If called upon to compile a list of the ten most interesting people I have met in my now long political career, I’d certainly have difficulty in limiting the number, but one name that I know would be at or near the top would be Ben Fortson, or as he was known by thousands, “Mr. Ben.”
In New Georgia Encyclopedia this is a small part of what Jean Cleveland of the University of Georgia Libraries wrote: “Ben Fortson served as Georgia’s Secretary of State for thirty-three years, including playing a pivotal role in the 1947 ‘three governors’ controversy.’ An energetic and much-loved public servant, Fortson remained in office until his death in 1979. He was customarily known as “Mr. Ben,” especially to the scores of schoolchildren who visited the Capitol each year.”
Why, 37 years after Mr. Ben’s death in 1979, am I writing about him? Well, first let me say he is an interesting and exciting subject, but that’s not what got me started into this. What made me want to write this article is the discovery by me of the notes I took at the Macon County Chamber of Commerce Thirtieth Annual Meeting on November 20, 1978. The notes were on what Mr. Ben said that night in his talk on life lessons and with his added comment that he liked to give this talk to “young people.”
Here are Mr. Ben’s twelve points, some with direct quotes from him, as indicated, and some with my interpretations:
- Know the Value of Time. “Time is the only thing we cannot get more of. We need to spend more time with our family and those we love. And, we need time to ourselves.”
- The Need for Perseverance. He quoted Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter and talked of great athletic teams.
- Pleasure of Service. “Do something. Those that serve most are the happiest.”
4, Dignity of Simplicity. This speaks for itself.
- The Worth of Character. “Stand for what is right . . .”
- Power of Kindness. Indeed. Tremendous power.
- Influence of Example. “To me, this is the most important. Set a good example for children, family and friends. Do this when driving. Do not smoke. Attend church. How you treat your fellow man.”
- Obligation of Duty. He quoted Winston Churchill. He reminded us that “duty” is the sublimest word in the English language.
- Wisdom of Economy. He said, “America is just 11 days away from bankruptcy,” and this was in 1978! He then said, “Many of our domestic problems are caused by spending more than we are making.”
- The Virtue of Patience. “This is one of my problems with my fellow man. It is important that we show patience in dealing with our children and our fellow man.”
- Nobility of Labor. “Our country was founded on the principle that we must work to eat – we must return to this. Nothing is too menial as long as it is honest. And, some good, manual labor would do us all good.”
- Teachings of Him Who Said Learn Unto Me. “The real key to happiness is in the teachings of the Bible. The value of using time wisely, the pleasure of service to others, the importance of example, the obligation of duty and above all the will to have a fuller, happier and more complete life.”
Remember, Mr. Ben gave this talk on November 20, 1978 at 74 years of age. He would die in the next year. And, then, that night in rural Macon County, my notes indicate that these were his words:
“I have been Secretary of State for 32 years. I have been in a wheelchair since an automobile accident 50 years ago. Eleven doctors said I would not live, and all eleven of them are now dead and I am still alive.”
And, with that, the Macon County Chamber crowd gave Mr. Ben a standing ovation. And, as my notes indicate, I thought and wrote: “He is the only man here tonight who cannot stand, and he is the only man capable of making everyone else in the house stand. We ought to call him ‘Mr. Georgia’ rather than ‘Mr. Ben.’”
Mr. Ben Fortson was a wise and good man. As long as I live and have my mind, I won’t forget him. Thanks, “Mr. Ben” for your friendship and the wonderful example you set for all.