COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL)– 49 years ago today, a plane crash took the lives of several Columbus leaders including the city’s mayor and a police sergeant.
Aboard the single-engine, Cessna 210 was Guy Kilgore, manager of the Columbus airport, William Cracker, controller for the Columbus airport, J.R. Allen, Mayor of Columbus since 1969, and Jack E. Boone, Columbus Police Sergeant. Everyone aboard perished in the plane crash on Feb. 15, 1973.
Retired Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reporter and editor, Jim Houston, was a political writer for the Columbus Enquirer’s morning paper at the time. He spoke with News 3 on the lives lost, and the events of the day marked by tragedy.
“You know I knew these guys very well,” Houston said. “Jack Boone was a wonderful guy, he was a great sergeant for the police department, and he had a brother there, too. I knew them very well.”
The Columbus Police Department shared a Facebook post Tuesday remembering Boone, who was killed in the line of duty while providing executive protection for the mayor.
When Houston learned the lives lost, two thoughts came to mind.
“My first thought was ‘What a loss, this is terrible.’ My second thought was, ‘Well, what if I had decided to go with them?’ I didn’t even think about the possibility that they would have decided not to fly. That didn’t occur to me until later,” Houston said. “So my first thought was I could’ve been on that plane. And later, my thought was ‘Well maybe if I had gone with them, they might still be alive.’ It was kind of a mixed-feeling, one of tremendous loss and sorrow and the other was kind of, I guess, a little bit of guilt.”
Houston had been asked by Mayor Allen to join him on a trip to Rome, Georgia where he planned on speaking to officials on the consolidation of Rome and Floyd County, and speaking to students at Berry schools.
Houston had spent the morning covering various meetings before being asked by Mayor Allen to join him on the trip to Rome.
Houston said, “I was feeling poorly, I didn’t know at the time but I was coming down with the flu.” His plan was to go home, and write his two stories for the day.
Houston did not hear back from Mayor Allen, and it wasn’t until later he found out on that very trip he was asked to accompany him on, was the mayor’s last.
“But, it stuck with me. I can remember it like it was yesterday, I really can. I can actually see J.R. walking up to me to ask if I wanted to go with him. I still see that every time I think about it,” Houston recalled.
People in Columbus now may recognize the name J.R. Allen Parkway, which was named in honor of the late mayor; however, Houston shares there is more to Mayor Allen’s legacy than a road name.
“I think he deserved more than that, you know he was a candidate, or being counted as a candidate for governor… He was a good man, I enjoyed covering him from a political standpoint, and he was just a good person. It’s a terrible loss, it’s still a loss for the city,” Houston shared. “So, naming J.R. Allen after him was the least you could do, I thought they should’ve named the whole government center after him.”
There are other legacies left behind by Mayor Allen; including but not limited to the formation of Columbus Consolidated Government, the J.R. Allen Distinguished Leadership and Service Award, and transformation of Columbus into a destination point for tourists.
Mayor Allen was able to consolidate city and county voters of Muscogee County, allowing Columbus become a consolidated government in 1971, which is something Houston credits his reputation to.
The consolidation of Muscogee County was crucial to the city getting state-federal aid for highways, urban renewal, health facilities, and programs to fight employment. His political endeavors caught the eye of other political leaders; some believe his career would have continued on to governorship.
“He was very well thought of, and highly-thought of. He was being courted by some Republican’s to run for governor, that’s a fact,” Houston added.
Mayor Allen would have been the first Republican governor of Georgia, if he had run and been elected.
“So J.R.’s legacy is pretty strong, it’s not just he was a nice guy, it’s not just consolidation, it’s the whole legacy of forward momentum for the city,” Houston said.
Besides consolidating Columbus, Mayor Allen turned the corner for Columbus’ future.
“Another legacy is Columbus as a destination point for vacations, and recreation, and visitation by people throughout because Columbus was a brown bag county… when J.R. ran for mayor he said look, if we are going to go anywhere we have got to pass mixed drink laws in Columbus, Georgia. But all the preachers preached against it… He went to the preachers, and asked them, ‘Look, I understand your opposition and I don’t have any problem with your opposition, but please, for the sake of this county and this city, do not vote against, do not preach against the mixed drink laws. We need it, we need it for tourism and for the future of this city.’ And it passed,” Houston stated.
Before passing the mixed drink laws, conventions were being turned away from Columbus due to an inability to compete with larger cities like Savannah, Atlanta, and other parts of Alabama.
“You had to buy a bottle, bring a bottle to the bar, and they would sell you setups. That was the way Columbus was running,” according to Houston. After the passing of the mixed drink laws, Columbus became a destination point for tourists and travelers.
The forward expansion made capable by Mayor Allen lives on through the J.R. Allen Distinguished Leadership and Service Award given out by the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce in concert with the Young Professionals Program.
Mayor Allen’s political career was cut short 49 years ago today, however Mayor Allen’s impacts will live on forever in his legacies left behind.
In Houston’s words, “He was more than just a figurehead mayor.”