COVID-19, Trump visit, moving of Johnston statue dominated 2021 headlines in Whitfield and Murray

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  • Donald Trump
    Donald Trump
    45th President of the United States
  • Joseph E. Johnston
    Confederate States Army general (1807-1891)

Dec. 30—The battle against COVID-19 seemed to be advancing at the start of 2021, with the growing availability of three vaccines that dramatically reduce the chances a person who has received one of them will be hospitalized or die from the disease.

However, vaccination rates in Whitfield and Murray counties lagged much of the nation, and local hospitals once again found themselves overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. That was one of the major stories of 2021, which also included a visit by then-President Donald Trump to Dalton and the relocation of the Gen. Joseph E. Johnston statue from downtown to the Huff House despite much opposition to the move.

COVID-19 takes its toll

Georgia began rolling out COVID-19 vaccinations in January. At first, the vaccines were available only to those 65 or older and at county health departments and some other medical centers. By year's end, the vaccines were available in most pharmacies and many doctors' offices, and everyone 5 and older was eligible for at least one vaccine.

In April, the city of Dalton, Whitfield County and the Whitfield County Health Department began to team up to hold drive-thru vaccination clinics at the Dalton Convention Center.

And in August, Dalton became the first city in Georgia to provide the Regeneron monoclonal antibody treatment. The treatment is offered by the city on a drive-thru basis at the Dalton Convention Center.

But vaccination rates still lagged, and in late summer a surge in cases pushed local hospitals to the brink.

Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton had 49 COVID-19 patients on Aug. 11, the first day hospital officials began publicly reporting the numbers. Eleven of those patients were in the ICU (intensive care unit); five were on ventilators.

By Aug. 25, the hospital had 78 COVID-19 patients (91% unvaccinated); 17 of those were in the ICU (94% unvaccinated); and 15 were on ventilators (93% unvaccinated).

The number of COVID-19 patients remained high through the fall, but began to decline in November.

On Dec. 26, Hamilton had 30 COVID-19 patients (77% unvaccinated), seven in the ICU (100% unvaccinated) and four on ventilators (100% unvaccinated).

Data show that Murray and Whitfield counties ended the year lagging the state and the nation in their vaccination rates. For the United States as a whole, 61% of those eligible had received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 51% were fully vaccinated. In Georgia, 60% had received at least one dose and 53% were fully vaccinated. But in Whitfield County, 47% had received at least one dose and 43% were fully vaccinated. And in Murray County, 41% had received at least one dose and 37% were fully vaccinated.

Trump returns to Dalton

Then-President Donald Trump spoke to thousands of supporters at the Dalton Municipal Airport on the eve of the Jan. 5 runoff elections that pitted incumbent Republican U.S. senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue against, respectively, Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. It was the first visit to Dalton of a sitting president since President George H.W. Bush toured a Shaw Industries facility and held a rally at the airport while campaigning for reelection in August 1992.

Trump's visit was overshadowed by the release a few days before of a phone call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which the president pushed the Republican elections official to "find" additional votes for him that would give Trump a win in Georgia.

At the rally, Trump repeated his unproven claims that election fraud cost him a victory in Georgia.

"There's no way we lost Georgia, there's no way," Trump stated and was met with cheers. "That was a rigged election."

Democrat Joe Biden, now the president, beat Trump in Georgia by 49.47% to 49.24%. Trump carried Whitfield County with 69.7%.

While the airport rally was Trump's only visit to Dalton as president, he was no stranger to the city. He was married to actress, model and Cohutta native Marla Maples from 1993 to 1999, and during their courtship and marriage he reportedly visited Dalton and Whitfield County several times.

Johnston statue removed from site of more than a century

After spending some 108 years in downtown Dalton at the intersection of Crawford and Hamilton streets, the Gen. Joseph E. Johnston statue has a new home.

The statue, which was placed in downtown in 1912, was moved to the backyard of the nearby Huff House in February. The Huff House, on Selvidge Street, is owned by the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society and was Johnston's headquarters during the Confederate Army of Tennessee's winter encampment in Dalton for about six months from December 1863 to May 1864 during the Civil War. The local United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) chapter owns the statue.

The statue was placed on a concrete pad in the backyard of the Huff House. The project included placing a wrought iron fence around the statue and backyard; lights to illuminate the statue; and two security cameras covering the statue.

Statues of historical figures, including Confederate military leaders, became flashpoints across the world as protests, some of which turned violent, filled several cities in the aftermath of the death of Minneapolis, Minnesota, resident George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody on May 25, 2020, when a white officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.

In Dalton, protests, which were peaceful, focused on the Johnston statue. Approximately 200 people filled the lawn of City Hall on June 8, 2020, following a "March for Justice," and one of the demands of many was the relocation of the statue of Johnston to a "more appropriate place." Some of the organizers of that march said they believed the Huff House would be such a place because of its connection to Johnston.

A Facebook group called Don't Let Joe Go that was dedicated to preserving the statue at its downtown location formed soon after that march.

On June 13, 2020, defenders of the statue clashed with protesters during another march organized by the Atlanta-based Southern Advocacy Group when about 60 protesters stopped across the street from the statue.

On several occasions, Dalton Police Department officers had to step in and separate marchers and members of the group that was watching over the statue.

"It (the Huff House) is a logical place for the statue where the history of the man, the statue and the house may all be interpreted and visited," said Dalton attorney Robert Jenkins, who represented the UDC in the relocation.

According to Bruce Frazier, communications director for the city of Dalton, "Money from private donors was used to fund the move and no taxpayer money was used for the project."

"This was not an action of the city of Dalton," Frazier said. "There was never a vote by the mayor and council on this issue, and this issue never appeared on any city agenda. This was a private decision by the UDC which owns the statue."

"In many communities across our country, unfortunately, similar circumstances have led to violence, bloodshed, vandalism and destruction of people, property, businesses and statues," Jenkins said. "In Dalton, however, the various parties have worked together to find and to carry out a good solution. We hope that the new location of the statue will lead to greater interest to and support of the Huff House and our new partners in the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society Inc. as they strive to preserve all of our area's rich history."

Changes on the Dalton City Council

The November election brought a new face and a returning face to the Dalton City Council.

Former Dalton mayor Dennis Mock returned as the council member from Ward 1. Mock was the only person to qualify to fill the remainder of Derek Waugh's term in the Ward 1 seat, which runs through Dec. 31, 2023.

Marist School in Atlanta named Waugh, the former athletics director of Dalton State College, as its new athletics director in March. Waugh is a Marist alumnus. He continued to serve on the City Council through the end of June.

Mock won a special election in 2014 to fill current mayor David Pennington's unexpired term as mayor after Pennington stepped down in an unsuccessful bid for governor. Mock won a full four-year term in 2015. He lost to Pennington by 11 votes in the 2019 election.

Mock is retired from Whitco Produce, a family-owned wholesale produce company that has been in Dalton for some 60 years. He has a bachelor's degree in psychology and sociology from Ball State University and a master's in health administration from Georgia State University.

Former state senator Steve Farrow edged out incumbent Gary Crews 51% to 49% in the race for the Ward 4 seat in November. The term is for four years.

Crews, who is practice manager at MedNow and owns a small business, was seeking his fourth term on the council.

Farrow said during the campaign that recreation would be one of his main focuses. In particular, he said, he'd like to find areas where the city owns or could acquire land for additional walking and bicycling trails.

A Dalton native, Farrow graduated from Dalton High School, the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia School of Law.

He has held a variety of posts within government. He served in the state Senate from 1993-96 and a two-year term on the State Transportation Board in 2008-09. While in the Senate, he was chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. He served four years on the State Ethics Commission (2003-06), serving as chairman for two years. He was also on the State Board of Workers' Compensation, presiding as a judge (2009-13).

Farrow has practiced law in Dalton for 39 years. At his former law firm, The Minor Firm, he represented two county governments and six municipalities, including the city of Dalton. He also represented Dalton Utilities in various capacities.

For the past eight years he has practiced law in the Dalton office of the Warren & Griffin law firm, which is based in Chattanooga.

Changes at the top in Whitfield County Schools and Whitfield County government

In February, Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Judy Gilreath announced she would retire.

"It is with mixed emotions that I am announcing that I plan to retire at the end of June," said Gilreath, who had been with Whitfield County Schools since 2001 and took over as superintendent in March 2013. "I will miss the wonderful friends that I have made over the last 20 years but am looking forward to new opportunities as I move into retirement; I am not one of those people who can just sit at home, so I am sure that I will be pursuing other adventures."

In April, the Board of Education named Mike Ewton, then assistant superintendent for operations and student services, as the next superintendent, effective July 1. Ewton was one of two finalists for the post. Karey Williams, then assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, was the other finalist for superintendent. Williams was named deputy superintendent.

Ewton was a deputy sheriff with the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office and a manager for Mohawk Industries before transitioning into education and has been with Whitfield County Schools for 17 years.

And in June, the school system named then-Whitfield County Administrator Mark Gibson as chief operations officer. Gibson oversees facilities, nutrition, project management and public safety for the school system, the role previously performed by Ewton.

A 1992 graduate of Northwest Whitfield High School, Gibson had served as county administrator since January 2011.

He served as city administrator of Varnell for almost three years before becoming county administrator. Before taking the Varnell position, Gibson was the city manager of Alma, a small town in South Georgia about 116 miles southwest of Savannah. Gibson has also worked as the Dalton Municipal Court administrator and as an officer with the Dalton Police Department.

In September, the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners named Robert Sivick as the new county administrator.

Most recently Sivick had served almost four years as county administrator of Waushara County, Wisconsin. Prior to that, he served as city manager of Willamina, Oregon; city attorney of Grand Island, Nebraska; village attorney of Greeley Center, Nebraska; and county attorney, county manager and personnel director of Howard County, Nebraska. He also served on the City Council of Omaha, Nebraska.

In memoriam

The Greater Dalton area suffered the loss of some of its leading citizens in 2021.

Shelby Peeples, a pioneer in the floorcovering industry and noted philanthropist, passed away in February.

Peeples and his wife Willena were inducted into the Junior Achievement of Northwest Georgia Business Hall of Fame in 2015.

Peeples, along with his wife, was a major contributor to Dalton State College. The school's science building, the 58,000-square-foot Shelby and Willena Peeples Hall, is named for the couple.

Shelby and Willena Peeples were both cancer survivors, and they provided a gift that made Hamilton Medical Center's Peeples Cancer Institute possible.

Ralph Morgan, one of a small group of residents who organized and lobbied the state legislature to incorporate Varnell as a city in 1968, passed away in April. In 1968, at the first City Council meeting, council members named Morgan city judge, a post he would hold for 18 years. During the next 38 years he would hold a number of city posts, the most prominent of which were director of finance and 12 years as city manager.

Morgan never accepted any pay for his work with the city. In fact, he donated an 11,000-square-foot building that served as City Hall for many years.

Born and raised in the Varnell area, Morgan started his own company, which provided industrial supplies to the carpet industry, in 1966. In 1986, he sold that company and retired from the supply business.

Mike Cowan, who represented District 1 on the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners from 1997 to 2010, passed away in April.

Cowan founded and ran two companies, C&C Crane and Magna-Weld.

He was first elected as a commissioner in 1996 to fill an unexpired term, beginning service on the board in 1997, then was reelected three times to serve full four-year terms. He left the Board of Commissioners in 2010 because of term limits. State law does not allow a Whitfield County commissioner to serve more than three consecutive four-year terms.

During his time on the Board of Commissioners, Cowan was recognized by Georgia Trend magazine as one of the state's "Most Influential People." He received the National Association of Counties' 2007 County Courthouse Award for "outstanding governance and strong leadership." He was the first district representative for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, and was the vice chairman of the court subcommittee for the National Association of Counties' Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee.

Cowan was in a severe motorcycle wreck after stepping down from the commission in 2011, suffering head trauma and internal injuries. He spent months at Erlanger hospital and the Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation, both in Chattanooga.

He recovered and mounted an unsuccessful run for his former seat on the commission in 2018.

Dalton business and political leaders recalled Frederick Harvey Howalt Jr. as "one of the giants" who helped build the carpet industry in Dalton.

Howalt, who founded Textile Rubber & Chemical Co. in 1951 to provide latex backing for the rug and carpet industry, passed away on July 6.

Textile Rubber & Chemical Co. is still headquartered in Dalton but has grown to be a global company, serving many industries with "manufacturing and distribution facilities around the world," according to the company's website.

Norberto Reyes is remembered for his many roles, including as a pioneer in Dalton's Latino community, a leader in its business and civic life, and as a mentor to many entrepreneurs whose businesses have helped revitalize the city.

Reyes, the founder and long-time owner of the Los Reyes restaurants in Dalton and Ringgold, passed away in October.

Reyes came to Dalton from Marietta, where his family ran a Mexican restaurant, in 1981 to start Los Reyes, a decade before the large influx of Latino migration to Dalton.

As the city's Latino population soared, Reyes worked to help the newcomers assimilate and to build bridges between the native population and the incoming Latino population.

Judy Love Joyce, the owner of Love Funeral Home, passed away in December.

Love Funeral Home was founded in 1935 by Joyce's' father Jack, her grandfather Maddox and her uncle Harold.

"She grew up in the business," said Mark Joyce, her son. "This community has been very good to her family, and it was important to her to be able to serve this community. She was very proud that this is still a family business."

Hamilton Medical Center turns 100

Hamilton Health Care System observed the 100th anniversary of its hospital's opening in May.

According to "Let This Place Be a Symbol," an official history of Hamilton Health Care System by Barry Parker, who had served as Hamilton's director of community relations, the management of Crown Cotton Mill formed a committee to look at building a hospital for its employees. In turn, they were approached by local doctors and other business leaders and they jointly decided to open a hospital for the general population of Dalton on land acquired by the doctors on Waugh Street between Pentz Street and Cleveland Street (now Selvidge Street).

They broke ground for the 42-bed hospital in 1920, and 1,000 people attended the dedication and opening of Hamilton Memorial Hospital on May 12, 1921. It became Hamilton Medical Center in 1982. The hospital is named for George W. Hamilton Sr., who was president of Crown Cotton Mill. It moved to its current location, 1200 Memorial Drive, in 1956.

Hamilton Health Care System has expanded beyond just Hamilton Medical Center.

In 1986, Hamilton opened Bradley Wellness Center, which provides physical therapy and fitness services. In 1994, it opened Royal Oaks, the first continuing-care retirement community in the area. In 1997, it bought three skilled-nursing facilities: Ridgewood Manor, Quinton Memorial and Wood Dale Health Care Center. Two years later, it opened Regency Park, an advanced skilled-nursing facility. And more recently, it opened the Peeples Cancer Institute and the Anna Shaw Children's Institute.

Former Healthcare Partnership director sentenced to prison

A former executive director of the Northwest Georgia Healthcare Partnership was sentenced to two years in prison followed by eight years of probation after pleading guilty in December to one count of felony theft by taking in connection with the Partnership, according to District Attorney Bert Poston.

Gregory Jack Dent, 55, was also sentenced to 300 hours of community service and an $80,000 fine. Superior Court Judge Cindy Morris handled the plea.

An audit of the Partnership, which has since dissolved, found "inconsistencies" that led the agency's board to unanimously "terminate the employment" of Dent in November 2019, according to Brittany Pittman, who was then the chairman of the board of the Partnership.

After Dent's arrest in January 2020, a Dalton Police Department press release said an "investigation has found that Mr. Dent misappropriated more than $80,000 from the organization for his personal use over a period of three years."

The press release said Dent "used the stolen funds for personal use not related to the business including travel, meals, clothing and other personal expenses."

In December 2020 the Partnership's board said the agency had dissolved after 28 years and many of its programs were turned over to other local organizations.

"Due primarily to ongoing financial difficulties resulting from the termination and subsequent arrest of its former director for alleged crimes involving the NGHP's finances, the board of NGHP formally voted to dissolve the entity and cease all operations," the board said in a statement.

Brown Industries closes

One of Dalton's pioneering companies in the floorcovering industry closed in 2021.

"After serving the flooring and home improvement industries for more than 60 years, Brown Industries is permanently closing its doors," said J. Darren Wilcox, co-CEO and president of Brown Industries, in a statement. "The company will be closing its plant facilities and terminating the employment of its associates in Dalton, Georgia, as of Oct. 1, 2021, as it completes obligations to its customers and business partners. These actions were necessitated due to unforeseen business circumstances."

In 1954, James E. Brown, a printing salesman, made what is said to be the first carpet sample device with $200 of wood, glue and scissors and pioneered the sample industry.

In 1958, Brown and his wife Mary M. "Sis" Brown formed Brown Printing. It evolved into Brown Industries. Brown Industries provided print, sampling, display and logistics services to companies around the world.

James and Sis Brown, who passed away in 2004 and 2017 respectively, were active in a number of civic and charitable organizations.

The Browns were supporters of what was then Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State College) when it was being planned and when it opened, and James Brown was a charter trustee of what would become the Dalton State Foundation in 1967.

In 2005, Sis Brown joined the executive committee of the foundation. She chaired the largest fundraising campaign in its history. The foundation's goal had been to raise $16 million. Under her leadership, it raised $21 million.

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