By Maurice Carter, Sustainable Newton President
Anyone living or working in Newton County has until November 30 (tomorrow) to view and comment on the county's Transit Master Plan, which we encourage you to do here.
As a climate activist, I support public transportation as a critical investment to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists working on Drawdown Georgia estimate 43% of our state's carbon emissions come from vehicles on our roadways, which is why they've pegged Mass Transit as one of five Transportation Sector climate solutions for Georgia.
But my inspiration is far more personal. It's rooted in a promise I made to a friend before she died. I'd known Vivian Harris when my wife served as Covington's Mayor from 2008-2011, but I hadn't seen her for years when I happened to attend a meeting Vivian instigated in 2015 for local citizens seeking to establish public transportation in Newton County.
As an older person with limited mobility following a failed back surgery, Vivian was no longer able to drive. She accepted that. But, as a strong, self-sufficient (some might say stubborn) woman, Vivian believed people like her deserved a reliable alternative to imposing on friends or strangers. She also knew a lack of transportation choices was impeding many seeking employment and educational access. Along those lines, Vivian served on the Board of Directors for Georgia Piedmont Technical College and worked closely with our local economic development officials at the Chamber of Commerce. She understood how essential transportation is for economic vitality in a community.
Vivian quickly drew me into her effort to bring reliable public transportation to our county. And our friendship blossomed when I became one her regular drivers taking her to local meetings, appointments, and especially her board meetings in Atlanta. I called her "Miss Daisy," joking about our inverted rendition of the Morgan Freeman/Jessica Tandy film roles. She always wanted to pay me. I refused, but finally compromised by letting her buy me lunch. I laugh when I remember sitting in Chili's one afternoon as a Bad Company song was playing on the restaurant's speakers. "I like this song," she said. A native of Oxford, Georgia, Vivian spent her working years in Detroit. But she was no Motown fan. A devotee of 1970s classic rock and an accomplished golfer before her surgery -- Vivian broke every stereotype I'd every held about a black woman in her 70s.
I took Vivian somewhere every week, but she called daily to strategize or discuss some big breakthrough or curse a setback. She taught me patience at a time I needed the lesson. Through her example, I learned to see the world around me (and my movement through it) with new eyes. I realized for the first time my freedom of motion was a privilege I had taken for granted. I gained compassion for those facing different circumstances -- whether due to health or economics.
The photo I've attached is from a political event I organized in 2016 at the Mystic Grill restaurant in Covington. The meeting room was at the top of a very long flight of stairs. I'll never forget standing at the railing upstairs, looking down to see Vivian coming through the front door with her walker, and my horror considering for the first time the impossibility of her getting up there. I was ashamed by my lack of thoughtfulness and rushed down to apologize. Vivian shrugged it off, handed the walker to her friend, and began her courageous climb. She pulled herself up every step in an ascent that seemed to last forever.
For the rest of that evening, I wondered about the invited guests who RSVPed yes, but didn't show. Did they just not feel like it? Looking across the room at Vivian sitting there, I have never been more in awe of one human being. She would not be denied.
Vivian died unexpectedly in June of 2018. I called 911 when I arrived to pick her up from her Oxford home for a local meeting and couldn't get her to come to the door or answer her phone. Police found her dead in her bedroom. When we talked by phone the night before, neither Vivian nor I knew it would be the last time. But, she had always made it clear to me that her cause was my cause. That she would never rest until we brought public transportation to Newton County -- and that neither should I. That duty was my last thought as I helped carry her casket to her final resting place in the Oxford Historical Cemetery.
It's taken a long time to bring Vivian's vision into widespread public awareness, and we still have far to go to make it a reality. But the Newton County Transit Master Plan is a sure sign Vivian's message was taken to heart by folks who could move that forward. I'm so glad to see they have.
When I watch the video below summarizing the master plan, I hear echoes of that very first community meeting where Vivian told us why this mattered so much. I think of all the conversations we had about it, and I remember all the folks she was determined to help.
When you take the survey, I hope you'll tell them what I did: "Get this done for Miss Daisy!" ♥