It was 1982 and Ronald Reagan was president, with George H.W. Bush, the father of the current president, serving as his vice president. The country's median household income was $20,171 and former President Jimmy Carter had been appointed as a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. Just a short east from Atlanta on Interstate 20, a new organization was getting ready to add its voice to the political scene.
In 1982, the Rockdale-Newton County League of Women Voters sponsored its first forum and, in the years since, it has hosted dozens of forums on topics ranging from state and national politics, to most recently, the drought in Georgia. The league will celebrate its 25th anniversary Dec. 4 with a 6 p.m. dinner at Café Milano in Conyers featuring guest speaker, Dana Greene, dean emeritus of Oxford College at Emory University and the current executive director of the Aquinas Center for Theology at Emory.
"I personally had always been very respectful and admiring of the national league and was certainly proud we were forming one here," said local founding member Jean Hambrick of those early days.
Hambrick, who retired as chief administrative assistant to the chairman of the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners, was among the handful of area women who started the local League 25 years ago.
"It was well embraced from the very beginning. There was a lot of enthusiasm and hard work," said Hambrick. "Initially, there were just seven or eight people, but it quickly grew to 25 or so. We went through a very intense three years per the league rules as a provisional league. We had to attain certain goals within the three years. We worked hard to attain that and have maintained it since."
Patsy Dorsett-Bullington, another charter member, was elected as the first president of the local league and in later years even served on the Georgia League of Women Voters Board of Directors.
"I had studied some information about the league in a women's history class I was taking at Georgia State University," Dorsett-Bullington said of why she got involved in the league years ago. "It very much impressed me that an organization like this could make such an impression upon the people to cast an informed vote and to have a part in their community, as well as in state and national issues. We are non-partisan, but we have an impact on political issues. We have been called the watchdogs of government, as an organization."
Hambrick and Dorsett-Bullington will be among those attending the December anniversary dinner and they encourage the community to join the celebration, as well. Tickets for the Dec. 4 event are $25 and may be purchased by calling 678-615-7598, or by e-mailing email@example.com.
Diane Shockey, another member of the Rockdale-Newton League of Women Voters, is co-chairman of the organization's program committee and praises the work Hambrick, Dorsett-Bullington and others have done through the years to make the local league such a vital part of the community.
"These have been two unassuming women who have worked tirelessly for the last 25 years," Shockey said. "It's a core group of people who work to make sure their local community is educated on not-so-glamorous, but very important issues."
Shockey said the league has hosted forums on issues regarding the hospital, water, judicial ethics, sunshine laws and many other topics.
"We study national issues as every league across the whole country is studying," Hambrick said. "One study we're doing now is on immigration. We will gather all the information from the other leagues and formulate a national policy on that. We do state issues and select any issue our group is particularly interested in... It's the best way I know to be well informed. We always present both sides of a political issue. We have all the candidates. Whether it's to privatize water or on the sales tax, we always have knowledgeable people presenting both sides."
Hambrick said she has been "real close and personal with politics" through the years, but never ran for political office.
"I worked with four different (county) chairmen and knew the one before that and I can always say I've been so proud of our elected officials because they've never embarrassed the county," she said. "You hear so much about other places and illegal activities. I've been so proud we haven't had that... We've been very fortunate in the leadership we've had and I expect no less in the future."
Hambrick and her husband of 50 years, Ray Hambrick, are the parents of two grown children, grandparents of four and great-grandparents of four.
"I've decided I'm not going to get old," Hambrick quipped. "I just get up every morning and am glad I can still be as active and interested in my community."
Dorsett-Bullington, who is married to Ralph Bullington, has lived in Conyers 28 years and retired from the Newton County School System as a 7th grade English teacher.
"I've always been interested in civic activities and this is one I'd have to say I just could never let go," Dorsett-Bullington said of her involvement in the league. "I could never let go of this because to me it was always so important to Rockdale County that it was non-political, but also that it involved local issues of importance and civic issues."
Since serving as the local league's first president, Dorsett-Bullington has held many other offices in the past 25 years, and will now serve as the local league's resource person and chairman of the consensus regarding illegal immigration.
"It's a two-year study that involves all the local, state and national leagues," she said, adding that the national league takes all the information the local and state leagues prepare and forms a platform on the issue."
"I find this to be extremely interesting right now. By the spring we'll have some kind of platform on that. Then, with the election year coming up, we plan to have a major forum in June before the primary and also in October before the election in November... We really encourage the public to come to our forums because we present them in a non-partisan manner to give them an opportunity to decide for themselves what their vote is going to be."
Carrie Chapman Catt founded the League of Women Voters as an outgrowth of the suffragist movement in 1920 during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The convention was held six months before the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote after a 57-year struggle. The league was designed to help women carry out their new responsibilities as voters and, then as now, it is a non-partisan organization that works to educate citizens.
The Rockdale-Newton League of Women Voters meets monthly at different locations in the area and the organization is open for membership to both men and women. Annual dues are $40. For more information about participating, or attending the December dinner, call 678-615-7598, or e-mail a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beth Sexton is a freelance writer based in Snellville, Ga. If you have a story idea, contact Karen Rohr, features editor, at email@example.com.