Originally created 11/29/03

Councilwoman, entrepreneur still goes 'full speed ahead'



All communities have a distinctive personality shaped by the people who lead its institutions and who contribute to its social fabric. Today The Chronicle continues a series of interviews featuring the people who have added to Augusta's personality over the past 50 years.

Carolyn Usry is a hardworking woman. Everybody will tell you that, even former Augusta Mayor Charles A. DeVaney, with whom she had some legendary battles during their final years in city government.

She's also a perfectionist. She'll tell you that. But so will watching her make a fried Supreme salad at Fatsville Chow.

"I didn't like the way it looked," she said, rearranging the plate. "I like my tomatoes down here. I'm just that crazy. I like everything to perfection. I put my bacon on. Then I put my raisins on. Then I put my nuts on."

Finally, she had it just right.

"That's out of this world. I'll tell you right now, if that ain't good, grits ain't groceries."

Most women who are her age (75) and undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer would be at home taking a nap. Not her.

"When I get through with my radiation, I'm going to start helping down at the Forest in the afternoons," she said.

Widowed at 48 with three of her four children still at home, Mrs. Usry could have sold Fatsville Chow and Fat Man's Forest, the businesses she and her husband, Horace "Fat Man" Usry, started at the corner of Laney-Walker Boulevard across from Paine College.

"Everybody said you can sell out, and you'll probably be OK," she said. "I said, 'No. Full speed ahead.' And back then, I was a control freak. I kept my accounts payable right on my desk. I wouldn't let nobody sign my checks. And now we have three bookkeepers."

Most people who have been in Augusta for a while know about the Christmas tree lot and curb market that grew into Fat Man's Forest floral and gift shop, now in two locations.

"We started in a little chicken coop," she said. "We had chicken wire around and sawdust. We sold Christmas trees, cotton and icicles and lights. Then we just started growing. Then we saw a need for decorations, arrangements, fresh flowers."

They worked 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. But Fat Man always found time to play.

"He was very talented," she said. "He wrote poems and he also wrote a song, My Life's Been Wasted As Far As You're Concerned. I used to be straight down the middle. I've mellowed in my old age. This girl that worked for us about 25 years said, 'Ms. Carolyn, I never did think you would mellow as much as you have, as tough as you used to be.'

"Big Horace used to say, 'It's only two ways as far as you're concerned. The wrong way and Carolyn Usry's way."'

'Mother told me' She was born Carolyn Havird, the seventh child in a close-knit family of 10 children. Her father was politically active, and her mother was very strict.

"We were just taught respect," she said. "And Mother would say, 'If you lose your reputation, you've lost everything.' That's the way I was taught, to be honest and straightforward, and you don't get away from your childhood raisings."

The strict upbringing didn't keep her out of trouble, though.

One day, she and her best friend Jewell Ferrara, now Jewell Boone, skipped school to see Gone with the Wind and got caught.

"The Tubman High teachers shamed us," Mrs. Boone remembers. "They told us we had eaten the forbidden fruit."

All Mrs. Usry remembers about the day was getting something in her eye and having to watch Gone with the Wind with her hand over it.

"Morally, I was above reproach, I think, but I was always getting in trouble," she said. "Honest to goodness, as good as I tried to be sometimes, I would get a whipping every day."

Once, she set a field on fire on a dare.

"I just threw a match out," she said. "They had about three fire engines trying to put it out. Honey, I was scared then. I got home fast. Don't dare me to do anything. Back then I'd do it.

"I don't think I was all that bad, but Mother was just ... I just did things Mother told me not to do."

Her mother believed her children should be either in school, working or in church, certainly not playing ball with the Bennett boys down the street.

"The Bennetts lived down on the next block," she said. "There were about four of the boys, and every afternoon they'd get a baseball game going. And Mother would tell me not to leave the house, and I'd slip down there to play baseball with them. And Mother would come get me."

As she was walking down the aisle to get married, the Bennett boys' father tugged at her dress and said, "Carolyn, does your mother know where you are?"

With the big boys She's always been interested in politics, but she ran for Augusta City Council in 1980 because she wanted an outside interest other than her business.

"And I wanted to give to my community," she said. "That sounds corny and sort of naive, but that was it."

She ran for the 3rd Ward seat, against the advice of Mayor Lewis "Pop" Newman, who had already promised to support another candidate. She got more votes than any other candidate besides Herbert Elliott, who had no opposition.

"I didn't have the slightest idea of how to politic," she said.

Nevertheless, she did what she did well, said one of her former colleagues on the city council.

"She is an amazing politician," Gerald Woods said. "She could work the Hill. She could work the black community. She could work Harrisburg and anything in between. She knew how to get to people and get them to understand her and support her. Carolyn is probably the closet thing to Oscar Baker that I know."

Mr. Baker, a retired fire captain, was on the Augusta City Council 14 1/2 years, as was Mrs. Usry, who was defeated only once.

"I had a two-year break when Melvin Ford beat me by 26 votes," she said. "When I left here to go home to get dressed for my victory party, they said I was leading."

Poll workers later told her that Mr. Ford's supporters were getting people out of bed to go vote for him.

"The ward was predominantly black, and they wanted black representation," she said. "Although I was well liked, and I still am, throughout the black community. But anyhow, that 26 votes - I should have got out and got people out of bed and got them down there."

Two years later, she ran for one of the at-large seats and was the top vote-getter that year.

As the council's public safety chairwoman, Mrs. Usry faced one of the most difficult situations of her public life: the firing of Police Chief Danny Philpot.

Mr. DeVaney, whose relationship with Mrs. Usry eventually soured, said she was very supportive when he had to dismiss the chief.

"She was very caring about Chief Philpot," he said. "And I think everybody did everything to save his job and reputation and career."

Mrs. Usry and Mr. DeVaney were both elected to the city council in 1980 and worked well together for years. They often met at the Red Lion Pub after work to talk politics. But the camaraderie ended shortly before the city government did.

One blowup came over the appointment of a municipal court judge.

"She came in and said they were going to appoint Tom Tinley as the assistant Municipal Court Judge," he said. "I said, 'No, you're not.' And she said, 'I am.' But she didn't have that power. She didn't have the authority. I wouldn't let them. I wouldn't let that happen."

That might have been the episode that prompted Mrs. Usry to throw her pocketbook down the hall outside council chambers. Neither of them remembers for sure.

"I can tell you that Carolyn is a strong-willed woman and likes to have her way," Mr. DeVaney said. "And when she didn't, that pocketbook did go sailing down the hallway one day. And it very well could have been over something like that."

"I don't have the slightest idea what it was, but I was so mad if I had been a man I would have fought somebody," she said.

As a member of the city's finance committee, Mrs. Usry was the first to sound the alarm over the city's finances.

"Carolyn told me right at the end of our stay on city council just before we consolidated that checks were bouncing," Mr. Baker remembers. "I said, 'Carolyn, I can't believe that."'

"I knew checks were bouncing," Mrs. Usry said. "And Oscar went in there and told him. He said, 'Charles, Carolyn tells me we don't have any money, and we are broke.' Charles says, 'That damn woman don't know what she's saying. Don't pay any attention to that crazy woman.'

"And we had checks bouncing. You think about it now, it is right comical, but we were in serious trouble. If we hadn't consolidated, we would have been bankrupt."

Mrs. Usry said she held a grudge against Mr. DeVaney for a long time.

Mr. DeVaney said he has no hard feelings about the past.

"I look back on it and think it's funny and that I should put it in a book," he said. "I think she wanted to be mayor. But I do like her. She was a good businesswoman, and I think a good, honest public servant. But you never agree with each other's politics 100 percent of the time, no matter how close you are."

The personal side During her years on the city council, Mrs. Usry began a 17-year relationship with the now-deceased George Cunningham, the founder of the Wife Saver restaurants in Augusta.

"It amazed me that they could get along because both of them were so opinionated and strong-willed," said his son Chris Cunningham. "I would have thought they would have fought like cats and dogs, but they didn't talk politics a whole lot when they were together."

The reason they didn't is that Mrs. Usry put a stop to it.

"When we first started dating, he used to take me on the other side of Gordon Highway and tell me everything elected officials had done that he thought was illegal," she said. "I put up with that for about four years, and I finally said, 'George, let me tell you one damn thing. I don't want to come south of Gordon Highway. I don't give a damn what happens over here. All I can do is take care of what happens in the city."'

Chris Cunningham said one thing the two had in common was that everybody always knew where they stood with them.

"My dad didn't mince words, and Carolyn didn't," he said. "She's gotten to be a little more diplomatic than she used to be. Dad never did. He never was very tactful."

For Christmas several years ago, Chris' wife gave George a picture of an old market down in Harrisburg where he had grown up.

"My dad didn't accept gifts very well," he said. "He said, 'This is a really nice picture, and I appreciate it, but it probably would look better in your house than it would in my house.'

"Carolyn looked at him, and she said, 'George, you old rude S.O.B. Take the picture and shut up.'

"Carolyn was about the only person that I've ever known that could keep my daddy straight."

The couple never married because it would have been too complicated financially and Mrs. Usry was not willing to give so much of herself in another marriage, she said.

"Horace and I were married 30 years," she said. "I gave it all I had. And I had four children, and I was working 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. And the men I dated, I was not willing to give that. And I think in a marriage, you've got to be committed to going over and beyond."

George Cunningham died last year, and his son takes comfort in the happiness he knows his father had with Mrs. Usry.

"I'm sure that most of the happiest times of my daddy's life were spent with Carolyn Usry," he said.

Ice and fire Seven years ago, Mrs. Usry sold her businesses to two of her children, Brad Usry and Jan Stuntz. Her other daughter, Ann McRae, is part owner and manager of Fat Man's West. Son Horace Jr. is in the finance business in Baltimore, Md. He and his wife, Georgia, are the parents of her 5-year-old namesake, Carolyn.

"I still work every day because I want to," she said. "I still get paid the same amount of money whether I go down there or not. But if I didn't, I would get depressed. That's been my life. I love the relationship I have with my customers. I have people that have been coming down there for 40 years. I consider some of them my best friends."

During Christmas, those customers bring their children and grandchildren in to see her.

"Frankly, I enjoy it," she said. "I feel sorry for people that don't enjoy what they do for a living. And my children appreciate it. Sometimes they say I do too much. They say, 'Mother, when you get tired, you ought to go home."'

Last December, she got pneumonia and had barely recovered when a mammogram detected breast cancer.

"You never think it's going to happen to you," she said. "It's definitely taken something out of me."

After surgery, she developed an intestinal blockage that further weakened her.

Today, she has completed radiation therapy and is back doing her civic duty as a member of the often controversial Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority.

"I had thought two or three times about getting off the board, but I decided if I stay on I might keep some things from happening," she said.

Mrs. Usry has many admirers, such as Johnny Finley, the owner of United Loan and Pawn on Broad Street.

"I love Carolyn," he said. "She's always been good. A hard worker. It was people like her that made city government good."

"She never forgets the little things about your life that other people just step over," said Judy Gore, who has worked at Fat Man's for 25 years.

"My husband passed away two years ago. He used to come in every day and buy a Payday candy bar. Carolyn went to buy some candy for the store, and she said she almost couldn't do it. She said, 'Can you guess who bought these?' And I had no idea she knew that. She's just a good, caring woman. Her whole family has taken good care of me."

Mrs. Usry is very involved with - and proud of - her four children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

"When they lay me to rest, they'll say she has not lived a dull life," she said. "I lived a completely fulfilling, exciting life and wouldn't change a thing, although I've made a lot of mistakes. But I've helped a lot of people."

She's helped more people than anyone knows, Chris Cunningham said.

"No one knows how much she does behind the scenes to help the community," he said. "Over the years, she had donated tents, flowers, Christmas trees. Her and Brad and her family continue to do that, and they do it so quietly that most people don't even realize how much they do. Carolyn's been doing it for 50 years. That's something I've always admired about her and her family."

On her Mothers Day card this year, Brad penned the following:

"She's ice when things are hot and fire when things get cold. She's a great friend and a wonderful story to be told.

"If the sculptor could sculpt a mother, when finished it'd be mine, no other."

CAROLYN USRY

1927: Born Aug. 28

1946: Married Horace "Fat Man" Usry

1948: Began operating Sanitary Curb Market at Laney-Walker Boulevard and Druid Park Avenue

1954: Took over the Pit, now Fatsville Chow

1956: Started Fat Man's Forest

1980-89, 1992-95: Augusta City Council

1981-83: City council's representative to the Bush Field Airport Board

1983: City council's representative to the Daniel Field Airport Board

1982-83: Richmond County Library Board

1987-98: Metro Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau

1999-PRESENT: Riverfront Development Review Board

2002-PRESENT: Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority

"I feel sorry for people that don't enjoy what they do for a living. And my children appreciate it. Sometimes they say I do too much. They say, 'Mother, when you get tired, you ought to go home."' - Carolyn Usry, on why she continues to work at age 75

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.