Stars of the South: 12 Southerners of Character Who Are Getting Things Done

“Character is power,” said Booker T. Washington, the great Southern leader and educator.  

South Magazine has chosen a dozen people of character who—in a variety of ways—are doing big things, making changes that will improve our future.  Some are builders.  Some are organizers.  Some are influencers.  All seem to share a commitment to getting things done and all have records of accomplishment. 


Buddy Carter / U.S. House

Rep. Buddy Carter, a two-term Republican from Pooler, is the only pharmacist in Congress and smack in the middle of two of the highest-profile discussions in Washington – how to modify or replace the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” and how to fix the nation’s growing opioid epidemic.  He says he feels “highly confident” the Republican majority in Congress will come to an agreement on health care in spite of strong, vocal differences of opinion within the party and within the nation as a whole.  “Maybe I’m the eternal optimist, but I think we’ll get it straight.  We’ve got to.”  Owner of Carter’s Pharmacy, Inc., and a former mayor of Pooler, Carter, 59, is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and active on the Health Subcommittee.  

“There’s a lot of noise right now,” causing distraction, Carter says, but the opioid epidemic and prescription drug pricing remain high on his priority list.  “It seems that everybody knows somebody who has been impacted by the opioid crisis,” he says.  “And also almost everybody is affected when drug prices are too high.”    With respect to opioids, he says, funding for treatment programs and more education for doctors and pharmacists are important steps.  On drug prices, he says: “We’ve got to bring transparency to the market place, expose the middle man and let the public see that a lot of the expense is in the middle man, who isn’t doing anything in research and development and doesn’t bring value to the system at all.”


John Burns / Georgia House

State Rep. John Burns, 64, from Newington, heads the Republican House majority in the Atlanta Statehouse.  CEO of an agribusiness firm that sells fertilizer, hardware, tractor parts and other products to farmers, ranchers and construction companies, Burns had been chairman of the House Game, Fish and Parks Committee until elected majority leader in 2015.  As majority leader, Burns has been a voice for moderation.  He told the Atlanta Journal Constitution:  “I think that the Georgia House and the Republican caucus are tasked with working for the benefit of all Georgians. Not just Republicans or not just Democrats.”



Jennifer Abshire / Abshire Public Relations

Abshire founded her public relations firm in 2000 and now provides strategic advice and services to more than 100 area firms.  A native of Marietta, she earned a B.A. in Public Relations from Georgia Southern University and moved to Savannah in 1988. After fund-raising work with both the American Red Cross and Parent and Child, Inc., a multi-purpose children’s agency, she became, at age 28, the Executive Director of Savannah’s Olympic committee. Hosting the yachting competition for the Atlanta games helped put Savannah in the spotlight, but Abshire believes the city is just beginning to be discovered.  

“This is a magical place.  It’s a place where you can combine business and pleasure on a porch. You can create a company while sitting on your dock,” she says. Savannah is attracting a growing number of entrepreneurs, Abshire believes, and while competition is stiff, members of the community are willing to help each other. “The power of the individual comes from the connections you make with people and how you’re able to make those connections help others. That’s where the power in my business comes in. It’s being able to use the ability of knowing people and knowing their strengths so they can help others.”


Jack Hill / Georgia House

State Sen. Jack Hill, a Republican from Reidsville, is serving his 14th two-year term, and his seniority has led to his selection as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  A retired grocer, Hill, 73, served for more than three decades in the Georgia Air National Guard.  He’s a member of the team former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s named to work with the state of South Carolina on development of a new Savanna River port facility  in Jasper County, S.C.

During his Senate career, Hill led a committee that studied the financial difficulties of struggling rural hospitals, an effort that led to higher reimbursement rates.  He introduced “early voting” legislation in 1999, which was ultimately approved as part of a package of election reforms, and he sponsored legislation requiring Georgia to encourage recycling and set goals for the purchase of recycled materials.


Steve Green / Entrepreneur

In business and politics, success often depends on knowing someone who can help.  For years, Savannah businessman Steve Green has been the “go-to guy” because of his unparalleled connections across many different industry lines.  A distribution company president, Green tripled the firm’s size, sold it to Frito-Lay and went into the commercial real estate and development business.  He helped launch the First Bank of Brunswick, the First Chatham Bank and FCB Financial Holdings, where he remains chairman.  

Green has served as Chairman of the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce and Vice-Chair of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport Commission.  He has served on the board of the Savannah Economic Development Authority and the Georgia International Maritime and Trade Center Authority.  He recently completed his third term as Chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority.


Mark Burns / Gulfstream

Burns, 57, was named president of Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. in 2015 after 32 years with the company, starting out as a computer-aided-design (CAD) operator.  His big task now – securing certification by the Federal Aviation Administration of two new Gulfstream aircraft, the G500 and G600, both critical to the company’s future.  The two planes are nearly identical – the G600 just slightly larger – and both are considered among the most technologically advanced non-military airplanes ever designed.  Both can fly near the speed of sound with a range of 4,000-5,000 miles and carry their passengers in plush luxury.  The stakes are high for Gulfstream’s 16,000 employee and contractors around the world.


Griffith V. LynchGeorgia Ports

Griffith V. “Griff” Lynch took over last year as executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority.  The Port of Savannah ranks second only to New York/New Jersey as the busiest port on the East Coast, and the Authority’s Port of Brunswick has been growing rapidly.  Along with other cargo, Brunswick specializes in roll-on, roll-off shipments of automobiles.  Lynch, 50, joined the GPA in 2011 with a background in terminal operations with Sea-Land and other shipping companies. High priorities for the new director:

•   Completion of Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP), which will deepen the Savannah River to 47 feet at low tide, allowing today’s larger vessels to transit the river with heavier loads and greater scheduling flexibility.

•   A new strategic rail initiative – GPA’s “Mid-American Arc,” which will extend tracks and double rail lift capacity  at Garden City Terminal, allocing improved service to cities in an arc from Atlanta to Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago and the Ohio Valley. Says Lynch:  “As the current level of activity shows, we’re taking the steps necessary to maintain and strengthen our ability to support manufacturers and retailers from the Southeast and beyond.”


Kesha Gibson-Carter / Rape Crisis Center

I love advocacy.  I love working on behalf of people who can’t speak up for themselves, or people who are treated unfairly or indifferently,” says Kesha Gibson-Carter.  Currently serving as executive director of the Rape Crisis Center of the Coastal Empire (RCC), Gibson-Carter says one of her priority efforts is to attack the huge backlog of untested rape kits now sitting on shelves at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). As many as 15,000 of those kits are from Savannah, she says. They’ve been moved from one shelf to another, “but I’m not sure that’s progress,” she says.

Gibson-Carter, now 45, took the job at RCC after experience in the Savannah District Attorney’s office and work with organizations helping senior citizens and the homeless.  Her first job after graduation from Fort Valley State was in the DA’s office in a unit aimed at helping the victims of violent crimes. After receiving a Master’s Degree from Savannah State, she moved to the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a group working with local church congregations and other volunteers to help the homeless, particularly families.  She headed an effort to build a Day Center, a place where the homeless can attend to personal needs and laundry and use the telephone and address to search for employment.

Now at RCC she finds the most difficult and challenging part of her job to be:  “Challenging the system, breaking down silos where people don’t come from a victim-centered approach.”  Savannah and Chatham County, she says, “have a dismal record of arrest and conviction when it comes to rapists and child molesters,” and it hasn’t improved much in the 4 ½ years she’s been on the job.  Making progress requires support from a broad coalition, says Gibson-Carter, and she has attempted “to embrace all individuals in the community.”  One promising approach, she says, has been an outreach to men in partnership with companies like Empire Construction and Thomas & Hutton Engineering.  Not only are men often themselves the victims of rape and sexual violence, she says, “men have mothers, daughters and sisters. They have women in their lives that they love and care for.”


Paula Wallace / Savannah College of Art & Design


No other institution has as much visual impact on the city as the Savannah College of Art and Design. Almost everywhere you look there’s a SCAD building – a store and a welcome center in an old red stone armory on Bull Street, a sleek white exhibition hall on Broughton Street, a dormitory on Oglethorpe that used to be a motor inn, a mail center tucked under a former railroad trestle. Dozens of SCAD facilities dot a map of the city. Hard to believe that SCAD opened for its first class in 1979, at that time mostly the dream of a young elementary school teacher from Atlanta, Paula Wallace. SCAD has grown from a school with 71 pupils and seven teachers into an internationally recognized university of creativity with more than 12,000 graduate and undergraduate students. At the center of everything has been Wallace, now 67, who painted the walls, hired the staff and wrote the curriculum. 


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