Earlier this month, our state lost a distinguished lawyer, athlete, former governor, and true patriot. Carl E. Sanders Sr. died at the age of 89. Sanders was born May 15, 1925, in Augusta, the eldest of two sons. His father, Carl T. Sanders, was a salesman and later a member of the Richmond County Commission. His mother, Roberta Sanders, worked at a retail store.
Sanders was also quite the football player. He used his athletic ability to obtain a scholarship at UGA, where in 1942 he was a left-handed quarterback on the freshman football team. The next year, he surprised coaches and friends when he left Athens to join the U.S. Army. Like many Georgia boys, he was trained to pilot B-17 bombers. He named his airplane “Georgia Peach.” Sanders never flew the “Peach” over Europe; World War II wound to an end by the time the young pilot was ready to deploy. He returned to UGA in 1945, where one night, hanging around outside a sorority, he met a beautiful young lady from Statesboro. He and Betty Foy married in 1947, the same year he finished law school. He was admitted to the state bar in 1948. The young lawyer went to work at an Augusta law firm. He also began gaining interest in a political career.
In 1954, Sanders ran for and won a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. In 1956, he was elected to the first of three terms in the state Senate, representing Richmond, Glascock and Jefferson counties. A lifelong Christian, Sanders said he decided to run for governor after asking for divine guidance. It came in 1962, when the Legislature was in a special session. Sanders easily won the 1962 Democrat primary which was essentially being elected to the governorship during the days of Georgia’s one party system of government. He was 37. As governor, he led Georgia through a population explosion. Schools and airports flourished during his tenure. Professional sports teams like the Atlanta Falcons and Braves came to Atlanta during his service in office.
Said Gov. Nathan Deal: “He wasn’t one of those who just made speeches and had nothing to show for it. He had a lot of accomplishments, and that’s certainly something all of us need to learn.” Zell Miller, a former governor as well as a U.S. senator, praised Sanders in a 2006 interview. “He did more for the state than anybody I know. Athlete, pilot, ‘luckiest fellow’ Gov. Sanders was also known as a man who could get things done. One example is when the chairman of a House committee pocketed a bill that would have allowed mixed drinks in Atlanta, effectively killing the legislation, Sanders acted quickly: He had the State Patrol pick up the lawmaker. Mixed drinks and a booming convention business came to Atlanta. In 1970, Sanders ran for governor again. His opponent: Jimmy Carter of Plains. The Democratic primary was ugly. The Carter camp used racially electrifying tactics to gain support of segregationists.
Unfortunately, those tactics worked. Carter won the primary and general election, which helped spring him to the Oval Office in 1976. Four years of weak leadership and malaise for the United States followed the 1976 presidential election. After his loss in the 1970 election, Sanders became a successful attorney and businessman. He helped start one of the most well-known law firms in history; Troutman Sanders which currently has more than 600 attorneys.
Sanders spent his final working years looking at the Atlanta skyline from his 52nd-floor office. “Georgia is a different place today,” Sanders said in that 2006 interview. “In some ways, it’s better; in some ways, it’s not.”
Carl Sanders’ character is best summed up by his Biblical quote during that 2006 interview: “Unto those to whom much is given, much is required.” “I’ve been given so much.” Rest in peace Governor Carl E. Sanders Sr. You made Georgia a brighter spot in this world.