Remembering Harry Downs

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[Editor’s note: Dr. Harry S. Downs, founding president of Clayton State University in Morrow, died Jan. 3 at age 91.]

There were so many facets to Harry Downs’ altruistic life, with his becoming accomplished at any activity or interest he pursued, it was a challenge to determine what he was best at over his 91 years.

A native of Conyers, he principally was an educator who was familiar with the needs and wants of small town classrooms filled with kids from austere upbringings to dealing with multi-million dollar budgets for the University System of Georgia.

Perhaps, his friend Jim Minter, former editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said it best when he noted that the one negative in Harry’s life was that “he did not become President of the University of Georgia.” Harry never sought such a position, but Minter was saying that Harry running the state university would have moved Georgia faster and further on the road to excellence with his leadership and cogent management style.

Once when the three of us were having lunch, Jim brought up that omission on the Regents’ part, and Harry almost choked on his salad. A modest man, Harry was embarrassed by Minter’s lament, regarding Minter’s alma mater. Minter, however, never retreated from his stance of “what might have been” if such an appointment had come Harry’s way.

Harry did advance the idea that a campus should be created in Morrow which led to what is now Clayton State. It began as a junior college and today has an enrollment of over 7,000. Harry was pleased with the rapid growth of the college which offered convenient educational opportunities for boys and girls in the counties which were figuratively speaking a stone’s throw from metropolitan Atlanta.

Harry reveled in the environment where the institution is located. Clayton State sits peacefully on 192 acres of wooded grounds. There are five lakes which give the campus a refreshing atmosphere any time of the year. What Harry enjoyed most was Spivey Hall which, upon opening, presented a variety of musical options including jazz and classical selections. He was an aficionado of the big band era. He and his wife, Melba, took great delight in bringing friends to concerts on campus.

Harry was button popping proud in 2011 when the Clayton State women’s basketball team won the NCAA Division II National Championship. He always felt athletics on campus were important. When he was a student at the University of Georgia, Harry was a devoted friend of Bulldog athletics. His affection for Georgia football, in particular, was heightened by the close friendship he enjoyed with quarterback John Rauch, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

Even though their career paths brought about separation geographically with John coaching in places like Buffalo, N. Y. and Oakland, Calif., the families kept in touch and frequently visited each other.

It was through John Rauch that I came to know Harry Downs, one of those serendipitous developments, which spawned a pleasant relationship which was enhanced with grateful feelings with the passing of time. If you were a friend Harry Downs, you enjoyed a special relationship with a selfless and accomplished man.

It was my good fortune to work with Harry on producing a book on the Ty Cobb Foundation. He was proud of his affiliation with this particular organization in that he gained a deep and abiding respect for what Cobb had done to provide educational opportunity for needy kids in our state.

Interestingly Cobb had a reputation for being mean spirited, which Harry thought was erroneous and over cooked. He saw Cobb’s good side. He grasped the baseball great’s genuine commitment to helping kids earn college educations. In the last year of Harry ‘s life, a book by a Brooklyn based author, Charles Leershen, “A Terrible Beauty,” refutes all the lies and untruths written about Cobb. Leershen will visit the UGA campus in a few weeks. If only Harry could have lived to participate in this forthcoming seminar.

The Cobb episode speaks poignantly to the life of Harry Downs. He believed that education brought empowerment to people. When it came to education, Harry gave of himself to make the world a better place.

Not sure if there will be a tribute to Harry at Clayton State, but one spring day, I am going to invite Jim Minter to have a Varsity hot dog with me by one of those pretty lakes on the Clayton State campus with Harry’s spirit hovering about. No tribute could be more appropriate for this humble son of Rockdale County.

[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]