Columbus Bar Association President and solo practitioner Andrew Dodgen is reluctant to answer the question: Why did you become a lawyer?
He's afraid it sounds corny. But the answer tells a story of the history of a Southern city growing up out of segregation and how a white country farm boy who didn't have a relative who'd ever even been to college was inspired by a black teacher to one day go to law school.
"It was 1970," he says, sitting behind his desk in his office in the downtown Columbus historic district. The house and others on Second Avenue were already a century old that year when his school in Troup County was integrated. He left his rural community and rode a bus for an hour to a new school for his fourth grade year. His family disapproved of the entire arrangement, especially the fact that his new teacher was African-American.
He remembers her well today. Miss Bessie Barton, as he still calls her.
"She was the most influential person in my life outside family," he says. "She saw that I was a basket case and took an interest in me."
His distress was less about school and more about home. That also was the year his parents were divorced. "Miss Bessie" did what great teachers do. She ignited in her new student a passion for learning, which, as it happened, helped him forget his own worries.
She began to talk with him about history and the United States Constitution. She lent him some of her college textbooks to read. She shared with him a fascination with President Abraham Lincoln. He still recognizes the irony, as a Southerner who grew up with the idea that succession should be legal. But that year, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer, and he credits Miss Bessie with the dream.
Dodgen went on to study history, philosophy and religion at LaGrange College on a full scholarship from the Callaway Family Foundation, funded by the founders of Callaway Gardens, the resort in nearby Pine Mountain. The Callaway scholarships were only for undergraduates. But the year he graduated, the foundation offered its first scholarship for law school.
He went to Mercer University Law School on another Callaway scholarship. He worked third shift at a convenience store to support his wife and young family. He graduated in 1986 and took a job working with Columbus lawyer Bill Moore, who was his partner for the next 25 years until Moore retired and sold the National Register of Historic Places-listed townhouse to Dodgen.