Hugh Gillis was the longest-serving member of the Georgia General Assembly, with fifty-six years in office before his 2004 retirement. His career as a lawmaker, first in the House of Representatives and then in the senate, spanned the period from 1941 through 2004, from governors Eugene Talmadge through Sonny Perdue, and from U.S. presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt through George W. Bush. Gillis was also a farmer and timber grower throughout his adult life.
Hugh Marion Gillis was born on September 6, 1918, to Annie Lois Walker and Jim L. Gillis Sr. in Soperton, located in a portion of Montgomery County that two months later became part of the newly created Treutlen County. His family long wielded political influence in the state, with his grandfather and father both serving in the General Assembly. For many years his father served as chairman of the State Highway Board, a powerful position that allowed him to decide whether a legislator would get a dirt road paved in his district. His grandfather Neil L. Gillis, a local banker and prominent landowner, was known as the “father of Treutlen County” because he campaigned for the creation of the county. Neil Gillis was a House of Representatives member from Emanuel County and later was the first state senator to represent the newly created Treutlen County.
Gillis graduated from Soperton High School, attended Georgia Military College, and received a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Georgia in 1939. He and his first wife, Jean, who died in 1990, had three children, Hugh Jr., Donald, and Jean Marie. Gillis later married Montez Champion.
Gillis first served in the House of Representatives from 1941 through 1944, then served eight more years from 1949 to 1956. “When I first came in ’41, I was right out of college,” he said. “Back then the governor ran most everything and if you didn’t agree with the governor’s program, you were on the outside looking in. I found out right quick that was not the thing to do.” He served a two-year senate term for 1957-58, then was reelected to the senate in 1962—winning a legislative seat he would hold for the next forty-two years.
Gillis was a classic rural Democrat whose politics were probably more conservative than most of the Republicans with whom he served. He was elected to the highest office within the senate, president pro tempore, for six years total, ranking him just below the lieutenant governor as presiding officer of that body. He also served at various times as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and, toward the end of his career, as head of the Natural Resources Committee. Even after Republicans won control of the senate, in 2002, for the first time, the leadership allowed Gillis to retain the Natural Resources chairmanship in deference to his long tenure in office.
Gillis was the only lawmaker who voted on both landmark bills to change the state flag—in 1956, when the Confederate battle emblem was added to the design, and in 2001, when the Confederate version of the flag was replaced by the blue version. He voted both times in favor of the Confederate version of the flag.
He worked for the passage of legislation to alleviate the shortage of medical care in rural areas by establishing rural hospitals and starting a dental school at the Medical College of Georgia (later Georgia Health Sciences University) in Augusta. As chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, he was instrumental in shaping legislation that affected the state’s land and water resources.
After a redistricting of the senate in 2004, Gillis decided to retire rather than seek another term at the age of eighty-five. “I’m going to miss you, but it’s time to go fishing,” Gillis said in his farewell speech to the senate. After his retirement, he served on the board of the Georgia Ports Authority.
Gillis died on January 1, 2013, in Vidalia.