ATLANTA - Gov. Zell Miller loves to hold court on Georgia's past, and he frequently reminds people he started his professional career as a history teacher.
Mr. Miller has researched and written extensively on Georgia history. But until Friday, he had never been a dues-paying member of the Georgia Historical Society.
As it turns out, the governor couldn't have picked a better time to hand over his $35 check to join the 158-year-old Savannah-based organization.
The society kicked off its first sign-up campaign in five years Friday in hopes of increasing membership about 40 percent by the end of 1997, in part to make up for cutbacks in state dollars.
"In the near future, they are going to need to rely more than in the past on private contributions and donations," said Secretary of State Lewis Massey, whose office oversees the Department of Archives and History.
The Georgia Historical Society was chartered by the General Assembly in 1839 to collect, preserve and share the state's history. This year, lawmakers authorized privatization of the Department of Archives and History depository in Savannah.
Deputy Secretary of State Cathy Cox said state money - $240,000 in fiscal 1997, which ended June 30 - will be cut about 50 percent over the next five years. Lawmakers approved $205,000 for this year.
The organization has 2,500 members, and is hoping to add another 1,000 by the end of the year, society president Lisa White said. The theme of the drive is "Ensuring a Future for the Past."
"I am proud to become a member of the Georgia Historical Society," Mr. Miller said Friday during a Capitol ceremony. "As we approach the 21st century, the functions of the society are more important than ever.
"The state of Georgia has made great progress economically, educationally and culturally. But with that progress comes the risk of losing our regional identity, and all of us have a responsibility to maintain a sense of who we are as Georgians and Southerners, and to pass that identity to future generations."
W. Todd Groce, executive director of the Georgia Historical Society, noted that during the south Georgia flood of 1994, many water-logged residents didn't seek to save their televisions or other expensive possessions. They took old Bibles and photo albums.
"They rescued from the flood the things that told us who they are. Today, we Georgians are in a similar situation," Mr. Groce said. "Like the people of South Georgia a few years ago, we are engulfed in change and the waters of that change are rising very rapidly.
"Change is good, it's inevitable and we must accept it," he said. "But change also threatens to cut us off from our past and to leave us with no sense of direction for our future. What the Georgia Historical Society is saving from the flood are the rare books, manuscripts, documents and photographs, the things that tell us who we are as Georgians."
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