James Lester (Jim L.) Gillis, also known as Mr. Jim, was born in Soperton, Georgia, on January 6, 1892, and died in Atlanta on March 31, 1975. He represented Montgomery County in the Georgia House of Representatives (1915-1917) and the Sixteenth District in the Georgia Senate (1923-1924), during which term he served as President Pro Tem. A long career on the State Highway Board began as a Member in 1937-1939, followed by several terms as Director under governors Herman Talmadge, Ernest Vandiver, Carl Sanders, and Lester Maddox (1948-1955; 1959-1970). In this position, Gillis helped build Georgia's modern highway system, including Atlanta's downtown connector. Gillis was also extensively involved in Democratic Party politics, including a stint as chairman of the State Democratic Executive Committee in 1939-1940, and managing of Vandiver's 1958 gubernatorial campaign. First elected to political office at the age of 22, Gillis served in the House while his father, Neil, was in the Senate. The Gillises helped create the new county of Treutlen, carved out of portions of Emanuel and Montgomery. Treutlen joined the Sixteenth Senatorial District, which his father represented. The younger became the county's first Ordinary in 1917, but soon followed his father's path. In his single term as a state Senator, he introduced legislation largely pertaining to farmers' concerns, but also showed interest in highway and automobile issues. Gillis was chairman of the Treutlen county commission for 26 years. In these years, Gillis also established himself in the turpentine industry and became the largest landowner in Treutlen. Gillis re-emerged in state politics as an ally of Eurith "Ed" Rivers in opposition to Governor Eugene Talmadge. Rivers defeated a Talmadge-backed candidate in the 1936 gubernatorial race, and Gillis was made a member of three-person State Highway Board. Gillis had also been a Georgia delegate at the 1936 Democratic national convention. At the time, New Deal legislation was helping to expand and improve roads throughout the nation and Franklin Roosevelt was supported by Rivers, Senator Richard Russell, and many other Georgia politicians - but not Talmadge. Gillis was chosen in October, 1938, to be chairman of the State Democratic Executive Committee in 1939-1940; during this period, the divisions embodied by Roosevelt and Talmadge within both the Georgia and national Democratic grew worse. Talmadge attempted to unseat Walter George in the 1938 senatorial primary, a move coinciding with Roosevelt's own attempted purge of George. In October, 1940, Eugene's son, Herman, was chosen to follow Gillis as chairman of the State Democratic Executive Committee. Despite their earlier differences, in early 1947, during the "three governors controversy" Gillis was chosen by the younger Talmadge to be the new State Highway Board director. The state Supreme Court's intervention in the affair, though, gave the governorship to M. E. Thompson. Gillis thus formally became Director in late 1948 after Talmadge's victory in the special gubernatorial election. In 1956, upon Sen. George's retirement, Gillis supported Talmadge's successful senatorial campaign. Soon after his victory in the 1958 gubernatorial election, Ernest Vandiver chose Gillis to be Director of the State Highway Board, returning Gillis to his previous position after four years of the Marvin Griffin administration. He remained in the position during the governorship of Carl Sanders. Overall, as Director of the State Highway Board, Gillis oversaw the construction and paving of thousands of miles of roads throughout Georgia and gained a reputation, not always positive, as a powerful player in Georgia politics. In December, 1966, with the gubernatorial contest between Lester Maddox and Howard "Bo" Callaway still undecided, the State Highway Board chose Gillis for what would be his final term as Director. In 1964, new legislation backed by Gov. Sanders had given the Board sole power to pick its Director. During the Democratic gubernatorial primary of 1966, former governor Ellis Arnall, seeking the Democratic nomination, had accused Ernest Vandiver, also hoping to return to the governorship, of being Gillis's "puppet" and, despite the recent procedural change, promised that as governor he would fire Gillis. Arnall's focus on Gills during the primary was seen as an attempt to associate Vandiver too closely with rural Democrats. Arnall's eventual decision to run as an independent write-in candidate in the general election probably stopped the Republican Callaway from winning the necessary majority of the vote. In such situations, the Assembly chose the governor, and thus Maddox ultimately won. In 1968, Gillis's son, Hugh L. Gillis, was chosen to be President Pro Tem of the Georgia Senate, helping to solidify the younger Gillis's influence, which would outlast even the Democratic party's dominance, until his retirement in 2004. Another son, Jim Gillis, Jr., had also followed his father's footsteps, serving as Treutlen county commission chairman. As far as many political observers were concerned, the long-standing Gillis dynasty in Georgia politics was still strong. However, the elder Gillis faced challenges to his authority from Atlanta members of the State Highway Board. During this time, the Board was also beset by controversy over the route of Interstate 85. In the 1970 gubernatorial primary, Gillis openly endorsed Sanders; after Carter's victory, Gillis accepted Carter's request for him to design, despite being re-elected by the board. In 1976, Interstate 16, which passes through Treutlen, was named after Gillis.
From the description of James L. Gillis, Sr. Papers, 1923-1980. (University of Georgia). WorldCat record id: 751453528