It is not always cool being Southern these days. We are being assailed for the sins of our ancestors. Some of it understandable, some of it out of ignorance.
While there are regrettable periods in our past for which there are no excuses, there are also many things about the South in which to take pride and I’m not talking just about Vidalia onions and sweet tea. It is only in the South that you will find the Southern gentleman. A unique species. There is nothing equivalent in any other part of the country.
You cannot define in words what constitutes a Southern gentleman but you will know one when you see one. There is a certain aura about them. They carry themselves with a certain aristocratic dignity, their very presence demanding respect. Southern gentlemen are well-mannered and courteous. They speak softly but when they do you listen carefully because they have something to say that is worth hearing.
I have been fortunate to have been around some Southern gentlemen of the first rank in my time: My boss and mentor at Southern Bell, Jasper Dorsey, who taught me as much about life as he did the telecommunications business; Charles Gowen, a former state legislator from Brunswick who was instrumental in the state purchasing Jekyll Island (and for whom I cast my first vote for governor); State Court Judge Charles Carnes, one of the state’s most respected jurists who graced me with his friendship and Gov. Carl Sanders, my all-time political hero who kept Georgia from becoming an Alabama or Mississippi during the civil rights struggles of the ‘60’s only to be rewarded with a shameful smear campaign by Jimmy Carter in the 1970 governor’s race.
To that august group I now add the name of Emory Ashford Schwall, Sr., the epitome of a Southern gentleman who passed away on Father’s Day at the age of 93. Emory Schwall was an Atlanta attorney. To say he practiced law is akin to saying Hank Aaron played some baseball. They were both at the top of their profession.
Although I had known of Emory Schwall by his stellar reputation, I had only become acquainted with him personally in recent years thanks to his son, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall. I will admit that it was a bit intimidating being in his presence. In that time, we had had only one mild disagreement. He asked that I call him Emory. No way. He was Mr. Schwall. He earned that right.
What I did not know until recently is that this man who was a giant in the legal profession never graduated from law school. He came to Atlanta from his hometown of Moultrie to study architecture at Georgia Tech only to discover that this was not for him.
He ended up working at a downtown department store in Atlanta until he was befriended by a well-known local attorney by the name of Houston White who took the young man under his wing. Under his mentor’s tutelage, Emory Schwall “read the law,” much as must have been done in colonial times whereupon White prevailed on the Woodrow Wilson Law School to allow his pupil to take their exams. He did so successfully and is listed as a graduate of Woodrow Wilson despite not having graduated from there.
Emory Schwall passed the State Bar and went on to become one of Georgia’s preeminent attorneys, practicing law for some 70 years and developing a well-deserved reputation as a crackerjack trial attorney. Out of the courtroom, he was equally well-known for his generosity and kindness, his mentoring of young attorneys and his philanthropic works. I suspect he would tell you that his greatest accomplishment was as a husband, father and grandfather.
As more and more people migrate to the region, we are in danger of losing what has differentiated us from the rest of the country. Too often, we let ourselves be defined by others as a bunch of flag-waving Yahoos still fighting a war that was lost a long time ago. We are more than that. We are better than that.
My South is made up of people like Emory Ashford Schwall, Sr. and what he represents about us. I am honored to have known him, even for a brief time. He was and is the quintessential Southern gentleman. I can think of no greater tribute to pay anyone. May he and his kind never be gone with the wind.
Dick Yarbrough is an award-winning columnist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139.