THURSDAY, OCTOBER 25, 2018 --
We native Atlantans share a joke that no matter if you go to Heaven or Hell you must change planes at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Said like that, it is also due credit to the two men most responsible for making Georgia's largest employer the asset that it is. Show some respect. Otherwise, we can get huffy.
But it's okay if the rest of the frequent flyer community asks: Who are
those hyphenated men whose names grace the nation's busiest airport?
William Hartsfield, born in 1890, started out as a law clerk, then became a lawyer. In 1922, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council and played a key role getting the city into the aviation business. More on how he pulled off that Machiavellian feat, literally stealing the nation's Southeastern hub from Birmingham, Alabama, in a moment.
Maynard Jackson, born in 1938 in Dallas, became Atlanta's first black mayor at age 35. George Berry, Jackson's aviation commissioner, told me they received a few resumes a week from people who wanted to work for the city. When Jackson took over in 1973, however, applications came by the bagful. "People would see him on TV or hear him speak at a college and he inspired them," Berry recalled.
The airport eventually became too small for its original terminal off Virginia Avenue--just down the road from The Flying Pig, a barbecue joint that jetsetters around the globe still crow about. Our beloved Pig, long since gone, served commoners and super-rich alike. Its signature dish: sliced or chopped pork between two slices of white bread on napkins. Flyers would arrange their airplane stopovers with enough time to get over there. That was before the TSA, of course.
In 1977, a controversial expansion started that would transform the airport into what travelers today know as ATL. It was controversial because the 1,200 acres needed contained thriving housing developments and businesses. Many were misplaced. Jackson also insisted that at least 20 percent of the project go to minority businesses, a new, not necessarily welcome, concept at the time. "It sounded impossible, but somehow we pulled it off," said Berry.
Jackson was not your usual politician. He was personable and charismatic but marched to a different drummer. Over lunch I once asked civil rights leader Andy Young, who succeeded Jackson as mayor and preceded his second run in the job, if he could explain Jackson.
"Maynard is not like you and me," Young said. "He dressed for dinner."
Formal he was. An African celebrity came to town to visit my boss, Hal Gulliver, then the editor of The Atlanta Constitution
. Gulliver invited Commissioner Berry, Mayor Jackson and me to join the guest and him at the Commerce Club, a downtown establishment where the powerful gathered. We were in the bar where they popped corn and we sipped Jack on the rocks.
When the mayor had to leave, he got as far as the door, turned, picked up a fresh bowl of popcorn and set it front of me. "Remember when you talk about me in the newspaper, I brought you another bowl," he said.
The next day Jackson called Berry first thing to critique my eating habits. "He never went drinking with the boys," Berry laughed.
Modern-day ATL is so big--more than 200 gates and 60,000 employees--that you can literally enter in one county and fly out on one of its five runways in another. It also spills into three cities: Atlanta, College Park and Hapeville.
But ATL wasn't the hub that the federal government had planned. How do I know? About a year before Hartsfield died he talked to me about it. Part confession. Plenty of pride.
In 1925, Hartsfield became the first chairman of the Atlanta City Council's Aviation Committee. Sensing that Atlanta could parlay this newfangled flying into a moneymaker, he leased 287 acres about seven miles south of town that was a closed dirt auto raceway called Candler Speedway.
You may not know the name Asa Candler, but I'll bet the 20 bucks in my wallet that you know his contribution. Candler bought a headache remedy called Coca-Cola for $2,300 from Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton. Candler thought it had more potential as a soft drink. Atlanta has Candler Park, the Candler Building and, at one time, a fledging airport named Candler Field (above)
"Look at a map," Hartsfield said. "Washington knew that air travel would have to be under federal control and, to them, Birmingham seemed like the most logical place for the Southeast [hub]. We didn't want that so we wined and dined the bureaucrats. No Oriental potentate was ever treated that well."
Hartsfield made sure lights were installed at Candler Field so it could operate 24 hours a day. From 1932 to 1936 he served in the Georgia Legislature where he was named--tah, dah!--chair of the new Aviation Committee. The city government, the state government and Coca-Cola's political clout were hard to match.
Atlanta became Delta Air Lines headquarters in 1941. Candler Field in 1942 became Atlanta Municipal Airport. In 1956, an Eastern Airlines fight to Montreal became the first international service from Atlanta. In 1964, a Delta/Pan Am partnership produced the first transatlantic flight. The airport was renamed again in 1971, adopting the moniker William B. Hartsfield International Airport. In 2003, the facility was renamed once again, this time to something that did not exactly roll off the tongue: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
For me, though, all this history is personal. My grandfather helped build ATL's northernmost runway. I grew up with the kids of the people who made Delta a Georgia institution and an aviation powerhouse. My first plane ride from Orlando to Atlanta was on a Delta Convair 880
. My best pal's dad, who was in charge of Delta's fleet maintenance, told me the aircraft eventually was sold to Elvis Presley. It's now part of Graceland in Memphis.
These days, the Atlanta City Council is put out when people don't call Hartsfield by its full name
. But, honestly, we locals just talk about going to "the airport" and when I am away I say I am flying "home to Atlanta."
I don't think Bill Hartsfield would care. But formal Maynard Jackson probably would.
ABOUT BOB INGLE
Bob Ingle is a New York Times
best-selling author, radio host, TV and radio news analyst and veteran journalist whose books include The Soprano State
. He's also a charter member of JoeSentMe.com. He blogs about politics, conservation topics and many other things at his own Web site