ATLANTA (AP) — At a funeral that began with the voice of Ray Charles singing “Georgia On My Mind” and ended with taps echoing through the ornate Georgia Capitol rotunda, former Gov. Zell Miller was celebrated Wednesday as a beloved leader who helped bring the state into a more modern era.
Gov. Nathan Deal became emotional as he thanked Miller’s family at the former U.S. senator and two-term Georgia governor’s state funeral.
“To the family, let me just say thank you for being a part of his life, for being a part of the fabric that has made our state great,” Deal said.
Miller died Friday at age 86 in his old family home in the north Georgia mountain town of Young Harris. He had retreated from public view in the past year after his family revealed he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Governor from 1991 until 1999, Miller came out of retirement in 2000 at age 68 to fill the final four years of a U.S. Senate term.
“I think what the people appreciated is, he governed on what he campaigned on,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said. “And he was determined — you know him — to be very forceful and decisive and knew where he wanted to go.”
Perdue reflected on when Miller first gained prominence in state politics and credited him with helping burnish Georgia’s image — among its own residents and across the nation.
“Many people in the United States still considered Georgia kind of a backwater state,” Perdue said. “And yet Zell Miller, I think, put Georgia on the rails to become a modern state, a progressive state and a state of achievement.”
Miller is known nationally for championing the idea of using lottery profits to fund scholarships for schoolchildren.
The HOPE scholarship, which arose from Miller’s efforts, was launched in 1993. It pays college tuition for Georgia students maintaining a B average and was funded by establishing a state lottery.
Religious conservatives opposed the lottery as sinful gambling, but Miller won approval from lawmakers and voters, and HOPE scholarships have funded the education of 1.8 million Georgia students since then, according to the Georgia Lottery.
The state funeral was the third ceremony to mourn Miller and honor his legacy. The first was Monday in Young Harris, where Miller began his long political career as mayor after serving as a U.S. Marine. On Tuesday, former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush spoke at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta.
“His achievements as governor are truly legendary, as was his career in the United States Senate,” Deal said. “I think that fact is verified by yesterday, in which three of the five living presidents of the United States attended his funeral here in our capital city.”
From a balcony inside the Capitol, a bugler played the somber notes of taps after Deal spoke. Bagpipes played as Miller’s body was carried outside to a hearse, where Deal and Perdue replaced the state seal covering his casket with the Marine Corps emblem.
A small family funeral is planned before his burial.
John Bazemore of The Associated Press contributed.