February 2014 Archives

Here's to You, (Generally) Beloved Ink-Stained Scribe!

The Ol' Bloviator realizes that there may be a few of you way out there in the truly remote extremities of the cyberkingdom who may not know of his friend Pete, but, if you are lucky, your town has someone like him, someone who cares about it so much it hurts and not only wants but expects you to feel the same.The following is drawn from O.B's introduction of Pete McCommons on the occasion of Pete's stem-winding oratorical contribution to UGA 's Willson Humanities Center's "Global Georgia" lecture series.


I first came to know Pete McCommons through his marriage to the then Ms. Gay Griggs, the lovely and talented flower of a family who could be no dearer to me if they were truly my own. Even before Pete and I met face to face, Gay's brother, Bill, one of my oldest and closest friends, had alerted Pete to a little book on Georgia that I had expanded and readied for publication while spending the summer of 1996 sequestered in a mobile home (A/C redlining day and night, of course!) in the middle of a pasture over in Hart County. Pete was kind enough to say nice things about the book in Flagpole, and even indicated that it had actually been polished off in a doublewide. Stickler for the facts that I am, however, I stared squarely at the tonsils of the proverbial gift horse and sought a correction because, though tastefully appointed, of course, our domicile for that summer had, alas, been but a singlewide. Sure enough, journalistic pro that he is, Pete came through in the next issue by tendering his apology for "exaggerating Professor Cobb's circumstances," thereby immortalizing me on the spot as doubtless the only member of the professoriate for whom residence in a doublewide trailer would qualify as an elevation in circumstances.

Rollin M. "Pete" McCommons is a native of Greene County, Ga., on the northern edge of the old cotton belt.  For all the wealthy planters it boasted in the antebellum era,  a recent essayist gets it right in summing up the county's postbellum fate, when she observes that  "soil exhaustion and the ravages of the Civil War resulted in a shift from agriculture, in which landowners were the power brokers, to a market economy with a large number of small, poor farmers at its bottom and merchants and lawyers at its top."  Indeed Greene's case seemed so emblematic of  a region-wide trend that it became one of the most poked and probed counties in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.  It owed its notoriety in no small part to the investigations of fabled sociologist Arthur M. Raper, who, beginning in the 1930s, transformed it, for a time, at least, into his own little laboratory for dissecting and analyzing the tenancy and sharecropping system. Places where race and poverty are so tightly entwined don't have much of a track record of producing white liberals, but Pete had the benefit of some fine Methodist raising, but like many in his tiny but hardy southern liberal cohort, I suspect, he imbibed much of  his liberalism straight from the New Testament. Fine upstanding boy that he was, Pete doubtless became a living legend at  Greensboro High School, where his exploits in football, basketball, and track led the Augusta Chronicle to dub him "Fleet Pete," without, so he swears, any apparent ironic intent whatsoever. Skeptical as the O.B. might otherwise be, he is willing to grant the fabled Greensboro Streak the benefit of the doubt on this claim simply because it is actually easier for me to envision his capacity for speed than it is to grant the Augusta Chronicle's capacity for irony.

            Dispelling any impression that he was simply another jock with a pretty face, Pete went on to establish a stellar academic record at the University of Georgia, receiving his A.B. in political science in 1962 before pursuing graduate work in political theory at Columbia. Returning to Athens, he served for a time in the early 1970s as head of the State Government Section of the UGA Institute of Government. If there is a single dominant phrase in Pete's employment history, it is surely "worked briefly." This would definitely apply to his stints as an organizer for the Communication Workers of America and an ad salesman for Auto Trader Magazine, where, and I admit I am just guessing here, his leftward lean may have gone against the grain with his superiors who did not particularly care for  his descriptions of a Mercedes or Cadillac as "the ideal vehicle for a bloated capitalist fat cat eager to flaunt the wealth he extracted from the sweat and toil of the oppressed masses."

            All seriousness aside, of course, there is a transcendent thread running through the life and achievements of our most uncommon Mr. McCommons. For example, in January 1961, as vice-president of the UGA Student Council, he took a leading role in drafting  and securing over 2,000 student signatures for a petition to keep the University of Georgia open, despite widespread agitation by Georgia's segregationist claghorns to close it in the face of court-ordered desegregation. In hindsight, it is abundantly clear that Pete put himself on the right side of history at a critical point, but, however intrepid and courageous, his actions were anything but politically expedient and doubtless gained him few friends in high places. Likewise, Pete's faculty position at the Institute of Government was already tenuous rather than tenured in 1972 when his efforts to support a student sit-in at the president's office not only led to his being arrested, cuffed and hauled off to the pokey. It is not certain just how long he was in residence in the slammer, and if he has any prison tats, they are cleverly concealed, but his involvement in this episode definitely helped to assure that his service at the Institute of Government would also qualify for the "worked briefly" section of his resume.

            If anything, Pete's habit of allowing principles to trump material or political consequences became even more pronounced as he plunged full bore into journalism, initially joining forces with socially conscious soul mate, Chuck Searcy, to launch the Athens Observer. The Observer's shaky finances made a "shoestring budget" more of an ambition than a reality, and led him to barter free ad space in the nascent indie paper in exchange for his lunches.  Yet, whatever his or his paper's fiscal status, Pete's energy and daring did not falter then, or later, after he assumed the helm of Flagpole, where, happily for our little town, his tenure has been anything but brief.

Since he introduced his rightly famous "Pub Notes" column, Pete McCommons has taken on an astonishing variety of issues, refusing to let important questions go unanswered or, worse yet, simply unasked. In the latter case, one of his many truly great and shining moments came when he penned a column in 2008 demanding to know if his faithful readers were willing simply to sit silent and disengaged as a proposed national center for research on the potential use of animal-borne diseases as agents of biological warfare or terrorism settled in down on South Milledge. It was for damn sure that he had no such intention himself. Why, railed our editorialist in high dudgeon, such an outcome would transform Athens into nothing but "Pathogen City," awash in deadly germs and overrun with snoopy and intrusive Homeland Security personnel.  Beyond the very real danger posed by the facility, Pete also admitted that it simply irked him to see his beloved Athens marketed as "an ideal center for the study of strange stuff that infects animals."

Although in this case he was articulating--or maybe laying the foundation for--what would soon reveal itself as a community consensus, it has by no means always been thus, as when, on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington,  Pete refused to let tributes to the courage and determination of the Freedom Riders themselves obscure the ugly reality of what the heirs to those who mercilessly bludgeoned them unconscious in 1961 have been up to over the last half-century:

"The bravery of the Freedom Riders defeated the violence, but their antagonists never surrendered.  They fell back and regrouped. They changed political parties. They got control of the state governments. They put on suits and swapped their baseball bats for legislative gavels. They continue today to do violence to the basic human rights of black people and poor people. They opt out of Medicaid at tremendous cost not only to the poor but to the whole state, denying its citizens billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. They make it harder and harder for African Americans and the poor to vote. They deny local governments the right to set minimum wages. They do violence to public educational funding while building in massive tax write offs for private schools.

They moved from the bus station to the capitol without missing a beat, and they're in control throughout the South....Those men in the Birmingham bus station beating those defenseless people got away with it because they were serving the people in power. The Southern legislators and governors who deny their own people education and health care are also serving those in power who want to keep corporate and individual taxes low on massive profits, even if that means--which it does--that the great mass of their citizens will live with financial uncertainty and without the tools to pull themselves up to a better life for their families."

 Such ferocity and unflinching truthiness explain why he is referred to in some quarters as "Pete McCommunist," and the O.B. must confess that, in the local context, at least, there have been times when he actually found himself well to the right of his intrepid buddy. Even on those rare occasions, however, there has never been even a sliver of doubt that ol' Pete was acting and speaking out of deep conviction and equally sincere dedication to what he believed are the best interests of the community. In a time when massive but lightning-quick economic, technological, and demographic shifts across thousands of miles seem to threaten even the identities and autonomous institutions of nations themselves, there can be no more indispensable global citizens than those who care passionately about sustaining their local communities by building on their strengths and confronting and remedying their deficiencies. We are indeed extraordinarily blessed to have in our midst a textbook example of just such a person, tougher than he looks but every bit as sweet as he seems, my occasional editor but constant friend, our very own pugnacious pacifist and fellow citizen of Athens and the world, Mr. Pete McCommons.

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