By Maria Saporta
With an ample mix of tears and laughter – friends, family and associates said good-bye to Herman J. Russell at a Celebration of Life service at Saint Philip AME Church in DeKalb County for two-and-a-half hours on Saturday.
The church was filled with a Who’s Who of Atlanta and so many people who had felt personally moved or touched by Russell and his family by blood or by business or by human bonds.
Here are several highlights of the remembrances that were shared.
Egbert Perry viewed Russell as his second father. Even though “H.J.” never learned how to pronounce his first name, Russell taught him essential lessons of business and life.
“Herman was not just a great man. He was the real deal,” Perry said recalling when he went to work for the company when he was in his mid 20s. “I was an obnoxious, over-educated, arrogant, illegal immigrant.”
Four months after he joined H.J. Russell & Co. in 1979, Russell asked Perry to do a growth plan for the company, which took him six months to complete. After presenting the plan to his boss, Russell told him that he should run the company as the president and COO. Perry then asked for a job description.
“Go run the company,” Russell told him. “If you lose any money, it’s your ass.” At that time, the construction company had revenues of $12 million a year. When Perry left 12 years after being named president, the company’s revenues totaled $200 million and was the largest black-owned construction company in the country.
One of the funniest stories was about a bet Perry made with Russell’s executive assistant about intentionally dropping a penny in Russell’s toilet at the office. Would he pick it up or let it sit there at the bottom of the bowl? Perry lost the bet believing Russell wouldn’t dig in the commode for simply a penny. He was mistaken. Russell had picked up the penny.
“There was nobody I met in life cheaper than H.J.,” said Perry, who was overcome with emotion throughout and after the service. “I have seen H.J. cry. He has seen me cry. And we have cried together.”
Perry said you judge a generation by the generation that follows it. Russell passed that test. You ask if someone has made a difference. Russell did. Did you find true love? “Herman did twice,” Perry said. Lastly, did one pass on peacefully and with grace. Russell did.
Noel Khalil, who also was a protegé, told the story of how Russell hired him. He was working for a residential developer at the time. Russell asked him how much he was making, and Khalil said $60,000 and up to $75,000 a year with a bonus.
“I’ll offer you $30,000, and if you’re half as good as you think you are, you’ll be making a lot more money,” Russell told Khalil. That’s how Khalil became a developer and entrepreneur.
When Russell told Khalil he had a new love – Sylvia Anderson, he said: “She’s my sugar Momma.”
Builder Robert Holder said he and Herman Russell were born about 30 days of each other and about four miles apart, but it might as well have been two different worlds.
“My world was designed to succeed,” Holder said. “Everything in his world was designed to be an obstacle.”
They met 40 years later on the business field, and they developed one of the most successful joint venture relationships in Atlanta history. But most importantly, they bridged two worlds with a close friendship.
“I want to tell you how lucky I was that Herman was in my life,” Holder said. “He was my friend for the rest of my life.”
Several of his grandchildren participated in the service.
Herman “Russ” Russell III said his grandfather urged them all to “stay focused” and “be upbeat.” Once he asked his elder what made him happy. Russell told him it was getting up in the morning and going to work.
Zane Major Jr., the son of Donata Russell Major – Russell’s oldest child, called his grandfather “the most influential person my life” who kept the family together.
He recalled working for Russell for a couple of years, and at 4:30 p.m. one afternoon, after finishing his work, he packed up and headed to car to go home. But Russell saw him going to his car and asked him where he was going.
Not satisfied with Major’s answer, Russell told him: “Go back inside and find something to do. And don’t leave until 6.”
“He didn’t treat us any different than anybody else,” Major said.
For Michael Russell Jr., he said he would remember the passion of his grandfather and how he “understood a tight-knit family is rare.”
Grand-daughter Sydney Russell recited a poem: “When I am Gone” – overcome with emotion as she read the powerful words.
And then Russell’s three children spoke:
Thinking of her father, Donata Russell abbreviated her comments saying he wouldn’t want people to spend their whole day at the church because they have lots of things to do.
She spoke of how faith was so important to her father. “I remember watching my father on the side of the bed on his knees and pray,” Donata Major said. When she stayed with him about a month ago for a few days, he still made an extra effort to pray by his bedside every night.
Lastly, she thanked Sylvia for being there in his “sunset years” and “providing the rock that he needed.”
One of the most emotional moments of the celebration was when Jerome Russell spoke of how his father taught them about “unconditional love” – whether it was how he felt about his siblings, his late wife – Otelia, his current widow – Sylvia, his children , grandchildren and friends.
“My father taught me how to love,” Jerome said. “He taught us that the greatest love we could show our children was to love our spouses.”
He also said there was no entitlement in the Russell household.
“He gave us just enough to keep us hungry but without starving us,” said Jerome, who said he followed in his father’s footsteps when he donated his kidney to his brother Michael. “I gave a gift of life.”
Jerome said the last time he saw his father at the Rollins Pavilion at Emory Hospital, “he gave me the biggest smile and a hand wave. It melted my heart.”
Michael Russell spoke of how honored he felt to be carrying on the role of running his father’s company. When he saw his father on Tuesday and told him that his youngest child would be turning 50 in a few months, Russell was proud.
And then Michael remembered one his father’s favorite sayings: “Bring something more to the table than your appetite.”
Vernon Jordan, one of Russell’s closest friends who served on his company’s board, remembered when he first met Herman in October of 1948 at Howard High School in Atlanta.
There was a campaign for class president and vice president, and Herman Russell was talking at an outdoor assembly. “What surprised me the most was that Herman was speaking at all,” Jordan said because of Russell’s speech impediment. But that showed his determination for the causes of the day – better cafeteria food, no more hand-me-down books from the white schools and other inequities.
“I learned that Herman was never going to let any obstacle or impediment stop him, and Herman would never let an opportunity pass to make the world a better place,” Jordan said. “There was no stutter in Herman Russell’s soul.”
Jordan, who the sounding board for presidents and power brokers, said Russell had other talents.
“Herman Russell was the only businessman I’ve known who could tell you to go to hell in such a way that you looked forward to the trip,” Jordan said. “He didn’t just build buildings. He built movements.”
When Jordan heard Russell was ill a couple of months ago, he called him when he knew he would be alone.
“How are you feeling?” Jordan asked.
“I feel the mist of the River Jordan, and I’m ready to cross over,” Russell answered. “I am at peace.”
Russell also told him that he wanted Vernon Jordan to speak at his service.
“With this responsibility, Herman gave me two conflicting pieces of advice,” Jordan said. “Do not speak all day. People have other things to do. Second, do not leave anything out.”
Giving the benediction was another longtime friend and associate – Andrew Young – a civil rights leader and former Atlanta mayor.
“I’m always confused on occasions like this,” Young said. “We are saying good-bye to the physical aspect of a person but I know the person is still alive. Martin Luther King is more alive in our lives today than he was 45 years ago.”
Speaking to the children, Young said they will always hear their father speaking to them, sharing advice and demanding excellence.
“You can not bury Herman’s laughter in that casket,” Young said. “You will remember his hugs, his wisdom…. He will be with you always until the end of the ages.”
Young, who began is professional life as preacher, said the Bible tells us that the spirit of God is within us.
“We put your body to rest,” Young said. “But we open up our hearts to your spirit.”
Among the dignitaries who were present Saturday included:
Congressman John Lewis, Congressman Hank Johnson, Congressman David Scott, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Morehouse College President John Wilson, Clark Atlanta President Carlton Brown, public relations/marketing entrepreneur Kent Matlock, retired Citizens Trust director Johnnie Clark, Martin Luther King III, Bernice King, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, Maynard “Buzzy” Jackson III and his wife Wendy, Dr. Louis Sullivan, WXIA’s Brenda Wood, environmentalists Laura Turner Seydel and Rutherford Seydel, fundraiser Ann Curry, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, Coca-Cola’s Lisa Borders, chair of Habitat for Humanity International board Renee Glover, Dr. David Satcher, Atlanta City Council persons Kwanza Hall and Andrew Dickens, Atlanta Business League’s Leona Barr Davenport, 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Summit CEO and COO respectively Mohammad Bhuiyan and Shamima Amin, Atlanta Life’s Bill Taggart, former Clayton Chair Eldrin Bell, contract compliance leader Rodney Strong, behind the scenes power-broker Eugene Duffy, retired Coca-Cola executive Ingrid Saunders Jones, photographer Sue Ross, political observer and businessman Dan Halpern, former Russell general counsel Joia Johnson, Andrea Young Thomas and her husband Jerry Thomas, architects George and Laura Heery as well as countless others.