Going into the lions’ den for a worthy cause

Published 8:26 am Friday, March 29, 2013

I have a good idea what Daniel felt like when he was tossed into the lions’ den, way back yonder. I found myself last week on the floor of the state House and the state Senate, looking eyeball-to-eyeball with some of the very folks I have cuffed around in this space over the years.

As those of us who read our Bible know, Daniel prayed to God to get him out of his predicament and God complied. I wasn’t so lucky. I caused a bit of a stir last week when I said God liked Georgia better than anyplace else, including Iran and that part of Michigan that contains Detroit. I didn’t hear from any Iranians — I think they are too busy making atomic bombs to read my columns — but I did hear from a number of people that thought I was very unkind to Michigan. I was struck by the fact that most of those extolling the virtues of Michigan don’t live there anymore. They live in Georgia. I asked God to tell me why that was so. God said, “Don’t ask me. You got yourself in this mess. You can get yourself out of it.”

I was at the Capitol at the invitation of my friend and Great American Rep. Joe Wilkinson (R-Sandy Springs) to help pay tribute to the late Dick Pettys, one of the finest political reporters this state has ever produced. Pettys represented the Associated Press under the Gold Dome for more than three decades, from the Maddox administration to Gov. Sonny Perdue’s. He died much too young.

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Pettys was a reporter’s reporter. Fair, but tough. No hidden agendas. He quietly did his job of keeping the public informed on the doings of state government and did it as well as anybody ever has.

Pettys was honored by the legislature last week and his family — wife Stephanie and sons, Richard, Beaux and Chip — were there as a part of the ceremony. I was asked to participate because I have been given the high honor of painting Dick’s portrait that will hang in the Capitol. Some of our intrepid public servants seemed quite stunned to find out that I can paint a lick or two. It is like discovering that a possum can play the banjo.

Beaux Pettys did a great job talking about his father’s remarkable legacy. In a legislature that has given short shrift to public school teachers, I was struck by his praise for a high school teacher, the late Katherine Connell, who had a tremendous impact on his father’s life and his career choice. I keep telling teachers that despite the lack of respect they receive from politicians these days, they still can make a difference in young lives. Ms. Connell is proof of that.

It was a great occasion, made more so by House Speaker David Ralston’s obvious affection for Dick Pettys. And, as wiser heads than me had predicted, once the Speaker and I have gotten to know each other we have developed a mutual respect. As I was leaving the podium, he told me that if I wanted to give up the column for four or five months in order to paint the portrait that would be fine with him. He was kidding. I think.

The family and I then went over to the Senate. It was obvious that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is back in full charge of that body after last year’s coup that saw him stripped of much of his authority. Today, Mr. Cagle is running the show. The leaders of the coup are roadkill.

One of the nicer surprises was an extended conversation with Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur.) I haven’t been especially kind to his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, in my columns but if the senator was rankled by that fact, he didn’t show it. What I found was a gracious and sincere young man that I liked instantly. Whether you are a former president or a modest and much-beloved columnist, you like to hear nice things about your grandchildren. I hope Jimmy Carter sees this.

It was a memorable day for the Pettys family and well-deserved. For me the hard part now begins. The portrait is scheduled to be unveiled at the beginning of the next legislative session. I have a lot of work to do. Dick Pettys and his family will get my very best effort. And I was willing to go into the lions’ den to prove it.

You can reach Dick Yarbrough at yarb2400@bellsouth.net or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.