History remembers R.P. "Bob" Mikell as one of the last "ordinaries" in Bulloch County.
He was elected the ordinary in 1956 and served four, four-year terms. In 1974, two years after Mikell's service was complete, Georgia became the last state to change the "court of the ordinary" to the "court of probate."
Like probate court today, the court of the ordinary was involved in many aspects of ordinary, everyday life: issuing marriage licenses, granting guardianships, even issuing "lunacy warrants" committing people with mental health issues to institutions.
Bulloch County State Court Judge Gary L. Mikell, who is R.P. "Bob" Mikell's great-nephew, and Gary Mikell's son Bob Mikell, a Statesboro lawyer, gave a presentation Monday during the monthly Bulloch County Historical Society meeting in the Nessmith-Lane Conference Center at Georgia Southern University. It was called "Judge R.P. ‘Bob' Mikell, an Extraordinary Ordinary and His Bulloch County Roots," concerning the man who was born in 1900 and died in 1983.
Santa and ‘lunacy'
In addition to serving as judge of ordinary court, R.P. Mikell also served as Bulloch County election superintendent. But Gary Mikell's first memories of respect for his great-uncle didn't involve his official county jobs. Rather, it was R.P. Mikell's role on the special, popular Santa Claus train of the late 1950s and 1960s.
Young Gary Mikell, ever suspicious of the jolly old elf, felt "hemmed and trapped" when Santa came on board the train.
"But then, behind Santa Claus, handing out candy from a big bag while Santa took orders, came the treasurer of the Chamber of Commerce, R.P. ‘Bob' Mikell," Gary Mikell told the Historical Society. "Now that was a transformative moment in my life when I realized, ‘Hey, I'm in. Not only does Uncle Bob know Santa Claus, he works for him.' You can imagine that R.P. ‘Bob' Mikell's standing grew to epic proportions in my eyes."
Back to the lunacy warrant for a second. Gary Mikell opened his talk with a "pop quiz," listing three dates in Bulloch County history and backing them up with documents signed by his great-uncle, the ordinary. One of those was a lunacy warrant in 1959 committing Dr. John Mooney to an alcohol treatment program. That was a key step in Mooney's recovery, who went on to establish Willingway Hospital, a residential treatment facility for recovering addicts in Statesboro.
Gary Mikell also talked about his ancestors, going all the way back to the Colonial period. Mikells lived in the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia in the 1700s. In 1734, John Mikell was a "tithe commissioner" (like a tax commissioner and census taker combined) for newly formed Orange County, which was on the frontier.
The Mikells moved to the Pee Dee area of northern South Carolina in the mid-1700s and took part in the Revolutionary War. After that, they moved to an area between Mill Creek and the Ogeechee River, in what was then Effingham County, in the late 1780s. Their land became part of Screven County (then spelled "Scriven") in 1793.
In 1796, 122 settlers - including eight Mikells - signed a petition to form Bulloch County. Two of R.P. "Bob" Mikell's direct ancestors were among those signers. Mikells have served not only as lawyers and judges, but also as bankers and farmers.
R.P. Mikell was secretary, and then president, of the Bulloch County Farm Bureau. At its peak during Mikell's tenure, the bureau had 2,654 members, or about 10 percent of the county's entire population. That led to his being elected easily as ordinary in 1956.
A heart changed
Like many people, R.P. Mikell was a product of his time. He grew up and spent most of his adult life in days when institutionalized racial segregation was an accepted fact of society. Gary Mikell related an incident that occurred in the 1970s, as the last vestiges of segregation were being stamped out.
A group of students from Georgia Southern College's Wesley Foundation had been invited to perform at Brooklet United Methodist Church, which was led by one of R.P. Mikell's favorite pastors. One of those students was an African-American woman, and when Mikell, then in his 70s, found out, he was livid.
"He confronted the young preacher in his office alone and told him this was not going to happen. ‘This is an abomination. We are going to stop this,'" Gary Mikell said, relating the story he was told. "And Rev. (Joel) Dent pleaded with him, ‘Mr. Bob, please don't do this. We've invited these people here, they're coming as our guests. Please don't interrupt this.' Well, after much anguished pleading by the pastor, Bob Mikell agreed to remain quiet and sit through it without any trouble."
The woman gave a solo performance of "Amazing Grace," which Dent told Gary Mikell was "stirring" and "raised the rafters."
"During the song, Rev. Dent glanced over at Bob Mikell to see how he was handling that situation," Gary Mikell said. "And on the face of the man who had been so angry minutes before, Rev. Dent saw tears streaming down. Then afterwards, when the show was over, Bob Mikell made a beeline to the young singer, hugged her, thanked her for coming and told her much he was moved by her offering.
"It was 20 years after he died that I heard this story," Gary Mikell continued. "And I think Bob Mikell grew even larger in my eyes than that man on the Santa Claus train."
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.