The late Gene Sutherland of Jonesboro was a city boy with an agricultural bent which led him to an enviable agri-business career. He grew up in Atlanta and was graduated from old Sylvan High and Georgia Military Academy, which later became Woodward Academy. He also attended Georgia State University and had a deep and abiding affection for the Georgia Bulldogs.
There were many passions in his life. In addition to the Bulldogs, he couldn’t get enough of his Meriwether County farm, dove hunting, NASCAR, the Georgia National Fair in Perry where the livestock and equine area bears his name. Most of all, his family and his influential affiliation with the State Farmer’s Market in Forest Park became high water marks in his life.
A member of the Georgia Agricultural Hall of Fame, he turned Sutherland’s Food Service, originally Sutherland’s Eggs, into a family business run by his daughters Bonnie Wilson, Connie Hopkins, Diana Earwood and his son, Gene Jr. At one time, Sutherland’s was the largest egg producer in the state.
Every governor from Herman Talmadge right on up to time of Gene’s recent death reached out to Gene at the Market. While he was not outspoken with regard to his viewpoint, Gene was a man you could count on, one of those behind-the-scenes types who could make things happen; he got things done.
I once told him, if he could handicap thoroughbreds like he did political candidates, he would have become a very wealthy man. He seemed to have an uncanny insight with regard to connecting with the men who were movers and shakers at the Capitol, especially those who aspired to be the state’s chief executive.
A man who ran his company with fine-tooth business acumen, Gene was generous to his friends and countless organizations and charities. “How ‘bout coming over and speaking to the Produce Association?” he would ask. When you showed up, he would pull you aside and whisper, “We don’t pay you for doing this, but we will treat you right.” Treating you right meant that he would load up your car with baskets of vegetables, greens and fruits that would sustain a phalanx of hungry soldiers. He filled the trunk and the back seat with his bountiful products. Then he would look for any unoccupied space to stuff another handful of foodstuffs.
He loved being unofficial mayor of the Market. He appreciated anyone who appreciated the Southside of town. “We are just country folks who enjoy our friends,” he would say, as he poured a glass of Crown Royal, his drink of choice. Gene could have written a book about hospitality and friendship. If he were your friend, you couldn’t have a better one.
When I became executive director of the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association, the GACA was flat broke. We had to find friends and find them fast. I went out to the market for a Crown Royal session with Gene and his buddy Al Barnett, who owned Market Grocery. I told them that the high school coaches who came to the annual clinic needed one good dinner as part of the membership dues. Before I could finish my request, they said, without hesitation. “How many will be coming?”
That led to an indefinite response, but I estimated 500. “That’s fine,” Gene said. “You tell them that we won’t run out of food even if a thousand show up.” And, then, he added. “You make sure they know if they want to go back for seconds, we can handle it.”
The coaches showed up hungry and left happy. The only request Gene had was that he wanted the coaches to know that it was University of Georgia advocates who sponsored the function.
He and Al not only underwrote the cost of the meal, they rolled up their sleeves and did the serving, welcoming the coaches in a down-home vernacular that brought smiles of appreciation for hard-working high school coaches from Cairo to Commerce, from Rabun Gap to Waycross.
During that period of time, Gene, in his familiar motor coach, would bring family and friends to Georgia games Between the Hedges. He would stop by our house afterwards. He would walk in with coolers filled with eggs, vegetables and chicken breasts among other Market staples.
Gene loved Georgia football and extended his hospitality to several members of the Bulldog coaching staff. That entitled Gene Jr. to sideline passes for him and his friends. The father was as proud as he would have been if you had given him a new pickup truck — to see his son with sideline access for Bulldog games Between the Hedges.
The list of charities and organizations Gene supported, especially in Clayton County, would require a typist to engage a keyboard for a half day. He was proud of his community and friends.
When he died recently, I was on an extended trip and could not attend his service, something I deeply regret. I hope somewhere he has met up with those Market buddies and Bulldog aficionados and that they are enjoying a plentiful social hour with an Internet available to let him know that his old friend had to say goodbye belatedly but that my memory banks are overflowing with generous reflections about a selfless and loyal friend. Gene Sutherland was a Damn Good Dog.