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Governor Kemp on family, football & Georgia

  • Kemp and Smart outside Smart’s UGA office.

Governor Kemp on family, football & Georgia

By Loran Smith

For aficionados of things Red and Black in Athens and on the University of Georgia campus, the following, abridged musings of the personal latitudes and longitudes of the life and times of Georgia’s latest governor, simply could not feel any better.

Brian Kemp is happily connected to all the traditions of growing up in the Classic City. He learned about sports at the Athens YMCA. He played football at Clarke Central High School, followed the Dawgs (sometimes literally) with a son of the head football coach, and married the prettiest of cheerleaders. How ‘bout this Dawg becoming chief executive of our state!

Interestingly, the Governor grew up in Athens without any ambition of taking up residency at 391 West Paces Ferry Road in Atlanta. Even though his maternal grandfather, Julian Cox, and his father-in-law, Bob Argo, served ably in the House of Representatives for years, and his brother-in-law, Bill Cowsert, is the majority leader in the Georgia senate, the Governor’s involvement with politics had nothing to do with tradition, family ties or an epiphany. It came about when he became a small businessman after graduation from UGA.  

“I got frustrated with government (shortcomings) and decided to try to do something about it,” he says. He ran for the state senate and was elected. His political resume began to gain traction, which led to eight years as Georgia’s Secretary of State followed by being elected to the state’s highest office last November. 

He now lives in the governor’s mansion with his wife, Marty, and their three daughters--Jarrett, a junior at his alma mater, and Lucy, also a freshman at UGA, and Amy Porter, still in high school at Athens Academy. At the mansion, he often lends a hand in the kitchen. He is all about serving guests a home-cooked meal, but the main course in his chef’s life is reserved for family Sunday night dinners and his breakfast pancakes for the girls on the weekend.

Grilling out has long been a function of the governor’s private life.  He specializes in grilling dove wrapped in bacon and his barbecue sauce is regarded highly. Jarrett and Lucy are always welcomed to bring sorority sisters to family night gatherings with Georgia’s first family.

The governor and the first lady have known each other since their grade school years. Before they became an item, Marty once went out with Brian, signing off on the uneventful evening with a casual “see you later” farewell. The sparks didn’t ignite until the second social outing, which came about after a short delay.  This time it led to a serious courtship and marriage. 

The governor is a man who feels blessed to be connected with longtime Athens and UGA traditions. He learned about football at the Athens YMCA under the legendary Cobern Kelly, which meant he spent a good portion of his early years playing between the hedges pregame, a longtime “Y” tradition. With this experience, he learned about applause and approval. The motley crew who gathered on the railroad tracks beyond the East end of the stadium became a vigorous and full-throated cheering section for the “Y” boys.

After those games, he would often join his lifelong friend, Daniel Dooley (you probably can identify with Daniel’s lineage) for the Georgia game, which frequently gained him access into the locker room when those Sanford Stadium encounters concluded.

Ingesting the “Y” traditions led to his segueing into the next level of competition and the tutelage of another local legend—Billy Henderson at Clarke-Central High.   This is where he learned about challenge and opportunity. He played on the line, a power pulling guard at the fearsome weight of 180 pounds. Though the Governor was not a precocious talent, his coach led him to believe he could compete successfully. He has never lost sight of the fact that the first step toward success is believing in yourself.

As it has been with many high school athletes over the years, he appreciates the attitude-shaping benefits which came from his Friday night lights experience.  Whenever he journeys to Jekyll Island on official business, he always harks back to the boot camp-style preseason scrimmages of Billy Henderson.  It was at these learn-to-dish-it-out-and-learn-to-take-it sessions on Jekyll that he was schooled in the art to becoming a survivor. It wasn’t a life or death circumstance, but he often thought it might be. Certainly, most would agree, it was a resonating experience for the vicissitudes of the political world.

His own personal athletic experience and the Bulldog-influenced atmosphere of his college days at Georgia have figured prominently in the foundation of his political career. Team building is as fundamentally important in any profession as brushing your teeth. Simple and easy, but you have to do it every day, thoroughly and enthusiastically. As he matured, he didn’t consciously notice it, but he later looked back and realized he had been influenced by Vince Dooley’s leadership and organizational way. He considers it a telling milestone in his life that he had an up close and personal, first-hand view of the Dooley modus operandi. The osmosis effect has had a persuasive impact on his view of things. 

Georgia’s governor, perhaps, beamed the brightest when the University orchestrated the official dedication for naming its field at Sanford Stadium for the longtime Bulldog coach during pregame ceremonies of the Murray State game.

“I couldn’t be prouder that President Jere Morehead and the Board of Regents got this done,” the Governor said after the announcement. “Nobody is more deserving than Coach Dooley, who was more than a Hall of Fame coach—just think of the things he did when he was athletic director, building the whole sports program, including the additions to the stadium. That has grown the experience; it has grown the economic impact of Athens and our state; and it has given a lot of great Bulldog fans an opportunity to get into that venue and watch a game.

“I don’t think people really are as aware as they should be that Coach Dooley was a very smart businessman. If you take the victories out of it, if you just look at the sports program and what he did on campus with facilities and the stadium, you have to agree he is very deserving to have the field named for him.”

This tribute comes from a man who once sat in the student section for Georgia games and now enjoys the perks and privileges of the President’s Box. While that is nice, he never wants to escape the tailgating and fried chicken part of Georgia football with Marty right beside him, remembering her megaphone days on the Georgia sideline, shouting “Hold that line,” and “Go Dawgs.”

When in Athens, they not only enjoy campus activities highlighted by the best of college football under the direction of their friend, Kirby Smart, they also take time to visit his mother, Ann Cabiness, and Marty’s mother, Jeane Argo. You can be sure that the chief executive of the great state of Georgia on visits home will take respite at his farm on the edge of Clarke County, where he will frequently cast for a bass in his 41-acre pond.

When the autumn leaves turn, he will build a fire in the fireplace and flip on his tape deck for some red and black music: “Glory, Glory to Ol’ Georgia” and “Hail to Georgia.”  While everybody is relaxing, the Governor will be turning steaks on the grill.  

The state troopers in his security detail learned quickly about the farm and the sway it has on the state’s first outdoorsman—with whom they are always within arm’s length. When the election was over and the fatigue from the demands of a hard-fought campaign was subsiding, he retreated to his farm where he grilled steaks for the troopers.

While the job demands are such that down time is at a minimum, he wants to return to field and stream options whenever possible. He knows about, and has taken refuge from, the rigors of past jobs to find a vantage point in a hayfield for the opening of dove season, a quail hunt in Thomasville and to fish the rivers and creeks of the Golden Isles.

When he meets any visitor or company representatives interested in locating in Georgia, he often extols the virtues of the outdoor opportunities of his native state along with narrating his button-popping pride in what the city of Atlanta offers with its classic sports venues.

“We’ve got it all,” he says.

The Kemps are keen on recreational outings at Lake Oconee with their longtime friends, Jamie and Kathy Reynolds and Harold and Lesley Reynolds.  “We just don’t get to do that often enough,” Marty says.

All of the foregoing suggests that Georgia’s sitting governor has a great affinity for college football, tailgating, Atlanta’s sports teams and the outdoors, but don’t let that belie the given that he is a man bent on serving the state with an emphasis on being a working governor who is in touch with the people.  l