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Former governor remembered

By Ed Brock

Several years ago Clayton County Director of Economic Development Emory Brock played a game of tennis with former Gov. George Busbee.

Brock said he was a little concerned about possibly injuring his opponent who was 20 years his senior, so he tried not to hit the ball too hard.

"He just beat the slop out of me," Brock said. "You couldn't get anything past him."

Busbee, the 77th governor of Georgia who served from 1975 to 1983, died Friday at the age of 76 of an apparent heart attack. Like Brock, those who knew Busbee remembered him for his energy.

Georgia state Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, was Busbee's floor leader when Busbee was in office.

"I worked with him closely for eight years on a lot of legislation. He was a worker, he kept us busy," Starr said. "He was an outstanding governor because he was so active."

Though he was still recovering from some recent surgery, Starr made sure to go to the Capitol in downtown Atlanta to visit Busbee's body where it lay in state.

"I went in and spent a few minutes with him," Starr said.

Busbee was strong in his support for education and in handling fiscal affairs, Starr said, and he did a lot to help Clayton County.

"He looked after us really well. I would just call and he would deliver," Starr said.

Several other mourners paid their respects to Busbee, stopping with bowed heads by the flag-draped coffin in the rotunda, surrounded by an honor guard of state troopers. A portrait of Busbee stood near the coffin.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said some words to reporters about his old friend with whom he shared a love of flying.

"The one thing I liked the most about Govornor Busbee, he lived life right to the end," Perdue said. "He loved life, he loved his family."

Perdue went on to talk about the work Busbee did to bring Japanese businesses to Georgia, adding that he consulted Busbee before taking a trip to Asia earlier this year to recruit new businesses.

"I think George Busbee did turn Georgia into an international player," Perdue said. "He gave people confidence in the future of Georgia."

A public memorial service is scheduled for today, with a private funeral to follow in Duluth, where he had lived in recent years.

State flags will remain at half-staff until sunset Tuesday.

Busbee, 76, was remembered by many for his steady hand and friendly, low-key manner as governor. But there was a time some political experts thought he was destined to become Speaker of the House, not chief executive.

When House Speaker George L. Smith II died in office in late 1973, many touted Busbee, then the House majority leader, as his natural successor. But rival Rep. Tom Murphy quietly sewed up the vote within days of Smith's death, and Busbee ran for governor.

Sen. Zell Miller recalled Busbee on Sunday as a masterful legislator whose accomplishments included sponsoring the legislation that created the Sibley Commission, the panel credited with helping quell the public clamor to close public schools in the face of court-ordered desegregation.

Miller, who was lieutenant governor during Busbee's term, had fond memories of the political battles during that time.

"We'd bring the legislative leadership down to his office and he would express disgust with us for not going along with his legislation. He'd take his glasses off and sling them across that big, long desk. That was always the signal, ?Let's get things moving, men.' I can just see ?em scooting all the way across the desk."

There are differing versions of whether Busbee might have bailed on the governor's race if the way to the speakership had been open to him.

He was close-mouthed about the race at the time, apparently keeping his options open. But some of his close friends said he had decided to run for governor all along and was merely being courteous to legislative pals who wanted him to run for Speaker.

Regardless, within days it became obvious Murphy had locked up the vote and, in fact, held the office from 1974 until he was defeated for re-election to his legislative seat in 2002.

"It was good for Georgia that Busbee became governor," said Miller. "Along with being a great governor, he was just also a very great man."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.