“We remember him with humor and we remember him with hope,” declared First United Methodist Church of Marietta pastor the Rev. Dr. Sam Matthews at the outset. “He was a giant room-brightener of a man.”
Whorton’s son, Mike, the first of three eulogists, quipped that his dad “is probably already pushing St. Peter for a job and introducing himself to everybody up there, most of whom he probably already knows.”
“He meant so much to so many. And he was passionately optimistic about everything he did,” he said.
The younger Whorton described his father as his best friend and recalled how his dad loved big family get-togethers.
“If he’d had his way, we’d have all been living under the same roof, like the Ewing Family on ‘Dallas,’” he said.
Whorton “couldn’t’ wait to get to work each day at the MDJ,” where he’d worked from 1971 until his death Monday at age 85, and on whose behalf he was still selling ads from his hospital bed as recently as last Friday.
“When people asked him for help, he gave it,” Mike Whorton said. “He liked to mentor young people, because he said they’ll help keep you young.”
MIKE WHORTON was followed by retired Georgia Supreme Court Justice Conley Ingram.
“I loved him like a brother. He was like the brother I never had,” he said. “He added zest to everything.”
And Ingram reminded the crowd that Whorton had been “a big man” in Carrollton at the newspaper there for a decade before he had moved to Cobb.
“I’m glad we were able to get him up here. Life will be greatly diminished without him.”
MATTHEWS informed the crowd at the outset that every last detail of the funeral had been worked out ahead of time by Whorton.
“He decided who would speak and how long we would speak” — with each speaker limited to just five minutes, Matthews added.
Whorton designated MDJer Tara Guest to be an usher and chose account execs Paula Milton and Becky Opitz to be “wailers,” their job to throw themselves onto the casket in convulsive sobbing at the 11 a.m. funeral.
“I told Jay that’s fine, and then I told the ‘wailers’ to be sure and be here by 2 p.m. for the service,” Matthews quipped.
Whorton also lost out on his request to have the post-funeral reception catered by The Varsity, he added.
“One night I teased him with Garrison Keillor’s wonderful line. I said, ‘Jay, why are you so concerned about your funeral? You know you’re going to miss it by just a few days.’ He said, ‘I’ve been to a lot of bad funerals and I don’t want a bad funeral.’”
“So we planned this good funeral for Jay, a ‘good funeral’ according to the best definition I have ever read: we will ‘get the dead where they need to go and the living where we need to be.’ Jay has long since determined where he needed to go, and he has gone. We grieve, but, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. And together we will get where we need to be.”
MATTHEWS recounted how Whorton had overcome life’s early setbacks while growing up on a farm in reduced circumstances during the Depression.
“Jay came from a meager beginning and had he wanted an excuse for not accomplishing much in his life, he certainly had it. He spent his early life on a farm on Sand Mountain, Ala., hardly a hotbed of opportunity and unlimited horizons. He lost two brothers early — one to World War II and one to typhoid fever. His father died suddenly on Christmas Day between those two deaths, Jay just 14 years old.
“Jay and his mother knew poverty and hard times. Those losses could have made him bitter. They could have stolen his courage and his determination. He could have folded his arms and his tent and made excuses for the rest of his life. Many others have done so with far lesser calamity in their lives. Instead, those challenges empowered Jay. He never forgot those times and in some ways never got very far from them. I remember over and over hearing that, when Jay was not present in worship, he was attending a family reunion. In those reunions Jay must have remembered his roots, his family, his starting point. Perhaps it was those reunions and those memories that produced the humility that we loved so dearly.”
“FROM A MEAGER BEGINNING Jay rose to a great, great height with significant influence on his community,” Matthews said. And the throng of attendees at Whorton’s funeral were testimony to just how far he had climbed from his start on life’s lowest rungs. Those sitting on the front row included U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) (who earlier this week described Whorton as “the best salesman I’ve ever known”), former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee, the Rev. Dr. Charles Sineath, the Rev. Dr. Nelson Price, the Rev. Sam Storey, Sheriff Neil Warren and retired Atlanta syndicated columnist Bill Shipp.
Others in the crowd included former Gov. Roy Barnes, Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin and former Mayor Bill Dunaway, retired Lockheed Martin President Micky Blackwell, WellStar head Reynold Jennings, restaurateur Don Maynard, Dr. Frank Espinoza, retired Kennesaw State University President Dr. Betty Siegel, retired Chattahoochee Tech President Dr. Harlon Crimm, the Rev. Dr. Jim Speed, retired Caraustar VP Bob Prillaman, Marietta City Attorney Doug Haynie, Superior Court Judge Rueben Green, Sundial Plumbing owner Mitzi Moore, car dealer Irv Smith, retired IBMer Norm Aiken, Superior Plumbing owner Jay Cunningham, Katy Ruth Camp of The Georgia Ballet and Perry Price.
Other media figures included MDJ columnist Don McKee, former Atlanta magazine editor and Whorton neighbor Lee Walburn and former AJC editor Jim Minter.
Elsewhere MDJers present and past filled several rows; while other rows were packed with Whorton’s fellow Marietta Rotarians, North Georgia State Fair Board members and members of his Sunday school class.
“HE CONTRIBUTED to the county during an era of great growth and progress, but he did more than that,” Matthews said. “As important as those contributions are, there is a greater need. Jay contributed to the county’s soul, its character, and its spirit, and that is the greater challenge, is it not? Those who make that contribution are rare, indeed, and Jay will be missed.
“You know what I mean about soul and character. He made the county a friendly place. He was upbeat and positive. He was hopeful and joyful. He was a cheerleader for many of us in this room, and he was a cheerleader for his community. He was attentive to those who had less, sensitive to those who grieved, supportive of those who had lost their way. He was a good friend and a good man. … And really, is there any greater measure of a man’s kindness and integrity than in his joy in the success of others? There was not a jealous bone in Jay’s body. He celebrated you and me.”
MATTHEWS MADE LIGHT of Whorton’s penchant for “working the room” at his weekly Rotary meeting, then ducking out.
“He was always at the meetings early, claiming his seat, eating and conversing, then working the tables, greeting the Rotarians. I don’t remember his actually staying for very many meetings, but I have been active for just five years.”
And he recounted how Whorton, an ardent member of First Methodist, once had an atheist move in as a neighbor. Whorton invited the neighbor to attend church some Sunday, saying it might change his mind. The neighbor answered that was unlikely, to which Whorton predicted, “If I can get you to the front door, I can close the deal!”
“JAY TOLD ME how to begin this service, but he left no instructions as to how I was to end it,” Matthews concluded. “So I turn to Jay and give him this last word: ‘Happy day, brother, happy day!’”
To which we at Around Town echo “Happy day, Jay, happy day!”