Originally created 03/03/98

Former governor's newspaper ads send marriage-saving message



ATLANTA -- For years, former Gov. Lester Maddox cared for his ailing wife, Virginia, who suffered from lupus and osteoporosis. When she died last year, the grief-stricken widower vowed he'd never recover from losing the one he'd loved for 64 years.

Now, the 82-year-old former governor is launching a personal crusade to help save broken marriages and persuade couples to adhere to their commitment of "till death do us part."

In Monday editions of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Maddox ran the second of a series of ads designed to persuade others not to walk away from personal responsibility and parental obligation.

The ad, signed by Maddox, reads: "DEAR MOMS & DADS. Help Save Lives, Families and U.S.A. STAY MARRIED."

"The breakdown in marriages is very harmful to children and the prisons are filled with one-parent criminals," Maddox said in an interview Monday. "If there's anything I can say or do to keep their marriage together, it's my duty and responsibility."

The ad, which first appeared in the newspaper Saturday, will run twice a week through March.

By month's end, Maddox will have shelled out $2,000 for his newspaper campaign. Eventually, he plans to place the ads in Savannah, Macon, Augusta and elsewhere around the state.

"If I can save one family and it doesn't cost but a few thousand dollars, then it's worth it," he said.

Maddox met his wife, Virginia, when he was a 16-year-old entrepreneur selling soft drinks and candy in his front yard. She rode her bicycle by his house, trying to attract his attention. He borrowed the bicycle and rode it backwards. Three years later, when she was 17, they were married.

Mrs. Maddox died last June at age 78.

"I prayed to God to give me my sweetheart when she acted like she didn't care anything about me and he did. He kept us together all those years," Maddox said.

Maddox got the idea for his stay-married crusade about three years ago after giving a eulogy at a nephew's funeral in which he emphasized how the nephew and his wife had kept their wedding vows.

"About 10 days later I received a letter from a widow who said that three relatives of hers were contemplating divorce. But after the eulogy, they decided they were going to try to keep their marriage together," he said.

The death of his wife and his battle with several illnesses -- cancer, a stroke, kidney stones, two heart attacks and an intestinal blockage -- delayed his campaign. But Maddox said he was determined to go through with it.

To critics who argue that some marriages, especially those marred by infidelity or cruelty, are irreparable and shouldn't be saved, Maddox said: "If you love somebody enough to marry them, you ought to love somebody enough to stay with them."

Maddox, elected governor in 1967, had gained notoriety for refusing to serve blacks at the Atlanta restaurant he opened in 1947. But as governor he pursued a moderate course and appointed more blacks to high state office than any of his predecessors.

After four years as governor, he served one term as lieutenant governor. He lost a bid for governor in 1974 and never served in office again.

Maddox is still recovering from surgery last fall to remove cancer from his ear lobe and canal.

"There will never be a good day in my life" without his wife, he said. "I just thank God I had her."