Former Gov. Joe Frank Harris, who rose to toast and roast Shipp, sent best wishes from his wife, Elizabeth Harris, who could not attend the celebration.
“I know you remember traveling with her to the 38th parallel on one of our ‘junkets’ as you called it,” Harris said. “It was really an economic development mission. I was busy selling the state, and of course you went with her up the 38th parallel, and we all thought that she was going to leave you there. Somehow you got back on the helicopter and made it back.”
Harris said he and his wife believe in the power of prayer, so while he was governor, he asked her to pray for various people. She would write their names on notes and stick them to her dressing room mirror.
“Bill Shipp was at the top of that mirror,” Harris said. “He remained there for eight years. And she has kept him on the top of her mirror since then.”
Harris said his wife agreed with him that Shipp, a Marietta native, has a unique gift.
“He is able to distort accurate information,” Harris said, as the audience roared with laughter. “He would attend the press conferences in the governor’s office, and we would always pass out the numbers, particularly on the budget, and you would read his editorial when he would go back to the AJC, and you wonder was he even there.”
George Berry, former state Commissioner of Industry, Trade, and Tourism, emceed the birthday program.
Berry said former Gov. Zell Miller had opted in advance not to make any remarks, a decision Berry said he understood given an incident that occurred when Miller was lieutenant governor. The incident involved Bob Short, a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical company, who had asked Miller to fly to the Caribbean to make a speech one day.
“Shipp in his column the next day said he had it on good authority that the Lt. Governor was in the Caribbean in the company of a known drug dealer,” Berry said. “I called him, and Bob Short called him, and others called him, and (Shipp) said, ‘I just wanted to see if you were still reading my column.’”
Zell Miller gives a toast As the audience laughed, Miller rose to speak after all.
“I had one of these young ladies sitting by me ask me early on in this program, ‘Was Mr. Shipp for you or against you,’” Miller said. “And I said, ‘That’s a very good question. I’ve had him both ways.’ But I love him. I love him very much. There never will be another one like him. I love you, Bill.”
Former Gov. Carl Sanders spoke of how supportive Shipp was while he was in office, while Betty Russell Vandiver, widow of the late Gov. Vandiver, said, “I tell you, any politician that ran after Bill got going, they wanted Bill on their side. And thank heaven, he and Ernie got along beautifully, so that was great.”
Former Gov. Roy Barnes spoke of Shipp’s sharp pen.
“One of the things that was often said around the Legislature is that if Bill Shipp needed 1,000 words, his momma ain’t safe, and there is much truth to that,” Barnes said. “And Bill, I will tell you this. All of us that have served in public life were kind of glad when the ink went out of your pencil.”
Barnes compared Shipp to one of the old hound dogs his father used to keep in Mableton.
“He likes it when you pet him, but he’s going to bite you if you don’t watch out,” Barnes said. “And so I have been petted and bit by Bill Shipp over the years, I want you to know. But Bill, they don’t make them like you anymore. …we’ve got a great state. And it’s because of people like you.”
The Thomas Watson Brown Adult Beverage Sipping Academy
Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin read a statement proclaiming Aug. 16 as “Bill Shipp Day.” Tumlin said in his proclamation “whereas despite having a face made for radio” Shipp was a regular on the Georgia Gang, and “whereas being a protégé of Bill Kinney and schooled in the art of communications at the Thomas Watson Brown Adult Beverage Sipping Academy, Shipp was feared by many, liked by a few, and loved by even fewer.”
Berry said it was his job to protect the various mayors he worked for over the years, along with Gov. Harris, from Shipp, a task he failed to do except for one victory.
“I was out at the airport struggling, spending $500 million trying to get that big terminal done, and here comes Shipp nosing around,” Berry recalled. “And I knew that I was in trouble.”
Berry said he told Shipp that he would get him whatever he needed as long as Shipp didn’t write about the airport’s new artwork.
“We were spending a half-million dollars on these art works that didn’t look like art work to most people,” Berry said.
The day after that conversation, Shipp came out with a blistering column on the subject.
“He compared the paintings to the drop cloths that were left by the painting crew,” Berry said. “But it diverted him from the millions upon millions of mistakes that I had made and all of the dumb mistakes that resulted in big problems, and I’ve never admitted that to you until this moment now that you’re retired.”
Shipp warned Berry that he may just have to come out of retirement.
Graduate of Marietta High, ousted from UGA
Born on Aug. 16, 1933, in Marietta, Shipp graduated from Marietta High School and went on to serve as managing editor of the University of Georgia’s student newspaper, the Red and Black. He was kicked out of school for penning a column denouncing the decision to bar Horace T. Ward, an African-American, from enrolling in the university’s law school. Ward was in attendance on Tuesday.
“He backed my effort to get into the University of Georgia,” said Ward, who retired last year from serving as a federal judge. “So far as Bill was concerned, it caused him to have to leave the University of Georgia and go into the Army. I really appreciated it.”
Shipp, who lives in unincorporated Cobb just outside of Acworth, went on to have a career with the AJC and later as a syndicated columnist.
Another syndicated columnist, Dick Yarbrough, shared how he interacted with Shipp over his 35 years at Southern Bell.
“My job was to lie to Bill Shipp every time he called because Bill was not going to be fair to the company and had already made up his mind about what he was going to say about, and so why not lie, and so for 35 years, he attacked me and I lied to him,” Yarbrough said with a grin.
The six scariest words in the English language
Yarbrough said Shipp’s nickname was “The Cobra” while Yarbrough’s was “The Mongoose.”
“The six scariest words in the English language: ‘Bill Shipp is on the phone,’” Yarbrough said, going on to call Shipp, “A man of honesty, and you never played games with Bill. You told the truth. And if you told the truth Bill would give you a break — not much of one.”
Bob Shaw, former chairman of the Republican Party of Georgia, accompanied by Miller and Barnes, led the room in singing “Happy Birthday” to Shipp.
Senior Cobb Superior Court Judge Conley Ingram encouraged the room to take up a collection to send Shipp on a visit to Perry to visit former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s infamous “Go Fish” program.
And Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harris Hines delivered the opening prayer at the program, asking for a moment of silence, “to remember our friend and one of the First Amendment’s most fierce defenders, and that is Otis Brumby, who was the longtime publisher of the Marietta Daily Journal, who died close to a year ago.”
Rising to speak, Shipp said, “You have no idea how much I appreciate all of you turning out. I couldn’t have a happier 80th birthday.”