When I began work on a book about my experiences as a managing director of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games (“And They Call Them Games”), I called my friend and benefactor in New York, Harold Burson, chairman and founder of Burson-Marstellar, which was the largest public relations firm in the country.Harold Burson was not only one of the most highly respected external counselors in the business, but as a Mississippi native he had managed to stay true to his roots, meaning a bucketful of common sense dispensed in a quiet, thoughtful manner.
What advice, I asked, would he give me as I chronicled my dealings with everyone from the state and federal government to the national media to every protest group known to man? Two things he suggested: First, carefully check your facts because if they are wrong in the book, they will be wrong forever. Second, if you chose to deliberately hurt someone with your words, they will be there to be read forever.
All of this came to mind as I learned of the death of former Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee this week. The man took a lot of abuse for the way in which the Atlanta Braves ended up in Cobb County. As successful as that move now looks, it brought with it a lot of rancor from people who thought the matter should have been more transparent and voters should have had a say in the public financing part of the deal. It ultimately cost him his reelection.
I was asked to go talk to Chairman Lee, given my experiences of dealing with an earlier version of the team’s management in providing them a stadium in which to play in after the Olympic Games were done. (My advice to him: Professional sports is all about money. If the Braves ever decide to leave Cobb County for a better deal somewhere else, they will do it and you won’t be able to stop them.)
If Lee seemed stressed by all the controversy, he didn’t show it then or any of the other times that I had contact with him. I got to know him fairly well. He was not a smooth politician, even though he was county commission chair of the third largest county in the state. He also was not always artful in dealing with the media and sometimes with his fellow commissioners. But he was a decent human being and in the end that is what counts most.
In writing on the Braves deal, I tended to use a needle dipped in sarcasm, occasionally disguised as humor, unlike my friends up the road at the Daily Paper in Dunwoody. They were more into sledgehammers. It seems they were a bit miffed to learn the Atlanta Braves were leaving town from the MDJ. I am guessing they could abandon Malfunction Junction with impunity but everyone else needed their permission.
So, while Lee endured over-the-top coverage from steely eyed investigative reporters as well as righteously indignant columnists, he also took a few gratuitous shots from this space.
After one of my needling broadsides, I found myself at the Marietta High School Performing Arts Center at a charity function one Saturday evening face to face with him and later seated beside him. Expecting some pushback at my comments or some talking points about all the positive aspects of the Braves deal I had overlooked, he instead told me with much enthusiasm how he had spent that day putting down baseboard trim and painting a room to accommodate his elderly dad.
I decided at that point that, like his decisions or his style or not, there was nothing phony about the guy. What you saw is what you got. Yes, he could be a bit of a bull in a china shop, but Tim Lee was no slick-talking politician and didn’t pretend to be.
After his reelection bid failed, Lee left Cobb for the friendly climes of Habersham County where he was the well-respected executive director of Habersham Partnership for Growth, an economic development and workforce development organization in the county.
Now, esophageal cancer has taken Tim Lee at the much too early age of 62. Tributes are pouring in from all corners, including many who were highly critical of him during his tenure as Cobb commissioner chair. Retired Cobb Magistrate Judge Roger Plichta of east Cobb finds their flowering eulogies a bit off-putting (to say the least) and points out how hurtful these people — “you know who you are” — were to his wife Annette and family during the chairman’s tenure.
Recalling Harold Burson’s admonitions to me those many years ago, I hope I was accurate in my coverage of the momentous move of the Atlanta Braves to Cobb County. And while I may have been critical at times, I hope I was not hurtful. Despite what I may have said or done, I have the feeling that history will judge Tim Lee better than his detractors.