Flowers on his birthday
Wyche Fowler and I celebrated Bill Shipp's 89th birthday on Aug. 16, 2022. (Photo by Sara Fountain.)

Updated: The service for Bill Shipp will be at Mayes Ward Funeral Home on the Square in Marietta at 180 Church Street, N.E. on Friday, July 14. Visitation will begin at 1 p.m., and the service will begin at 2 p.m.

To me, he will always be “Big Bad Billy Boy Shipp.”

Bill Shipp, a veteran Georgia journalist and political commentator, passed away Saturday evening.

Shipp, who was born Aug. 16, 1933, was just one month shy of his 90th birthday.

Few people could spin a tale like Shipp. I first got to know Shipp when I joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the early 1980s. He quickly became a mentor and a friend – someone who knew so much about Georgia history that he literally was a walking encyclopedia.

My favorite memories of Shipp were when he and his buddies would get together for drinks and conversation after work. The more drinks we had, the better the stories became. 

Wyche Fowler, Maria Saporta and George Berry visit Bill Shipp at his home in November 2018. (Special.)

Among the people who were regulars included Hal Gulliver, Tom Watson Brown, George Berry, Wyche Fowler, Sharon Adams, Tom Downs and an amazing assortment of civic and political leaders.

When I first joined them, they were meeting at Guido’s downtown, a couple of blocks from the AJC. After that closed, the group moved to a bar and restaurant on 11th Street. That place closed down. And then the group moved to “Mr. C’s” on Howell Mill. That was a pretty steady watering hole until the group gravitated to Marietta — finding a home at Rocko’s. 

But when Rocko’s raised drink prices by 50 cents, Tom Watson Brown (a multi-millionaire) took offense and convinced folks to set up shop at the American Legion in Marietta — an unlikely place for the motley crew of journalists and political types. I remember Shipp threatening to invite Jane Fonda to join us.

Hal Gulliver Bill Shipp
A group of journalists from the Atlanta Constitution gathers around Celestine Sibley. Hal Gulliver is on the far left and Bill Shipp (with glasses) is standing up behind Sibley. (Special from Bill Shipp.)

Another favorite memory was when Shipp, Berry and I (among others) would get together on election nights and jump from one party to another to take the political temperature of the night. During those years, Democrats in Georgia were still winning state elections, and Shipp was a respected insider who often ticked off those he was closest to.

One of those was Gov. Zell Miller, who videotaped a spot on Shipp for the Atlanta Press Club. “I hate Bill Shipp,” Miller said in a loud voice. And then, under his breath, he whispered: “I love Bill Shipp.”

Perhaps my all-time favorite memory of Bill and the gang was at his 80th birthday party – a shindig that was put on by Vinings Bank in 2013.

Four former governors showed up – Carl Sanders, Miller, Joe Frank Harris and Roy Barnes. Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland came, as well as then Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens. Many of Shipp’s contemporaries came — journalists, academic, business and political leaders.

Bill Shipp enjoys the company of his friends Maria Saporta, Sara Fountain and Wyche Fowler in December 2021. (Special.)

As he looked around the room, Shipp whispered in my ear: “Do you think all these people would have shown up if I were still writing my column?”

One of the funniest stories told that day was when Berry remembered a column Shipp had written saying he had it on good authority that “Zell Miller was in the Caribbean in the company of a drug dealer.” In reality, Miller – then Lt. Governor – had been invited to speak at a pharmaceutical industry conference.

When Miller called to complain, Shipp said he was glad Miller was still reading his column.

Also in 2013, Shipp was inducted into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame. I remember former Gov. Roy Barnes pushing his wheelchair to the stage before introducing Shipp to dinner attendees.

YouTube video

So many stories. Shipp and I co-founded and co-chaired the Atlanta Press Club’s debates in 1992. Through his unusual friendship with Tom Watson Brown, a super conservative, Shipp was able for us to get annual grants from Brown to help put on the debates.

When Brown passed away, Shipp said he would miss the “mental gymnastics” of arguing with his ultra-conservative friend.

As Shipp grew older, many of his closest friends passed away one by one – Brown, Gulliver and Berry – to name a few. Often we would see Shipp with his two daughters – Michelle and Edie.

I made it a point to regularly visit Shipp — usually accompanied by our mutual friends — Sara Fountain and Wyche Fowler. Shipp and Fowler did a program at the Sterling Estates of West Cobb (the senior citizens’ community where he lived in recent years), and they realized they were probably the only two Democrats in the room.

Sadly, I was unable to arrange a visit last year for longtime Atlanta news anchor John Pruitt, who had just written a semi-autobiographical novel called “Tell it True.” Pruitt wanted to present Shipp with a signed copy of his book. Pruitt said Shipp’s 1981 book: “Murder at Broad River Bridge: A True Story of Murder and the Ku Klux Klan” had been the factual basis of his novel.

The last time we went to see Bill was in April of this year when he was still able to laugh when Wyche Fowler shared stories on their past. (Special.)

During his era — which lasted decades — Shipp was one of the most influential journalists in Georgia. When he left the AJC in the late 1980s to start “Shipp’s Georgia,” I remember feeling a tremendous sense of loss that we were losing all his institutional knowledge.

When I was an AJC business columnist, I used to say I wanted to be to business what Shipp was to politics. Given the changing nature of our industry, we will never see the likes of Bill Shipp again. He truly was a man of his time in Georgia history.

Goodbye, Big Bad Billy Boy Shipp…

To learn more about Bill Shipp, please read the New Georgia’s Encyclopedia post about him. Also, Wikipedia has a page on Bill Shipp that chronicles his amazing life and career.

Bill Shipp and flash peace signs two days after his birthday in 2020. (Photo by Sara Fountain.)

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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  1. Bill Shipp wrote for the AJC in an era where the AJC was what newspapers aspire to be – enjoyed reading and listening to him very much in those days.

  2. Bill Shipp was my guiding light from the moment I walked into the Constitution newsroom at 18 (1964) until I left 10 years later. Tagged along to the legislature, other stories he was working on. I owe my career to reporters and editors like Bill Shipp. My condolences to this family, friends, journalists everywhere who benefited from his skill and commitment to journalism.

  3. Bill Shipp was also my mentor and boss in 1970 when I was the junior guy on the political desk fo the 1970 gubernatorial election. He made me more successful as a political reporter than age, ability, and experience warranted, and also deepened what became a lasting friendship with candidate Jimmy Carter. Carter’s schedule was a lot less exciting than the high flying perceived leader Carl Sanders, which meant I was frequently going from town to town, shopping center to shopping center, civic club to civic club, football games to football games with Carter and his driver, aide de camp Jody Powell. That friendship and respect with Bill Shipp endured during my next stages of life, and will be forever remembered.

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