It was the Fourth of July in 1974, when I first met Max Cleland, then a State Senator, running for Georgia’s Lieutenant Governor, Max was speaking to an audience of Jaycee’s and a crowd of nearly 200, gathered for a later fireworks show. Max had returned from the Vietnam War at the rank of Captain, losing both of his legs and his right arm to a grenade explosion. Pre-war he had been 6 foot 2, and a stand-out tennis scholar at his alma mater, Stetson College in DeLand, Florida.
Cleland’s speech was inspiring, patriotic and to me, almost mesmerizing. I still recall pieces of the address today, nearing 50 years from hearing it spoken. Cleland would come in third in that race for Lieutenant Governor, and amass campaign debts which took him almost a decade to repay. But that early loss only taught him lessons of politics, it neither broke him nor slowed him down.
I joined Cleland’s staff and team in the mid-80s, serving as his Press Secretary during his second term as Secretary of State. I spent five years working for and learning from Cleland, who I came to call “Chief,” and we have been close since. We spent Christmas Eve together in 2020, during this pandemic, reminiscing and watching a few old westerns I had brought along as well as some vanilla ice cream. Cleland was well known for his sweet tooth.
We swapped anecdotes of those days under Georgia’s Gold Dome. I reminded him of one day that still makes me smile and tear up when I replay the tape in my head.
He wanted to leave the office early one afternoon, it had already been a long day. He was packing up to leave when a small child entered the front office. She was probably 8 or 9, small for her size, almost doll-like in appearance. She had an appointment, along with her parents, made by the Make a Wish Foundation. She was pale and visibly quite frail, leaning on a crutch held in place by her right arm. Her left leg was quite spindly...and her right leg was not present, only her thigh barely visible from below the skirt she was wearing. Her left arm ended at just below where an elbow might be.
We would come to know that she suffered from a rare, and largely untreatable fatal condition which was literally calcifying her limbs and circulatory system. Her fingers, toes and appendages were over time drying up into dead tissue, and would just drop off, like a dead branch from a tree. Her prognosis was not good, and her young life was projected to end prior to adolescence.
She moved slowly and quietly, until Judy Swanner, Max’s able secretary swung wide open his office door, and the small child could see Georgia’s affable Secretary of State, on his phone, laughing aloud, with very clearly no legs and just one arm and hand cradling a phone. Cleland and the child locked eyes, he smiled and quickly wrapped up his call. The young girl practically sprinted, as best one can with one arm and one leg on a crutch, and somehow almost floated up into Max’s lap. The two laughed and talked for nearly an hour...and when she emerged from his office, she was beaming. I thought this female version of Tiny Tim was going to fly out of the building with her parents, who were similarly uplifted with hope and goodwill, at least in that moment.
Cleland rolled out shortly after they departed, showing the weariness I knew that he felt, but that the child never saw. I took him out to his car. He would call her each year on her birthday, and close to each Christmas, until she was here no more. She knew that she didn’t have long, but she would tell Max that she hoped one day to be Georgia’s Secretary of State. Max would tell her that he would keep the seat warm. I still tear up just recounting this story, and there are dozens more like this one.
Chief, thanks for so often taking the time to help lift up and inspire others. Thank you for daily demonstrating that a positive attitude is more than half of leading a happy and successful life, and thank you for living your credo of turning scars into stars and focusing on abilities versus disabilities. We need more like you sir, especially now. Godspeed my friend. Rest in peace.
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