MONTICELLO – Here in the heart of Georgia’s Piedmont, you find small-town living flourishing.
Monticello, the seat of Jasper County, has a fetching square with the traditional courthouse being the centerpiece as you would expect. Traffic flows hesitatingly around the square as if it were a rectangular roundabout. Log trucks, pickups, a hog hauler or two, a Lexus or two and a fellow on a bicycle, backpack and all, offered traffic competition here recently as I was hunting for parking near the Vanilla Bean, which deals in good food and local gossip. You know, things like “what happened in that wreck yesterday out on the Jackson Road,” who has the best winter garden, the sheriff’s latest lockup and how the local prep teams are doing.
If John Paul Holmes, who migrated to Monticello from northside Atlanta and learned how to be a country gentleman overnight, is in town, you can get the lowdown on doings at the legislature and Georgia football.
Holmes has more friends and more connections than anybody in our state. Not sure the governor has shaken as many hands as Holmes has in his lifetime. What folks here and across Georgia appreciate about this former Bulldogs lineman is that he is as genuine as Vanilla Bean’s pecan chicken. If your neighbor’s ox were to get in the ditch, Holmes would be the first to get him out.
Even though Holmes is often in the company of politicians, nobody has ever accused him of speaking with forked tongue — even though this loquacious raconteur was put on earth to talk.
It is interesting how Holmes came about setting down roots in Jasper County. He was about as natural at county living as a rooster crowing in Manhattan. It was romance and Georgia football that rooted him here. When he played for the Bulldogs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he met Susan Dykes.
Her father was a Jasper farmer and agri-businessman. When Dykes took him home for a visit, Holmes immediately became an old shoe fit and acted like he had been riding a tractor all his life. He became fascinated with the fields and streams, woods and the outdoors, country folk and life down on the farm.
When he and Susan, longtime mayor of Monticello and more recently a fixture in the Georgia House of Representatives, got serious, Holmes even thought of becoming a farmer. That was a funny bone moment with his former teammate who knew “from whence he came.”
Then Holmes, who was Republican in Georgia before it was cool, was the beneficiary of propitious timing during the era when the Grand Ole Party occupied the White House under Richard Nixon. Bo Callaway, whom Holmes had befriended in Bo’s gubernatorial campaign, arranged a job for Paul as head of the ASCS (Agricultural, Stabilization and Conservation Service). This had Holmes traveling the state where he was constantly bumping into former teammates, classmates and one-time fraternity brothers. Every stop across Georgia became a reunion.
Then a fraternity brother, Harrison Jones, asked him to attend a bankers conference where regulations, complaint, disagreement and negative bickering held sway. Holmes got up and began to tell stories, which immediately had the constituency eating out of his palm. His routine self-flagellation brought encroaching levity to the disjointed meeting.
Like this classic vignette when he was a rookie tackle at the Dallas Cowboy training camp. Coach Tom Landry asked Holmes if he was always nervous before practice.
“No sir,” Holmes replied.
“Why do you ask?” Landry then countered with, “You are the first player we ever had to put his football pants on and his jock (strap) on next.”
He would quote Charley Trippi, the Georgia backfield coach, who once said before a road trip, “We are taking 45 football players and John Paul Holmes.”
His best one had to do with Wallace Butts calling for a staff meeting after the first scrimmage Paul’s freshman year. The Bulldogs coach closed the meeting room door and said, “We are not leaving until I find out who signed Paul Holmes to a scholarship.”
Holmes concludes the story with onrushing laughter by saying, “Nobody would own up to it.”
Holmes was a member of the 1959 SEC championship team, which defeated Missouri 14-0 in the Orange Bowl. He lettered for the Bulldogs in 1960-61-62. He was teammates with Pat Dye and Fran Tarkenton, two of the most accomplished lettermen in Bulldogs history.
What set Holmes apart as a teammate was that he enjoyed walking to the varsity for a hot dog with two downtrodden B-teamers as much as he did those two super stars.
Holmes became a banker after that and a sought after speaker.
“I certainly was not much of a player, but I learned a lot about teamwork and friendships,” Holmes said. “Later when I got into business, I found out that the Georgia influence in this state is so far reaching. Anywhere I go, I can find a friend with UGA ties. I have had the most fun and rewarding life, and I owe it all to the University of Georgia. The institution has enriched my life.”
Alma mater means “nourishing mother.” Before Holmes learned about the meaning of the term, his connection was inseparable. The oldest state chartered university in our country could not have had a more passionate defender and advocate than Holmes, a city boy who gloried in segueing to life down on the farm.