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Sunday Interview with Bob Poydasheff: 'Fort Benning is Columbus and Columbus is Fort Benning'

At 85 years old, Bob Poydasheff refuses to slow down.

The former Columbus mayor, raised in the Bronx and brought to Fort Benning in the 1950s courtesy of the U.S. Army, still drops names at a machine-gun pace.

He's still a "hail fellow, well met." And he is still engaged.

Recently, Poydasheff sat down with reporter Chuck Williams to discuss his life, his passions and his adopted hometown.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

You are 85 years old and still practicing law.

Oh, I love it, absolutely.

Are you slowing down at all?

No. Not as long as God gives me my health, and the encouragement of Stacy. Oh, heck no. Now, I don't stay here from dawn to dust, but I pick and choose and have a great time.

How did you end up in Columbus?

That's interesting. Stacy and I got married in 1954, and we went to New Orleans. You know, through the Army and (Gen.) Mark Clark and Secretary of State Stephens. ... I came here for the Infantry course and the Airborne course and the Jumpmaster course. Then I was assigned to the Infantry Center Troop Command, and I was having a great time. Then Stacy joined me. Both of our children were born in Columbus. All of our grandchildren, except my grandson-in-law, were born in Columbus, and they have a strong Columbus legacy.

But we liked Columbus and we became active, even as an infantry officer. The Jaycees, that's how I met Mort Harris and some of the great leading lights here. We thoroughly enjoyed coming downtown in the '50s and '60s when you had Kiralfy's. And the people were always gracious. In those days we didn't have the amenities that we have now, but we did have the Springer, we did have a symphony that I loved that performed at the Three Arts Theatre in those days, we had a college which is now Columbus State.

So, you were an Infantry officer?

I loved the Infantry. I was an attorney and a member of the bar.

So, then you ended up in JAG?

Well, that was interesting, because after Stacy ratted me out, I got a call to report to the Staff Judge Advocate Col. Jack "John F.T." Murray -- brilliant, West Point, Harvard law, made his "eagles" (became a full-bird colonel) at 39, artillery. You know, you report smartly. Sit down. "I hear you're an attorney and a member of the bar." "Yessir." And he said, "I want your papers in by Friday to branch recommission to the JAG Corp." I said, "Sir, I'm Infantry." He said: "You're not listening; you will do it."

Is that something you wanted to do?

At first, not really. But once you get into it, it becomes your life. And the war crimes cases, legislative council to the Secretary of the Army, dealing with some of the greatest people in the world, the commanders at Benning over the years -- Jerry White, Carmen Cavezza, Walter Wojdakowski, Ben Freakley, Ken Leuer, Scott Miller now -- you can go on. And working with these people at this level and at the Pentagon level, and them meeting your friends at the War College, America doesn't realize the great armed forces that we have. The soldiers and officers are dedicated. Yes, we have problems. You've read about Dave Petraeus, but think of some of the great things that he has done. Do you understand what I'm saying?

Yes, but Gen. Petraeus lied to the FBI.

Yes he did, and he'll be punished. It's sad. All the great things that Nixon did, he's going to go down for Watergate. The great things that President Clinton has done, he'll go down for Monica Lewinsky. And that's sad. So, one of the things that motivated me throughout my life is my family. There is no way in hell I'm going to disgrace them with my life.

So, one thing you can say when I was mayor: Some of the greatest things about our administration was open. You can ask your own people, we never held back. We were transparent, except in those three incidents where you cannot be. We were honorable, we were ethical. Carmen Cavezza was our city manager, Isaiah Hugley -- greatest people in the world. Anyway, we love Columbus.

What do you love most about Columbus?

The people, for one. They have always been more than gracious to me. The climate -- I'd like some snow -- the climate, the people. What other city will reach out to people? What other city will have a breakfast on race relations? What other city would work with the late Pastor Johnny Flakes and Councilor Mayor Pro Tem Evelyn Pugh and Carmen Cavezza and others, to start One Columbus? What other city would reach out to other people from all walks of life -- blacks, Hispanics, Asian Pacific Islanders? I was made an honorary Hispanic Latino. I don't know of any other city -- Southern or Northern.

So, you're saying this is an inclusive place?

I think so. Now, is that 100 percent? Of course not. Do we have hidden racism? Of course we do. But the thinkers, the movers, the people that care about the city life will act affirmatively to try and do something about it. Bobby Peters -- God bless him -- started a diversity commission, and then when I became the mayor I asked him, I said, "Bobby, would you mind if I add the word 'unity'?" Because we are unified and I believe -- whether it's in God or country, the economical development, a lot of things we believe in -- it should be a commission on unity and diversity. And he said, "Absolutely." Now, Mayor Tomlinson added another word that makes sense, "prosperity," because that's what we're looking for to empower people.

Is Columbus your home? Do you consider yourself a New Yorker or a Columbusite?

Oh, I'm a Columbusite. There's no question about that. Everybody knows that. The mayor of New York, (Michael) Bloomberg, knew that when I went up there to collect my debt. Remember, one of our teams, Northern Little League, won a national and international Championship. And I had a bet with Bloomberg. He would send apples down and I would send him peanuts, onions and some other things.

But believe me, not a former New Yorker -- not a New Yorker -- this is Columbus, Georgia, right here talking to you. And incidentally a parenthetic remark to the guy who started their Homeland Security reaching out, and I can talk to you about that. Yeah, I'm a Columbusite.

But you were born in the Bronx, right?

Sure, the Northern part of the Bronx where people don't realize there are farms. Farms, you understand? We had truck farms in the Bronx. Remember, my wife is a Charlestonian. My children were born in the South.

What did the Army did for you?

Well, it goes back to The Citadel and my Papa, creating a belief of self discipline, honor, duty -- and the Army just enhanced it. First of all, it gave me an outlook of people from all walks of life -- rich or poor, generals' sons, colonels' sons, sergeants major's. It gives you a work ethic, it teaches you values, it teaches you why you are serving. It's almost acquisitive. You serve for the greater good, you serve for the county. You understand civilian leadership. You understand that you may not favor some of the things that are thrown at you, like I'm dead set against the sequestration of funds for the Defense Department and the Department of the Army, but that's the nature, the very beauty of our country.

Civilian leadership teaches you to understand that. It teaches you to understand the Army's role in society.

What would have happened to you if you had not found the Army?

I would have been practicing law or teaching, because I love that. It was a marriage made in Heaven, just like Stacy's and my marriage. But this is something that I love. Now Stacy had familiarity. Her family were bottlers, but every one of her brothers served during World War II. Her brother, Jerry (Latto), died of wounds received, of fragmentations still in his system at the age of 53. And ironically, the fragments came from German ADA (air defense artillery). What's being used now is anti-personnel and anti-tech, and he was with the ADA Infantry Division. So, she understood service and they were very proud of that. Her mother wasn't too happy because she thought when you're in the Army or in the military, you're going to live the life of gypsies. But basically I spent six years here at Fort Benning the first time, from 1957 to 1963.

And you came back when?

I came back when I graduated -- the class of 1976 -- and then in 1979 I was selected to go back to Washington to presumably pin on the star in November. I made a dumb mistake. Remember, we spent seven years in Washington, including pushing into Fort Belvoir to take over until things settled down and at the War College. And I promised Stacy we will not retire in Washington. That was not her bag.

And she said we will not retire in Charleston, and we both loved Columbus, our children were here, and this is where we'll retire, unless they send you to Europe and then we can come back. And like a jerk, I said, "You know, if we go to Washington we can retire there." Kathy was getting married here in 1980. Rob was starting his fleet year at the Citadel. And Stacy said, "I'm not going to Washington." And there was no way in heck I was going to go to Washington without her.

What does Fort Benning mean to Columbus?

I approach Fort Benning, and first of all, you have to understand that I love Fort Benning and the Maneuver Center of Excellence, I loved the people there, whether they were draftees or volunteers, I loved them. Now from an economic side, obviously there are millions of dollars that are poured into Columbus. People live here. We have approximately 50,000 retirees in the metropolitan statistical area -- and forgive me, I may be wrong by a couple of thousand.

They use Fort Benning for medical and for the commissary, the PX, and they attend situations with the international students. So, from an emotional viewpoint, Fort Benning is very important because it feeds into the patriotism of the people in Columbus and the Valley. Chuck, you've been here in the South and in Alabama all your life. You know that the people here are very, very patriotic. They care. I remember when the (3rd Infantry Brigade) was going to Iraq and the Governor was out there and I was out there, Sanford Bishop was out there greeting them and wishing them luck, health and coming back. I mean the outpouring of love! I don't know what it was like in Vietnam; that's something I don't even want to bother talking about. But thank God for Jerry White, who had a big Vietnam kind of reunion.

What happens if there are significant cuts at Benning?

Well, I don't know whether that's going to happen. Before I get into that, it's an emotional and a patriotic dimension of what I think about Fort Benning -- very. And then from a practical reality, Fort Benning is a great economy for Columbus. Retiree jobs, purchasing, whatever you want to think about, Fort Benning is such as an Aflac or Synovus. It is economic development.

So, you people forget that you do have two dimensions, both economic and the military. Now, if the Army has to reduce, they are going to reduce. I don't think the Armor School or the Infantry School is going to go away. When I was mayor and BRAC came in and how we worked that. ... But if it goes down, people may lose jobs, because there will be retirees who are not ready to retire. Civilians may lose jobs. I don't know how many positions will be lost because some jobs are unfilled now so they may not be filled, they may be eliminated permanently in that sense. The soldiers coming in may be reduced. In other words, instead of having X number of people attending the Infantry Basic Courses in the One Station Unit Training, you have X now, it may go down to Y. You have X going to Armor, you may go down to Y.

People here appreciate what Benning does, right?

I think so. Look at the outpouring we had when we spoke at the listening committee that came down to listen to the people. We had approximately 500 people present from the Valley -- from Talbotton, from Harris County, from the MSA, from the Valley. A lot of people.

You spoke to that group, didn't you?

I sure did.

What did you tell them?

In a sense, I was saying I know about sequestration, I know about this, but here is why the Army should not cut Fort Benning.

Why?

Because Fort Benning is Columbus and Columbus is Fort Benning. That's what it is, and the people in Columbus accept the soldiers and their families.

I remember when I got to be mayor, when God blessed me with that, and we were starting Iraq, and I said I don't care what your political leanings are -- I said this publicly -- but I remember Vietnam and that will never happen in Columbus, never. We will reach out to the churches, to the synagogues, and open our arms to the people of Fort Benning, which they did. We embraced them.

So, it's very emotional because you cannot think of Columbus without Fort Benning. You just can't. Look at the generals who have retired here and still do some great work. Look at Jerry White. Without Jerry White you would not have the Infantry Museum as it is.

You say Columbus is Fort Benning and Fort Benning is Columbus. You are kind of an embodiment of that because if not for Fort Benning, you would not be here.

That's true, but so would a lot of people.

That's one of the beauties of it, right?

Yeah, absolutely. Look at Carmen Cavezza. He is as New York as I am. When you talk about me, you talk about Carmen. Born in New York, married a Charlestonian, has a daughter, Peggy, who teaches at Fort Benning, we attended the same institution, and look at what he's accomplished.

At one point in the city of Columbus you had two New Yorkers, the mayor and the city manager.

There were some people who were concerned about the Army. You know, these guys are officers and how are they going to do? But look at what we did. BRAC came about because we worked with the Chamber of Commerce. The first thing Carmen and I said is we've got to do something about it. We met with the Chamber. Steve Melton was the Chamber president. Mike Gaymon was there and we had a great relationship. We had Gen. Leuer, Gen. (Sam) Wetzel, White, (real estate broker) Jack Key, some others, and we decided we were going to get the Wexford Group. We spoke to Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

Y'all fought to keep Fort Benning.

Absolutely. We wanted to make sure that no missions were lost, and so we ended up with the Armor School -- where Armor began in 1938-1939, at Fort Benning.

What are you most proud of as mayor?

Wow! A clean administration. Honorable people: Ed Wilson, Johnny Shipley, Margaret Gallops, Jackie Clark, working with former Mayor Bobby Peters, who had left office at that time and became a judge. Working with the Chamber of Commerce. Just as a unit.

What made you want to be mayor?

I had a vision, particularly about Columbus South. I know people who live in Oakland Park; we're close. And we used to shop at the Traffic Circle.

Has that vision taken shape now?

Yeah, and as I said, we started -- I call it -- Columbus South Revitalization. Some people don't like Columbus South. They said it was just not a palatable place. That is just not true. You've got Benning Hills, where a lot of retired colonels and generals lived. It was the place before Green Island. And the late Eddie Roberts -- God rest his soul -- was the one who said, "Listen, there are pockets, but this is a great place." And we committed. Carmen and Bob Hydrick -- remember Mayor Hydrick? -- we talked about it; let's do something about it.

So, we were able to raise funds. We got the (UGA) Vinson Institute of Government to come down. Eighteen months looking at everything, we found out -- man, is it great! -- so we have Road America there, we have Wagoneer there, we have the Infantry Museum, we have hotels, Valley Hospitality, and look at what's happening. Is it there yet? No, but the vision has been. ... In other words, instead of talking about it, we did something about it. Have we reached that pinnacle? No.

You were mayor during the death of Kenny Walker, and it was a challenging time for the whole community. But I would imagine particularly challenging for leadership in the community. How do you keep a diverse community from fracturing?

Let me tell you what we did: I got called by Jim Jackson. Stacy and I were in New York. We cut our vacation short and the first thing Stacy and I did was to go and see the Walkers. We spent about an hour with them.

And Carmen and I know something about arms and we know about automatic and semi-automatic. I told Carmen, and he'll verify it, talk to the sheriff and have an investigation, GBI. We've got to have an investigation, because that wasn't going to happen. As public safety director, even though the sheriff and the marshal were elected officials, I was going to call the governor, and we did. And then we had the federal investigation.

The other thing we did, we had breakfast with Calvin Smyre, Pastor Force, the Flakes. You bring good people together from all walks of life, the founders of Urban League, etc. And people trust me because I have been part of the Urban League and still am. And you talk, and you get it out.

Then we were able to get a grant from the Turner Foundation, create sensitivity training at Columbus State University. And you told the police officers that everybody except the lower ranks will get sensitivity training and we will teach that. The sheriff came onboard. So, you create a climate where, one, you don't deny anything, you care, you have transparency, people trust you because they know who you are. They know you're not a sham; you put your money where your mouth is.

I think we had four breakfasts at the Marriott with the movers and the shakers -- black, white and Hispanic -- and hashed it out.

Why didn't this become a Ferguson?

Because we cared and we were transparent and we did everything we could to make sure that this city wasn't going to erupt in flames. And it didn't. I know that Mr. (Jesse) Jackson came down and said the mayor wouldn't meet with him. I think those are the words he used. Hell, I was never told. I'll meet with anybody. But it didn't become a flaming city because we and the people cared -- black and white.

You became mayor and you were able to accomplish things. What did it feel like the night that you got beat by Mayor Wetherington?

The first night, especially when one of my grandchildren cried, that kind of got to me. But I went home with Stacy. That was the way it was. I conceded; I saw the handwriting on the wall.

I vented for about an hour. I said people didn't come out and vote and this and that, they were playing the Democrat-Republican game, and police. When I left office on the third of January 2007, at the end of December we were only short ll police officers.

People talk about it. It doesn't make sense. You have retirements, you have this and that, we've always been short. You've got to remember, it's just not CPD, you've got the Sheriff and the Marshal.

Did the loss hurt?

At first, yeah. It really did because there were some other things I wanted to do.

It was a rejection, right?

Yeah, you could say that. Do you know what Sam Rawls -- God rest his soul -- used to say? He said there was a sickness in the air. A lot of voters were sick of Bob. (Laughter.) So, after about an hour, I'm back to being me.

And the next day was hilarious because I got up to go to the office, laughing and all of that, and Stacy thought this guy has gone bonkers. She said, "Are you OK?" And I said, "Yeah." And not to slight Mayor Wetherington, who is a great guy -- I said, it's going to be interesting to see if he's going to be able to keep all of the promises that he made.

And I'm laughing and the rest is history. You march on. That's another thing that the Army teaches you and my Papa and Gen. Patton: Everybody is going to get down somehow, some time, but it's not that you're down, it's what happens when you're down. Are you going to bring yourself up, dust yourself off, and continue to march on, or are you going to wallow in self pity and whine and criticize and condemn?

You could have become very bitter.

Oh no, that's just not in me. Not as a Christian, it's just not in me. I could have, but that's just not me. I can never be bitter. You forgive. You don't care. You don't hold anything against anybody. That's life.

You've been a soldier, a banker, an attorney, and you have been a politician. Which one best defines you?

All of them. Let me tell you a story, and what I love about Carmen and Jerry White. Carmen is such a great guy; he would always stand. I'd say, "What are you doing?" And he said, "Well, you are the mayor." So, he'd come into my office and I would stand up. And I finally said, "Carmen, you can take the boy out of the Army, but you can't take the Army out of the boy."

So, what best describes me, everything. I'm still a soldier. I'm on the retired list but a regular officer is an officer of the United States. A politician is a servant of the people. If you go back to the Greek term "politician," it's a server of the people. And you're still doing that by helping and working with other organizations like Port Columbus, the Infantry Museum, the Rangers, the Symphony board, and just providing an environment for people to have a good life in Columbus, Georgia.

You don't do it yourself. Make no mistake about it. Anybody that tells you, "I've done this," "I've done that" -- we were able to accomplish the work with the Jerry Whites of the world, with the Carmen Cavezzas, with the Mike Gaymons, the Meltons, the Jack Keys, and the development authority.

... You take whitewater rafting, I'll never forget when that dream was Neal Wickham's dream in the '70s, and John Turner had the same vision and he took it and grabbed it. He spoke to me, "What do you think of this?" and I told him, "I would do anything to support you." He and Carmen and I flew to Washington. We spoke to our congressmen. All supported it. We spoke to our senators and Alabama. All supported it. And then we went to see the chief of the Corps of Engineers hoping we could get some money.

First of all, they blessed it. They said that whitewater rafting, the way John had that concept, was going to be great for the environment. And the Corps of Engineers, Department of the Army supported it. However, we couldn't get the $5 million bucks, but John was able to raise it. So, look at it now.

What do you think of downtown now, the revitalization?

I'm glad you asked that question. That was started, not by Poydasheff, but was started under Mayor Bobby Peters. You can really go back to Frank Martin. We were able to have the Olympics in 1996. We created the BID, we created the entertainment district, and by the end of my term, it was all done. Look at it. And I was criticized for supporting Columbus State coming downtown and building their art center because we're just taking property off the tax roll. What property? Who's coming down there? So, take a look at what's going on now.

What is it like being married to you for 60 years?

Oh great. Absolutely great.

No, not what is it like being married for 60 years, what's it like being married to you?

Oh, married to me? You'll have to ask Stacy. But she's stuck with me. I don't care what I've achieved, sometimes ego goes to your head and it can blow, but when you have a wife and a family like Rob and Cathy and Meg and Bill, and the grandchildren like Gee Gee who will say, "Papoo, chill out." And Stacy says, "Bob, just like she did this morning, think of what you say, keep your mouth shut, many people know you, some even like you, relax."

Bio Name: Bob PoydasheffAge: 85Education: DeWitt Clinton High School, New York City, Bronx, 1948; The Citadel, 1954, B.A. in political science; Tulane University, Law School, 1957; Boston University, master’s in international relations with emphasis on Russia, 1966; various military colleges and schools.Job: Practicing attorney; adjunct faculty, Strayer CollegeWife: Stacy, married 60 years; children, Catherine Alexandra Ross, husband, Bill; Rob, wife, Meg; six grandchildren; two great-grandchildren

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