Originally created 07/17/04

2-term leader dies at age 76

ATLANTA - Former Georgia Gov. George Busbee, a Democrat who campaigned as "a workhorse, not a showhorse," died in Savannah on Friday of an apparent heart attack. He was 76.

Mr. Busbee was in the Savannah airport for a vacation, son Jeff Busbee said. He collapsed between 3 and 4 p.m and appeared to be in good health before the attack, Jeff Busbee said.

George Busbee was governor from 1975 to 1983, the first in state history to serve two consecutive four-year terms.

Considered one of the most popular governors in recent history, Mr. Busbee launched the state's first kindergarten program and steered Georgia through two recessions.

"He was an excellent governor," said another former governor, Democrat Roy Barnes. "He had an intricate knowledge of the state, particularly the budget."

The head of the state Democratic Party, Bobby Kahn, said Mr. Busbee was a favorite among state Democrats and worked for successive candidates as recently as 2002.

"His slogan was, 'A workhorse, not a showhorse,' and that's how he was," Mr. Kahn said. "He was a great governor and believed in a strong party."

Just before leaving office, Mr. Busbee said he hoped he would be remembered for a tough work ethic.

"I'd just like to be remembered for two things: one, that I worked hard. I tried," he told The Associated Press in late 1982. "I wasn't the smartest man that's been in this chair, but I tried as hard.

"And I certainly hope to be remembered as having as much integrity as anybody that's ever sat in this chair."

Mr. Busbee was born in Dooley County on Aug. 7, 1927, and attended the Georgia Military College and Abraham Bald- win College before joining the Navy.

After military service, he graduated from the University of Georgia, where he met and married Mary Elizabeth Talbot, of Ruston, La., and earned a law degree there in 1952.

He practiced law in Albany and won a seat in the Legislature, where he served 18 years.

He won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1974, Jimmy Carter's final year in the office, over better-known rivals such as Lt. Gov. Lester Maddox and state highway Director Bert Lance, who later became President Carter's budget chief.

Former state Rep. Jack Connell, D-Augusta, said Mr. Busbee's easygoing style and leadership would be greatly missed.

"One of the finest men we've had in state government," he said of Mr. Busbee. "For him to be gone today is just a great loss to the state."

Mr. Connell served in the state House of Representatives with Mr. Busbee in the early 1970s and became friends with him while working in a nearby office.

"He was wonderful to work with," Mr. Connell said, adding that when Mr. Busbee became governor, "he had such a great knack for handling the state's budget. He knew so much about the state budget; it was so wonderful to work with him."

Mr. Busbee faced the challenge of a national recession that plunged the state into financial crisis.

The state faced a deficit of $108 million, leading him to call a special session of the Legislature that eliminated property-tax relief, pay raises for state employees and state funding for kindergartens, his major education priority. After the economy improved, Mr. Busbee was able to obtain full funding for kindergarten and raises for public school teachers and college professors.

Mr. Busbee's administration also led efforts to revise the state Constitution, which was endorsed by voters in 1982.

Seeing the demise of agriculture and textiles as the state's leading industries, he worked to attract the emerging high technology businesses that became the cornerstone of Georgia's growth in the 1990s.

News of Mr. Busbee's death Friday came as a surprise to state Sen. Don Cheeks, R-Augusta, who served with Mr. Busbee in the House.

"He was a great governor," he said.

Staff writer Preston Sparks contributed to this report.


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