The 100 Most Influential Georgians [S-Z]

Julian Saul


Shaw Industries, Inc.


Age: 65

Saul presides over a flooring company that manufactures enough carpet each year to wrap a six-foot-wide swatch around the equator seven times. Saul, who is active in a number of civic endeavors, is a board member for the Dalton United Way and founded that organization’s Tocqueville Society, for individuals who contribute at least $10,000 annually.


Leah J. Sears

Chief Justice

Supreme Court of Georgia


Age: 50

On June 28 Sears became the first African-American female chief justice in the country when she took the gavel of Georgia’s highest appeals court. Sears also was the first black woman and youngest person to serve as a superior court judge in Georgia and as a Supreme Court justice.


Beheruz N. Sethna


University of West Georgia


Age: 57

Did your college president carry belongings into the dorms for freshmen, teach undergraduate courses, work until nearly midnight helping students write research papers and then take them out to eat? This one does.

Sethna identifies himself on the university’s Web site first as a professor of business administration and second as president. “If there are a few, there are only a very few presidents of universities who teach a class,” says Sethna, who has taught a class every one of his 10-plus years at West Georgia. “That makes a strong statement for our belief in undergraduate education.”

Under his leadership, West Georgia has moved from college to university, with 22 percent of its 10,200 students in graduate schools. But at the same time, West Georgia has established a national reputation for undergraduate research. The university’s undergraduate students have published more research papers than those of any other institution in the country, Sethna says. “We totally dominate the country in undergraduate research.”

Sethna is the first ethnic minority president of a Georgia college, other than historically black institutions, and the first Indian born president of any American university. He came to West Georgia in 1994, has taught every year since, and served as an interim senior vice chancellor of the University System of Georgia in 1999. He is a former Fulbright scholar and the author of more than 50 scholarly papers, including some on his electric car research, which dates back to the early 1980s.

He and his wife, Madhavi Sethna, have two grown children – one a doctor and the other a lawyer – and a new hybrid Honda Accord. – KHT


Robert E. Shaw


Shaw Industries, Inc.


Age: 74

Carpet prices keep rising in the wake of Katrina and increased costs for fuel and health care. None of it has slowed Shaw Industries, the carpet monster Bob Shaw built in Northwest Georgia. The company of some 30,000 employees he started almost 50 years ago continues to set revenue records, surpassing $5 billion in 2004.


Earl Smith


Cobb-Marietta Coliseum Authority


Age: 75

Smith, a master consensus builder and former chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, has taken the lead in raising $140 million to build the Cobb Energy Centre for the Performing Arts near the Galleria Center – a move expected to enhance the area’s growth – and the funding to renovate Marietta’s historic Strand Theater. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson calls Smith one of his role models.


Preston Smith

Attorney/State Senator


Age: 33

Smith, often viewed as a potential GOP statewide candidate, doesn’t want to be a career politician. He’s interested in future judicial positions. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee he’s been an effective floor leader, taking the main role in sponsoring tort reform and a new law requiring women to wait 24 hours before receiving an abortion.


Weyman D. Smith


Financing and Investment Division

Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission


Age: 61

Sadly, Georgia still ranks at the bottom among the states in SAT scores. But when it comes to financial evaluation of state governments, it’s a different story. Georgia is one of only a few states to enjoy uniformly high bond ratings. Smith is the man behind the scenes of that happy financial picture.

The division he directs is responsible for issuing all general obligation bonds and approving any debt for all state agencies. The commission’s membership is determined by the constitution and includes the governor as chair, the lieutenant governor as vice-chair, the state auditor, the speaker of the house and so on. Just about anyone in state government with any financial responsibility has been to New York with Smith to sit down with the rating agencies.

“We just do what we’re supposed to do and try to keep a low profile,” Smith says. “We have AAA ratings from all three of the major New York rating agencies. There are seven states in the country with AAA.”

The commission was created in 1972 by then Governor Jimmy Carter to reorganize the state’s finances under one entity. The first AAA bond rating followed within a few years. Smith went to work for the state in 1981 after 17 years with SunTrust in Atlanta, where he was in investment banking. He grew up in Cabbagetown and attended Atlanta public schools.

“The bond rating is a result of conservative leadership that looks after the finances of the state over a period of years. We get strong remarks from rating agencies on conservative policies and debt management,” Smith says. “It allows us to borrow money at a very low interest rate.” – KHT


Ken Stewart


Georgia Forestry Commission


Age: 55

Stewart sees Georgia’s forests as a sacred renewable resource for the future. But you don’t have to be clairvoyant to see the potential of a resource that already creates an annual economic impact of $20 billion.

But Stewart isn’t talking about simply using the woods for building materials or paper products, he’s a proponent of gathering and reusing of slash – felled trees, treetops and limbs. He’s talking about composite wood products and engineered products, such as ethanol. Stewart says 30 million tons of “woody biomass” is thrown away every year.

“Economically, if you manage the forests in the state, you end up harvesting products from them and you bring in money to put back into the land,” he says. “Georgia has more commercial forest land than any state in the country. We need to proactively find markets to utilize the natural richness of our state.”

He’s thinking like a businessman and that’s why he was appointed to the job. Stewart can be held up as a leading example of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s pledge to make state government operate more as an efficient business than a cumbersome bureaucracy. Stewart, who holds degrees from Mississippi State in Forestry and Accounting and Management, has worked for Weyerhaeuser and Georgia Pacific and, most recently, Unisource Worldwide of Norcross.

“We have an economic engine that is second to none in the U.S.,” Stewart says. “There is a lot of potential out there.” – RG


James Stokes


The Georgia Conservancy


Age: 61

Stokes became president of the conservancy in May after practicing law for 32 years at Alston & Bird, where he started and led the firm’s environmental practice group, sometimes finding himself aligned against environmental groups, including The Georgia Conservancy. Now, as a fulltime advocate, Georgia’s environment is his client.


Jimmy Tallent

President and CEO

United Community Bank, Inc.


Age: 53

In his 21 years at the helm, Tallent has turned a small-town community bank with 20 employees in two branches into the third largest, and fastest-growing, bank holding company in Georgia. UCBI, with $5.7 billion in assets, owns 24 community banks with 88 locations and 1,500 employees in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.


James Tally


Children’s Health Care of Atlanta


Age: 63

Tally spent the first half of his career in administration at two major academic centers focused on adult care when he was invited in 1983 to visit Scottish Rite Hospital, a small, venerable children’s hospital in Atlanta.

“On my first visit, I went into the patient care areas and spent the day watching the nurses and doctors interacting with children and parents and felt something deep within me say this is where I was born to be,” he says. “It was a major departure from what I’d been doing, something I don’t want to call work. Every day I’m involved in the lives of children and families. It’s mind blowing.”

In 1998 Scottish Rite merged with Egleston Children’s Health Care System to become Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA). With the two hospital campuses and satellite clinics spread across Metro Atlanta, access to 1,400 pediatric physicians in more than 30 specialties, CHOA manages about 450,000 patient visits a year and is ranked among the nation’s top 10 pediatric hospitals.

But Tally says the number of children in Atlanta is increasing faster than CHOA can treat them. “We’re riding a tidal wave of growth,” he says. “We start many days with 20 or 30 more children in hospitals than we have beds for.”

So CHOA’s $344 million expansion will add beds and enhance programs such as emergency, cardiac, cancer and transplant care. Last spring the system launched “One to Grow On” a five-year fund raising campaign with a $230 million goal, and CHOA continues working with Grady Health System to develop a plan for providing services at Hughes Spalding. – JG


Mark Taylor

Lieutenant Governor

State of Georgia


Age: 48

Mark Taylor is finishing up his second term in the state’s number two job – and running for the number one. If he can get through what promises to be a competitive Democratic Primary, Taylor wants to take on Gov. Sonny Perdue.

In campaign stops around the state, Taylor is staying focused on three themes: “education, public safety and economic development.” He’s calling himself “the big guy out for the little guys.”

Taylor cites among his chief accomplishments helping install the HOPE scholarship and pre-K programs in public schools as former Governor Zell Miller’s floor leader in the state House of Representatives, where he served for 12 years. As lieutenant governor,

Taylor also has used his influence to push for legislation requiring mandatory sentencing for violent criminals and to place greater restrictions on licensing of teenage drivers.

Taylor also serves on the OneGeorgia Authority, which presides over the investment of $1 billion in funds from tobacco settlements into the state’s poorest counties. A portion of that investment has gone into a dramatic downtown riverfront revitalization in Taylor’s hometown of Albany, where he is much appreciated for helping plant seeds of growth.

Downtown Albany’s rebirth is anchored by the new $30 million state-funded Flint RiverQuarium, which hosted 60,000 visitors before it was open a year. When asked how Albany managed to attract such an important investment from the state, local leaders answer in two words: “Mark Taylor.” – KHT


Michael Thurmond


Georgia Department of Labor


Age: 52

A majority of Georgia’s 200,000 employers benefited from a $50 million unemployment insurance tax cut in 2005 thanks to Thurmond’s department, which emphasizes the speedy re-employment of unemployment insurance claimants. Georgia’s DOL, which had 13,000 unemployment claims from Gulf Coast evacuees, leads the nation in moving the jobless back to work.


William J. Todd


Georgia Cancer Coalition


Age: 57

Todd’s job is to raise awareness and funding to fight cancer in Georgia, where 35,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. The coalition, created in 2001 by Gov. Roy Barnes, is halfway through its 10-year plan to raise $1 billion. Todd would like to increase the private contribution to the program as the GCC tries to expand research and treatment.


Cynthia Tucker

Editorial Page Editor

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Age: 50

A one-time Pulitzer finalist, Tucker won the prestigious Lovejoy Award in 2005, given annually for courageous contributions in journalism. The selection committee called her “an equal opportunity critic.” At the award ceremony in October, the iconoclastic Tucker said the Lovejoy reminds her of “the vital importance of accurate information, whether my readers want to hear it or not.”


Michael Vollmer


Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education


Age: 56

Vollmer walked calmly into a beehive when Gov. Perdue hired him to run the DTAE in 2004, inheriting a department troubled by nepotism and questionable hiring practices, at a time of steep budget cuts. Through it all, the steady, proactive Vollmer has remained focused on and committed to the 150,000 students his department serves each year


James Wagner


Emory University


Age: 52

Wagner presides over one of the nation’s best universities (20th in 2005’s U.S. News & World Report college quality rankings), with a $3.4 billion impact on Atlanta’s economy. Last year Emory received $525 million in royalties for an AIDS drug called Emtriva in what has been described as the largest university intellectual property deal of all time. In November Emory unveiled its multibillion-dollar campus master plan that includes a new $2.1 billion hospital and additional research facilities.


B.J. Walker


Georgia Department of Human Resources


Age: 56

When B.J. Walker was named commissioner of Georgia DHR in May 2004, she assumed control of an agency in deep trouble.

Within its child protective services division, caseloads had jumped to as many as 100 per caseworker. Today, the agency has reduced caseloads by 30 percent statewide, and 51 percent in targeted urban counties by diverting more than 14,000 families to social services, allowing the child protective division to focus on its most urgent cases.

Throughout her nearly two years as commissioner, Walker says her goal has been to care for the state’s children by strengthening families. “Anytime you think the government can substitute for families, then you’re doing the wrong work,” she adds. “What we’re trying to do is to think of ways to strengthen families and use government as a resource, not a substitute.”

Walker came to Georgia after nearly a decade spent working in human services for the state of Illinois, where she oversaw welfare reform, food stamps and Medicare programs. She also served as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief aide for human services.

As head of Georgia’s DHR, Walker is in charge of the government agency responsible for delivering health and social services. She oversees four divisions (Aging Services, Public Health, Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Addictive Diseases, and Family and Children Services) as well as the Office of Regulatory Services, the Office of Adoptions and the Office of Child Support Enforcement.

Ultimately, for Walker, it always comes back to supporting families. “That’s the purpose of good government programs,” she says. – TJ


D. Scott Weimer

Senior Pastor

North Avenue Presbyterian Church


Age: 51

Since 1997 Weimer has ministered to the historic church, which has been on the same corner in the heart of Midtown Atlanta since 1898. North Avenue Presbyterian, with a membership of almost 1,000, plays an active role in caring for Atlanta’s homeless. As moderator for the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, Weimer has been emphasizing mission as he works to unite 110 churches.


Joel Wernick


Phoebe Putney Health System


Age: 51

After more than 17 years as head of the Phoebe Putney Health System, Joel Wernick has helped bring about many good changes in health care for his 25-county Southwest Georgia region. The most important change: “People who used to leave the region for health care now stay at home,” he says.

Since Wernick took the reins in 1988, Phoebe Putney has doubled in employees, to more than 3,500 today, and is now the region’s largest employer. In addition to the main 450-bed hospital in Albany, Phoebe owns a 49-bed facility in Sylvester and manages another hospital in Cuthbert. The system also owns a home health agency, community hospice and rural health clinics in five counties. Over the past 14 years, Phoebe has invested $20 to $40 million annually in facilities and equipment improvements. It is now planning for future expansion that will include a $46 million medical tower.

Under Wernick’s watch, Phoebe has added a perinatal center to help high-risk mothers and babies, a heart center, a sports medicine program and a cancer treatment center. The system has received state and national honors for its community outreach programs, which include a teen pregnancy program and a clinic for veterans. Phoebe also provides a nurse for every high school and middle school in its home county. These are examples, Wernick says, of Phoebe’s goal “to make a difference outside our walls.”

Wernick is also personally involved in a variety of area projects, including serving as chair of the Southwest Georgia Alliance, a community group working to promote economic growth. – BN


Tom Wheeler


Wheeler/Kolb Management Co.


Age: 60

Wheeler runs a company that manages and leases 56 properties totalling about 4.5 million square feet, including shopping centers and office parks, all of them in Georgia and Alabama. A decorated Vietnam veteran (Bronze Star), Wheeler worked his way through Georgia State to an MBA. Wheeler has served on the Georgia Board of Natural Resources since 1993, chairs the recently-created Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District and has chaired the North Georgia Mountain Authority since 2003.


John Wieland

Chairman and Chief Creative Officer

John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods, Inc.


Age: 69

Wieland built 25 homes during his first year in business, 1970. Today, he has built more than 25,000 and his name has become synonymous with quality home construction in Atlanta. He was named America’s Best Builder in 2005.

“Professionally, one of the things I’m proudest of is I think my company has raised the level of residential architecture and neighborhood development in Atlanta. We’ve set a high standard and others have done a good job of meeting it,” Wieland says. “We’ve built some 25,000 houses. That’s our own little city.”

He is also proud also of his philanthropic and financial leadership. Wieland has served as chairman of the board of directors for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and his time and charitable contributions have supported Emory University, Piedmont Hospital, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the High Museum. He received a Hearthstone

Builder lifetime public service award and has appeared in The Chronicle of

Philanthropy’s list of 60 largest contributors in the country for his gifts for the new High Museum – totaling $16 million. “That’s one of the things that’s nearest and dearest to my heart,” he says.

“I love my work and I enjoy it,” says Wieland, who adheres to a strong “give back” philosophy. “I’m all about adding value. I feel I’m doing that – professionally and philanthropically. As long as I am doing that – and having fun – I’m not changing a thing.” – KHT


Sam Williams


Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce


Age: 60

Under Williams’ leadership for the past nine years, the chamber has focused on developing new business in targeted industry clusters, such as biosciences, telecommunications, computer software and services. Williams is a master of forging partnerships and bringing diverse leadership together to address issues such as public transit, education, cleaner water, arts and culture.


H. Lamar Willis

Post 3 At-Large

Atlanta City Council


Age: 34

H. Lamar Willis admits he picked a “tough race” in 2001 for his first run at political office – a newcomer going against three seasoned veterans.

But he made it into a runoff and then overcame his opponent’s huge lead to win his seat on the Atlanta City Council. It took a lot of work to win and political observers say Willis has applied that same work ethic to his city duties. This past November, Willis won election to his second term with no opposition.

Willis says he decided to seek office because he takes to heart what a former professor at Boston College Law School told him: Elected office is a “noble calling” as long as noble people are willing to serve. In other words, Willis says, “If you believe you have something to offer you should pursue office and do what you can to help.”

During his first term, Willis served as chair of the transportation committee and the public safety committee. He has worked on anti-panhandling legislation, revitalization of

Underground Atlanta, the city’s sewer improvement program and the planned Beltline.

For the future, Willis wants to see progress on public safety and transportation. “If we can improve public safety, we will make Atlanta a better place to live, work and visit  … and that will improve our economic base,” he says. He also believes the planned Beltline and proposed streetcar system will lead to more economic development. – BN


Jim Wooten

Associate Editorial Page Editor

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Age: 60

For years Wooten’s was a voice in the wilderness crying out against the Democratic regime that held sway over Georgia politics. But with Republicans now dominating state and national politics, he is a popular wordsmith, an editorialist whose writing describes a thick line in the sand between conservatives and liberals.


Sam Zamarripa

Georgia State Senator


Age: 52

Zamarripa, who founded the Georgia-China Alliance and energetically promotes the state’s global trade efforts, has been on the front lines in Atlanta’s bid to become home to the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Zamarripa is also working to engage Latinos in the political process through the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

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