Georgia loses one of its great unsung heroes – George Berry

By Maria Saporta

George Berry, one of the Georgia’s greatest public servants, passed away Saturday night.

Whether working for the city of Atlanta, the state of Georgia or Cousins Properties, Berry was one of the most influential leaders in the state for several decades beginning in the 1960s through the 2000s.

Berry served as Atlanta’s airport commissioner from 1978 to 1983 during the building of what was then the new Hartsfield International Airport during the administration of Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. The airport was later renamed the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in honor of the late mayor.

George and Jeannine Berry

Jeannine and George Berry at evening reception at Natalia’s in Macon (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Berry then was tapped by Gov. Joe Frank Harris to become commissioner of the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism in the 1980s at a time when the state was experiencing great economic growth fueled by the expansion of non-stop international flights from Atlanta to key parts of the world.

When asked about his goal as the state’s commissioner of economic development, Berry said it was to raise the state’s per-capita income to the national average –  a feat we have yet to achieve.

Berry served for four different mayors – working in the 1960s for Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. in the finance department. He then became the city’s chief administrative officer for Mayor Sam Massell.

At the time, Atlanta’s power structure was in transition  – from having a City Hall run by the white business community to the 1973 election of Mayor Jackson, Atlanta’s first African-American mayor.

When Jackson became mayor, he told Berry privately that he should find another job because he wanted to hire his own team. That’s when Berry joined Cousins for the first time.

Because Jackson had treated him so respectfully during his departure from City Hall, Berry later agreed to become Jackson’s aviation commissioner.

Together they made history launching a ground-breaking concept – minority-majority joint ventures – helping integrate Atlanta’s business community. Atlanta’s affirmative action program gained national prominence and was replicated in many other cities.

Ivan Allen documentary

Jacqueline Royster, John and David Duke, George Berry and Joe Bankoff at the Atlanta History following screening of Ivan Allen Jr. documentary (Photo: Maria Saporta)

It was in that role where Berry showed his skill as a public servant. He asked both the U.S. District Attorney and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to keep a close eye on the development of the new airport as a way of making sure there would be no corruption while he was commissioner.

He stayed on as airport commissioner during part of Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young’s administration before going to work as the state’s top economic developer.

After a brief entry in politics (an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor), Berry rejoined Cousins Properties serving as senior vice president during the time when its founder Tom Cousins decided to invest his philanthropic dollars and time to revitalize the East Lake community.

When Atlanta was selected as the host of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Gov. Zell Miller named Berry as chair of the Metropolitan Atlanta Olympic Games Authority,  which provided public oversight of the Games.

Throughout his life, Berry had close friendships with leading Atlanta journalists and Georgia’s political players. Among his best friends were Bill Shipp, a political editor of the Atlanta papers, and the late Hal Gulliver, editorial page editor for the Atlanta Constitution.

A group of journalists, politicians and civic players would get together after work several nights a week to talk about the news of the day while enjoying an adult beverage or two.

Berry, however, never forgot his humble beginnings.

George Berry Elaine Alexander

George Berry greets civic leader Elaine Alexander at a 2014 alumni reunion and celebration of Mayor Maynard Jackson’s 40th anniversary of taking office

A native of Union County, Berry was born on July 5, 1937 to William Cautus Berry and Lorena Crawford Berry of Blairsville Georgia. His father died when he was only six years old. His mother was overwhelmed trying to raise him and his younger sister, so he went to live with his grandparents for a period of time.

He graduated from Young Harris College and Georgia State University, finding an entry-level job at Atlanta’s City Hall. He provided an oral history for Young Harris, University of Georgia and the Richard B. Russell Library.

After he retired from Cousins in 2004, Berry moved to his wife’s hometown for Forsyth-Monroe County community when he became a member of the local chamber, a board member of the Farmers Bank, a member of the Friends of the Library and a former member of the Monroe County Development Authority.

Berry is survived by his wife of 56 years – Jeannine Barrett Berry – as well as his son, Mark Jefferson Berry (Liz) of Alpharetta and a daughter, Jennifer Berry Hudgins (Scott) of Forsyth. He also had five grandchildren – Oliver, Harry and Virginia (Hudgins) and Crawford and Jackson (Berry).

The graveside interment services at Union Memory Gardens in Blairsville, GA will be private.  In lieu of flowers the family suggests memorial gifts to the Young Harris College Local Scholarship Campaign.

Note to readers:

I was fortunate enough to be one of the many people whom George Berry mentored during his tenure as a public servant. He was insightful, thoughtful, warm, inquisitive and passionate about Atlanta and Georgia with a great knowledge of history and a deep love of literature.

In 2003, he was awarded the chairman’s award by the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2003 for his role in managing and overseeing the construction of the new Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

When Atlanta’s current airport commissioner – John Selden – came to Atlanta, he talked about the magnificent, yet simple, design of the airport. George Berry gave credit to one of his team members – Max Walker – who compared it to a horizontal multilevel building. Each concourse was like a floor, and the people mover served as the elevator connecting the floors to the terminal.

I tried to arrange a lunch between Selden, Walker and Berry. But Walker died right after I had reached out to Berry to help me set up that lunch.

The last time I saw George was last November when we had a special lunch visit at Bill Shipp’s home with former U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler.

We spoke several times after that – mainly about the possible state takeover of the Atlanta airport and other stories in the news. He was one of those people I would turn to repeatedly to help me put the news of the day in perspective.

I will forever miss his wisdom, his humor and his insights on our city, our region, our state and our country. We have lost a most special person.

Left to right: Wyche Fowler, Maria Saporta, George Berry with Bill Shipp seated during a lunch in November 2018 (Photo by Lynn Emory)

Hal Gulliver

Left to right: Byron Attridge of King and Spalding; Bill Shipp; Tom Watson Brown; George Berry; Hal Gulliver and Ruth West Brown of King & Spalding. Photo was at some occasion, maybe a birthday party (Photo provided by George Berry)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

12 replies
  1. Avatar
    Nancy Nolan says:

    Wonderful story about an incredible man. He touched so many people professionally and personally. I am humbled to be one of those lucky people. The city and state have lost a giant of a public servant.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Martha Schoonmaker says:

    I echo Nancy Nolan's comments. Though I did not work directly for him, I felt his impact in the entire economic development community in which we all worked and lived. A wonderful public servant – Georgia was fortunate to have.Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Gordon Kenna says:

    I am one of many fortunate enough to have worked for George during construction of the Mid-field terminal. The first minority participation construction program ever – We all learned a lot from the men who believed it could be done in spite of the naysayers and lawsuits- Maynard Jackson's vision and George Berry's commitment to make it work.Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    A.B. Cooper says:

    George was my boss in the 1990's when I worked for the Georgia Film Office which is within the Georgia Industry, Trade & Tourism department.
    He was a trail blazer and set the tone for a wonderfully encouraging, hard working, forward thinking, and growth oriented I.T.T. division. Otherwise I never would have been hired, and learned how economic development for film really works.
    We desperately need more like him to step forward.Report

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Frank Barron says:

    I was on Dept of Industry Trade and Tourism (noe Economic Development) when George was Comissioner. What a gentle but sound leader he was. Integrity was his middle name. He was a true giant of his time.Report

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Stell Huie says:

    George was talented, intelligent and hardworking. A great friend to have. Not sure just where we met along the way, but the main thing we did together was to get MARTA to the airport. It had to be done. BUT the new terminal was being built in Clayton County which was not a part of the MARTA system at that time. While we got the trains there, we could not collect the MARTA tax until Clayton cane into the system.Report

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Edward Milton says:

    Maria, thank you for this Tribute. George was always a steady, balanced voice of wisdom. I had the pleasure of being on a tour of the new Airport while it was under construction, as guided by George, and will always remember his keen insights as his team addressed the many issues faced during that periodReport

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    Steve Rieck says:

    George Berry was my boss during his entire time at the (then) Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism. He was a great mentor and friend. He had a special way of putting current events into perspective that was easy to understand. His ability to deliver a spell-binding speech without notes was remarkable. We have lost a valuable leader. RIP George Berry.Report

    Reply

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