Originally created 02/07/04

Business leader still remembers his roots



U.S. District Judge Dudley Bowen Jr. teases his old friend Jack Connell about running more businesses on a half-acre than anybody has before.

"He's got 12, 13, 14 businesses down there on the corner of 10th and Ellis," Judge Bowen said. "And you know he says he loses money on every one of them. I tell him the only way he can survive that is to make it up by volume."

According to the judge, the best way to deal with Mr. Connell is: Don't be nice to him.

"Anytime you say something complimentary to Jack, he will immediately stiffen up," he said. "And he'll say, 'Don't be nice to me.' He doesn't know how to handle it. He only knows how to handle it when people are teasing him and criticizing him. He knows how to give it back, too."

Despite the teasing, there is deep respect and admiration.

"Jack has been in the corridors of power, and I think he has maintained his integrity throughout," Judge Bowen said. "That in itself is a significant achievement."

Mr. Connell added "a little level of diplomacy to the Tom Murphy institution," Judge Bowen said.

"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."

"Honorable, dedicated, hard working, a gentleman, polite, decent" are the words people use to describe the courtly Mr. Connell, the longest continuous serving speaker pro tem in the United States.

"No one could say anything bad about Jack Connell," said his former secretary Debbie Lynn, who 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."

Beginnings

Atticus Jerome "Jack" Connell Jr. was born in the 1300 block of Greene Street, three blocks from where his businesses stand today.

"I must be getting old," he says. "They tore down the building recently."

His father came to Augusta from Jefferson County and worked for the street car company before landing a job at Culpepper Furniture Co., where he met and married Annie Mae Eubanks.

When he was 10 years old, he received the "League of Curtis Salesman Certificate of the Senior Rank."

"That was my first business, selling Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal and Country Gentleman," he said. "I was 10 years old. I had one employee. I made $12 a month."

Sometimes, he and some other boys would hide behind the bushes on Central Avenue and Walton Way, then sneak out and pull the boom on the trolley car, which disconnected the electricity and stopped the car.

"We were real bad," he said.

In 1932, when he was 12, his mother died.

"She was a beautiful woman, and everybody was crazy about her, and my daddy was well-known, well-liked in business," he said.

By then, Mr. Connell Sr. was a partner in Phinizy and Connell Motor Co. on Broad Street, the dealership for Studebaker, Cadillac, LaSalle and Pierce Arrow.

"It kept going real good until the Depression hit in the late '20s and early '30s," he said.

After graduating from the Academy of Richmond County in 1936, Mr. Connell attended North Georgia College for two years.

"I was 17 when I got back from my first year in North Georgia College and worked for my daddy for the summer," he said. "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 eventually 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 was sent to Texas to train as a flying cadet.

He and another cadet from Augusta, Walter Creson, whose father was a Presbyterian minister on Greene Street, qualified for bombardier training and were sent to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. There, they met a girl named Sally Lansdale at a tea dance at the Rice Hotel.

After graduating as bombardier from Midland Air Force Base in west Texas, Mr. Creson married Ms. Lansdale, whose brother John, he later learned, was in charge of all security for the Manhattan Project.

Mr. Connell was in the 386th air group stationed at Colchester, England.

"That's supposed to be the oldest city in England, which would be as old as I am," he said.

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 and carefully logged details of each in a small black memo book.

"We got German fighter MA109s and FW190s that came in after us," he said. "They used to come at us from out of the sun where we couldn't see them."

There were many close calls, bursts of flak hitting the plane and two forced landings, but he did not worry about them until he went to bed at night and thought about what could have happened, he said.

"We lost some of the people in our squadron," he said. "And the worst thing we had to do was pack up their belongings and ship them back."

Two days before the D-Day invasion of Normandy, his crew received orders to return to the U.S. for rest and relaxation, 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."

He said he doesn't think about those days much anymore but will never forget them.

"There will never be another war like that one," he said.

After D-Day, he applied for pilot training, was assigned to Turner Field in Albany, Ga., and graduated as a first lieutenant pilot. He left the Air Force in 1946 with the rank of captain.

Business success

After the war, he became a traveling salesman.

"I traveled North and South Carolina and part of Georgia selling products," he said. "I did that for quite a while. I guess the first thing I sold and was successful at was radiator covers. Baked-on enamel.

"I sold direct. I got all the ads from people responding to the ads in the Ladies Home Journal."

He also sold tropical paint for a while but says he wasn't a "real good successful paint seller."

Then he got into the credit reporting and collections business. He later started a temporary employment agency, a print shop and Sandwich City.

After he got his businesses going, he got interested in baseball.

"That was a labor of love," he said. "The baseball team belonged to Troy Agnew, and a lot of people were dissatisfied with baseball. We formed a corporation and sold stock to try to finance the baseball team. It was in the SALLY League. It was the Augusta Tigers and we changed it to Augusta Rams."

The group tried to build up the value of the franchise, hoping to attract a major league club to take it over, which they eventually did.

They sponsored projects to motivate people to buy tickets to the games. One of the most successful was a "coon hunt" at Jennings Stadium.

"We went to work and we got some publicity, and we found a man who had some coons," he reminisced. "Our plan was to put a tree at home plate. So we hired the man to be out in right field, and on a signal from us he would start laying the track. He would take the coons and lead them around center field and all around back to home plate, and we had a live coon in the tree.

"We had between 4,000 and 6,000 people in the stands, which was big in those days. And everybody was so happy and interested. Then the man that had the coons got drunk, so we postponed it until after the ballgame."

The promoters scrambled around and found three raccoons and two skins while the hounds bayed behind the fence in right field. When the gates were opened, the hounds ran out, picked up the scent and went rushing toward the tree.

When they got there, they hiked their legs and urinated on the tree.

"The crowd went wild," Mr. Connell said. "It couldn't have been more successful."

Personal, political

In 1953, at 34, he married for the first time and had three children. The marriage ended in divorce after 10 years. His oldest daughter, Lynn Wiggins, lives in Alabama; son Atticus Jerome Connell Jr. in Atlanta; and daughter Debbie Glisson in California. After the marriage broke up, Mr. Connell became a reconfirmed bachelor until he took note of Nannette Anderson, the manager of Jerome Personnel. They dated secretly for two years.

"Jack said, 'Don't fraternize with the employees unless you marry them,' " Mrs. Connell said.

They married in 1968. Their daughter, Andrea, was born in Atlanta during the 1970 General Assembly session.

In 1959, Mr. Connell was elected to the Augusta City Council.

In 1969, he began his first term in the Georgia House. One of the first bills he sponsored was to change the wording of the 1817 charter of St. Paul's Episcopal Church to give women the same rights in the church as men, he said.

His leadership roles in the House made him a key player in the budget process, and he was instrumental in securing the funding for the Medical College of Georgia's Radiation Therapy Center, which laid the foundation for today's quest to build a regional Cancer Center of Excellence.

Other major projects he worked for were MCG's Children's Medical Center, buildings at Augusta State University and construction of River Watch Parkway. He secured many grants for nonprofit agencies that helped the poor and disabled in Augusta.

"I can't remember the names," he said. "I must be getting old."

In 1977, he decided to run for Congress and began making calls hoping to line up financial support.

"I started calling the bank officers, and I couldn't get anybody on the phone," he said. "I finally got Doug Barnard and told him what I was thinking. He said, 'Jack, I have to tell you. I'm running myself.'

"So I decided to run for speaker pro tem instead of Congress."

After holding the chamber's second-highest-ranking position for 26 years, Mr. Connell announced he would be retiring 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 misses more than he could have imagined.

"I miss the operation and presiding over the House and working with Tom Murphy, a wonderful person," he said. "And I enjoyed knowing hoping 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 pick out any one situation - and I have to be careful how I say this - I miss my secretary, Debbie Lynn."

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228

or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.