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Friday, January 4, 2013 - 11:47am

Sen. Gillis Was Bullwark Of Rural Ga.

The death of 94-year-old former state Senator Hugh Gillis of Soperton on Tuesday is being called the end of an era for Georgia politics.

With a combined 56 years in both the state House and Senate, he was the longest-serving legislator in the Georgia history, having first been elected in 1941.

Moreover, Gillis represented a bygone era in which rural Georgia had more clout under the Golden Dome, said state Representative Debbie Buckner of Junction City.

"There was a time when all of the leadership positions, particularly in the House, were held by a rural representative," Buckner said. "Now, the population has tilted."

With the majority of Georgia's population now living in metro areas, much of the political power is in the hands of legislators representing those districts, "and of course a lot of the votes are," Buckner said.

Buckner worked with Gillis on property rights issues affecting Georgia wetlands.

Gillis was also instrumental in the 1982 creation of Mercer University's medical school, which has a focus on rural medicine.

"I remember [Gillis] telling me at one point, what rural Georgia needed was 'physicians who could speak English and veterinarians who could treat large animals,'" said Dr. Doug Skelton, former Dean of the Mercer University School of Medicine.

"While he recognized foreign graduates who had license in the state were serving our people, [differences in] culture made it difficult for them to relate to the citizens of rural Georgia," Skelton said.

Today, Mercer boasts that 63% of its graduate doctors are practicing in-state, a higher retention rate than any other medical school in Georgia.