Photo by: Photo collage by Jennifer Mosbrucker/Dispatch Staff
July 20, 2019 10:02:29 PM
Every time Frank Griffin walks into the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, he smiles and chill bumps start covering his arms.
Watching children listening to stories, college students researching and patrons using computers, Griffin holds his head high remembering how he and five other Columbus councilmen secured $600,000 in local, state and federal funds by 1973 to build the library that remains a fixture in Lowndes County.
"The thing we were happiest with was building that library," said Griffin, 81. "You wouldn't believe the library that was here when we were on the council. It was a shed. It was a disgrace. We just all wanted to see some progress made."
"I remember when I was campaigning, I went around saying we needed a new library," fellow council member Frank "Mike" Batson, 78, chimed in. "If you go to the library now, drive around to the back, you'll see an old white brick building. That was the library."
Griffin was the only Democrat on Mississippi's first Republican-majority city council from 1969-73 -- a council makeup that garnered Republican members kudos from President Richard Nixon on White House letterhead. Batson and Griffin are the only surviving members, after M.L. McCarty passed away earlier this month.
All six -- Batson, Griffin, McCarty, Max Andrews, Clarke Bozeman and Chester Jones -- were local businessmen. With an average age of about 40, they were the youngest ever Columbus council up to that time.
"I was 30," said Batson, as he flipped through a scrapbook Thursday of old newspaper clippings and photographs from his time on the board. "I was the youngest member of the council."
"Youngest and probably the wisest," returned Griffin with a laugh.
Batson quickly considered this and chirped back, "We were both wise. We didn't run for re-election."
None, in fact, sought a second term on the council, with only McCarty -- with an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1973 -- seeking any other political office. But in the "very busy" four years they served, they approved resurfacing 60 percent of the city's streets, used grants to improve the parks, bought two new fire trucks, eliminated hundreds of rundown, vacant houses, opened a sanitary landfill, and they were the first council to require Columbus police officers to complete state training.
"I just shudder to think that if you hadn't seen some of things that happened in those four years, what this city would be like," Griffin said.
Doing something 'worthwhile'
Even before 1969 when the men ran for council, all six were well acquainted as longtime friends.
Bozeman was a veterinarian and Batson a dentist. McCarty was an insurance agent and Jones was a quality control engineer.
Griffin was a banker and Andrews owned a shoe store, facts Griffin maintains made them the easiest target for angry citizens during their council term.
"These doctors (on the council) had it made," Griffin said. "I was working for First Federal Bank. You had to make an appointment to see Dr. Batson. You had to make an appointment to see Dr. Bozeman. Mac was always out looking at insurance.
"If somebody had a complaint, they went to the bank or they went to Mr. Andrews' shoe store because they knew we were going to be there," he added. "They were going to find me."
Still, Griffin felt running was a responsibility he owed Columbus.
"I lived here all my life," Griffin said. "At that time we had role models. They mentored me and they went through this procedure of giving back to the community. They set an example for me that I needed to follow in their footsteps. It was strictly a social responsibility, a duty to run. You didn't run for the pay though. We made $131 a month, regardless of how many meetings we had."
And there were many meetings. One month, the council met 30 times, sometimes with three sessions in one day.
"It was cutting into my practice," Batson laughed. "But it was worthwhile what we were doing."
For all the council's triumphs, the term didn't pass without trials. When the Tombigbee River's water level hit a record 42.23 feet in 1973, for example, it left 1,200 people temporarily homeless and damaged more than 2,500 structures.
"It went in the (Leigh) mall waist-deep," Griffin recalled.
Before the council took office in 1969, the city had allowed its accreditation to lapse, meaning it could not qualify for federal funds. That council completed the reaccreditation process, and federal funding proved a critical piece of flood recovery.
An unbreakable bond
McCarty's death brought out Batson's long-shelved scrapbook, and brought memories pouring back for the two surviving members.
"Chester died first, then Max died, then Dr. Bozeman died and Mac just passed away," Griffin said. "Mac was the president of my Sunday school class. It doesn't seem possible, but I guess it was it was 50-something years ago we served.
"Mac was pretty straight laced," he added. "He was just absolutely dedicated."
Both agreed the council had created an unbreakable bond over that one term. No matter what arguments ensued during meetings, when the gavel hit the table and the meeting adjourned, they would all be found laughing and enjoying a meal together putting politics aside.
"I never had a cross word with anyone outside that room," Griffin said. "We may have during the meeting. Today, I still call them friends even though four of them are gone. Those guys, excluding me, were really high character. Just really super human beings. They devoted their time to help this city."
1. Wright accused of holding vo-tech post for himself COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. Fiber internet coming to Lowndes County COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
4. Lowndes man killed during apparent struggle over weapon with son COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
5. SOCSD, MSU partner for school-to-prison pipeline research STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY