If there’s a “Pearly Gates Progress Edition,” you can be sure that “Dr. Jay” has already sold all the ads for it.
“We lost a dear friend and member of the family Monday,” said MDJ publisher Otis Brumby III on Tuesday. “I’m a better person, the MDJ is a better company and Cobb County is a better community because of Jay Whorton. He was always, always upbeat. His unique spirit and personality was infectious. I’m going to miss my good friend.”
Added MDJ GM Lee B. Garrett, “Jay was like a second father to me and my sisters and brother. He was one of the most optimistic people I have ever known. His smile and enthusiasm were unforgettable and he always ended a conversation, ‘Happy Day.’”
Whorton was known for his ever-present smile, whether riding the new roller coaster at the North Georgia State Fair in his early 80s, singing hymns at Marietta First Methodist Church, bantering with buddies at his beloved Marietta Rotary Club or digging into a big plate of barbecue at just about anywhere.
“He was the most positive, optimistic person I’ve ever met,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “He sold the benefits (of his product) like nobody I’ve ever seen, and boy, he loved his lovely wife Laura.”
“Jay’s spirit and enthusiasm was contagious,” recalled Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin. “Jay brought joy and positive results to everything he did, whether marketing, civic work, church or friendship. His quick, direct wit kept one both on their toes and on their heels.”
Added former Congressman Buddy Darden of Marietta, “Jay loved people. It was contagious. Once Jay reached out to you, the affection became mutual. He loved everybody, so everybody loved Jay. He loved his job, just loved his job! His optimism was contagious.”
Gov. Roy Barnes, who worshipped along with Whorton at First Methodist Church of Marietta, recalled Whorton not just for his friendliness but for being down-to-earth.
“He could converse with princes and paupers and treated them all the same — with respect, humor and friendliness.”
Joseph Perry (Jay) Whorton
was born in Dutton, Ala., and grew up on a farm outside Pisgah on Sand Mountain, Ala., during the Great Depression.
His brother Lionel, 10 years older than Jay, was killed in Belgium in November 1944 on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge. Then at 6 p.m. that Christmas Day, Jay’s father dropped dead of a heart attack.
Jay’s mother, Mary Ida Whorton, soon sold the farm and they moved to Mobile, Ala., where another brother, Lauron (14 years older than Jay), worked in the shipyards, which were booming thanks to the war. But Lauron died of typhoid fever not long after they arrived, and so Jay and his mother moved back to Pisgah. The family eked by on the income from Lionel’s Army insurance policy and the kindness of friends.
Upon graduating from high school, Whorton earned scholarships to play basketball, baseball and tennis at Jacksonville State University, and later was named as one of the school’s “100 Greatest Athletes.” He also earned a degree in Physical Education and his Phi Beta Kappa key.
His skill with bat and glove earned him a Minor League contract with the New York Yankees, but soon gave that up in favor of life with new bride, Laura Arrington Whorton, and a new career in newspapering. After jobs in Scottsboro and Fort Payne, Ala., and 12 years as ad manager of the Times Free Press in Carroll County, he was hired by publisher Otis A. Brumby Jr. to run the advertising department for the Marietta Daily Journal and Neighbor Newspapers.
The Whortons and young sons, Mike, Tim and Rick, needed a house to live in. So Brumby steered them to a 27-year-old real estate agent who’d just opened a Northside Realty office on Roswell Street, future Sen. Isakson.
“I remember meeting Jay and Laura in the office that day,” Isakson recalled on Tuesday. “I have never met, before or since, a more affable, positive individual in all my life. He was a consummate, born salesman. Never met a stranger.”
Whorton made a similar first impression on then-MDJ editor Bill Kinney.
“My first impression of him was, ‘Let me get with this guy and talk some more.’ He was very interesting,” he said Tuesday. “He never saw a person he didn’t like or couldn’t make conversation with.”
He soon met now-retired Rev. Sam Storey of First Methodist as well.
“I’ve known him since he came here,” he said. “He was just an outstanding salesman. He could sell overcoats to people on the beach in Miami in midsummer, or he could sell swimsuits to people in Anchorage, Alaska, in mid-winter.”
The ’60s and 1970s were heady days for newspapers in Atlanta, especially the MDJ, with publisher Brumby establishing the daily as the flagship of the chain of weekly Neighbor newspapers he bought and/or opened around the perimeter. Brumby’s vision and leadership, Whorton’s wheeling and dealing and Kinney’s snooping and scooping made for an unbeatable team — three outsized personalities with outstanding skill sets who manned the helm for most of the next four decades.
“Jay was often the face of the MDJ and it was always a happy, jolly face who seemed to put his best foot forward and helped to make the Journal what it is today,” recalled retired Atlanta newspaper editor and syndicated columnist Bill Shipp of Marietta. “I thought he was certainly a go-getter and he kept the MDJ looking nice and fat, ad-wise, even during lean times for many, many newspapers. And he always had a nice word for just about everybody.”
As Darden recalled, “As much as anybody, he spread good will for the paper. He was a goodwill ambassador for the paper. Even if people felt like they had gotten a bad turn in the newspaper, Jay could always smooth it over.”
When a reporter mentioned to Isakson that he had never heard anyone say a negative word about Whorton, the senator replied, “And I bet you can’t remember him saying anything negative about anyone else, either. He looked for the best in people.”
Lawrence Welk had nothing on Whorton when it came to bubbly effervescence. Whorton liked to refer to himself as “Doctor Jay,” although it came out as “Doc-tah Jay!” His typical greeting was “Hello, Brother,” although a more accurate transcription would be a booming, “Hellooow, Brotha!!!”
“As memorable personalities go, Jay was in a class by himself,” said insurance executive Gary Bottoms, president of The Bottoms Group and a fellow Rotarian. “There was never a dull moment when he was around. At our daughter’s wedding reception, the combination of Jay’s exuberance, along with table decorations and candles, somehow resulted in a small fire. It’s a miracle the fire sprinkler system didn’t engage over the reception.”
So what was behind Whorton’s success as a salesman?
“Jay knew that the secret to selling is to sell the benefits — the benefits that will help you sell your product,” Isakson said. “He was the best salesman I’ve ever known. He’d come in and say, ‘I’ve got something that’s going to help you.’”
According to state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, Whorton’s best weapons were his people skills and his honesty.
“It’s all about people. He was a good ad salesman because he connected with them. All about relationships,” he said. “But he’d give you a straight answer and that’s what I always liked about him.”
MDJ VP of Advertising Wade Stephens had a front-row view of Whorton’s style through the years.
“Only Jay could call his customers and tell them over the phone or at Rotary on Wednesdays as to what they were going to buy,” he said. “And of course, right before they could ask how much the ad was going to cost, he had moved on to another customer.”
Stephens recalled a typical phone conversation with a customer might go like this: “Brother (or Girl), how are you? ‘The Doctor’ is in today! Good news, good news! Hey I got you down for a full page in the Progress Edition again this year and need the copy by the 15th. Thank you brother! Happy day! Bye!”
But to the very end, Whorton insisted on the personal touch. Stephens said while visiting Whorton on Friday, he told his old boss he was about to leave on a business trip, to which Whorton replied that he was “tired” and “ready” and would not be there when Stephens returned. But then after offering Whorton some reassuring words, Stephens mentioned he had just taken care of a client by providing her complimentary tickets to an upcoming event, telling her the tickets would be left at the “Will Call” window at the venue.
“And Jay said, ‘You did what!!! Son, have I not taught you anything!!! Anybody can put tickets down at Will Call, anybody! And (the recipient) won’t remember who gave them to them! You’re gonna deliver those tickets personally — and don’t leave them with the receptionist, cause anybody can do that! You’re gonna give them to her personally and get you a hug on the neck! That’s how ‘The Doctor’ does it, and that’s how you’re gonna do it!”
Few could outwork Whorton — or have more fun in the process. Once while in Las Vegas with Brumby for a press association meeting in the 1970s, they were killing time in the hotel pool, which just happened to be the same casino hotel in which billionaire Howard Hughes had been holed up for years on the top floor.
“My Dad said to Jay, ‘I’ll bet you $100 you can’t get up there to Hughes’ floor,’” Brumby III told the MDJ on Tuesday.
“I’ll bet I can!” said Whorton, who proceeded to ride the elevator to the top floor. But upon exiting, he was in for a surprise — a pair of guards armed with submachine guns, both pointed right at him.
Whorton hastily explained he wasn’t interested in Hughes — but peeling off a $50 bill, told the guards they could split it if they’d just let him wave from the balcony back down to Brumby in the pool. Suffice it to say that Jay made the “sale” — and then collected the $100 from Brumby.
Whorton liked practical jokes, even if he was on the wrong end of them. He was an avid gardener, and one summer when he was out of town for a while his good friends (retired Georgia Supreme Court Justice) Conley Ingram and Pike Nurseries founder Pete Pike conspired to pull one on him. Whorton had been bragging that he was going to have a good crop of tomatoes that year.
“Pete got me some of the biggest and most luscious looking red tomatoes you ever saw. The problem was they were plastic,” Ingram told the MDJ. “They were very realistic. You couldn’t tell they were fake unless you felt them.
“So I went over there, unbeknownst to anybody, and tied some of the fake tomatoes on his tomato plants.
“Well, Jay called me when he got back home, and said, ‘I thought I was gonna have some good tomatoes to give you. I’ve never seen a crop like this. But I went out there, to my dismay they were all made out of plastic. Are you the one in charge of ‘Tomato-Gate’?”
Whorton spent 14 years on the board of the North Georgia State Fair and led it to record profits during his tenure as president (2011-12).
When the Fair erected its first-ever roller coaster that year, he was one of the first to ride it. But you get the aspect of the Fair that gave him the most fulfillment was the annual night when the Fair opens for the county’s special-needs population, and seeing the joy on all the faces.
“That was his favorite party of the year,” said longtime Fair manager Tod Miller.
Whorton also helped the nonprofit faith-based Calvary Children’s Home in Powder Springs get a booth each year at the Fair, and ensured the Fair supported the home via donations.
“Jay had been part of our children’s home for many, many years,” recalled director Snyder Turner. “Jay introduced us to many people who helped us and he helped us personally through his work on the Fair Board. (His death) is not only a loss to us, but to our community as a friend.”
The Fair Board would occasionally hold cookouts, at which Whorton’s fondness for barbecue and country cooking would come to the fore.
“We’d entertain and cook and ate a lot out there, and old Jay, now, he’d be right in front of that line with a plate. He’d sample the cooking pretty quick,” said fellow board member Tippins. “We’d cook those pork chops and he’d graze on by that grill and it wasn’t anything for Jay to eat three or four of those pork chops. He’d go ‘Mmm, these are good. But you might want to cook them a little bit longer.’ I told him, ‘Well it doesn’t look like it’s affecting the taste of them Jay.’ You’d get run over getting in front of him in the food line.”
Whorton once gave then-MDJ advertising department artist Marshall Ramsey a pair of tickets to the circus.
“Front-row tickets,” added Ramsey, who now is a political cartoonist for the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger.
“I took my new girlfriend, bought her a chili dog and watched as an elephant parade came by. Thanks to Jay, I knew I would impress her. The elephants all had dysentery. My girlfriend turned pale. She married me anyway. So I always give Jay a bit of credit for my marriage.”
Wednesday afternoon would invariably find Whorton at the weekly meeting of the Marietta Rotary Club, where he typically sat with Ingram, late builder Hap McNeel, Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn, car dealer Irv Smith and plumbing company owner Mitzi Smith Moore.
“He is my hero,” said Irv Smith. “He is a man at the top of the ‘man chain,’ as far as I’m concerned. … The best there is.”
Moore remembered him as “fiercely loyal and caring. He was always on my side. I thought it was just me, but he’s that way with a lot of people. Yet he always challenged you to progress and improve, to get what you can in life. He would prop you up when you least expected it, but he could also cut you down a notch to keep you grounded.”
She recalled when her company (Sundial Plumbing) recently was named Small Business of the Year by the Cobb Chamber, “he was just in orbit, just almost silly, saying ‘We won! We won!’ He couldn’t have been more excited if it had been his own company.
“It was always ‘we.’ When Otis (Brumby Jr.) was not doing well (health-wise), he’d say, ‘We’re not doing so good.’”
Whorton was known for arriving at Rotary 45 minutes early and “working the room” — and then for hitting the exit door just before the speaker began.
“He’d say, ‘I gotta go make another dollar so I can pay my tuition,’ that is, his dues,” said another club member, the Rev. Mark Barbour, associate pastor at First Baptist of Marietta.
Moore recalled Jay “hounded me to start coming early and I finally did, and my life is richer because of that. I have friends I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I was rewarded with much deeper friendships than I would have had. I would tell him I didn’t have time to come early, and he’d say, ‘We all have the same amount of time. We just have to make time.’
“If you had told me when I started Rotary that it would break my heart when I lose friends from there, I wouldn’t have believed you. And boy, was I wrong,” she said. “And I never expected that kind of friendship to be with Jay Whorton. That’s really cool.”
“He had a knack for making you feel like you were the most important person in the world when he was talking to you,” he said. “He was a dear, dear man. If you were his friend, you were his friend for life, and he might criticize you, but he always meant it for the good. His requirement was that you always do your best. He wanted you to keep your hand to the plow and work hard. What a great man,” Barbour said.
Barbour said Whorton was not shy about making suggestions.
“At the beginning of my year as president, he came to me with a list and said, ‘These are people you need to get into the club leadership.’ And I said ‘OK, I’ll look it over.’ And he said, ‘I didn’t say for you to ‘look it over,’ I said for you to do it!’ And I said ‘Yes sir!’ And I think we wound up recruiting four of the six people on that list.”
Whorton was as good at working the aisles at church as he was at working the tables at Rotary, said his pastor and fellow Rotarian the Rev. Sam Matthews.
“He was a force in the aisles of this church,” he said. “There was nothing like watching him work the aisles. Seemed to know everybody, young or old. He had gift of making them feel like they were the most important person he was going to see all day.”
“He would have been good preacher. I didn’t see a lot of ego. He had pride, but I never saw it get in his way.”
One of Whorton’s closest friends during his Carrollton days was the late John Tanner, whose daughter, Sally Tanner Macaulay, he later hired in the MDJ Ad Department and who now is director of the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art.
Whorton and Tanner loved to fish together. And while returning from a fishing trip one day, Tanner, 55, was hit by lightning and killed. So when Sally got married not long after, it was Whorton who walked her down the aisle.
“He loved to tell the story of how he walked me down the aisle and would turn me every few steps so everyone could see me. He told me later he heard somebody say, ‘Jay, get her on down the aisle, we don’t have all day.’ And he would really laugh. He was so fun. I miss him already!”
Macaulay said she’d gotten a poignant call from Jay’s son, Tim Whorton, on Tuesday.
“He said Jay had told him he had a visit (shortly before) from my Dad, telling him to come on. He said the fish are always biting up here and you get at least an 8-pound bass every time you cast! It’s really comforting to know that he is with my Dad now, even though it will take me a long time to get over losing him.”
Jay worked out the plans for his funeral well in advance, asking Rev. Matthews to be one of the eulogists and insisting that MDJ ad rep Tara Guest be an usher, working the same aisle she works on Sundays.
On a lighter note, he asked longtime MDJ account executives Paula Milton and Becky Opitz to be “wailers.”
“He told me, ‘You know what a ‘wailer’ is, don’t you? That’s somebody who falls down on your casket at the funeral and wails ’cause you died!’” Milton said.
Asked if they planned to adhere to Whorton’s request, she deadpanned, “Hmmm, I’d better clear that with the family first!”
Jon Gillooly also contributed to this story.
Services for Jay Whorton will be at 11 a.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church of Marietta.