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Gov. Nathan Deal's Newton ties
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A 16-year-old boy walked to the podium, dressed in a fine suit and tie. His hair was slicked back, accentuating a long face broken up by horn-rimmed glasses and a thin, confident smile. And when he spoke, people listened.

"He was a person that you could say had the ability and the presence of physical feature and mentality to go into government or whatever we wanted to obtain," said Thomas D. Brown, former teacher at the Future Farmers of America camp in Covington. "His speeches were more matured at his age than a lot of the boys."

In 1959, a young Nathan Deal won the first place award for public speaking in his district. Then he earned top honors in the state, tri-state and regional contests. Half a century later, Deal is still speaking and people continue to listen.

The subject matter may have changed, if only slightly. In 1959, he argued that a balanced agricultural economy, where farmers were properly compensated, was necessary for a great nation. In 2011, he had a slightly larger focus for his state of the state address, but economics remained at the forefront of discussion.

Though Gov. Deal was raised in Sandersville, entered politics in Gainesville and now resides in the state capitol of Atlanta, Newton County has always been a part of his life.

Deal often visited the county and its FFA camp as a youth with his father, who was a vocational agricultural teacher. His mother also had ties, because her brother and sister-in-law, Leo and Mary Session Mallard, owned The Covington News and Starrsville Plantation in eastern Newton County.

"They had a farm on the outskirts of town, where they had horses and other kind of livestock. Just visiting there and going out to the farm. (And I) got to ride their horses when I would come. So it was always an enjoyable experience to be able to come and visit there," Deal told The News in a phone conversation Monday.

Though Newton County was still very rural — I-20 was being extended to Covington at the time — it was still larger than his hometown of Sandersville. At the FFA camp in the southern part of the county, Deal learned how to swim and learned agricultural and life skills along with his fellow youth.

"I think it influenced a lot of young people during those years; (it was) their opportunity to get away. Many of them had never been away from home until they came to the camp there in Newton County. They were very rural, young people and their families didn’t travel, and, quite honestly, my family didn’t travel very much either. So going to Newton County was a real experience and something that I always looked forward to."

The county still had its rural moments. Leo and Mary were traveling back from Atlanta one evening and were just preparing to exit I-20, because the highway’s dead end was approaching, when a pair of mules appeared running toward their car.

"One of them wound up jumping into the front of their car. It was blinded apparently by their headlights. They had actually stopped and the mule jumped and landed; his feet came in my aunt’s lap almost. That’s a pretty good indication of how Newton County ahs changed," said Deal, as he laughed.

After high school, Deal didn’t visit as often, returning occasionally to visit his aunt, uncle and other cousins. During the years, his uncle and aunt passed away, and Nathan lost his most direct family connection.

However, after being elected to the state senate in 1980 and beginning a career in politics, Deal would make connections across the state. His passion for agriculture brought him into frequent contact with Mort Ewing, a current county commissioner who previously served as president of the Georgia Farm Bureau and vice president of the American Farm Bureau. They stayed in touch over the years, and Ewing hosted a couple of local fundraisers for the Republican gubernatorial candidate.

"It was an important part of our campaign and being part of that outgrowth of the metro area, Newton County was an important county in the overall election plans," Deal said, noting that one fundraiser was held at the FFA camp. "(It) gave me a chance to see how much the camp had changed over the years, the new buildings that had been added and that sort of thing."

Now that he’s closer to Newton County than ever before, Deal said he hopes to visit more frequently and believes the area is poised for growth.

"I think you’re fortunate to have a very energetic business community here that is trying to do its best to grow job opportunities in the city and county. And that is going to be one of the major focuses of our administration, job creation, and I think you’re one of those important counties where we can see that happen."