Bert Lance remembered Herman Talmadge as a visionary.
“It is fair to say that he brought Georgia’s political history into the future,” recalled Lance, director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. “He was tremendously adaptable to change when change was necessary.”
As governor from the late 1940s to 1955, Talmadge was considered one of the state’s most progressive political figures.
“Without question, he was Georgia’s greatest governor of the 20th century, ushering in a new day of state services, especially in education with the passing of the state’s first sales tax,” said U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., Georgia’s governor from 1991 to 1999.
Voters approved the 3-percent tax in 1951. It eventually raised $200 million for new school construction and improvements throughout the state.
Herman Eugene Talmadge, 88, died at 12:03 a.m. Thursday at his Hampton home in Henry County, south of Atlanta. Haisten Funeral Home in McDonough is in charge of arrangements.
Gov. Roy Barnes ordered all state buildings to fly U.S. and state flags at half-staff. Talmadge will lie in state at the Capitol on Monday, with a funeral service following in Hampton that afternoon, said Rogers Wade, a former Talmadge aide.
In 1957, Talmadge left Georgia for Washington when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He chaired the Senate Agricultural Committee from 1971 to 1980 and supported the passing of the Rural Development Act in 1973, legislation for industrial development and water and sewer systems in rural communities.
State Rep. E.M. “Buddy” Childers, D-Floyd County, recalled Talmadge’s legacy to rural Georgia.
“I did not work with him, other than when I visited in Washington or saw him in Georgia when he was visiting,” said Childers, elected to state office in 1975.
“He did all he could in the Senate for Georgians and he took Georgia to heart. He looked after the rural area of the state. He fought for the farmers.”
A lawyer by trade, Talmadge was predestined for a career in politics — his father, Eugene Talmadge, served three terms as governor.
At age 33, he took up his father’s position after the senior Talmadge died Dec. 21, 1946.
Talmadge’s career as governor began with a bang in 1947. He literally seized the office when he won the legislative vote, but was denied entry by outgoing Gov. Ellis Arnall.
Arnall insisted Lt. Gov.-elect M.E. Thompson was his rightful successor. But when Arnall left for the night, Talmadge had his supporters take over the office at the Capitol as well as the governor’s mansion. When Arnall returned the next day, he found his way blocked by state troopers.
The “three governors” dispute ended when the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Thompson. Talmadge was removed from office but beat Thompson in a special election a year later.
“Hummon,” as his accent obliged, supported segregation early in his career. He would later champion both blacks and whites equally.
His political career ended in 1980 when the Senate Ethics Committee found irregularities in Talmadge’s campaign and office expenses.
His ex-wife, Betty Talmadge, told the committee he used to keep large amounts of money in the pocket of an overcoat in the hall closet of their Washington condominium. The senator said the money was small contributions from supporters who knew he would spend it on personal expenses.
The Senate denounced Talmadge for mishandling his financial affairs. He blamed the problems on a former aide, who pleaded guilty to submitting a false expense account but testified that Talmadge knew he had diverted campaign contributions and more than $37,000 in Senate expense funds to the senator’s personal use.
In his memoirs, published in 1987, Talmadge wrote, “In retrospect, I wish that I’d burned that damn overcoat.” In 1992 he added, “Don’t know what ever happened to that coat. I may still have it.”
Talmadge lost re-election in 1980 to Republican Mack Mattingly and retired from public life to his 2,500-acre farm in Henry County.
After the 1977 divorce from his second wife, Betty, in 1984 Talmadge married Lynda Pierce, a home economist about 25 years his junior. He and his first wife, model Kathryn Williams, divorced three years after marrying in 1937.
In addition to his wife, Lynda Pierce Talmadge, survivors include a son, Herman Eugene Talmadge Jr., who is a real estate developer in Lovejoy, and several grandchildren.
The Associated Press contributed to this report