COVINGTON — When former County Commission Chairman Roy Varner died Thursday, he left a legacy of dedicated community service that will benefit citizens of Newton County for generations to come.
Those who knew Varner talk about his work ethic, his ability to bring disputing sides together toward a common goal, and, above all, his love for the county and its people.
"I think the forest has lost a mighty oak," said Brian Allen, who worked closely with Varner during his time as chairman of the Newton County Board of Commissioners.
Allen was the county's first zoning administrator and then served as executive assistant to the board.
"He truly was a man who didn't care who got the credit. There were probably a lot of things he should have gotten credit for, but he didn't. But that was his nature — he was willing to work with people to get things accomplished," Allen said.
Varner was the driving force behind the creation of the county's drinking water reservoir, Lake Varner, a project that was not without criticism when it was proposed.
But friends remember that he went all over the county promoting the benefits, and today, Newton County is in an enviable position when it comes to water supply.
"If we had not had that during the drought, we would have been in trouble," noted Harold Ayers, who served on the Board of Commissioners with Varner.
"He was just a wonderful person to talk to; he had so much knowledge. He was way ahead of his time," Ayers said. "I told him several times, ‘Mr. Roy, I don't know where you get all these ideas, but they're great.' He had a vision for Newton County. He worked hard to make Newton County a better place, always keeping the best interest of the citizens at heart."
Varner's vision for Newton County included more industry to boost the county's tax base. He was instrumental in bringing General Mills to Covington and in the opening of the industrial park on Alcovy Road.
He also oversaw improvements to various local roads, in part through fostering a good relationship with the Georgia Department of Transportation. He helped convince the DOT to put an exit off Interstate 20 at Alcovy Road, and was a master at securing DOT funding, offering county funds and manpower to defray some of the cost to the state.
But more than anything else, it was Varner's ability to sit down with people of all different viewpoints and find common ground that impressed his friends. Without fail, they mention this as his most exceptional talent.
"He wasn't so bound to his way of thinking that it had to be his way or no way. He would find a way to bring people together," said Denny Dobbs, who served in the Georgia House of Representatives while Varner was chairman. "He didn't have a lot of money to give to things. If he had, he would have. He wasn't a big limelight grabber or speech maker. He gave 100 percent of what he had — his time and concern."
Varner had a no-nonsense approach to difficult tasks. Several friends recalled he often encouraged those around him to stop focusing on the problem and find a solution.
"He never could believe if you worked hard enough you couldn't accomplish it — boy how times have changed," said Billy Smith, a county commissioner during Varner's tenure. "If things needed to be done, he would say, ‘Let's figure out a way to make them happen,' instead of hee-hawing around."
Varner's go-get-em attitude was tempered by his compassion and concern for others. The Rev. Harold Cobb said he was a crucial part of the team that put together the Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship program that has awarded 20 full tuition college scholarships to local high school seniors.
"He was a humble person in spirit, but a giant person in vision ... He taught me how to love everybody by the life that he lived, not by what he said, but how he lived.
Everybody was somebody to him," Cobb said.
Smith recalled that Varner would often stop to check in on his constituents while he was out riding county roads.
"He would stop right in the middle of the road and start visiting with whoever would talk to him. If you went out with him, you might think you'd be gone 30 minutes and two and a half hours later, you'd still be riding," Smith said.
Friends have remarked they can't think of a single negative thing to say about Varner; that there isn't a building in the county big enough to hold all those who will want to pay their respects; that he remained, right up until the end, devoted to Newton County and even thinking of ways to solve its current problems.
"We're just going to miss him," Ayers said. "Newton County is going to miss him."