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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…