Former Columbia County Commissioner Tommy Mercer, a man known for his fiery rhetoric and boundless compassion, died Wednesday after a brief hospitalization.
Family visitation for Mercer, 70, will be held from 6-9 p.m. Friday at Thomas Poteet and Sons Funeral Directors, 214 Davis Road, with funeral services at 1 p.m. Saturday at Wesley United Methodist Church.
In addition to his wife, Brenda, Mercer is survived by seven children and 10 grandchildren.
Mercer served from 2000-2008 as the commission’s District 2 representative, earning a reputation for outspokenness and tenacity. His signature achievement was passage in 2004 of the county’s sweeping ban on indoor smoking, among the state’s strictest.
He served as a member and past chairman of the Columbia County Board of Health, and in addition to the smoking ban also helped write safety regulations of tattoo and piercing parlors and paved the way for construction of the Health Department office that opened last June, said Commissioner Trey Allen, who succeeded Mercer in District 2.
“He believed in fighting for what he thought was right, without question,” Allen said.
“I had nothing but the greatest respect for him.”
In addition to public service, Mercer also dressed up each year to portray Santa Claus at schools and at Fat Man’s Forest, said the former seasonal store’s owner, Brad Usry.
In about 1980, “Tommy came to me and said, ‘Brad, I don’t want to make any money, I just want to be with the kids,’ ” Usry said. “It was just like God sent Tommy to us.”
Along with his wife portraying Mrs. Claus, Mercer “played Santa until the bitter end, until Fat Man’s closed the doors,” Usry said.
Mercer was a man of “renowned generosity,” Allen said.
In addition to helping to support the widow and family of a former colleague, Mercer frequently and anonymously paid for meals and purchases for uniformed service members and emergency personnel.
“If he was in a restaurant, or just in a Circle K if he saw them buying coffee behind him, he would pay for them and they never knew,” Allen said. “He was just all heart.”
That compassion extended to Columbia County government employees, to whom Mercer routinely sent birthday wishes or delivered goodies. Even after his time in office, Mercer advocated on their behalf when he visited a 2010 commission meeting in which pay for county employees was being discussed and told quarreling commissioners, “Give ’em a damn raise.”
“County employees in general are pretty shaken” by Mercer’s death, said Pam Tucker, the county emergency and operations director.
Mercer grew up in the “Pinch Gut” area of Augusta, where he moved as a boy from Lakeworth, Fla. He was a 1959 graduate of Richmond Academy, where he was a star athlete – especially in baseball, participating on the state championship team in 1957.
“He’s such a good fellow. I’ve known him since we were kids,” said former county commissioner and state senator Jim Whitehead, who graduated from Richmond a year after Mercer.
The two played sports together from childhood through high school. Whitehead went on to the University of Georgia on a football scholarship, while Mercer went to work at The Augusta Chronicle and Augusta Herald after graduation and continued to play baseball in Augusta’s amateur leagues.
After his playing days were over, Mercer long served as a baseball and football official for area high school games.
Mercer later was hired at Augusta’s Procter and Gamble plant in 1964, where he worked until his retirement in 1996.
“The first day, the first thing he did was mop the front hall,” said his youngest son, Trent. “That’s the last thing he did when he left. They day he retired, they got a picture of him mopping the hall.”
In retirement, Mercer’s financial stability enabled him to share his generosity, Whitehead said.
“Tommy loved everybody, and he loved helping people,” Whitehead said. “If he could help you, he would.”
In his later years, Mercer suffered from heart problems, diabetes and the back trouble that first robbed him of his ability to play golf, and then forced his final trip to the hospital, Trent said.
But even to the end, Mercer was a fighter.
“He stood up for so many things,” Whitehead said. “Even in his frail body, Tommy felt like he would fight a buzz-saw if it was the right thing to do.
“He was going to stand up for what he thought was right.”