Jack Connell, an Augusta businessman known for his warm smile, humble sincerity and longtime legislative service, died Wednesday. He was 93.
Connell owned or managed several local businesses over the years, but the Augusta Democrat is probably best known for his 34 years in the Georgia House of Representatives, where he served 26 years as speaker pro tempore, its No. 2 position.
“Jack Connell’s service to Augusta is incalculable,” said William S. Morris III, the publisher of The Augusta Chronicle. “He devoted so much of his life and time to the betterment of our community. He was open, reachable and in touch with the common man, as well as community leaders.
“His influence in Atlanta grew with his length of service and hard work. He used that influence for the benefit of Augusta. He was a leader in the state Legislature. He made many friends who liked him and worked with him.
“We will all miss Jack Connell and be ever grateful for his many years of service to Augusta,” Morris said.
Others who knew Connell offered similar praise.
“Jack was always looking after Augusta and our community,” state Rep. Barbara Sims said. “We have been family friends for years and years. I feel like he has always served with great dignity, a man of tremendous fairness.”
“I first met Jack in 1986 when I was a college intern in the House,” said state Rep. Barry Fleming. “He was the same kind gentleman then to me as he always was to everyone. Few finer men have served in a leadership position in the Georgia Legislature.”
“Few Georgians have served with such distinction and contributed so much to our state as did Jack Connell,” House Speaker David Ralston said Wednesday. “Jack loved Georgia, and he loved the people’s House. He left a legacy of service that will endure for generations.”
OVER THE YEARS Connell was respected for his long legislative partnership with the often autocratic House Speaker Tom Murphy.
Connell added “a little level of diplomacy to the Tom Murphy institution,” U.S. District Judge Dudley Bowen Jr. said in a 2004 interview in The Chronicle.
“Tom Murphy was a powerhouse, and he was an administration unto himself. And Connell knew how to be nice to people. Connell knew how to work with people. And I think that combination worked to the benefit of the state of Georgia,” the judge said.
“No one could say anything bad about Jack Connell,” his former secretary Debbie Lynn once recalled. She ran his office on the second floor of the Capitol where lobbyists, legislators and folks from home dropped in for free Cokes and coffee.
“All of his colleagues held him in the highest regard. They were always coming to him for his advice and counsel, and he was one that always took time to meet with all the members.
“I worked for him for 20 years, and it was a privilege. He is a true public servant.”
Connell’s humility was perhaps best expressed when he rebuffed efforts by others to rename Augusta’s River Watch Parkway after him.
ATTICUS JEROME “JACK” Connell Jr. was born in the 1300 block of Greene Street. His father came to Augusta from Jefferson County and worked for the street car company before landing a job at Culpepper Furniture Co. and eventually becoming a partner in Phinizy and Connell Motor Co. on Broad Street.
After graduating from the Academy of Richmond County in 1936, Connell attended North Georgia College for two years.
That was about the time he was kidnapped, a story he loved to tell.
“I was 17 when I got back from my first year in North Georgia College and worked for my daddy for the summer,” he once told The Chronicle. “My first day back, these three men came in and said they’d like to look at a four-door Commander Studebaker. They said they’d like to drive it up the street.”
One of the men hopped behind the wheel and drove to North Augusta, where the man in the back seat with Mr. Connell pulled a gun. They then drove halfway to Edgefield, turned off onto a one-way pig path and ordered him out of the car.
“They marched me up to the woods, and they acted like they were going to kill me,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey fellas, if you tie me up, nobody will ever find me up in these woods.’ One of them said, ‘Let’s flip a coin and see whether we tie him up or let him go.’ It came my way, and they took the tape off, and I took off.”
The stolen car overheated and exploded on the way to Edgefield. The men were arrested, tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
WHEN HIS FATHER’S business failed, young Jack went to work for Georgia Railroad Bank in Augusta. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Force and served in World War II. He was in the 386th air group stationed at Colchester, England.
One of his jobs as bombardier-navigator was to secure the cotter pins, or keys, in the bombs and to remove them just before the plane reached the target, he said. He kept a key from each of the 79 missions he flew.
Two days before the D-Day invasion of Normandy, his crew received orders to return to the U.S., but knowing D-Day was imminent, they voted unanimously to stay and participate, he said.
They were ordered to take out a German gun emplacement that was pounding a U.S. battleship off the coast of Normandy, he said.
“We went right over that battleship at 4,000 feet, the most gorgeous sight you’ve ever seen,” he said. “You could see the whole invasion right out in front of you. And we hit that gun emplacement dead on, and we busted them. Busted the fool out of them. I can see it right now. Oh, it was wonderful.”
After the war, he came home and became a traveling salesman, and later began several Augusta businesses, including a temporary employment agency, a print shop and Sandwich City. He even ran Augusta’s minor league baseball teams.
“That was a labor of love,” he said. “It was the Augusta Tigers and we changed it to Augusta Rams.”
IN 1969, HE BEGAN his first term in the Georgia House. His leadership roles in the House made him a key player in the budget process. After holding the chamber’s second-highest-ranking position for 26 years, Connell announced he would retire at the end of 2002 because it was “time to move on.”
Actually, the weeks away from home and business during the legislative sessions had begun to take a toll on the Connells.
SO ENDED AN era he said he missed more than he could have imagined.
“I miss the operation and presiding over the House and working with Tom Murphy, a wonderful person,” he told the newspaper. “And I enjoyed knowing that I knew the rules as well as anybody because when you preside you’ve got to know all the rules.
“And I guess if you pick out any one situation – and I have to be careful how I say this – I miss my secretary, Debbie Lynn.”
Recent efforts have sought more honors for Connell. Members of the Augusta legislative delegation – past and present – have been trying to have his a portrait placed in the state Capitol.
“It’s in the pipeline,” Sims said Wednesday. “I’m just sorry that he won’t get to know it is hanging.”
Funeral arrangements are incomplete. Thomas Poteet & Sons Funeral Directors, are in charge of arrangements.
Walter Jones, of Morris News Service, and Staff Writer Kelly Jasper contributed to this report.