Newton County has seen its share of changes over the past 50 years. Businesses have come and gone and politicians have rotated in and out of public office.
Small towns like Oxford keep it simple. Every year the city shows off its southern roots with a Fourth of July parade. In another example of tradition, the city names one local resident the municipality's citizen of the year.
This year, fittingly, the honor went to a man who has been around long enough to witness the growth and change the community has experienced during the past half of a century.
W.D. "Don" Ballard is this year's Oxford citizen of the year. Ballard, 81, has lived in Oxford all his life. Throughout that time, Ballard has been a state politician, a lawyer, rubbed elbows with dignitaries, witnessed the Civil Rights movement and been a mayor. He can now add parade grand marshal to that list as he rode in Oxford's holiday procession as such on Friday.
Ballard, who is the principal attorney at Ballard, Stephenson & Waters law firm in Covington, has practiced law in Newton County for more than five decades.
As a young attorney roaming the halls of the historic courthouse, he enjoyed the challenge of criminal law and would regularly represent high profile clients who usually faced anything from life in prison to the death penalty. But for the past 20 years, Ballard has left that up to other attorneys.
"I didn't enjoy it anymore," Ballard said, reflecting on his time as a criminal defense attorney. "People you represent, lots of times they are guilty. Most of the time, you end up losing a case and I don't like to walk into a case knowing I might lose. I enjoyed the practice of it, I just didn't like to lose."
Losing aside, Ballard took on tough cases, including a memorable murder case involving a client receiving a reduced life sentence instead of the death penalty. But eventually, he switched to probate court cases and has practiced them ever since.
Ballard graduated from the University of Georgia after a stint in the Navy from 1944 to1946. He had originally attended North Georgia College, but decided he needed a change of scenery before dedicating his time to studying.
"I went in when I was 17," Ballard said. "I was young and wanted to see the world. I was interested in everything I saw. It was something I couldn't do otherwise, so I joined the Navy."
Ballard admits his time in the Navy opened his eyes to the rest of the world, something he said he might not have experienced in Oxford. Upon his return, Ballard went back to school to finish his education.
Ballard started as a political science major, but switched to law during his last year at UGA. Once he graduated, he came back to Newton County and started his own practice in Covington.
Over the years, he's had several partners and changed focuses. For a long period of time, Ballard served in the Georgia legislature. For 26 years he served the state until he decided not to run for re-election in the 1980s.
In 2004, Ballard jumped back into politics, serving as Oxford's mayor for two years. He took on the role as a means to instill some changes he felt the small town needed. Looking back on his time as a local politician, Ballard thinks he served the community well.
"I got everything thing that I needed to do done," he said. "Equipment needed to be fixed, things needed to be cleaned up. I got it all done and said, 'I've done my job, you can have it,' so I turned it back over to Bill Murray, the mayor then."
After spending so much time as a politician on the state level, Ballard said the residents of Oxford couldn't understand why he would run for mayor in the small town. Ballard insists he just wanted to improve the community he has lived in his entire life.
"It was just stuff that needed to be done," he said. "I didn't want to spend a bunch of time like I did in the state legislature - 26 years was too long for that."
Ballard has been a lawyer and a politician his entire adult life. He still goes to his office everyday, but these days Ballard enjoys mentoring more than anything. He doesn't handle the heavy cases anymore. Instead, he advises some of his firm's less experienced lawyers as they handle criminal and civil cases.
The father of six and a grandfather to eight, Ballard is proud to have seen all of his children go to college. While his grandchildren continue to uphold the family's high standards, Ballard wonders when one of them will follow in their grandfather's footsteps.
"I have yet to have any of my kids or grandkids go to the University of Georgia," he said. "I don't know why. They all have gone to different schools. I'm just waiting for one to go to Georgia."
Even though Ballard has dined with senators and golfed with big-time lawyers, the lifelong Oxford resident remains a humble man. Almost embarrassed, Ballard feels there are several people who could have been more deserving.
"I felt it was sort of presumptuous to do it now," Ballard said of the award. "A lot of people could have been honored."
Still, Ballard knows he is among people who have been there for him and his family throughout the years. In an age when people move from community to community and seemingly switch jobs every few years, Ballard is an example of someone with a life-long commitment to small town values.
"The people of this county have been awfully good to me," Ballard said. "They've been good to my law firm and been good to me in politics. They've paid me back ten-fold. Nobody owes me anything, rather I owe it to them."