier town.

All in all, the city of Toccoa is a force for good in our community. It provides vital services to our residents, as well as to businesses and industry.

And let’s face it, it takes those 173 city of Toccoa employees to make it all happen.

Our residents will pay these increased utility bills beginning in July. Life will go on. But for some, it will be hardship.

I hope the city appreciates its customers, the people who pay their utility bills every month. As we know, nothing is more important than customers. I hope our Toccoa City Commissioners never forget that, and always will make decisions on their behalf.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

Senior counselor Becky Jameson and principal Scott Kersh at Stephens County High School last week. The graduation ceremony for the SCHS senior class of 2018 will begin at 8 p.m. this Friday, May 25.

 

5/22/2018

This is an exciting week for the senior class at Stephens County High School.

Approximately 250 seniors are expected to graduate this Friday night, May 25, at the Indian Reservation at the high school.

Principal Scott Kersh said this year’s senior class has stepped up and have been leaders for the rest of the school.

He put it this way: “This class has a real positive vibe, and they’re been a successful class.”

Principal Kersh pointed out that the Class of 2018 has earned more scholarships from colleges than any other class in a long time. And the Class of 2018 is made up of 112 honor graduates, which represents 45 percent of the entire class.

Kersh said these seniors have excelled in academics, but also in a variety of areas, including Skills USA, athletics, the arts, the band program, dance team, agriculture and Jr. ROTC.

Asked where these 250 students plan to go after graduation, Kersh offered this breakdown: 43 percent will enter colleges and universities, 42 percent will enter technical colleges, 4 percent will enter the military, 3 percent will go to work and about 8 percent are undecided.

This means that approximately 90 percent of the senior class has definite plans to continue their education beyond high school. In today’s world, this additional education can make a tremendous difference.

But no matter what college you go to and what area you plan to pursue, you may find that the things you thought you wanted to do – or someone pushed you to do – are not the things you really want to do. Take time to explore. And move toward the things that appeal to you.

Dr. Jimi Crawford is a smart man who headed Google Books and recently founded his own company, Orbital Insight. He went to high school at Westminster in Atlanta and had this advice for graduates and really anyone:

“Nobody you work for can ever actually pay you for the true value of your time, so you should be doing the things you love,” he said. “The main thing is to find something worthy of your time.”

At this year’s graduation at SCHS, valedictorian Cassidy Zheng will address her fellow seniors, as will salutatorian and STAR Student Christopher Carringer.

I hope the seniors of 2018 listen carefully to these students.

This is an exciting time, for sure. These classmates have worked hard to get to this point in their lives. Families, teachers and friends have been walking this path with them, encouraging and helping along the way.

I wish our seniors well. I hope you will follow your heart and do something you really love doing – no matter what obstacles stand in your way or what others may think.

And that… is something to think about.

 

Steve Paysen at the Toccoa Soup Kitchen, located in the Whitman Street School complex. Paysen is expected to take the leadership reins at the soup kitchen later this year from longtime director Gary Lance.

 

5/15/18

Have you ever been hungry? Sure you have. We’ve all been hungry. But, for most of us, we eat and our hunger goes away.

But have you ever been really hungry? Where you haven’t eaten in a day, and you’re wondering when your next meal may be?

Fortunately, most of us are not in that situation. But we could be at some point in our lives. Some in our community are there now.

That’s why our town has the Toccoa Soup Kitchen.

I remember when this nonprofit organization started. The year was 1984. Two Toccoa women – Jeannie Clifton and Wynn Hickam – thought it was time to address hunger in Toccoa and Stephens County. Jennie was a member of Toccoa Presbyterian Church and Wynn attended St. Matthias Episcopal Church.

When my friend, Jennie, told me about their plans, my reply was simply:
“Oh, Jennie, you don’t really think Toccoa needs a soup kitchen?”

Well, a few weeks later I had to eat my words.

When they soup kitchen opened for the first time in the fellowship hall of the Presbyterian Church on Tugalo Street, some 20 people showed up. After only a few weeks, the number coming for a hot, nourishing lunch climbed to 50 people. Free meals were offered each Monday, Wednesday and Saturday – and are still served free of charge on those three days.

From those humble beginnings, the Toccoa Soup Kitchen has been operating now for 34 years.

About 25 years ago, the soup kitchen moved to the Whitman Street facility, and later began serving breakfast three times a week – also on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.

Last year, the Toccoa Soup Kitchen prepared 12,000 meals. That’s according to Gary Lance of Toccoa, who has volunteered for more than 30 years and is the soup kitchen’s current director.

Gary, 76, wants to continue helping out, but understands new leadership is needed to keep it going.

It just so happened that a few months ago a small group from Ebenezer Baptist Church were volunteering at the soup kitchen. One of the people in the small group was Steve Paysen of Toccoa.

Steve, married to chamber president Julie Paysen, has been a full-time evangelist and missionary for the last six years. He calls on students to “Be the Hero,” saying we need more heroes and less haters.

“We need for people to do the right thing,” Steve told me. “If everybody did, it would be a better world.”

At one of those volunteering sessions at the soup kitchen, Gary Lance asked Steve if he would consider taking over the leadership of the Toccoa Soup Kitchen.

“The bottom line is,” Steve said, “I wasn’t looking for this.”

But he appears to be the right man at the right time.

This small group from Ebenezer wanted to start a hot shower ministry, where someone who needs to shower and clean up can do so. So four showers will be installed on site. They also plan to add a laundry at the soup kitchen location to meet the needs of some families.

All of this is planned to start in September, but Paysen already is planning for mission teams across the country to visit Toccoa for a week to help out at the soup kitchen.

In the summers, church youth groups attending the Georgia Baptist Conference Center might use the soup kitchen as a place they could help in their mission work.

In other words, the Toccoa Soup Kitchen is undergoing a transition. But its mission remains the same as when it started in 1984.

As Gary Lance noted: “The most rewarding part of all this is simply filling the needs of the hungry and homeless in Stephens County. And we’ve had great support from local churches and local businesses.”

Paysen added: “When people come here to have a meal, we want them to feel like they are loved. What we are planning is just a continuation of what the part-time paid staff, and Gary and all the other volunteers have been doing.”

I think back to when the Toccoa Soup Kitchen began. It started because a few people cared. And it has continued because others cared.

And that’s something to think about.

 

“Listening is an important part of my job,” says Sharon Crenshaw, an information specialist at the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber’s Welcome Center. Sharon said she gets lots of stories and questions. Listening helps her provide the right information and, at times, can “even change someone’s attitude and make them feel better.”

5/8/2018

Hello, WNEG listeners.

It’s been seven and a half months since I started the WNEG Tuesday Commentary.

Since that time, I have heard from many of you – telling me how much you have enjoyed listening to my commentary every Tuesday… aired three times during the day.

Sometimes you say you disagree with me, and that’s fine too. The important part is that you are listening.

Have you ever considered how truly important listening is?

Here’s what Brenda Ueland, an American writer whose heyday was in the 1920s and 1930s, had to say about listening.

These are her words: “I want to tell you about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all – and this is important too – those we do not love. But we should.”

She describes listening as “a strange thing, a creative force.”

She notes that our friends who really listen to us are the ones who move us toward.

Ueland explains: “When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.”

Well, I’m going to give you a secret about the power of listening.

If you listen with affection to anyone who talks with you – and I mean really listen to them and be in their shoes when they talk – an interesting thing happens.

Try it. Just look at someone you are talking to, and try to hear what they are saying.

Don’t wait until it’s your turn to talk. Just listen. Don’t let your mind press against theirs. Don’t try to change the subject. Don’t argue. Just listen.

Your attitude should be: tell me more.

This is not an easy thing.

Ueland goes on to say: “Sometimes I cannot listen as well as other times. But when I have this listening power, people crowd around and their heads keep turning to me. They are drawn to me, the listener. It is because – by listening – I have started up their creative fountain. I do them good.”

So how do you become a good listener? Here are some suggestions.

Try to learn tranquility … be in the present. When a friend or family member is talking, try to stay quiet and hear every word.

By listening you do a great thing.

So thanks for listening. To me – but mainly to those closest to you. Being a good listener will make you a better person.

And that’s something to think about.

 

J.M. Stephens 1935-2018

 

5/1/2018
Sometimes a man or woman enters a community – and only years later – you realize the impact he or she had on so many people in that community.

Jim Stephens was such a man. He served as principal at Stephens County High School from 1966 to 1980, and then as Stephens County School Superintendent from 1980 to 1992. In all, he had 26 years with our local system.

Last week, Jim Stephens died following a long illness.
He is being remembered by students, faculty members, school administrators and those in the community as a man who led by example.

He could be gruff at times. He certainly was straightforward – even blunt when it was called for. Mainly, though, he was a man of integrity.

Those who spent time around him knew he had integrity, and they respected him for it.

In the Whitlock Mortuary website obituary, there is a section for persons to add their online condolences to the family.
I selected a few, mostly from former students, all now grown.

 

Here’s what Savonda Turner had to say: “J.M. Stephens was a man who earned and commanded respect. He was candid and fair. I’m glad he was part of my high school years.”

Mack Poss, a former coach and teacher, described Mr. Stephens as “the personification of a true professional, as a principal and a superintendent. He was always fair and forthright.”

Joe Perry, a SCHS graduate, wrote this about Mr. Stephens as he recalled his high school days: “His guidance and words of wisdom for a young high school student made all the difference. He earned the respect and admiration of a young man then, and I’ve kept that respect for him all these years.”

Another student, Betsy Bagby Wolff, put into words what many of us were thinking. She wrote: “I had so much respect for the man.” She added: “Thank you, Mr. Stephens, for showing us the real meaning of leadership and authority.”

That’s exactly what he did. He led by example. He had integrity. He put outstanding principals at each of the schools, and let them do their jobs.

He supported them.

He understood the value of teamwork. And the value of plain old hard work.

Jim Stephens came to our county with his young family, and spent the rest of his life here. He will be missed by so many. But never forgotten.

And that’s something to think about.

 

Chamber president Julie Paysen

4/24/2018
We all have a story to tell.
So does Toccoa and Stephens County.
I wondered what the people who tell our community’s story have to say about where we live.
So I visited with our local chamber president and our development authority executive director. I also wanted to talk with the two people closest to our city and county governments — our city manager and also our county administrator. How do they see our community? What’s their story of Toccoa and Stephens County?
My first stop was at the chamber office, located at the historic depot.
Julie Paysen is chamber president, a position she has held since 2014.
Having grown-up in Northeast Atlanta, she later moved to Roswell, Cumming and Gainesville before settling in Toccoa with her family.
“Every town doesn’t seem like home,” she said.” Toccoa does.”
Paysen summed up Toccoa and Stephens County this way: “This is a great place to do business, but what sets us apart is we’re a great place to do life. It really is a wonderful place to raise a family.”

Development authority president Tim Martin

 

My next visit was to see Tim Martin, whose office is located downtown across from the historic courthouse. Martin has served as executive director of the Stephens County Development Authority for 10 years.

“I tell anyone I meet that Toccoa is the Cherokee word for beautiful,” he said. “And Toccoa is beautiful. But we’re more than our scenic beauty. We’re home to great industry, great people and great opportunity.”

Toccoa city manager Billy Morse

 

From there, I walked a short distance to city hall to meet with Toccoa city manager Billy Morse, who started working for the city in 1983.

It didn’t take long for Morse to become an integral part of the community. He has now lived in Toccoa for 35 years.

Morse gave a number of reasons why he chose to make Toccoa home for he and his family.

First, he listed the benefits of small-town life versus that of a metro area.

“In a small town,” he said, “you get more affordable housing, a lower cost of living, a safer place, and there’s less traffic, which makes for an easy commute.”

If small towns are good, then why choose Toccoa over other small towns?

Morse gave this answer: Toccoa has a rich history. Today, Toccoa has a vibrant downtown with the Ritz Theatre, many nice businesses, downtown events, Amtrak, the Currahee Military Museum and more.

Morse went on to say that Toccoa has plenty of recreational opportunities with nearby mountains, lakes and parks. And, we enjoy four distinct seasons. And to top it off, he said, Toccoa is located close to larger cities, such as Athens and Clemson.

“We also have a strong industrial base,” Morse noted, “really, much more industry is here than a lot of other small towns. Our school system is strong and we have Toccoa Falls College and North Georgia Tech.”

Morse shared why he personally has enjoyed living in Toccoa and being city manager.

“My job gives me a sense of community, and I feel I’ve made a difference,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to be part of award-winning projects, such as the Lake Yonah pumping station and county-wide water system, the city as a regional natural gas provider, and projects like the Ritz revitalization, the Lake Toccoa renovations and the new swimming pool.

Morse put it this way: “This is just a great place to raise a family.”

 

Stephens County administrator Phyllis Ayers

 

My final stop – to the historic Stephens County Courthouse – brought me face to face with Phyllis Ayers.

Ayers was named the county’s finance director in 2003 and was promoted to county administrator in 2011.

“We’re a small community, but we have so much to offer,” she told me. “An airport, a hospital, a golf course, nature trails, Georgia Baptist Conference Center, medical facilities, fine schools, even a train stop.”

Ayers gave the perspective of someone who grew up here, attended Stephens County High School, and graduated from the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. She had been offered a job a Big Eight accounting firm. But she moved home instead.

“What drew me back is what I experienced in my childhood,” she said. “This is a great place to raise a family.”

Her family were the Millers, and she remembers summers playing at her grandmother’s house on Red Rock Road, running barefoot along the gravel road. She also counts as family the Westmorelands, the McCurrys, the Fricks and the Mercks.

“This community still has a bond among the people whose families have been here for generations, and we really are one big family,” she said. “I feel the same way about my high school classmates. I can count on these people if I need them.”

Ayers pointed out Toccoa and Stephens County always has made a big deal of things – whether it’s a Friday night high school football game or a special event for school-age children.

“We’re a beautiful community,” she said. “We really do have so much to offer.”

Here are my thoughts: we often overlook the many things that make our community special. This is a great place to live and to raise a family.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

The Ritz Theatre in downtown Toccoa will be the site of the local candidates’ forum, to begin at 6 p.m. this Thursday, April 19. The forum will be aired live on WNEG AM and FM.

 

4/17/2018

In two days from now – this Thursday evening in a political forum – we get a chance to hear first-hand from local candidates running for office.

The Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with WNEG AM and FM radio and the Stephens County Farm Bureau, will host this candidate forum at the Ritz Theatre in downtown Toccoa.

The forum will start at 6 p.m. Everyone is welcome to attend. In fact, all citizens are encouraged to pack the Ritz to hear from local candidates with opposition as they introduce themselves and answer questions fielded from the audience.

To keep things orderly, no one will be able to shout out questions. Instead, those attending will be able to write their questions on a card, and these questions will be passed along to the moderator. The moderate will then pose each question to each candidate.

Those invited to participate include Dan Gasaway and Chris Erwin, each running for the District 28 House of Representatives seat in the Georgia state legislature.

Gasaway and Erwin will appear face-to-face and are the only two candidates in this race. So the winner in the May 22 primary will be Stephens County’s next state representative.

The Stephens County Commission has two seats up for grabs. Five candidates are seeking the Post 4 seat, now held by Stanley London, who chose not to seek re-election. The five running for this post are James Addison, Mel Barrett, Bryan Dooley, Jim Ledford and Henry Moore.
The Post 5 seat is a race between incumbent Dean Scarborough and John Smith.

All those seeking a county commission seat will be on stage at the same time, fielding the same questions.

The only school board race features two new candidates: Joel Blackwell and Kay Reed, each running for the seat now held by David Fricks, who chose not to seek re-election. Three other school board members now in office are running again, but have no opposition.

My hope is that many of you will attend the candidate forum at the Ritz this Thursday.

We all can learn a lot by seeing someone in person – how they handle themselves before the public, how they react to the other candidates and how they answer the questions. You get to see their body language, their facial expressions and, of course, hear what they say.

Fortunately, our local radio station, WNEG AM and FM, will bring the entire forum to you live. If you can’t make it to the Ritz, I urge you to tune in to WNEG at 6 p.m. this Thursday, April 19, to hear from each candidate.

I think it’s a real public service for our local radio station to co-sponsor this forum and bring it to you live.

The forum is a great way to learn more about each candidate. And the more we know, the better informed we are when we vote.

Early voting starts April 30 – only two weeks away.

And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

Voting in the governor’s race – and local races too – is a precious right. So, vote.

 

4/10/18

In case you haven’t noticed, the race to become Georgia’s next governor is about to heat up.

Now that the state legislature has adjourned, it’s going to be a wild ride the next six weeks … leading up to the primary elections, which will take place on Tuesday, May 22.

As you probably know, Casey Cagle, who has served as Georgia’s lieutenant governor the last 12 years, is running against a field of six other candidates. There’s no incumbent since Gov. Nathan Deal is leaving office after he completes his second term at the end of the year.

Cagle has name recognition and has built statewide support, but I’ve seen enough Georgia statewide races to know anything can happen.

The fact is, Cagle has opposition from four strong candidates in the primary election – each vying to be the next Republican nominee for governor. With this many Republicans running for governor for the first time, there most likely will be a runoff in July between the top two vote getters.

Other Republican candidates who are viable contenders, in my opinion, include Secretary of State Brian Kemp, State Sen. Hunter Hill, State Sen. Michael Williams and political newcomer Clay Tippens.

Of course, we have two Democratic candidates for governor, both with the first name Stacey.

Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans are both former members of the Georgia House of Representatives. Each have earned law degrees, and both have worked as attorneys. Abrams now has her own business, while Evans continues to practice law.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face the Republican nominee this November in Georgia’s general election.

Right now, the Republican candidates have their eyes on winning the Republican primary. And it appears to me they believe that to win the Republican primary, they must “out-conservative” the other Republican candidates.

I took a look at the websites of these candidates and here’s what I found:

Cagle, 52, wants less talk, more results… with “conservative leadership.”

Kemp, 53, calls himself “a conservative small businessman fighting for Georgia.”

Hill, 40, is a former Army ranger, a businessman and describes himself as a “conservative fighter.”

Williams, 44, says he is a “fearless conservative.” He also has embraced the current president, calling himself a “pro-Trump” Republican.

Clay Tippens, 44, is a former Navy Seal and an executive with a global consulting firm. He wants to attack the problem of sex trafficking in Atlanta and has several other goals, one being every third grader in the state should be able to read. He describes himself as a “common-sense conservative.”

Who knows what will happen during the next six weeks as these Republican candidates joust, trying to one-up each other?

As for the two Staceys running in the Democratic primary, you won’t find the word “conservative” on their website.

Abrams, 44, says too many Georgians are “left behind or left out.” Her website states her leadership will give every Georgian the opportunity to thrive.

Evans, 40, says she is running “to bring hope and opportunity to all Georgians.”

The winner of the Democratic race – no matter which Stacey wins – faces an uphill battle in the general election. That’s because the last Democratic governor in Georgia, Roy Barnes, was elected in 1998 – 20 years ago.

Right now, who knows what will happen and what the future holds for our state?

One thing is for certain, though. Georgians need to study the candidates and speak out on issues important to them. Mainly, we need to vote. That means you and me. The greater the voter turnout, the greater the mandate goes to the winning candidate.

Put it on your calendar – Tuesday, May 22. That’s primary election day in Georgia. Of course, early voting starts in late April.

The governor of Georgia is a powerful position. As Georgians, we need to listen, learn and vote for the candidate of our choice.

Let’s hope whoever is chosen, that person will be the kind of leader we can be proud of and who will lead our state wisely for the next four years.

And that’s something to think about.

Yellow blooms of a Carolina jasmine vine reach to the sky.

4/3/2018

April, that glorious month of April, has finally arrived.
I know – and you do too – that April will bring a few more cold nights. We may even have a late freeze to deal with.
But you remember April, don’t you? The month that renews the soul.
When April arrives, you know spring is really here and summer is on its way.
Just look around. Trees are finally beginning to bud out, especially redbuds, dogwoods and other flowering trees. The limbs of the stubborn oaks remain bare, but during April, like magic, tiny buds will appear and soon these oak leaves will turn our world green again.
If you think I’m enthusiast about spring, you are right.
When I was young, my favorite season was autumn. I loved those crisp, cool days … with golden leaves falling all around.
But that was years ago. Somewhere along the way, I had to admit: spring and summer are my new favorite seasons.
And why not? Our world comes alive. Just look out your window and you’ll see the evidence that spring is here.
Or, drive down Tugalo Street, where the dogwood blooms have opened. Their showy white blossoms arrived just in time to coincide with this year’s April 1st Easter. And azaleas and other flowers are blooming all over the county.

Dogwoods are blooming on Tugalo Street near downtown Toccoa.

 

I’ve learned over the years you don’t have to travel far to enjoy nature and the wonder of spring. Most of us can walk out our back door and admire the beauty of a tree beginning to leaf out, or see a flower poking its head up to the sun.
So enjoy today. That’s my message to you this Tuesday. Enjoy today. Take a short walk outside. Feel the warmth of the sun. Take in sweet smells of spring. Look closely at the trees and flowers that surround you.
You may want to buy a small potted fern or flowering plant and put it near a window, where you can enjoy its beauty every day.

A wild violet soaks up the sun.

April is here. Spring is here. And pretty soon, as the poet says, we’ll be knee-deep in June.
And that’s something to think about.

 

 


Gov. Zell Miller was a giant among Georgia governors.

3/27/18

Former Georgia governor Zell Miller died last week at his home in Young Harris. He was 86. Surely, our state lost a politician and a statesman who will go down in history as one of the best governors ever to serve Georgia.

I remember the first time I met Zell Miller. It was in Stephens County and the year was 1974.

I was a cub reporter at The Toccoa Record, assigned to cover a banquet at the Georgia Baptist Conference Center. The speaker that evening was a up-and-coming 42-year-old politician, Zell Miller, who happened to be running for lieutenant governor that year.

I remember the occasion was some event honoring agriculture, probably sponsored by the FFA or the local Farm Bureau.

But what I distinctly remember about that evening was what happened after Mr. Miller gave his address and the event finally ended. Many in the crowd of some 200 headed for the door, but many others lingered to have a chance to talk with Zell.

I watched as the energetic Miller, wearing a coat and tie and cowboy boots, went from person to person, taking time to talk with each one personally… asking each one about their families, their jobs and how they felt about the economy, country music, or anything else on their minds.

By the time he had finished talking with everyone, almost an hour had gone by, the clean-up crew had finished up and the lights were about to be turned off.

Zell and I were the last ones to leave the dining room, but he wasn’t finished. As we walked into the darkness, the man from Young Harris asked me a few questions, gave me a firm handshake, then hopped into his car.

Needless to say, Mr. Miller made a impact on those people in Stephens County that night – and me.

He went on to win the lieutenant governor’s race later that year, and in 1975 began serving as lieutenant governor, first under Gov. George Busbee and then under Gov. Joe Frank Harris. In all, Mr. Miller served 16 years as lieutenant governor – longer than anyone else in Georgia history.

Then, in 1990, Zell Miller was elected governor of Georgia and re-elected in 1994. His two terms covered from 1991 through 1998.

During those years, he will be remembered as a governor who pushed legislation providing more money for public schools.

But Zell Miller mainly will be remembered for getting the Georgia lottery voted in, which, in turn, provided the funding for something brand new – HOPE Scholarships and HOPE Grants.

Since this time, HOPE has paid tuition for many, many students attending the state’s public colleges and universities, including those in our technical college system.

The positive impact of these scholarships and keeping the best and brightest students in Georgia can’t be emphasized enough.

By the time Gov. Miller stepped down, he was one of the most popular politicians in Georgia history.

He later went on to serve in the U.S. Senate after being appointed by Gov. Roy Barnes in July 2000 when Sen. Paul Coverdell died unexpectedly while in office. Miller went on to be elected to complete Coverdell’s term, thus serving in the nation’s capital from 2000 through 2004.

After that, he and his wife, Shirley, returned home to Towns County and a quiet life in Young Harris.

The last time I talked with Zell Miller was in 2009, when I was editor and publisher of the White County News. One morning I answered the phone and Zell Miller was on the other end, wanting to renew his newspaper subscription.

We talked for about 10 minutes, and he reminisced about those years when he had returned to the mountains to teach at Young Harris College after serving in the Marine Corps and then attending UGA, where he earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history.

He told me he had returned to Young Harris to coach baseball and teach history and political science. But even then, he had the urge to serve in government and was elected mayor of Young Harris.

“I also bought a small weekly newspaper during this time (the early 60s),” he told me. “But that was more work than I ever imagined. It was a happy day when I sold that little paper.”

We laughed and he hung up.

Gov. Zell Miller loved the people of Georgia and left a legacy with HOPE that will benefit Georgians for years and years to come.

And that’s something to think about.

 

Leading the many library programs are, from left, children’s director Shantelle Grant, library manager Emily McConnell and adult program coordinator Stephen Barlow.

 

3/20/18
This week, I want to ask each of you a question. Here it is. What’s the one place in our community where everyone can gather and have his or her life enriched?

If you answered the Toccoa-Stephens County Public Library, you answered correctly.

Our local library – on West Savannah Street at the edge of downtown Toccoa – is a special place. And it’s been a special place for almost 50 years.

Today, our library has so much going on each week I feel compelled to share it with you.

In other words, it’s not just a building with books – even though it does have 40,000 volumes of both fiction and nonfiction. And every book offers something – whether it’s entertainment, information or a bit of wisdom. Yes, books can even change your life. They have mine.

This is all wonderful in itself. But libraries today are so much more than books. There’s so much going on. Where to start?

I started with a visit to our library to talk with library manager Emily McConnell, who has done a great job of leading our library for the last five years.

This is what she told me: “We are a community gathering spot, and offer a fun, safe environment for the community. Everyone is welcome and our programs are all free. No matter who you are, you are welcome here and we look forward to helping you.”

I learned one main emphasis of the library is helping to get every child ready to read. But there’s still so much more.

Shantelle Grant, children’s director, leads a weekly “lapsit” program for parents and children – aimed at little ones from birth to age 2.

 

Here are some – but not all – of the weekly programs being offered.

On Monday, the library concentrates on new technology and involves those who might want to learn – for example – to program a drone, create an animated video or build a lego creation. There’s even a 3-D printer you can work with. Stephen Barlow heads this program for kids and adults alike.

It’s “Read Aloud” every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to noon with children’s director Shantelle Grant. This is for children ages 2 through 5, accompanied by their mom or dad. It’s a morning of reading, songs and movement.

Computer classes, taught by adult program coordinator Stephen Barlow, are held every Wednesday from 11 a.m. until noon. These include classes on an introduction to the Internet and social media, and how to use Word, Excel and other popular programs.

Shantelle Grant gets the younger children moving every Thursday at 11 a.m. with something called “Lapsits.” Lapsits gets its name because the children are so small they sit on the lap of their mom or dad. Lapsits is designed for children from birth to age 2. They see a variety of shapes and colors and have fun singing and moving about.

“Art Day” is every Friday. All day, participants can come into the library to paint, sketch or craft.

Remember all those books in our library. Well, the library also offers e-books for patrons. These can be downloaded to read on a Kindle Fire or Apple iPad. Right now, an average of 250 patrons per month are reading library e-books – all at no charge.

As for the 40,000 books on our library shelves, patrons are checking out an average of 4,000 to 5,000 books per month. During the Summer Reading Program for children, that number swells to 8,000 books per month.

Our library – thanks to a committed staff of five full-time employees and one part-time – truly is a community gathering place for all ages.

“We’re about community engagement,” library manager Emily McConnell said. “We’re not just about books… we are about the pursuit of knowledge and equal access to education. Libraries enrich the lives of people.”

The way I see it, our Toccoa-Stephens County Public Library is not just a nicety to have in our community. Our library is a necessity. It’s a necessity because it reaches all people and can change lives. We are fortunate to have such a place.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

Marie Cochran, following her presentation about Ida Prather Cox, stands next to a banner noting the contributions of musicians who were born or lived in Toccoa.

 

3/13/18

I recently finished a book about courage. Written by Brene´ Brown, the book is titled: “Braving the Wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone.”

Much of this book is about what it really means to have courage.

She writes that the foundation of courage is vulnerability – the ability to navigate uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Making yourself vulnerable definitely takes courage.

Thinking about courage leads me to a woman who was born in Toccoa around 1894… a woman named Ida Prather. Each summer, the City of Toccoa recognizes her contribution to music with the annual Ida Cox Music Festival.

Ida Prather was born and spent her early years at Riverside Plantation in Stephens County. Her family later moved to Cedartown, where she sang in the church choir.

But she sensed there was a bigger world out there, so she left home and joined a traveling vaudeville show. What Ida Prather did took courage. She certainly made herself vulnerable – and there was a lot of uncertainly and risk involved.

She soon married her first husband, Alder Cox, a band member from Florida. But her young husband was killed in World War I fighting for his country.

Her husband’s death had to be a difficult time for her, but she continued on – working hard, never giving up on her dreams.

Her determination paid off, as she transformed herself into a blues singer – but not just any blues singer. Ida Cox became one of the top blues performers in the country.

In the 1920s, she became a headliner, singing with many jazz greats. She made her first blues recording on the Paramount label in 1923. Not only was Ida Cox a great singer, she became a prolific songwriter and went on to record 78 songs with Paramount during the 1920s.

One of her best-known songs – “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” – personified Ida Cox, really, … a nonconforming, independent woman.

Indeed, she was a savvy businesswoman who served as her own manager, hired her own musicians and produced her own stage shows.

Perhaps one of her career highlights was singing live with other performers at Carnegie Hall in 1939 in a sold-out stage show called “From Spirituals to Swing.”

In 1945 when she was in her early 50s, Ida Cox suffered a stroke and retired to Knoxville, Tennessee, to live with her daughter. She had a comeback of sorts in 1961 when she recorded her final album at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. She died in Knoxville in 1967.

I learned a lot about Ida Cox recently when I attended a program at the local library called “Bringing Ida Home.” Toccoa native and SCHS graduate Marie Cochran delivered an interesting and informative program about Ida Cox.

Marie, too, has ventured out in her own life. She is the founding artist and curator the Affrilachian Artists Project, which celebrates the diversity of the Appalachian region by promoting black artists who work in visual arts.

Marie is a visual artist herself. She graduated with an art degree from UGA, then earned a masters degree in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

Her mixed media pieces have been exhibited at the High Museum in Atlanta, the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

These two women – both from Toccoa – have personified courage in their careers. Any time you put yourself and your artwork – or your songs – out there for the public, it makes you vulnerable. But that’s part of life – doing something, being bold, taking risks.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

Bill Cochran, Stephens County Chief Registrar and Election Superintendent, is gearing up for the upcoming primary election, set for Tuesday, May 22.

 

3/6/2018

It’s qualifying week in Stephens County and in every county in Georgia.

Qualifying week is simply the week when candidates qualify to run for public office.

Qualifying week started yesterday at 9 a.m. at the courthouse annex and will continue until noon this Friday, March 9.

In Stephens County, we have three county commissioners whose terms expire at the end of this year. So each of these seats may be contested. Up for re-election are Dean Scarborough, Stanley London and Michelle Ivester.

On the Stephens County School Board, we have four school board members whose terms will expire at year end. So these four seats also may be contested. We’ll know by week’s end. The incumbents on the school board up for re-election are David Fricks, Jim Bellamy, Rod Moore and Bill Wheeler.

In addition to these local races, two special elections will be on the ballot – one a special election for voters in the City of Toccoa dealing with Sunday sales of alcohol and the other a separate special election for all county voters dealing with Sunday sales and consumption on site of beer and wine in the unincorporated areas of the county.

Bill Cochran, the county’s Chief Registrar and Election Superintendent, is the person responsible for putting the Stephens County ballot together and insuring our ballot is put together accurately.

The Stephens County ballot not only will include the local county commission and school board races and the local alcohol-related special elections, but also the governor’s contest, Congressional races and State Senate and State House races.

Right now, six Republicans have declared their intentions to run for governor. At the end of this week, we’ll know who paid the qualifying fee and actually qualified to run.

By the same token, two Democrats also have stated their intentions to run for governor. They also have to qualify this week to make it official.

But back to the local level.

I met with Bill Cochran last week in his office in the courthouse annex. I also met his part-time employee, Eureka Gober. These two handle this office by themselves, except during early voting and on election days when poll workers are brought in to help.

Cochran told me that his office receives about 600 new voter registrations a month. But there’s also attrition on the voter rolls from people moving out of the county, as well as from deaths.

The local office keeps up with these new registrations to insure they are recorded properly and there are no duplicates.

They also keep up with deaths in the county. The local office receives a copy of all death certificates from the local Probate Judge’s office, and there is a double check later with the state.

So we can take comfort knowing our voter list is fair and accurate.

Just as importantly, Cochran points out that the touch-screen voting machines we’ve been using for years are secure and working fine.

He noted these machines are tested publicly before each election, and that each machine has memory cards that record the votes, and these memory cards are saved after each election.

Cochran emphasized that our voting machines are stand-alone and are not connected to any network and definitely not to the Internet.

Currently, Stephens County has approximately 16,400 registered voters.

All these voters will be eligible to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries, both to be held on Tuesday, May 22. The primary run-offs are set for the middle of summer – on Tuesday, July 24.

The general election – where Republican and Democratic candidates finally face off – will be Tuesday, Nov. 6.

But it all begins this week – qualifying week. And if you’ve thought about running for local office, hey, you’ve still got until noon on Friday to sign up
at the registrar’s office.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Years ago, former Toccoa Mayor Bill Harris convinced his friend John Kollock to paint this scene: Main Street Toccoa in the early 1900s. Prints of the painting sold out quickly.

Nancy Kollock, widow of the late John Kollock, along her daughter Kathleen Kollock, hold a copy of Kollocks final book, Meandering Paths of an Artist.The book sells for $30 and is available at Troups Studio & Gifts.

 

2/27/2018

 

John Kollock was an artist whose impact spread far and wide in Northeast Georgia.

 

His impact began more than 40 years ago when Kollock published the book, “These Gentle Hills” – filled with his watercolor paintings depicting everyday scenes from Northeast Georgia from an earlier era, the late 1800s and early 1900s.

 

The popularity of this picture book – especially among those living in Stephens, Habersham, Rabun and White counties – spurred a number of other Kollock books, including “Watercolor Memories of the Hills,” “The Long Afternoon Sketchbook” and “Painting Memories in Watercolor.”

 

Not only was Kollock a wonderful artist whose paintings captured how Northeast Georgia once looked, but he also was a splendid storyteller who enjoyed writing about the history and customs of those times.

 

A few years before his death in 2014 and upon the urging of his children, Kollock put down on paper some memories from his own childhood. What began as a few stories about his past turned into a fascinating account of his life.

 

Now, the family has published that fascinating account in a new book called “The Meandering Path of an Artist.”

 

Nancy Kollock, his widow, called it an encouraging book. She said that’s why John wrote it.

 

“He wanted to encourage other people to look at their lives and see how things are working out. They may be on their own meandering path. But if someone really wants to do something, they just need to keep on trying.”

 

In his book, Kollock wrote about how his wife, Nancy, and their three daughters provided him with plenty of inspiration.

 

Nancy said she appreciates the fact that John talked about his faith in his final book.

 

“He believed everyone has a gift, and he believed his gift came from the Lord.”

 

In Kollock’s final chapter of “The Meandering Path of an Artist,” he writes: “What I hope this book might be is a story about the importance of turning one’s authority over to God and following the doors He opens. My life has been a meandering path that I have followed without knowing what I would find to do next. Way back when I came to acknowledge that I had to rely on God’s help, my directions became clearer.”

 

After reading his book, I’m even more impressed with this talented man who grew up in Atlanta, but spent his childhood summers on his grandmother’s farm north of Clarkesville. Kollock and his family eventually moved to that farm in 1973.

 

Kollock’s story takes us back to his days studying theater at the University of Georgia, working on movie sets and serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, where he became part of the Special Services group that put on shows and radio broadcasts for troops all over Europe.

 

Kollock also tells about his younger days in Atlanta, where he did cover art  for “Georgia Life” magazine and illustrated books for the likes of Celestine Sibley and many other authors.

 

Perhaps Priscilla Wilson, who edited Kollock’s memoir, put it best in her editor’s note in the front of the book: “Every single time I’ve read it, John’s energy and drive and love of work have bounced off the pages – touching my sensibilities, inspiring me, moving me to want to be and do my best.”

 

I believe you may want to get a copy of Kollock’s last book for your own library. And that’s something to think about.

 

 


This sign in downtown Toccoa meets city code, is attractive and draws attention to those passing by.

 

2/20/18

Signs. Signs. Everywhere are signs.

And signage in the City of Toccoa seems to have evolved into a hot topic lately.

It got that way after the city’s code enforcement officer recently issued citations to a few businesses on Currahee Street … businesses that were using portable signs on a permanent basis.

The current city code calls for these kinds of portable signs to be used only on a temporary basis, not long term.

When these business owners were told they were in violation of the sign ordinance, they also were given a timetable to remove their signs. They weren’t written up on the spot.

But when these portable signs ultimately were not removed after this time period expired, the code enforcement officer did his job and cited the businesses for a code violation.

The businesses – to say the least – were unhappy with these citations.

As the scenario developed, the city commission held a work session last week. Since this was a work session, no action was taken. While the commissioners did support the code enforcement officer, they also agreed to take another look at the city code in all its parts to make sure it was reasonable and everyone was being treated fairly.

And it didn’t take long for the commissioners to do something. Yesterday morning – in a called meeting – they voted 4 to 0 to void all the recent sign citations. The city commission also put a 60-day moratorium on issuing
any citations for sign violations.

The commission wants to use these 60 days to throughly review the entire sign ordinance, and will either leave it as is or make changes they believe are necessary.

One thing to remember… our citizens have been calling for a more attractive city for years, and the city has worked to rid Toccoa of blight.

The city has made several areas of Currahee Street more attractive – including a green space at the corner of Broad and Currahee streets, where a City of Toccoa entrance sign is located.

Work has started to reduce blight on Pond Street. And the city pushed to remove the dilapidated motel on Big A Road across from Ebenezer Baptist Church.

These were code enforcement issues too, and important for the city.

And, in my view, so are signs. If you travel around Georgia, attractive cities have attractive signs. Yes, city codes sometimes rub a few the wrong way, but any time you want to make improvements, there is always push-back.

When the city finalizes its review of the sign ordinance in 60 days and makes any revisions it feels is needed, then I believe every single part of this revised city code should be enforced and every business should adhere to it. That why we have city ordinances.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Even Toccoa Falls has changed in 40 years. This photo, taken in June 1977, shows two steady streams tumbling down to a variety of rocks at its base. The rock formation all changed with the dam break that occurred five months later. My 7-year-old niece, Caroline Rich, of Atlanta poses with a rock. She stayed with Patti and me for a week that summer.

 

2/13/18
Singer and songwriter Willie Nelson wrote an old favorite of mine, “Funny How Time Slips Away.”

Yes, old Willie was right on when he sang the words: “Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away.”

I’ve been feeling that way lately. I look back and remember when I moved to Toccoa and Stephens County almost 45 years ago.

The year was 1973. I remember those days meeting upstairs at city hall for the city commission meetings. The three city commissioners were Troy Bowen, Lucius Alewine and Roy Gaines.

And the county commissioners met in a small room over at the courthouse annex. Newt Rice, Lonie Martin and Nancy Doss were the county commissioners. Ms. Doss was the first female county commissioner in Stephens County, and you would have thought she had landed here from Mars.

The school system’s main office was on the third floor of that courthouse annex building. Edwin Stowe was the elected school superintendent. A fresh-faced Myron McClain soon was named assistant superintendent.

Bill Wilkinson was Sheriff, and Don Shirley Toccoa Police Chief. Superior Court Judge Jack Gunter ruled superior court with an iron hand, but also with a wry sense of humor.

Judge Robert Harris, who handled state court proceedings, had eyes that I swear actually twinkled, especially when he talked about some invention he was working on.

The two major employers were WABCO (formerly known as LeTourneau’s) and Coats & Clark. Both employed more than 1,000 people, but Stephens County remained a rural community and had a rural feel to it.

That may be because many of those machinists, fixers and welders – after putting in their eight-hour shifts – went home to work on their family farms.

I don’t tell you all this to reminisce. I tell you this because change is something many of us don’t like to think about. But our community has changed. Our state has changed. Our world has changed.

In our hearts, we know change is something that happens daily. But it’s easy to pretend that things are just rocking along… without change.

Today, Toccoa and Stephens County is much different that those days when I arrived 45 years ago.

But I’m glad I’m still here. And I’m glad we have so many people who live, work and play here… and call this place home.

Yes, Willie, ain’t it surprising how time just slips away? But really, it shouldn’t be. And that’s something to think about.
If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 


Lou and Rob Worsley of Toccoa with their children, from left, Warner, Reagan, Charis and Josiah.

 

2/6/2018
Last week, I sat around the dining room table with the Worsley family to find out more about their volunteering.

The family – father Rob and mother Lou and their four children – recently were named Volunteers of the Year by Toccoa Main Street.

The family had volunteered at the Ritz Theatre last summer, helping with the movie program.

I wanted to hear more about this – especially from the children. They are Charis, age 12, Reagan, 10, Warner, 8, and Josiah, 6.

The youngest, Josiah, told me he took up tickets at the Ritz. “I tore them in half and put them in a bucket,” he said

His older siblings manned the concession stand, selling Cokes and candy to the Thursday morning crowds.

Charis told me this about her volunteering experience: “I really liked getting to know Mrs. Crosby (that’s Sharon Crosby, special events coordinator with Main Street) and getting to talk with other people.”

The Worsley family also spent time last summer helping out at the Toccoa-Stephens County Humane Shelter because daughter Reagan is a big animal lover.

Yes, Reagan admitted: “I loved being around cats and dogs.”

But the children learned there was a lot more to the shelter than just hanging out with the animals.

They washed out the feeding bowls, helped do the laundry and cleaned the cages of the cats and kittens. They spent time playing with the kittens too, and taking notes if any kitten looked like it needed more attention.

This sounds like a lot of work, I told them.

“Yeah, but it was fun,” Reagan said. Her siblings agreed.

Mom Lou noted that shelter director Jeff Roberts was “so nice” to let them help, and added: “Miss Judy, our mentor, was patient with all the kids. It didn’t bother her that we came in as a herd.”

Shelter personnel also enjoyed having the Worsleys on site each week.

“They were great, and so enthusiastic,” Roberts said. “They tried to soak up everything, and learned a lot about our community and what it takes to be a responsible pet owner.”

Lou and Rob are both graduates of Toccoa Falls College. They spent eight years working at TFC in a men’s dormitory as resident directors.

“Our kids grew up living in the dorm, where service and working as a team was the norm,” Lou said. “They still have a weekly chore list at home.”

Today, the family lives a big rambling house near downtown Toccoa. Rob works for a local construction company, while Lou, a former high school English teacher, home schools the kids.

“We said no to me working full time,” Lou said, “which has allowed us to say yes to our children volunteering in the community. This is a tangible way for them to leave their comfort zones.”

By volunteering as a family, Lou also believes she has gotten to see her children in a different way… from a new perspective. “I see them more as individuals with special qualities to offer.”

The family has been talking about volunteering this summer at the Toccoa Soup Kitchen. “We want to be more engaged with people who are vulnerable,” Lou said. “If there’s a way to be a part of that, we should take the opportunity.”

She believes her kids are up to the challenge.

“It will be good,” Charis said. “It will be hard work. But you get to meet some nice adults and see how you can give back.”

“It’s fun to be around other people,” Reagan agreed.

And people enjoy being around the Worsley family. I certainly did. They make you feel good.

As Sharon Crosby of Toccoa Main Street said: “We found this family so refreshing. That’s why we wanted to recognize all of them.”

I hope you get to meet the Worsley family. You can see their photo on WNEG’s website – wnegradio.com. Just click on Tuesday Commentary.

You’ll see one family that gives me hope for the future. And that’s something to think about.

 

 


The Top 10 game-changing events in Northeast Georgia during the last 90 years, as noted in the Norton Agency’s Native Intelligence report for 2018.

1/30/2018

Back in December, I received an interesting e-mail from Frank Norton, Chairman and CEO of The Norton Agency, based in Gainesville. This business is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.

The e-mail contained a survey, and each recipient was asked to choose the 10 events, in his or her own mind, “that forever changed our North Georgia region over the last 90 years – from 1928 to 2018.”

To make the job easier, Norton had included about 30 events to be pondered before filling out the survey.

Through this survey, Norton wanted to better understand the significance of these game-changing events and see how area residents would rank them.

Frank Norton is a force in the world of real estate in Northeast Georgia. His annual Native Intelligence report is anticipated each year by hundreds of business people, elected officials and those working in the nonprofit world.

Norton gave his latest business forecast last week – which included a summary of his survey results.

So, in ascending order, here is the Top 10 significant events that have forever changed Northeast Georgia, as voted on by area residents.

No. 10. The Gainesville tornado of 1936. If you think about it, you can understand why this one got so many votes. Much of downtown Gainesville was destroyed, hundreds died and thousands were injured. Despite this terrible disaster, the people of Gainesville showed resilience and strength by overcoming adversity and building a stronger community.

No. 9. The expansion of public colleges and private colleges in Northeast Georgia. These colleges, spread throughout Northeast Georgia, have provided our citizens with a broader educational opportunity. I would have ranked this one higher.

No. 8. Utility infrastructure. To put things in perspective, in 1928 only an estimated 5 percent of our region had electricity. Reliable telephone service in this region wasn’t available until the 1950s. Think how far we’ve come.

No. 7. The Atlanta airport. The decision to make Atlanta’s airport a major transportation hub changed everything. In 1950, Birmingham and Atlanta had almost the same population: a little over 300,000. Today, Birmingham’s population stands at 1.1 million, compared to Atlanta’s 5.7 million. Atlanta’s airport is the busiest in the world, and its impact definitely has reached into Northeast Georgia.

No. 6. The 1996 Olympics. Remember the rowing competition at Lake Lanier? That facility has been updated and is still thriving 22 years later. Remember the excitement when the Olympic torch was carried through downtown Toccoa? Norton believes the “can do” spirit of the Olympics was its most lasting legacy.

No. 5. Atlanta’s growth. We have all witnessed it… as development moved first into Gwinnett County, then Hall, Barrow and Jackson counties and is now making its way into Lumpkin, White and Habersham counties. It’s a matter of time before Toccoa and Stephens County are affected by this growth.

No. 4. The birth of the chicken industry. If you know Gainesville, then you know chicken is king. But chicken houses and processing plants have brought plenty of jobs and economic growth to all parts of North Georgia.

No. 3. Northeast Georgia’s healthcare system. The Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville and the North Georgia Physicians Group has put top-quality healthcare within the reach of many. The Toccoa Clinic is now part of this group. Norton put it this way: Healthcare continues to rock this region. I agree, and put this one as my No. 1.

No. 2. The Interstate Highway System. It now criss-crosses Northeast Georgia and has given all us greater accessibility to everything. I’m not sure I would have ranked it No 2, but you can’t deny how these four-lanes have opened up our world.

No. 1. The creation of Lake Sidney Lanier. Yes, I understand why folks from Gainesville (where most of the polling took place) would rank good old Lake Lanier as the number-one game-changer. The creation of Lake Lanier changed everything for the many counties that border this huge body of water – all 38,000 acres of it.

As Frank Norton noted, it wasn’t one event that moved Northeast Georgia forward and created these growth dynamics. It took them all.

One thing’s for certain. Toccoa and Stephens County will continue to be shaped by these dynamics.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 

 

A portion of the Chattahoochee National Forest in Northeast Georgia

1/23/18

I consider myself an environmentalist.

I know… sometimes in the South, caring about our environment labels you as a “tree hugger”… or “anti-business”… or even worse, “a liberal.”

Well, I contend that most of us – deep down – have a special relationship with nature.

After all, as the old church hymn goes: “This is my Father’s World: I rest me in the thought, Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; His hand the wonders wrought.”

And here in Northeast Georgia, we are blessed with many wonders – from mountain streams to towering oaks to rolling hills and majestic mountains.

If you have a sense of history, you may know that local families farmed this land for centuries, but sold much of it in the late 1800s to big lumber companies from up North or out West – companies that set up huge sawmills.

Loggers proceeded to cut down every tree in sight. Essentially, from the 1880s to the 1920s – a 40-year period – much of our land was scalped. And with no ground cover, erosion scarred the land and crystal-clear streams filled with red dirt.

It was at this point that the federal government bought much of this land in an effort to restore it. The U.S. Forest Service, as it is know today, planted thousands of trees and worked tirelessly to bring back the forests that had been decimated. But it has taken more than 100 years and a concerted effort by so many to reclaim the land.

You may be thinking… this is well and good. Why does it matter today?

It matters today because of H.R. 2936, a bill that the U.S. House of Representatives passed on Nov. 1, 2017, and sent to the U.S. Senate.

If this bill is passed by the Senate and enacted into law, it would allow for tens of thousands of acres – from 15- to 45-square-mile areas of the Chattahoochee National Forest, our backyard – to be logged. The bill would allow years of timber logging in a single timber sale.

The biggest resource at risk is our water supply.

The Chattahoochee River starts as a small stream in the mountains. But the river’s source is really not one small stream… it’s literally hundreds of them. Water is constantly seeping out of the ground. The forests are filled with underground water sources because of the tree canopy.

This tree canopy also protects the streams, keeping the water clean – as it flows southward toward Lake Lanier or eastward toward the Tugalo River and ultimately the Savannah River.

Before the House voted on this bill, I wrote a letter to U.S. Representative Doug Collins, noting my concern and asking him to consider voting no. A few weeks later, I got a form letter from Rep. Collins thanking me for my letter and telling me why he voted yes. I’m sorry… I didn’t buy any of his reasons.

So now the bill sits in the Senate. Will our national forests in Northeast Georgia be protected? Or will the Chattahoochee National Forest, which includes Currahee Mountain and surrounding lands, be subject to a clear-cutting campaign like we haven’t seen in our lifetimes?

This clear-cutting campaign will benefit certain industries… but will not benefit the majority of our residents, and certainly will not protect our land, our water, our air.

Yes, this is my Father’s world.

But when our national forests are destroyed and much of these valuable resources are gone forever, it will be too late. We know very well the horrible destruction that wholesale logging did to our land in the early 1900s.

Can we learn from our past mistakes? Time will tell.

And that’s something to think about.

 


1/16/2018

Michelle Ivester has been appointed chair of the Stephens County Commission for 2018. And she’s ready.

In fact, when she was only 20 years old she made a decision to get involved in her community.

Not really knowing exactly how to accomplish this, she phoned the then-new Chamber chair Phil Hobbs, asking him how she could get involved. He was impressed by her eagerness and sincerity and put her on the Chamber board.

When she turned 21, Ivester set a new goal: to become a county commissioner by age 30.

She tried to learn as much as possible about local government: volunteering, being part of Leadership Toccoa and later graduating from the Georgia Academy of Economic Development program. She served on the county’s Board of Registrars.

But where she really got her baptism by fire in politics was being part of a citizens’ committee that met every Tuesday night for 18 straight months.

That committee was helping to shape the county’s land use ordinance, which the county eventually adopted in 2014 right before she became a county commissioner herself.

But for Ivester, it was important for her be part of this hard-working group that forged a consensus on land use.

“I think our land use ordinance is one of the best things our county has,” she said, “I’m proud to have played a part in helping to create it.”

In 2014, she won a special election to fill an unexpired term. She was 32 at the time, just a couple of years off her goal. That same year she ran again for a full four-year term… winning that election.

As she begins her final year of her four-year term, she believes 2018 will be a pivotal one.

As commission chair, she wants to make county government more open to suggestions and ideas from the public. That’s why she plans to host a town hall meeting for citizens each quarter during the year.

The first one is set for this Saturday, January 20, at the historic courthouse. It will start at 2 p.m.

“This will be an open forum,” she said. “Anybody can come out and talk. There’s no agenda. If you have any questions, concerns or suggestions, I’ll be there to listen. I want people to have a voice.”

Besides her town hall meetings, other goals include building a bigger, better farmers market and repurposing the old farmers market building on North Broad Street to support new business ventures.

Another goal is to concentrate on repaving roads in county subdivisions, since last year emphasized repaving longer, connecting roads.

Serving on the commission has been more stressful than expected, she admitted. But she has a special motivation.

“I have kids, and I don’t want them to have to move out of the county to have a job,” she said. “We’ve come a long way to make this possible.”

Ivester pointed out that since she has been on the commission, the Stephens County Development Authority has brought in almost a thousand new jobs – with a capital investment of $90 million.

“I think everybody feels good about the direction we are moving,” Ivester said, adding: “There’s so much positive right now. The city and county are working great together, and it feels like we’re all on the same page. We all want growth and jobs.”

A Stephens County native, Ivester graduated in 2000 from Stephens County High. She has two degrees from Piedmont College, one in early childhood education… the other, a master’s degree in business administration.

She started her own business, Talan Properties, in 2008. Her real estate brokerage firm employs five people. Her husband is Von Ivester, a longtime Patterson Pump employee. They have two sons, Talan and Rylan.

When asked about the local real estate market, Ivester said there has been a real resurgence in residential real estate sales.

She noted many of the sales are to young people coming here.

“They want to move out of the big city, and don’t mind commuting to Gainesville or Jefferson or even metro Atlanta,” she said. “They like the quiet, country life.”

And speaking of young people, Ivester, now 35, says it’s time for her millennial contemporaries to get involved in local government… to run for local offices and serve on local boards.

“There are so many young people in our county capable are being in leadership positions,” she said. “It’s time for my generation to step up and get involved.”

I’m impressed with how Michele Ivester has gotten involved in our community. She certainly has set a fine example for others to follow.

And that is something to think about.


1/9/2018

The City of Toccoa has a new mayor for 2018 – David Austin.

If Mayor Austin’s name sounds familiar, it should. Austin has served 18 consecutive years on the Toccoa City Commission, and is now serving as mayor of Toccoa for the fifth time.

He has tied the record set by former mayor James Neal, who also served as mayor five times. As for Austin, he began his service as a city commissioner in 2000 and named mayor initially in 2003.

Each year, Toccoa City Commissioners appoint a mayor and vice mayor for a one-year period.

The mayor is charged with conducting the bi-monthly commission meetings and is the city’s main ambassador throughout the year.

Not only that, the mayor serves on a number of boards, including the Stephens County Development Authority, which plays an important role in bringing in new businesses and industry into Toccoa and Stephens County.

You might know or remember Austin before his days in local politics. He and his wife, Michelle, have been part of the Toccoa scene for some 50 years. They met as students at Toccoa Falls College and were married in 1967 … between their junior and senior years.

In 1972, Roy Gaines hired Austin as an on-air personality at WNEG Radio, where he also worked in advertising sales at the station.

The Austin’s moved a couple of times to North Carolina for jobs in radio and advertising, but made their final move back to Toccoa in 1984 when Gaines started his television station – WNEG TV. Austin was tapped to head the sales department at Toccoa’s first and only TV station.

He stayed in that position until he retired in 2011, despite the station going through several buy-outs and ultimately being relocated from Toccoa.

During his TV days, many remember those Saturday nights when David and Michelle co-hosted The Billy Dilworth Show.

“Not a week goes by, even today, that either Michelle or myself meet someone who brings up the Dilworth show and our time together on the show,” David said.

Austin retired in 2011 after a 40-year career in radio, television and advertising.

By the time of his retirement, he had been on the Toccoa City Commission for 11 years and served as mayor twice.

Now, he begins his 19th year on the commission.

“It’s been a real pleasure to serve,” he said. “I feel I’ve contributed to the betterment of our city.”

This year, the mayor hopes to work closely with the Stephens County Development Authority in an effort to bring in a name-brand hotel and other new businesses.

“Economic development is vital to our city and county,” he said.

When asked about serving with a city commission that works well together, and I believe this one does, Austin said it makes it possible “to get things done.”

He puts it this way: “The city commissioners right now have a consensus on what needs to be done. Every year we set new goals, and then decide what’s the best we can do with the money we have. Then, we all work together to meet those goals.”

The most rewarding part of serving on the commission, according to Austin, has been “being part of a great municipal organization.”

He added: “We have an excellent city government here. Our employees do a great job of providing services for our citizens. The city is financially sound and the improvements we’ve made in downtown and at the golf course – which includes the renovated Reflections building that is fabulous and stays rented all the time – all of this makes Toccoa a better place to live and work.”

The mayor concluded: “It’s all about quality of life. What we do helps our citizens have a better quality of life.”

And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

1/2/2018

On this cold Tuesday, I have some warm thoughts for you as we begin 2018.

I want you to consider that we — all humans on Earth – are really one big family. We are all brothers and sisters when you get right down to it.

In every way – physically, mentally and emotionally – we face the same challenges… and basically we want the same things out of life.

When I spent six weeks in Sydney, Australia, some 30 years ago, I came to realize this. The things that were important to the people Down Under were the same things that mattered to the people in Northeast Georgia.

What were they? A safe place to live. Plenty of healthy food to eat and enjoy. Having a few friends. Maybe meeting someone, falling in love, getting married. Being able to provide for a family. Seeing our children get a good education and have opportunities of their own.

Don’t get me wrong, even in Australia, some Aussies were great fun to be with … others not so much. But it became apparent that life in Toccoa really wasn’t much different than life in Sydney.

One morning I picked up a copy of the Sydney Daily News and skimmed the front-page headlines. Similar stories most likely were being reported back home in the Atlanta paper.

That week in Australia I was staying with an older couple. The wife, glancing at me while I looked at the paper, asked about the latest hatches, matches and dispatches.

“Hatches, matches and dispatches,” I asked. What’s that?”

“Oh, you know,” she replied, “Births, weddings and obituaries.”
I got it. Hatches, matches and dispatches. Births, marriages and deaths are important, no matter where you are in the world.

Recently, the 82-year-old Dalai Lama, the exiled religious leader of Tibet, wrote these words: “Humanity is all one big family. But we are still focusing far too much on our differences instead of our commonalities. After all, every one of us is born the same way and dies the same way.”

He suggested more listening, more contemplation, more meditation. And he agreed with Mahatma Gandhi, who said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

The Dalai Lama added: “By listening and contemplation, we can learn that patience is an antidote for anger, bravery in an antidote for fear and understanding is an antidote for doubt.”

It is not helpful to rage against others, he continued. Instead, we should strive to change ourselves.

This year, let’s try to live together as brothers and sisters. And let’s get started right away.

Many of us are in such a mad dash to the future, we miss the point of life. What if tomorrow never comes, and it never does. Embrace today… and you will have more todays than you can ever imagine.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 


Stephens County Government Building, which houses the county’s constitutional officers and courtrooms.

Toccoa Municipal Building in downtown Toccoa, where Toccoa City Commission meets

 

12/26/2017

As we watch the old year slip away, it may be a good time to think about 2018.

Can you believe it… the 21st Century is quickly moving forward, whether we like it or not. Almost 2018. It makes me wonder if I’m ready for this fast-paced world, a world that most likely will get even faster.

It’s always a good time at year end to take stock of where we are. More importantly, it’s a good time to think about where we want to go. Let’s take the time to consider where we want to go in our own community next year.

What would you like to see happen in Toccoa and Stephens County in 2018?

I have my own thoughts. So, here’s a few things I would like to see happen.

I would like to see more of our citizens engaged in civic affairs. I’m not advocating everyone attend every school board, city commission or county commission meeting. But I challenge you to attend at least one of these meetings in the coming year.

We depend on our local radio station, WNEG and local newspaper, The Toccoa Record, to help us know what’s going on in the community. And God bless them. They do a fine job.

But sometimes you need to attend a local government meeting and see for yourself those we elected in action. Listen and learn. It’s part of what being in a democracy is all about.

A few other things… I’d like to see those walking trails built in the woods bordering Lake Toccoa. It would bring more people to this beautiful place, plus it would become a great location to walk and exercise.

Also, I’d like to see the Stephens County Economic Development board and executive director bring in a solid new industry for our county in 2018. We’ve had some successes in the last few years. Let’s keep it going.

With the Currahee Campus of North Georgia Tech in Toccoa’s backyard and a new four-lane highway leading straight to I-85, we have two keys to success when it comes to industrial development.

Also, I’d like to see our Stephens County Schools continue to operate with a balanced budget and to continue focusing on educating every student – no matter their career path.

And, I’d like to see Stephens County Hospital thriving once again, fully staffed and operating in the black.

I realize none of these are earth-shattering goals. But they are all worthy goals. And together, they add up to a better quality of life for our citizens.

Finally, I believe each of us should consider ourselves part owners of Toccoa and Stephens County.

We should treat our community with care, taking an interest in what’s going on, and offering a suggestion or positive word every now and then.

I’ve been all over Georgia (and a few other places). Looking at Toccoa and Stephens County, we have much to offer.

Let’s do our part and be an owner. Hey, maybe I’ll see you at a government meeting next year. After all, each of you have good ideas to contribute.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 


During the Christmas season, storefronts in downtown Toccoa are delightfully decorated to greet those passing by. But for some residents, Christmas can be a difficult time of year.

12/19/2017

Things are beginning to slow down in this week before Christmas in Toccoa and Stephens County.

It’s a time for reflection… a time to think about what’s important in our lives.

During the Christmas season, we are reminded that this is a season of joy… and for many, this is true.

But for some, Christmas is a difficult time. There are those with financial problems, those who are lonely and those who may be grief-stricken due to the loss of loved ones.

Back when I was editor of the White County News, we ran a local advise column that was written by a Cleveland resident named Abigail Cutchshaw. Abigail called her column, Ask Lula Belle, because after all, she couldn’t call it Ask Abby. That name already had been taken.

The Ask Lula Belle column became quite popular: a mother would write in asking advise about what to do about her young child who always seemed bored, or a young wife would ask why her husband didn’t stand up for her when there was friction between her and her mother-in-law.

But the Ask Lula Belle column that resonated the most with our readers over my nine years in White County was one she wrote one Christmas.
The headline read: “Christmas is for those who are grieving.”

She had received a letter from someone who wrote: “Christmas is putting too much pressure on me. I don’t have the energy or the desire to celebrate the holidays at all. I lost my husband back in the spring. This is my first Christmas without him. My children live far away and I’ve chosen not to travel. She signed it.. Too Sad to Celebrate.

Lula Belle perhaps gave one of her best answers. This is part of what she wrote:

“Christmas is hard for many people for many reasons. It feels like a slap in the face to see other people smiling like they don’t have a care in the world. And maybe they don’t now, but most of us will eventually face a sad Christmas when we are so grief-stricken, we won’t have the energy to put up a tree.

“I believe Christmas is for YOU exactly where you are in your life right now. Christmas is not for those who think they have it made, and life is so wonderful and easy.

“Christmas is for those who are suffering. It is for the ones who are mourning their loved ones. It is for those who have dysfunctional families. It is for who are stricken with illness, and are uncertain if this will be their last Christmas on earth. It for those who have lost their jobs. It for those who know great and terrible sorrows.

“Because… this is why there is Christmas in the first place. No matter what it may look like at Walmart or on TV, Christmas is a promise of eternal life, peace and healing.”

I believe Lula Belle captured the spirit of Christmas in a lovely way.

So I hope you find peace in your heart this Christmas. You are special to me, and I appreciate you. Merry Christmas.

 

 


 

At Stephens County Hospital, Kathy Whitmire, recently hired as Vice President of Operations, meets with her new boss, Chief Executive Officer Roger Forgey.

 

12/12/2017

“Stephens County Hospital: We’re open for business.”

It’s been two months since Roger Forgey was named chief executive officer of Stephens County Hospital.

Forgey was employed by the hospital authority to get the financially ailing hospital back on track.

Prior to that, he served as a consultant for a firm that works with smaller hospitals in an effort to make them more attractive to larger medical centers for either a partnership or an outright acquisition.

Of course, a big part of what makes a small hospital more attractive to a larger concern is that it is operating in the black, not the red.

When Forgey began consulting last August at Stephens County Hospital, it didn’t take him long to see the operations were unsustainable. Losses were adding up to $500,000 per month. That’s $6 million a year.

These losses explain why the Stephens County Hospital Authority felt it had no choice but to approve the selling of $15 million in revenue bonds to bring in sufficient revenue to prop up operations.

I wanted to know the status of any upcoming partnership or acquisition, and a timetable to when something might happen.

Last week, Forgey told me that “daily conversations” are being held with six larger concerns. He noted that the hospital authority is involved directly in all these conversations.

“We should know something by the end of January or early February,” he said.

In the meantime, Forgey has been charging ahead in an effort “to reduce costs and to improve our practices.”

“We have cut $3.5 million out of costs,” he said.

Where did the cuts come from? A reduction in workforce – taking the number of full time employees from 450 to 350 – brought the most savings… $2.5 million dollars worth.

“We also improved our collections. And we didn’t renew a lot of outside contracts or either renegotiated contracts at a lower cost,” he said.

Despite all this, the volume of surgeries and number of patients needs to go up.

“Right now, our average daily patient census is 20 to 30 patients,” Forgey said. “We need to get to an average of 40 patients a day to be sustainable.”

His biggest challenge right now, he says, is convincing the community we are not closing, but that Stephens County Hospital is here to stay.

Babies are being delivered at the hospital and general and orthopedic surgeries are being done.

“But we could be doing even more,” Forgey said. “We need to let our community know we are going to be here for another 80 years.”

That’s why he plans to speak to as many civic groups, churches and other organizations throughout the county to get this message out.

“We have a $45 million annual impact on the local economy,” he said. “We employ 350 people. It would be devastating to the community to lose our hospital.”

Forgey also has brought in local resident Kathy Whitmire to serve as the hospital’s new vice president of operations.

It’s a new position, he said, “one that needed to exist.”

“We need one person in charge of operations – to organize and strengthen the pieces we have,” Forgey said.

Whitmire’s experience as Managing Director of Hometown Health, he said, has given her vast knowledge of small-town hospitals in Georgia. “She will help us improve efficiencies, cut costs and make us sustainable.”

Whitmire will concentrate on the business office, working with finance and collections. She also will lead the drive to automate the existing manual systems to more effectively interface with insurance companies.

Forgey noted he will be leaving Stephens County Hospital by summer or before, and a vice president of operations who is knowledgeable is needed after he leaves to work with any new hospital group.

Finally, Forgey came to the conclusion early on that Stephens County Hospital’s emergency room needed fixing.Patients were spending too much time in the ER waiting room.

So an announcement is being made tomorrow that the hospital is contracting with a new provider to beef up the emergency room.

The entire ER will be restructured with the goal of improving customer service, reducing wait times and retaining patients at Stephens County Hospital, rather than transferring them to Gainesville or Athens.

More ER physicians will be brought in and they will become part of the community, Forgey said.

So lots of things are happening at Stephens County Hospital right now.
The goal is to keep our hospital open and operating in the black.

Let’s hope it happens. Time will tell. And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 


Joe Sticher opposes the rezoning of a parcel of land adjacent to his home on Ga. Highway 145 in the south part of Stephens County.

 

12/5/2017

Last week at a Stephens County Commission meeting, the county commissioners conducted a public hearing to hear from both sides in a rezoning request of a 67-acre tract. It involved changing the property status from agriculture residential to agriculture intensive.

Three Hartwell businessmen, who own the property located off Ga. Highway 145 several miles south of the bypass, were seeking the change so they could sell the land.

The potential buyers have stated they want to build two breeder chicken houses – both 530-feet long – that the length per house of almost two football fields. Adjacent property owners came to the meeting to oppose the rezoning. One resident, Joe Sticher, wanted the tract to remain designated as agricultural residential – thus preventing the building of the breeder houses, which aren’t allowed in agriculture residential districts, per the land use ordinance adopted by the county commission in 2014. Sitcher’s property sits off Ga. Highway 145. A grass road leading to his house would serve as the entranceway to the 67-acre tract. The two breeder houses, Sticher said, would be located only 300 feet from his house. “These chicken houses almost would be in my yard” Sticher said. “They are trying to shove this down my throat.” He has lived in his current house for 15 years.

Deanna and Ken Kaminski also have property bordering the 67-acre tract. They told the commissioners that the increase in truck traffic, the smell and the idea of having two huge chicken houses nearby were not compatible with its neighborhood feel. “We are a community out here,” Deanna said.

Another Ga. Highway 145 resident spoke up against the rezoning request. “I don’t want chicken houses here. I’ve worked in chicken houses and I certainly don’t want to live near one.”

After the public hearing, county commissioner Michelle Ivester made a motion to approve the rezoning request. However, her motion died for lack of a second. No vote was taken. With no official vote, the county could revisit this issue and take a vote, but not before another public hearing is held, according to county attorney Brian Ranck.

Of course, many other tracts in the county are already designated as agriculture intensive, where chicken houses can be built. So seeking one of those pieces of property is always an option

Here’s the bottom line when you consider all of this: We now have a land use ordinance that gives every citizen a chance to have a say-so when a rezoning issue comes before the county. In the past, anything – and I mean anything – could locate right next door if you lived in the unincorporated areas of the county. It could happen. And did happen. And there was no recourse. Today, this is not the case. Any change in a property status must be advertised and a public hearing held before the county planning board and finally, the county commission itself. The elected county commissioners, as it should be, make all final decisions.

It’s a good way to handle things. And it’s reason enough to applaud our county land use ordinance. There’s even a more important reason, however, for our residents to feel good about such an ordinance. It prevents another Wilbros disaster. Most of us remember those sickening odors that permeated our county for years. Under our current land use ordinance, a similar disaster shouldn’t happen. The land use ordinance provides a list of uses no longer allowed in our county. A partial list includes construction landfills, hazardous waste landfills, a variety of waste reclamation facilities, fertilizer manufacturing, paper mills, pulp mills, even nuclear waste storage.

Guess what? Before our land use ordinance was enacted, any of those mentioned above could have located in the county’s unincorporated area. There was nothing to stop it from happening. Now… there is. And that’s something to think about.

 


The Albermarle sits at the intersection of Alexander and Tugalo streets.A close-up of the exterior shows missing windows and rotten wood.

 

11/28/2017

This Friday is ChristmasFest in downtown Toccoa. Plenty of people will fill the streets and stores. Excitement and anticipation will fill the air.

Now, I want you to use your imagination and picture The Polar Express arriving in downtown Toccoa.

If you’ve read “The Polar Express” or seen the Christmas movie by the same name, you know The Polar Express doesn’t need tracks to run on. It can go down any street, just like it did in the book, picking up the little boy and zipping him up to the North Pole.

Now, imagine if The Polar Express arrived in Toccoa and headed down Alexander Street, right in front of Toccoa City Hall and the Stephens County Government Building.

 

As this magnificent train moved beyond these two buildings, the next structure on the left would be the dilapidated Albermarle, once a grand restaurant and hotel, but now an eyesore right downtown.

Oh, if by some magic, the hotel could return to the grandeur of the 1940s when rail passengers would stay overnight and locals would crowd its elegant dining room.

But only in our dreams would that happen. Dreams and at least 8 to 10 million dollars to truly renovate the place to its former glory. But who has $10 million, and even they did, why would they invest in something like this?

The reality is that restoring the Albemarle is not economically viable. What would a building this massive ever be used for in Toccoa? And think about it, there are plenty of nice, renovated buildings downtown right now in need of tenants.

That’s not to say parts of the interior possibly couldn’t be removed, restored and used somewhere else

What I envision on the Albemarle location is a Village Green. What an asset to downtown.

Can you imagine The Polar Express letting off passengers in a park decorated in Christmas finery, with all the surrounding trees sparkling in white lights?

Even better, can you imagine this park in the spring, or summer or fall, where local residents relax on park benches, watching their children or grandchildren run and tumble through the grass? Even a small amphitheater for intimate performances could be part of the magic.

As much as I appreciate historic homes and old commercial buildings, there is a limit to my love.

And the Albemarle is where I draw the line. It was pretty much a rathole when I moved to Toccoa in 1973. Today, in my opinion, the Albermarle is beyond redemption.

The Toccoa City Commission would be wise to condemn it, letting the chips fall where they may.

My guess … the current owners would do with the building what they’ve done for years – very little.

So, let’s imagine a Village Green, a beautiful park that could be enjoyed by all Stephens County residents and visitors for years to come.

That’s a dream I can take hold of…. and that’s something to think about.

 

 


Trees are blazing with color on Currahee Mountain.

 

11/21/2017

With Thanksgiving Day around the corner, it’s a good time to pause, look around and share some things we should be grateful for in Toccoa and Stephens County.

So, here goes…

We should be thankful we live in such a beautiful part of the state. There’s something about the Piedmont and its rolling hills and variety of hardwood trees that makes me want to live here.

Many years ago, Stephens County Schools had an art director named Dwight Andrews. One summer, Dwight and his wife took off in their car for South Dakota. They wanted to see Mount Rushmore and planned to be gone most of the summer. One morning, Dwight said he woke up and realized how much he missed Currahee Mountain. He’d been gone for about two weeks. Somehow, Currahee had called him home. I understand.

What else should we be thankful for? How about the fact we can turn on our water faucet and get clean water. This is not just in the city of Toccoa. City water lines criss-cross most of our county. And we have a plentiful raw water supply. That’s good for residents and for our future.

We should be thankful for the renovated Ritz Theater in downtown Toccoa. You may not hang out there, but the old movie theater has been given new life. There are plenty of entertaining events there this December and even more coming in 2018.

We should be thankful that our community has a local radio station – WNEG AM and FM – and a local newspaper – The Toccoa Record. Without these businesses, most of us wouldn’t know what’s happening in our own community.

Speaking of our local radio station, what would mornings be like without Connie Gaines on the radio? We should be thankful for Connie. Not only does she play great music, she gives the local weather forecast, makes the Swap Shop a thing of beauty and provides the morning arrive time of Amtrak.

What about this? We should be thankful for those who quietly make a difference in the lives of others through their generosity.

We also should be thankful for our spouses, children, grandchildren and friends. Too often we take them for granted.

Finally, we should be grateful for our own lives and the fact we can breathe the air and walk the Earth.

Let’s hope we can live peaceably with one another… and “always to try to be a little kinder than necessary” to those we encounter.

That “be a little kinder than necessary” phrase is from a kid’s book, “Wonder,” now a newly-released movie. The book reminds us: Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much.

And this Thanksgiving, that’s something to think about.

 

 

 


Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley

 

 

Speaking prior to the ribbon cutting ceremony at the new ASI – Southeast facility were, from left, Michelle Ivester, chairman of the Stephens County Commission; Tim Martin, executive director of the Stephens County Development Authority; David Austin, mayor of the City of Toccoa; Brian Akin, chairman of the Development Authority, and Julie Paysen, president of the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber.

Peter Rolla, owner and president of ASI-Southeast, was on hand to make a few remarks. He lives in New York.

Doug Hitchon, the chief operating officer of ASI-Southeast, stands outside the new facility in Stephens County.

Plant manager Chad Crunkleton shows lockers built in the new plant.

It takes a team.

That was my thought as I looked on and listened as local city and county officials publicly thanked the owner and leadership team at ASI – Southeast on the completion of its new 150,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.

It was all part of a ribbon cutting ceremony held a couple of weeks ago. The new plant – located on the Clary Connector – represents a $16 million dollar investment and the addition of 50 new jobs.

Today, ASI – Southeast has become one of the county’s top employers. It operates four manufacturing plants in Stephens County, all located close to each other.

Total employment at these four facilities has grown to 400.

ASI manufactures a variety of products, with the new facility dedicated to making laminated partitions in a variety of colors for restrooms in commercial buildings. ASI sells these products all over the United States.

Think the new Mercedes-Benz stadium and SunTrust Park in Atlanta – both facilities are equipped with ASI restroom partitions.

So are the corporate headquarters for such well-known firms as Facebook and Google …. each of these buildings are furnished with partitions made in Toccoa.

Doug Hichon, chief operating officer of ASI-Southeast, played host at the ribbon cutting ceremony, and thanked the community for all it has done for ASI in Stephens County.

In addition, the company’s owner, Peter Rolla, came down from New York for the event. Rolla, who serves as president of the ASI Group, noted that the company operates 22 plants worldwide.

But he focused on the importance of the operations in Stephens County, and told how ASI got to Toccoa.

“In 1974, my father was looking for a location to manufacture furniture components in an area closer to our customers. He found a small manufacturer on Highway 123, BMR Fabricators. He (bought the company) and added the furniture components to that production and Gem Southeast was born.”

Rolla continued: “In Georgia, we found a business friendly state government that recognized and continues to recognize the importance of a stable business in a community. In Toccoa and Stephens County, we have a local government and development office that welcomed us and has helped us over the years any way they could.”

“But most importantly,” Rolla told the some 50 people assembled, “we found here a group of workers who understand that every day it is their contribution that makes a difference. And the combination of good government and hard working people is what truly has enabled us to grow. And grow we have.”

Here’s the way I see it: It took a team to get ASI here, and today it still takes a team to make good things happen. Our local team understands the value of a solid manufacturing employer.

After all, nothing beats having a good corporate citizen that offers steady employment year after year.

And that’s something to think about.


Toccoa Police Chief Tim Jarrell

11/14/2017

If you follow local news reports, then you’re aware of a string of shootings that recently have taken place in our community.

To recap, there have been a total of five shootings within the city limits of Toccoa in a stretch of three months. Each incident was investigated by the Toccoa Police Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Listen to the circumstances of each one:

August 1 at Cambridge Apartments on Pond Street. A confrontation between two groups. Shots are fired from a small-caliber handgun, hitting one person. No arrests made.

August 10 at the corner of Pond Street and Collins Road. One person is shot. The victim spends several weeks in the hospital. Drug related. No arrests made.

August 23 on West Franklin Street, behind a strip of buildings on Currahee Street. Two young men get in a verbal argument. One pulls out a small-caliber handgun and shoots the other one in the face. The victim is treated and released. An arrest is made. A 17-year-old is charged with aggravated assault, along with two other charges.

September 23 near the intersection of Alexander Street, Argo Place and Sautee Street. The victim is shot with a handgun. Later, the victim disappears from an Atlanta hospital and supposedly has fled the state. The GBI has three persons of interest. Drug related. No arrests made.

November 1 on Prather Bridge Road at Willowdale Street. Three persons are walking along Prather Bridge Road at 10:40 p.m. A driver in a pickup truck stops and asks if they want a ride. They say no. The driver gets out of his truck. Gunfire is exchanged between the driver and one of the group. The driver is hit in the abdomen. No arrests are made at this point.

I wanted to delve into this rash of shootings. So I talked with Toccoa Police Chief Tim Jarrell and Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley. I met one-on-one with each of them.

Jarrell has served five years as Toccoa’s Police Chief. Shirley is completing nine years as the Sheriff of Stephens County. Both men have spent their entire careers in law enforcement.

So, what’s going on with all these shootings?

Jarrell put it this way: “I’ve seen incidences involving guns happening more frequently. Everything in society is becoming more aggressive.”

Shirley agreed. “There’s been a gradual increase in gun violence over the years I’ve been sheriff.”

Listen to Shirley: “This is not unique to Stephens County. Violence has been worst everywhere. Everybody is more aggressive. It’s the climate across America.”

What about illegal drugs and drug abuse in our community?

Police Chief Jarrell says this: “The drug problem in Toccoa is not new and has been an ongoing problem. It was a problem before I became chief and it continues to be a problem.”

Jarrell points out that “90 to 95 percent of all our crimes in the city can be traced back to one key element – drugs. Whether it’s domestic abuse, DUI, theft, shoplifting – it all comes back to drugs,” he said.

Shirley agrees that drugs and crime go hand in hand. “Probably 80 to 85 percent of those in jail are there because of a drug charge, or because of a crime where drugs were involved,” Shirley said.

It’s obvious to me, the use of illegal drugs – beyond the devastation it does to an individual – leads to crime. Meth is still a big problem in Stephens County. So is the abuse of prescription drugs.

So what’s being done about it?

The city of Toccoa is planning to become part of the Appalachian Drug Task Force, which the local Sheriff’s Office has been a part of for three years.

Will this make a difference? “Absolutely,” Jarrell said. “The city will provide an officer to be trained by the task force. This officer and other task force agents will spend time with our patrol officers as we confront street-level dealers.”

Shirley said: “We’re never going to totally eliminate drugs from our community. Our ultimate goal is to bring those numbers way down.”

All our citizens deserve to live in a safe community. It’s good to see the Toccoa Police Department becoming part of the multi-county Appalachian Drug Task Force and getting more aggressive in getting these drug dealers arrested. I hope the city police and sheriff’s office can work closer together, especially when it comes to investigations.

We’re need to send a message: we’re not going to tolerate gun violence, selling of drugs or other crimes that go with it.

We’ve got the resources. But it takes commitment… from everyone in the community. If you see something or know something, speak up. The anonymous tip number is 706-282-3302. It can make a difference.

And that’s something to think about.

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Senior counselor Becky Jameson and principal Scott Kersh at Stephens County High School last week. The graduation ceremony for the SCHS senior class of 2018 will begin at 8 p.m. this Friday, May 25.

This is an exciting week for the senior class at Stephens County High School.

Approximately 250 seniors are expected to graduate this Friday night, May 25, at the Indian Reservation at the high school.

Principal Scott Kersh said this year’s senior class has stepped up and have been leaders for the rest of the school.

He put it this way: “This class has a real positive vibe, and they’re been a successful class.”

Principal Kersh pointed out that the Class of 2018 has earned more scholarships from colleges than any other class in a long time. And the Class of 2018 is made up of 112 honor graduates, which represents 45 percent of the entire class.

Kersh said these seniors have excelled in academics, but also in a variety of areas, including Skills USA, athletics, the arts, the band program, dance team, agriculture and Jr. ROTC.

Asked where these 250 students plan to go after graduation, Kersh offered this breakdown: 43 percent will enter colleges and universities, 42 percent will enter technical colleges, 4 percent will enter the military, 3 percent will go to work and about 8 percent are undecided.

This means that approximately 90 percent of the senior class has definite plans to continue their education beyond high school. In today’s world, this additional education can make a tremendous difference.

But no matter what college you go to and what area you plan to pursue, you may find that the things you thought you wanted to do – or someone pushed you to do – are not the things you really want to do. Take time to explore. And move toward the things that appeal to you.

Dr. Jimi Crawford is a smart man who headed Google Books and recently founded his own company, Orbital Insight. He went to high school at Westminster in Atlanta and had this advice for graduates and really anyone:

“Nobody you work for can ever actually pay you for the true value of your time, so you should be doing the things you love,” he said. “The main thing is to find something worthy of your time.”

At this year’s graduation at SCHS, valedictorian Cassidy Zheng will address her fellow seniors, as will salutatorian and STAR Student Christopher Carringer.

I hope the seniors of 2018 listen carefully to these students.

This is an exciting time, for sure. These classmates have worked hard to get to this point in their lives. Families, teachers and friends have been walking this path with them, encouraging and helping along the way.

I wish our seniors well. I hope you will follow your heart and do something you really love doing – no matter what obstacles stand in your way or what others may think.

And that… is something to think about.


11/07/2017

 

When you have kids in school, you tend to keep up with what’s going on with the school system. But after your kids are grown, you slowly lose touch.

That’s how it was at our house after our children had graduated.

But most people in the community, including myself, perked up when the new superintendent of schools, Bryan Dorsey – after only three months on the job – informed the school board and the community that the financial situation of the Stephens County School System wasn’t what it appeared to be.

Essentially, the healthy fund balance the school board thought they had didn’t exist. The cupboard was bare. By late October 2014, the financial situation became dire.

Dorsey faced the difficult task of trying to meet payroll and pay the bills. There were no easy solutions. Slowly but surely, he guided the school system – month-by-month – to a stable financial condition.

It took drastic measures, though, to make it happen. One huge cost savings came with the closing of Eastanollee Elementary. The closing, however, created the need to reorganize the entire school system.

The reorganization went smoothly as possible under the circumstances, but most importantly, the reorganization worked.

Today, our system has approximately 4,100 students and a total of 565 employees.

So who is Bryan Dorsey? Who is this person who discovered a financial mess, weathered the storm, and three years later put our school system back on track?

He’s the son of a career Georgia Power manager from the Augusta area. In fact, Dorsey calls himself a “Georgia Power gypsy” because he moved so many times during his father’s career.

Dorsey is an Auburn graduate, who studied engineering, but wound up majoring in communications, with minors in math, science and journalism.

While in college, he thought about a career in radio or teaching, but after graduation he began working for Georgia Power like his dad, noting: “I thought a lot of my father.”

But after a few years at Georgia Power, Dorsey said he just didn’t “feel the call” to be there. Instead, he felt strongly that he should be pursuing a career in education. He became certified to teach, and for six years, he taught math, science, computers and English in Augusta schools.

He became an assistant principal and then principal at a middle school. and then moved to a high school principal position. In 2005, he was hired to lead White County High School as the principal.

After six successful years in White County, he was named superintendent of schools in Gilmer County. In 2014, the Stephens County School Board hired him as our superintendent.

Dorsey sees managing the school system’s finances as one of his most important responsibilities. “We’ve come a long way with our general fund budget, but it’s alway a challenge.”

He also believes students should be the focus of all decisions. And actions taken by the school system should be for the best of all students.

That’s why he questions the emphasis by the state on test scores. Dorsey said the current testing puts pressure on students “to be great in everything.”

But none of us excel in everything, he said. Each student has his or her own strengths, and Dorsey believes our schools should play to those strengths to prepare students for life beyond the classroom.

“We have some fantastic young people,” he said. “They have some great things to offer our community – now, and definitely in the future.”

Bryan Dorsey has saved our schools from a major financial crisis. Now he’s determined to help every student pursue their goals in a way he or she can be successful.

And that’s something to think about.

 

 

10/31/2017

I have a confession to make. I think I’m addicted… to reading.

Our house is filled with books. A built-in bookcase in our basement holds everything from crumbling textbooks read by my father in the 1920s to a 1960 set of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia – all 15 volumes. My schoolteacher mother used to sell Compton’s when she wasn’t teaching. After the Bible, Compton’s came next.

Mainly, though, our basement shelves are filled with history books, atlases, biographies, memoirs, books on psychology, business, art, photography and a wide range of fiction dealing with about any subject you could come up with.

My favorite bookcase, however, is located in our little upstairs study. It is filled with my all-time favorite books bought or given to me over the last 40 years. There are novels, books on nature, plays, books on business and dealing with people …you name it. Each has a special place in my heart.

Sometimes I forget what I’ve read and haven’t read. Yes, many books remain unread, although I hate to admit it.

About two weeks ago, I noticed a paperback copy of “To Dance With The White Dog” by Georgia author Terry Kay.

A native of Royston, Kay has written many wonderful books over the last four decades. “To Dance With The White Dog” was published in 1990. Three years later, the folks at Hallmark Hall of Fame turned it into a beloved TV movie, which I watched and really liked. Since then, I always thought I had read the book.

 

But did I really read it? Or just think I had. Not knowing for sure, I proceeded to read again, or maybe for the first time.

I was hooked after the first few chapters. The more I read this Terry Kay novel, the more I enjoyed it. It’s a beautiful story about love, family and relationships. And old age.

When finished, I thought, this is the first time I’ve read this book. I was so glad I had finally read it.

Which brings me to the point… in these times, I believe we need books more than ever. Only books can take us places we cannot go otherwise. Only books can teach us universal truths.

Books have a way of staying with us, even shaping us.

With e-mail overload, continuous Facebook posts, and an unending stream of text messages… I find myself longing for books even more. Books made of paper. Books you can hold and page through.

Books inspire. Books bring wonder and magic. Books let us peer into the lives of others. Books let us know what others are thinking. Books teach humility.

If your house isn’t filled with books, no worries. All you have to do is visit the Toccoa-Stephens County Public Library. So many excellent volumes will be at your fingertips. My guess: “To Dance With The White Dog” by
Terry Kay will be there, too.

Take time to read a good book. It’s good for the soul. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 

 

10/24/2017

“The Times They Are A-Changin.” This old Bob Dylan song title perfectly fits the situation that Stephens County Hospital finds itself in.

Our hospital is not alone. Many county hospitals in Georgia that serve smaller populations have struggled to stay financially viable.

But this is our hospital. It’s personal. Anyone who lives in Toccoa and Stephens County has a stake in what happens – from a medical care standpoint and from an economic standpoint.

The good news: the Stephens County Hospital Authority Board recently named a new interim chief executive officer. He’s Roger Forgey, a veteran hospital administrator with a successful track record helping other ailing hospitals get back on their feet.

Forgey was first brought in as a consultant in August 2017. The board named him as interim CEO, effective October 7.

What he has brought to the table, in my opinion, is hope. Yes, hope.

In a wide-ranging interview with WNEG news, Forgey spoke plainly and forthrightly about the current financial situation, where monthly losses top $500,000.

He believes a turnaround can happen in a year to 18 months, and the hospital can operate in a break-even position. Right now, the hospital is using a cash infusion from revenue bonds it sold in order to balance the operating budget each month. But the principal and interest on these bonds must be paid off over time.

Meanwhile, with this needed cash on hand for the present, this year’s budget calls for a profit goal of $500,000, and Forgey thinks this goal is achievable.

But he knows a one-year gain in revenue is not enough. It’s going to take some major restructuring, which could include reducing the number of beds from 96 to 50 or even less.

 

It’s the long-term viability that’s most important, Forgery noted.

That’s why Forgey will bring a number of options to the board for consideration.. A request for proposals already has gone out, and Forgery hopes to bring these options to the board within the next two to three months.

He said the options could include anything from a partnership with another health care entity to an acquisition by a larger organization.

“The board will be able to assess each option, and decide which, if any, are right for Stephens County Hospital,” he said. “They may decide to continue as a stand-alone hospital.”

One thing’s for certain, no matter what option is chosen, change will be part of the equation – for employees and for patients.

Today, the hospital has 350 full time employees.

“We have spectacular employees,” Forgey said. “They are committed to this hospital and to this community.”

Forgey has made a concerted effort to communicate as clearly as possible with his management team and all hospital employees, and has held a series of one-hour forums to answer questions and quell concerns.

“I worry about communication. It’s so important,” he said. “I want to communicate with the employees, with the doctors in the community and the community itself.”

Right now, he is focused on improving the emergency department.

He said a total of 90 percent of admissions come through the emergency room, and major changes are underway at the ER.

Yes, change is coming to Stephens County Hospital. Right now, no one can say what those changes will look like.

Forgey believes the staff is up to the challenge. He believes the community wants and needs a community hospital.

His challenge – and that of the hospital authority board – is to put our hospital on a path to a better future.

I believe Forgey’s leadership offers the best – and maybe the last chance –to put us on that path. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

10/17/2017

Every day, there are people in Toccoa and Stephens County doing something for others. It may be a simple act of kindness toward a neighbor or volunteering at your church.

There are also programs in the community designed to help make someone’s life a little better. One such program is the Stephens County Schools mentor program.

The mentor program has been around for quite a while and the concept is pretty simple. An adult makes one visit per week to a school, usually for an hour or less, to meet one-one-one with a student.

That adult serves as a listener, a role model, a coach. They are matched with a student by the mentor coordinator, Nancy Ekback, and the individual school’s counselor.

The mentors are no substitute for teachers or counselors. They are just someone who shows up every week at the school and takes an interest in a student.

Mentors volunteer in every Stephens County school – Big A Elementary, Liberty Elementary, Toccoa Elementary – as well as the 5th Grade Academy, the middle school and the high school.

For mentors, some visits can be hard, with very little spoken during that 15 to 30 minutes. Or, it can be heartbreaking when the mentor realizes that things at home or school could be a lot better.

Mostly though, it’s a time when the mentor arrives at the school once a week to show they care. They may listen to a child read or play a game with the child.

For older students, it may mean offering a little bit of advice in regards to doing better in class. It may mean a pep talk… letting the student know you care.

For some students, the visit by a mentor could be the highlight of their week. When that happens, a special bond forms between the mentor and the student.

Right now, the Stephens County School System has approximately 75 mentors, with 84 students currently being mentored.

If you are interested, you can contact Nancy Ekbeck, mentor coordinator with Family Connection of Stephens County, at 706-898-5115 or e-mail her at [email protected]

If you think you would enjoy spending one-on-one time with a student – whether it’s a second grader or a tenth grader – get in touch with Ms. Ekbeck.

“Our mentors are making a difference,” she said. “They are touching the life of a child. They are changing his or her future.”

It may be worth looking into. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 


 

10/10/2017

When I moved to Toccoa and Stephens County in 1973 – 44 years ago – I was a young reporter at The Toccoa Record, covering both city and county governments.

It didn’t take me long to figure out one of the most contentious issues between the city and county was animal control – what to do with the multitude of stray dogs and cats throughout the county.

There was talk: Is that a “city dog” or “a county dog?” Of course, they were all county dogs since we all live in Stephens County.

But the city – because of the concentration of population – felt they had an obligation to help with animal control. So the city and county worked together to do what it could to curb the out-of-control animal problem.

But it was a half-hearted effort. For years, animal control mostly meant picking up stray or dangerous dogs and taking them to a holding pen before they could be euthanized. That routine continued until recently when Toccoa and Stephens County got it’s first real animal shelter.

That shelter – the Toccoa-Stephens County Humane Shelter – opened in February 2013 on Scenic Drive just off Prather Bridge Road. This new shelter changed things in a big way regarding how we treat animals in Stephens County.

In the past, approximately 93 percent of all animals picked up were killed. And the holding pen they were kept in was less than humane, to put it mildly. It was sad to see what we were doing.

Today, we have an animal shelter we can proud of, and the survival rate for both dogs and cats averages 80 percent.

 

What changed? In 2007, a group of dedicated citizens pushed the city and county governments to do something. City and county officials responded admirably by forging a joint agreement with these caring local citizens to help build a real animal shelter. Under this set-up, animal control became a function of the shelter.

This new approach doesn’t mean every animal is saved. Every month, some animals – due to health problems or other considerations – have to be sedated and then euthanized by injection. A crematorium on site is used to dispose of the dead animals.

The good news is animals are treated humanely at the shelter and most eventually find loving homes, whether locally or through out-of-town rescues. In fact, a batch of animals will be taken to New Jersey in the next few weeks.

The shelter board has been awarded a $38,000 grant to help buy a new transport van that must be equipped with cages and safety equipment. The city agreed to add $20,000 to help make the purchase possible. The county declined to fund a portion of the van in any way.

Toccoa Mayor Jeanette Jamieson, also current chairman of the Humane Shelter board, said the transport van is a key part of the operation. She added, “We couldn’t see them lose that $38,000 grant. So we put in $20,000.”

Let’s back up, though. Our shelter couldn’t have been built without the help of the city and county governments. Both supplied money for building materials for the shelter and both secured state inmate labor to build the facility, which is on county land.

Since that time, the city and the county and the Humane Shelter board – a nonprofit organization – have jointly funded animal control and the shelter’s operations. Each provide 1/3 of the revenue needed to make it all happen.

This money is used to pay for shelter staffing and animal control services. It also is used to feed and house 2,000 animals each year, not to mention basic veterinary care for them.

Right now, the shelter is filled to the limit with 200 dogs and cats. The ideal number is 150. But the folks at the shelter make it work, especially with its transport program.

Last fiscal year, the city and county each contributed $170,000 for operations. The Humane Shelter board – through donors, grants, fundraisers and fees charged at the shelter – raised in excess of $162,000 in revenue.

This fiscal year, the city again budgeted $170,000 for animal control. The county, however, cut its portion by $20,000 to $150,000.

The county needs to step up next year and fund its full share, matching the city’s contributions and those of the shelter board.

And when they do, the good thing we have going in Toccoa and Stephens County will continue. We are much better off today than we were 10 years ago when that small group of citizens appeared before the city and county.

Jeff Roberts, shelter director, says he “appreciates the support we get.” But added: “It’s a challenge to take in 150 to 200 animals a month when your shelter is full.”

The solution, of course, is to move out as many animals as come in. One key is the transport program. The shelter also can currently spay or neuter any animal for only $20. That’s about as low-cost as you can get.

“This shelter is a major asset for this community,” Roberts said, “and it shows the community has heart.”

I agree. The Toccoa-Stephens County Humane Shelter is a fine example of citizens working together with local governments.

Board member Peggy Chambers, among the small group who helped found the Humane Shelter, put it this way: “My heartfelt feeling is this shelter has provided more services than we ever imagined, and the need for it is great throughout the county.”

She added: “It’s not about saving every animal. But we are so much better off. We have a real shelter and treat our animals humanely. Our positive actions reflect the kind of people who live here.”

And that’s something to think about.

 

If you have an idea for WNEG’s Tuesday Commentary, drop us a note. Send to WNEG, P.O. Box 1159, Toccoa, GA 30577, or e-mail [email protected] Your suggestions and comments are welcomed.

 

 

 


10/3/2017

This weekend, something special is happening in Toccoa and Stephens County.

It’s the Currahee Military Weekend … a time when veterans from throughout the country come to our town to enjoy each other’s company, participate in the many events and take in Currahee Mountain.

Ah, Currahee Mountain. Our mountain and the memories of Camp Toccoa are the calling card for many… for that’s where the paratroopers lived and trained during World War II.

Of course, as the years have passed, fewer and fewer World War II vets are still alive. But, the weekend has become more popular through the years because it has turned into an event to honor all veterans.

More than 500 guests are expected to visit this year, according to Brenda Carlan, executive director of the Currahee Military Museum. The museum is operated by the Stephens County Historical Society.

Weekend events include everything from a USO swing dance to a dedication of the Lt. Col. Robert Sink exhibit at the military museum. There’s also a downtown parade on Saturday afternoon and that evening a veterans banquet hosted by the historical society at the new pavilion at Camp Toccoa. Guest speaker will be Lt. Gen. Pete Johnson, current commander of Fort Jackson in South Carolina.

In addition, veterans will do a lot of just sitting around and talking with each other during the weekend. That’s one of the best parts, Carlan said.

You may be wondering how the Currahee Military Weekend got started. It began with a book by Stephen Ambrose. The book – “Band of Brothers” – told the story of Easy Company, those paratroopers who dropped behind enemy lines during the D-Day invasion.

In interviews with these men, Ambrose discovered they trained at an army camp near Currahee Mountain, tucked away in Northeast Georgia. Running up and and down the mountain was part of the training. When these young soldiers jumped from platforms, they would shout: “Currahee.”

HBO picked up “Band of Brothers” for a mini-series, and decided to hold a premier showing in Toccoa in July 2001. HBO invited all 21 surviving members of Easy Company, and 19 of them came to Toccoa.

Former chamber president Cynthia Brown met these men, and remembers the relationship they had with each other and the stories they told.

“They never talked about the hardships they faced,” she recalled. “They talked about Currahee Mountain… something they had to conquer. They were proud to be ‘Toccoa Men’.”

Since that first reunion in 2001 and with the work of many local folks, the sons and daughters of these veterans continue to be drawn to Toccoa, as are many active service men and women and veterans from throughout the country.

“They want to go to Currahee Mountain and touch the dirt where these men trained,” Cynthia said. “Some are sons and daughters or grandchildren of these men. But no matter who they are, they are drawn to this place. These visitors make an emotional and physical connection with the mountain.”

She believes that’s why Camp Toccoa at Currahee – located on the site of the old Milliken Plant on the mountain – is so important. Camp Toccoa provides a sense of place. As visitors enter the camp through a new wrought-iron entranceway arch, they can tour the revamped headquarters building and the new pavilion. Four army barracks will be constructed.

Here’s a hearty welcome to all our visitors. So many people have worked as a team to make this weekend happen.The Historical Society. The Chamber. Main Street Toccoa. We thank them. And we remember those who trained at Camp Toccoa during World War II. Many sacrificed their lives for our freedom. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

 

 

9/26/17

Can one person make a difference in a community?

I believe the answer is yes. You only need to examine the life of Agnes Oglesby of Toccoa to make the case.

Agnes has been a quiet leader in Toccoa and Stephens County for many years. And she’s still going strong.

Agnes Ogelsby just doesn’t talk about getting things done… she does them. She reared six children of her own, but also fostered 24 children along the way.

She retired from Coats & Clark in 2000 after a long career. She began working there in 1963, becoming the first black employed by the company. When she retired, she was a respected supervisor who had helped many others along the way.

“She’s been a blessing to so many people in our community.” That’s how Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley put it.

The Rev. Isaac White, associate pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Toccoa, called Agnes “an inspiration. I’m amazed at how energetic she is. She’s always doing something to help the community.”

Indeed, her involvement in areas that matter to people has been ongoing for years. Today, Agnes serves on the boards of the Toccoa Literacy Council, the Boys & Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity, Neighbors to Neighbors and the Northeast Georgia Housing Authority. She also is a member of the Stephens County Board of Registrars, which oversees the county’s active voters list. For 15 years, she managed the Habitat’s store and remains on that board.

And just last month, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Toccoa-Stephens County Chamber of Commerce.

Her philosophy is simple. I quote her:
“I just wish each one of us would look at everybody as people – not what position we hold… or how much money we’ve got… or whatever. We just need to love each other and support each other.”

Agnes credits the late Imogene Dean of Martin as being a force in her life. She said: “Imogene Dean made me realize that anything I wanted to do in my life I could do.”

Today, Agnes continues to work for her community in her quiet, effective way.

She noted: “I’m proud of what little I’ve had to offer has made an impact on the community I was born and raised in.”

“She’s someone who cares, but there is a fearlessness about her.”

That’s how the Rev. Mary Demmler, former rector of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Toccoa, described Agnes.

“She’s not afraid to be honest about what needs to be done for others and the community. She’s not afraid to ask: ‘Why can’t we do this? What’s the worse that could happen?’ This fearlessness, partnered with caring, makes Agnes such a valuable resource,” Demmler said.

I think we all need to have a little more Agnes in us. And that’s something to think about.

 

 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

I’ve been thinking lately about why people live where they live? To be more specific, why do people live in Toccoa and Stephens County?

Think about it… why do you live here? Were you born here and never left. Or returned years later? Maybe you moved here in the 70s or 80s. A new industry brought you here. You may be a newcomer. Or a retiree living on Lake Hartwell.

Many of us would say we like the “quality of life” here. But what exactly does that mean?

I would suggest quality of life means different things for different people. For instance, someone with young children may perceive quality of life as good day care and good schools. For others, it may mean a good paying job close to home.

For some, quality of life may mean having a sense of security – feeling safe in their home and in their neighborhood.

The list can go on and on. No matter our age or economic condition, we want to live in a place that offers an excellent quality of life.

So how does Toccoa and Stephens County stack up?

It depends on how we measure quality of life. Each of us have our own beliefs, opinions and perspectives.

With that in mind, I believe there are a number of big categories – taken together – that make for a good quality of life. Let’s look at them:

 

 

Number one. A safe and clean environment in which to live.

Number two. Access to quality health care.

Number three. Employment opportunities locally or close by that offer above-average wages.

Number four. Quality public schools and nearby colleges.

Number five. Stuff to do. Recreation, entertainment opportunities.

Number six. Progressive city and county governments that provide dependable services for its citizens.

I’m sure you could add to this list. But these are mine. These elements build a favorable quality of life.

So back to the question, how does Toccoa and Stephens County stack up?

On safety and a clean environment, it probably depends on where we live. We have pockets of dilapidated houses and other buildings. We have drug and alcohol abuse, which leads to crime.

On access to quality health care, we are fortunate to have stability that the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group now brings to the Toccoa Clinic. Our county hospital situation is in transition. Will a larger entity buy it and keep it going? We don’t know. We hope so.

Employment opportunities are a never-ending challenge. We have had some successes in the last few years – with a new manufacturer from Turkey locating here and another from Germany. Our local development authority is working to retain existing jobs and bring in new ones. Does our county government understand its importance?

Our schools have made a remarkable turn-around financially. I like the idea that our primary and elementary schools are now organized by grades. I believe this enhances the collaboration among our schools.

As for stuff to do, that’s always a challenge in small communities. But Main Street Toccoa is doing a good job with events like the summer Ida Cox concerts, and now some upcoming events at the renovated Ritz Theatre.
And our public library offers a variety of top-notch community activities for all ages.

Finally, what about our city and county governments? I believe the Toccoa City Commission had made great strides since bringing back city manager Billy Morse. City officials are not afraid of projects that boost our quality of life – like the new swimming pool, the renovated facilities at Lake Toccoa and the Ritz.

The county government has lots of departments fighting for county funds –from the sheriff’s office to the courts. Not to mention roads and recreation. It’s a challenge under the best of circumstances.

So, what grade does Toccoa and Stephens County get when it comes to quality of life? I give it a B. Not a B-plus and certainly not an A.

But we’ve got something to shoot for. And that’s something to think about.

 

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