Monday, July 20, 2009
A Sad Day
This region lost a true leader when E.H. Culpepper passed away this morning. After a long battle with cancer, in which his body may have flagged but his spirit never did, E.H. has finally gone on to a better place in the sky.
When Susan and I first returned to Athens and I was starting the local office of Jackson Spalding, E.H. was one of the first people I met. He helped introduce me to lots of local folks, educated me about regional politics, invited me to events in Athens and Atlanta, and gave me informal lessons on transportation, regionalism, and dreaming big. For nearly eight years, he was a tireless advocate for me personally and our company. I can't count the times he would stop by the office to give me an idea he was working on. I would write it up, flesh it out, and help him put together a meeting to carry it forward to the next step.
His ideas were often far ahead of what Georgia's politicians -- and at times citizens -- were willing to conceive, and that was part of his charm.
Commuter rail in Georgia? Why not! 441 as a leading tourism corridor? Absolutely -- in fact it already is. A rail anchored triangle between Gainesville, Athens, and Gwinnett? Makes sense. 316 as a Biotech corridor? It will happen, not a doubt. On campus commuter rail at UGA? UGA will buy that line eventually. A significant airport in Barrow County? Who could be opposed to that?
I wound up helping him with a tough campaign for State House a few years ago. He fought the good fight, but lost to a smart young politician in Doug McKillip. E.H. knew it would be tough to beat a Democrat in liberal minded Athens (he ran as an independent -- I just don't think there was a party for a train loving, government supporting, pro-business type like E.H.), but he walked miles speaking to voters and gathered petitions to just to make the ballot.
Perhaps his greatest strength in the time I knew him was his ability to bring people together. The wide ranging conversations might cover everything from nanotechnology to bicycling to recycling, and were often lubricated by heaping plates of E.H. and Eye's world famous BBQ. Those who joined those conversations benefited from what were easily the best ribs anywhere in Georgia, period. And even better, you often got to take home zip lock bags of the extras. At one point, I had ribs for lunch every day one week when E.H. stocked the office refrigerator with leftovers.
So tonight, it is my sincere hope that E.H. is looking down on us all with a smile on his face. Perhaps we can count on a little divine intervention to help us with some of the challenges E.H. foresaw years ago that our state and region have still not addressed when it comes to economic development, rail, and road transportation.
Either way, there will never be another Elijah H. Culpepper, but we can rest well knowing he has imparted these leadership lessons over BBQ to hundreds of Georgians: ignore county lines, reach out to others, build coalitions, and most importantly, don't be afraid to conceive of a big idea and then work tirelessly to make it happen.