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CELEBRATING NEWTON'S BEST: Brown, hospital among leaders who kept us 'looking forward'
Visions 2021 winners
From left are 2021 Visions award winners Ezell Brown, Phil Johnson, Brad Stewart, Meredith McCrorey and Andrea Lane, representing Piedmont Newton Hospital. Not shown is award winner Linda Hays. - photo by Mason Wittner

COVINGTON, Ga. — Sheriff Ezell Brown said he first left his south Georgia hometown for construction work in Atlanta before he stopped in Covington to visit his brother.

That was decades ago and, after a few job changes, Brown is still in Newton County and serving the public in ways above and beyond his role as the county’s top law enforcement officer.

Brown was among the 2021 honorees during a reception hosted by The Covington News for the winners of its annual Visions awards.

Publisher and Editor Taylor Beck of The Covington News led the celebration Thursday, April 29, and presented the awards during a reception at the Reserve at Hendricks in Covington.

The Visions award winners for 2021 included:

• Sheriff Ezell Brown, Community Spirit Award;

• Piedmont Newton Hospital, Employer of the Year;

• Meredith McCrorey, Youth of the Year;

• Clark of Courts Linda Hays, Unsung Hero; 

• Phil Johnson, Unsung Hero;

• Brad Stewart, Unsung Hero.

Beck said the awards and annual Visions publication featuring the winners’ stories are “a chance for us to recognize” top employers, “bright and talent-rich” youth, highlight “unsung heroes,” and honor those “who exemplify the definition of community spirit through charitable works and a lifetime of achievement.”

The 2021 Visions magazine’s theme was “Looking Forward,” Beck said.

“For many of us, this past year has been the most difficult time of our life,” he said. 

He said it was The Covington News’ mission to show its readers the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts and “how they were going to make it through.” 

“And that was by working together, apart; keeping their focus ahead; and making way for a brighter tomorrow,” Beck said.

He said Employer of the Year award winner Piedmont Newton Hospital “did exactly that.” 

“I can’t count how many times I saw CEO David Kent or Chief Medical Officer Dr. Norris Little speaking to a civic club or participating in a virtual event, all to educate people about the ongoing pandemic,” Beck said.

Andrea Lane, director of Community Relations for Piedmont Newton, told the crowd the hospital had “unbelievable support” from the community.

“On behalf of the hospital, we want to thank all of you for your unbelievable support in the past year — plus,” Lane said. 

“I’m proud of Newton County, proud to work at Piedmont Newton, and proud to be here for all of you,” she said.

Beck said one of those who supported medical personnel was Unsung Hero winner Brad Stewart who humbly worked to provide meals from his restaurant, Bradley’s Bar-B-Que.

His restaurant donated “to local doctors, nurses, police and firefighters, among others working the front lines of the pandemic.”

“Of course, he said those were only made possible by financial support of the community and his own employees,” Beck said.

Meanwhile, Brown and his deputies already were conducting or contributing to numerous outreach programs “to keep food on the table and a roof over the head of countless families in need” before the pandemic, Beck said.

“And when the pandemic set in, and we saw many people begin to lose their jobs, Brown and his deputies increased their efforts tenfold,” Beck said.

He said Brown “often finds himself serving in a variety of roles, including minister or counselor, to help meet the needs of others. Other times, Brown and his deputies might be asked to cover a month’s rent or fill up a gas tank.”

“While many may voice their opinion and say his acts of kindness are politically motivated, I’ve discovered the opposite,” Beck said. 

“Giving is simply a part of who Brown is, which we can thank his mother and father for, who taught him at an early age the importance of helping others.”

Brown said he originally came to Covington because his brother lived in the city and was among the first Black teachers to integrate the school system.

“This community embraced me as a hometown person,” he said.

After that, he joined the Covington Police Department in 1973 and the sheriff’s office in 1977. Brown worked his way up the ranks, lost a race for sheriff in 1996 but won an open seat for the office in 2008.

He said he began volunteering to help special needs residents in the community in the 1970s.

Brown’s sheriff’s office staff and fellow church members have supported his efforts, he said. 

In addition, his wife Janice and his family “have always been there to support me” and was always “pushing me, making me go further.”

“I always say Newton County’s been good to me, but I think I know that I have been good to Newton County,” he said.

Beck said other award winners’ work during the past year prompted the newspaper to honor them.

He said the leadership of Unsung Hero award winner Phil Johnson led to the county having a mostly error-free 2020 election despite COVID-19, an unexpected onslaught of absentee ballots, four elections and two recounts and “the scrutiny that has come with the results.”

Johnson has served as Newton County Board of Elections chairman since 2019.

Youth of the Year award winner Meredith McCrorey, an Eastside High School senior, founded Unique Kids Showing Pigs as a way to give special needs students the experience of showing livestock at shows. 

“Everyone is different — there’s no denying that fact — but that doesn’t mean certain people should left out of certain places or events,” Beck said.

Clerk of Courts Linda Hays, who received an Unsung Hero award, has served in her elected position for more than 37 years.

Her office maintains everything from jury selection to protection of court documents; preservation of deeds, liens, plats, charters, military discharge and notary public records, and more.

“When I asked why she’s stayed with it for so long, she had this to say: ‘I love this county. I love the people. And if this is how I can make a difference, I really want to,’” Beck said.