Georgia Town Abuzz Over Airport Being Renamed After Former President Carter

ATLANTA -- Jimmy Carter has often sparked controversy for things he's said or written, but now the former president finds himself the flashpoint in a small-town debate he did nothing to provoke.

Souther Field Airport in Americus -- about 20 miles from Carter's hometown of Plains -- is set to be renamed Jimmy Carter Regional Airport on Sunday, and not everyone's happy about the change.

The Americus City Council and Sumter County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously for the change last month, and the Americus and Sumter County Airport Authority approved it 3 to 1.

Opponents say they have no issue with Carter himself, and would be pleased to see anything else in town named after the former president. They just want to preserve local history.

"I have no problem with Jimmy Carter or his family. We're proud that he was the 39th president," said airport authority chairman Frank Joiner, who didn't cast a vote because there was no need for a tiebreaker.

The airport is named after Henry Souther, who helped develop the airfield as a military training base during World War I. Joiner and others want to preserve the history of the airfield where Charles Lindbergh flew solo for the first time, four years before he piloted the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in 1927.

"We have a 92-year-old history of Souther Field. It was already named after an aviator. This change is destroying history," Joiner said. "Many pilots like myself, we feel like we're going to lose our roots here."

The Americus Times-Recorder was first to report on the controversy, which has prompted some letters to the editor opposing the change.

City councilwoman Eloise Paschal said she was shocked to learn of any opposition to renaming the airport, which sees fewer than 100 corporate and personal flights a week and serves no commercial carriers.

"I thought he was deserving," she said. "I have known the Carters for a long time, and I have enormous respect for them."

She said she didn't hear about opposition until after the vote, but she's not inclined to change her mind.

Americus Mayor Barry Blount said he and the city council members thought it was important to name a site after the former president and that he too was surprised to hear of opposition.

"I think it's just important for this community to honor President Carter and his many contributions to not only our area but the whole country," he said. "I knew there'd be some resistance but I didn't really know how much."

The location is fitting, Blount said, because it was the site of Carter's great-grandfather's farm.

Carter plans to attend the renaming ceremony Sunday at 3 p.m. and make some remarks, his spokeswoman Deanna Congileo said Friday.

Rick Urash, a flight instructor at the airport, wrote a letter to Carter on Sept. 23 asking him to intervene.

"There must be hundreds of things named after you but to my knowledge once Souther is gone there is no reminder at all of his good name save his tombstone," Urash wrote in the letter.

Two weeks later, his letter came back from Carter with a handwritten note scrawled at the top: "To Rick Urash- I discouraged the City Council and wanted the naming honors to go to Brown Hodges. Best wishes, Jimmy C."

Hodges was a longtime chairman of the airport authority, said Urash, who was thrilled to hear from the former president. The airport's terminal was named after him in July in a ceremony attended by Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, Urash said.

"I'm just grateful that he has heard us," Urash said. "I'm hoping that he will really just gracefully decline."