Honoring two great Atlanta leaders — Charles West and Cecil Alexander

By Maria Saporta

Two Atlanta legends passed away in the last 10 days — architect Cecil Alexander and business leader and philanthropist Charles West.

Much has been written about Alexander’s contributions to Atlanta and its skyline. And a heartfelt memorial service was held for Alexander at the Temple this past Friday (more on that later).

But little has been written about Charles B. West, who also had a profound impact on the building of Atlanta as well as the nurturing of its heart and mind.

West was 92 when he passed away on July 26. One of the West’s greatest contributions was being the founding force behind Skyland Trail in Atlanta, today one of the nation’s leading institutions providing treatment, hope and rehabilitation for the mentally ill.

According to a family-written obituary, West was a native Atlantan who grew up on Ponce de Leon Avenue as the son of George and Elma Berry West. He attended Emory University, but his education was cut short by the Great Depression. He went to work as a salesman for West Lumber Co., the family business, selling lumber and coal.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, West enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to protect the country from the advance of the Japanese. While on leave, he married Marjorie Eichenlaub, and when he tour of duty was over, they started their family — four boys and a girl. He focused his energies on the family business — growing West Building Materials into a major chain of 68 stores throughout the Southeast.

West was a strong believer in the protection of individual freedoms and the free enterprise system,. To this end, he became a founder of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, whose mission was to act through the court system to stand up against unconstitutional interference in individual freedoms and the free enterprise system.

He also helped establish the “Loose Group,” a coalition of business leaders (primarily from Buckhead) who took an active role in support political candidates who believed in less government intervention.

West also supported the vision of the Shepherd family, becoming one of the early supporters of what was later to become the Shepherd Spinal Center and now the Shepherd Center, a world-class facility for the treatment of spinal injuries.

A close friend of West had a daughter who suffered with a mental disorder, but there was no place for her to seek treatment or to find hope. That is what led him to establish Skyland Trail 30 years ago.

What started out as a fledgling facility to provide housing and support for those who suffered with mental disorders has now become a model for other like institutions in the country.

West and his wife, Marjorie, also spent a lifetime collecting art — painting and sculpture — that are major components of the Atlanta High Museum of Art’s collection.

West is survived by his wife, his five children, 13 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. A private service was held to celebrate his life. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, gifts can be made in his honor to Skyland Trail or to the High Museum of Art.

Meanwhile, Cecil Alexander final good-bye at the Temple was filled with family and friends — including former governors and former mayors.

His three children as well as other family members shared their fondest memories of Alexander, who was just as creative at home as he was in business and the community.

Art Harris, a journalist and Alexander’s stepson, talked about the unique love that existed between his mother and his stepfather.

“One reason he held on to life so long was his love for Helen,” Harris said. And he then he talked about the most unusual relationship between Alexander and his first wife, Hermes, and Helen, her best friend.

“Hermes instructed him that if anything should ever happen to her, to marry Helen,” Harris said. Hermes was tragically killed in an automobile accident. And as instructed, Alexander married Helen.

“He died on Hermes’ birthday,” Harris said, imagining a conversation between Hermes and Cecil. “It’s time. Helen will understand.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young spoke of spending an hour with Alexander a couple of weeks ago for a project on the Making of Modern Atlanta.

He said Alexander was a member of Atlanta’s greatest generation. Then he recalled how Alexander mentioned that he was sorry he had never met Nelson Mandela, the ailing legendary leader of South Africa.

“You probably will meet him before too long,” Young told him.

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.

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