Carl E. Sanders enjoyed heralded success as the 74th governor of the state of Georgia, 1963-67, and I became acquainted with him, owing to his having played quarterback for the University of Georgia Bulldogs.
No UGA football letterman has risen as high in politics as Sanders, before or since, although Herschel Walker is making a bid to, perhaps, co-equal him should the legendary No. 34 win his U. S. Senate race this fall.
I first met Sanders when Dan Magill, the quintessential Bulldog, took me to Bulldog Club meetings around the state. Sanders, a loyal, UGA graduate, was then a state senator from his hometown of Augusta. I sat with the senator at a spring Bulldog Club meeting in his hometown, which resulted in a warm friendship—not immediately but with the passing of time.
On a couple of occasions, there was an opportunity to meet with Carl for interviews having to do with his years as a left-handed quarterback for Coach Wallace Butts’ teams in the forties and also about the role he played in Atlanta becoming a National Football League city, which resulted in his UGA classmate, Rankin Smith, becoming the initial owner of the Atlanta Falcons.
After he lost his reelection bid for governor in 1970 to Jimmy Carter, Sanders focused on his law practice and business career. He founded the firm Troutman Sanders which ultimately became an international firm of more than 600 lawyers.
All the time, he remained keenly interested in Georgia football and would invite me by his office on Peachtree Street for an update on the team. He endowed a football scholarship at his alma mater. One cold winter’s day I went by his office to deliver UGA football programs which carried a story about his scholarship endowment. His assistant told me that because of the weather he would not be coming in but wanted me to join him at his home for lunch.
What was to be a casual and brief stay turned into a three-hour reminiscing session about the life and times he had shared with his charming wife, Betty Foy Sanders, and his days as governor.
The former first lady had organized oyster soup, a favorite of the former governor. Oyster soup on a gray winter day, accompanied by abundant saltine crackers, and fulfilling conversation became a memorable experience.
Betty, who was an accomplished artist, recalled her humble days on a farm in Adabelle, 16 miles southwest of Statesboro in Southeast Georgia. She also took solace in Carl’s bitter defeat by Carter in the gubernatorial election. “It was hard for us,” she said, “but you know if Carl had won that election, he would not have been able to put together one of Atlanta’s biggest and best law firms; he would not have been able to enjoy the success he enjoyed in business and do so much for business in the state of Georgia, so it turned out okay.”
Their lovely home on Tuxedo Road in the Buckhead section of Atlanta was originally owed by the famous golfer Bobby Jones. Carl showed me a shotgun that Jones had used to hunt quail in his golfing heyday. The former governor was an inveterate quail hunting aficionado.
The reminiscing about their days on campus in Athens was lively and sentimental, each lavishing praise on the other. Betty talked about her interest in art, her affection for Lamar Dodd, head of the University of Georgia art department. Carl reminisced about the 1945 Oil Bowl which he and his brother, Blaze, traveled with the team, teammates of the sensational Charley Trippi.
There are two vignettes that I’ll always appreciate about Carl that illuminate the value of forgiveness. One had to do with a dinner at Sea Island one Friday night before a Georgia-Florida game. As they were dining with friends, Carl spotted Marvin Griffith, whom he had defeated for governor, being declined for seating.
Carl went up to his one-time adversary and invited the Griffins to his table. In short order, Marvin, one of the greatest raconteurs in history of our state, was regaling the Sanders’ friends with his colorful story telling. “Afterwards,” Carl said, “our guests asked me over and over, ‘How in the world did you defeat a guy like that?’”
Carl’s college coach Wallace Butts, a partying buddy of Marvin’s, supported Griffin in his race against Butts’ former quarterback, who was disappointed, but was never bitter about his old coach’s decision.
Several months after Carl took office, his secretary came in one day and said, “Coach Butts is out here to see you.” Carl welcomed his former coach generously. They had a long conversation of reconciliation. Coach Butts apologized for his political stance. “I considered it big of him come by and apologize and will always respect him for that,” Carl said.
With Betty Sanders’ death last week, I mourn the passing of an accomplished friend who loved the state of Georgia, and who, along with her husband, refused to become bitter after a crushing election defeat.
If more politicians would meet over oyster soup and reminiscing, maybe things might be different in our troubled nation. Sadly, I know the folly of that suggestion. It would be hard to eat oyster soup wearing boxing gloves.