I love Wheeler Davidson. He is one of my heroes. He is larger than life.
What's not to love? He was raised in Lithonia -- in spitting distance of "little" Max Cleland and his family. A dyed-in-the-wool Georgia Bulldog, Wheeler recently told me about watching future Heisman Trophy winner Frank Sinkwich play in the Tech-Georgia Freshman Classic at Grant Field, in 1939. That's going way back.
Wheeler -- or Colonel Davidson -- graduated from North Georgia College in Dahlonega and was a career army officer. He fought communists in two wars. His beautiful bride, Ginny, is from Pennsylvania and he will be the first to tell you that he married up, even while teasing that "never in her wildest dreams" did Ginny imagine that one day she would be married to a wealthy Southern gentleman with season tickets to Georgia football games.
Wheeler's second career was education. He and I taught together at Clarkston High School in the early '80s and hit it off immediately. Wheeler taught history, "not social studies." The discussions we had over lunch with the more liberal members of the Clarkston faculty were legendary as he and I defended the Constitution and core conservative values.
I learned during our Clarkston days that we have a love of Georgia Bulldog football in common. He would approach me every Friday, during the fall, and share his tailgating plans with me. "I've done everything but go by Green's," he would always say. (In case you aren't from around here, Green's is a package store in Decatur, a must-stop for Wheeler in those days on football weekends -- or any weekend containing days that end in "y".
I first realized the extent of Wheeler's devotion to UGA while scouting a football game on a Saturday night at Panthersville Stadium. Wheeler was in attendance because his daughter, Cindy, was performing with the Lithonia band. Georgia was playing LSU in Baton Rouge on this particular night and the Dogs were driving toward a possible score. Wheeler, who was sitting on the top row of the stadium, listening to Larry Munson call the game on the radio, came flying down about 20 rows of bleachers when Georgia got to the 10-yard line, grabbed me around the shoulders and screamed "get that blank-blank ball in the end zone!" and went running back up the stairs to his seat without waiting for a response.
I love Wheeler Davidson.
Once I left Clarkston, for what I thought would be greener coaching pastures, Wheeler and I lost contact. About 10 years ago, however, our friends Bob and Martha Mann invited Lisa and me to visit their tailgate party at a Georgia game. To my delight, Wheeler and Ginny -- the lady he calls his "fox," were members of the group. In fact, Wheeler said to me, with some degree of pride, "I am the self-appointed, non-elected, can't be fired chairman of the Oak Tree Tailgate Gang."
What a gang it is, too -- wonderful people, all -- mostly from the Lithonia area -- who have been tailgating at the same spot for more than a quarter of a century. I don't remember if we were officially invited or not but Lisa and I found ourselves gravitating back to the oak trees week after week and the group eventually adopted us. They have helped us raise our children and have endured us and our kids and our kids' friends throughout the entire Mark Richt era. The experience has been a delight for my family and the most delightful part of the whole deal has been getting to spend time with Wheeler.
Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Not so in this case. The more I have learned about Wheeler the more I admire him. I learned for example, that he loves poetry as much as I do and can recite a lot of the same epic verses I can -- like "Gunga Din" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee." Unlike me, he is honest enough to admit that he just memorized poetry to impress the women, back in college. Wheeler is a great admirer of Winston Churchill, as am I, and understands that Sir Winston saved the world from Nazism and Fascism. For the past 10 years he and Ginny and their running mates, Dan and Gayle Ragsdale, have been at every major event of my children's lives.
I love Wheeler Davidson, which is why I was horrified Tuesday night when Wheeler, while listening to me make a speech on behalf of the Friends of the Newton County Library, had a heart attack.
I ain't making this up y'all. He did. I had just told a couple of jokes at his expense when I noticed that he was very pale. Ever the gentleman, he quietly got up and walked to the back of the room. Eventually Ginny went to check on him and they drove down the street to the local hospital. That's the kind of guy he is. He wouldn't even disrupt my presentation while having a heart attack.
The Chairman, as we call him, was taken immediately, by ambulance, to Emory at Crawford Long and underwent surgery that very night. The story, thankfully, has a happy ending. As this column went to press Wheeler was sitting up and laughing and well on the road to recovery. He'd better be. Georgia plays football in about 110 days.
I love Wheeler Davidson. He is the toughest so-and-so in the valley.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.