Publisher’s Note: Observer columnist Greg Markley was tragically killed in a car accident while vacationing in Nevada this past weekend. He loved to travel and never met a stranger. It seems somewhat fitting that this particular column was the last one submitted, as he wrote about his experiences in the airport. We hope that the people who had the opportunity to talk with him on what turned out to be his final flight out of Atlanta took something great away from their conversation. Greg faithfully wrote for The Observer since 2011, and will be missed. Our deepest sympathy and prayers go out to his family, friends and all who knew him.



On July 5, 1980 I took Delta Airlines from Providence, RI to Atlanta. Then I headed to Columbia, SC and Army Basic Training. That was my first-ever flight. In the years since, I would record a lot of time at this airport, living in Atlanta from 1984-1988. In six years, I will celebrate my 50th Anniversary as a passenger at Atlanta International Airport. God willing, I will be age 74.
This is my second column for The Observer about the airport and things that have happened to me there. Check out: This relationship brings me great memories, both on trips originating in Atlanta and on the concourses, meeting diverse people and having experiences that have stayed with me.
For example, on a trip from Boston to Atlanta, I ended up next to a college junior who told me he was a varsity baseball player, a second or third baseman. At that time, I was considering attending a political science conference in Puerto Rico. It turned out he was from the Caribbean island and I am a baseball fan. We talked for about one hour and a half, on a flight that took an hour and 45 minutes.
He had a quandary in that his father was a prominent doctor and wanted his son to go to medical school and return to Puerto Rico to help people. The son hoped to pursue his baseball career for as far as it goes. He just wanted somebody like me to bounce his ideas off. Meanwhile, he gave me tips on visiting Puerto Rico and how to do so safely. After we said goodbye, I thought what a delight it was to talk to a “real human,” instead of reading a (long) text message. Just be careful who you speak with and how much you tell about yourself.
Even when I lived in Atlanta, when I asked people from Georgia and beyond, they knew very little about who “Hartsfield and Jackson” were. Both Hartsfield and Jackson were national figures in their heyday. It was first named for William B. Hartsfield, a mayor of Atlanta who founded the airport and was mayor for 24 years. Even in the 1950s, he was moderate on civil rights. In 1957, he defeated segregationist Lester Maddox.
Maynard Jackson Jr. was elected in 1973 at age 35 as the first black mayor of Atlanta. He served three terms and is noted for public works projects, especially with the International terminal. Ironically, he suffered a cardiac arrest at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and later died at a Virginia hospital in 2003. I met Jackson in 1985 when the Fort McPherson extension to MARTA was dedicated. He served for 12 years, from 1974-1982 and 1990-1994.
Luckily, I met someone getting on a Southwest Airlines plane once. He said from the crowd getting on a plane, “Greg”, and it was one of my cousins I hadn’t seen in maybe 17-20 years. We were taking planes in Philadelphia or Atlanta but we were both headed to our native Rhode Island. He got on the Southwest plane first and commandeered a seat for me.
If we had been flying Delta Airlines, we would have had specific seat tickets and maybe could not sit together. He traveled a lot for the auto parts company Pep Boys, working as a training officer. During the 90-minute flight, we caught up on family doings and our careers.
Two things stick out from my two COVID-19 era flights. First, as the only traveler in a three-seat row, I relished how I could stretch more and not have to tell someone their reading light was in my face. Second, I was reminded of the end of the movie “Up In the Air.” In that, George Clooney stood in front of the long list of planes, their status, and their destinations. Yet during the crisis of 2020, I saw a lot of empty slots on that board listing arrivals and departures. It was surreal and surpassed only on Sept. 11, 2001, when ALL planes were sidelined.
Being a nosy journalist, I looked up the student I had talked with on a previous flight. Yes, he was listed on the Rutgers University Baseball roster. About four months later I saw that he was no longer listed, not even as “injured.” I never went to Puerto Rico but I still hope to go. Sometimes I remember we shared an enjoyable, long chat that began at the Atlanta airport.
Either of us could have turned instead to an electronic device, but why? People should free up time to commiserate with individuals of all backgrounds and personalities. Who knows? You may be talking with a future professional baseball star. Or you may be on vacation in Puerto Rico in five years and at a hospital where one of the doctors looks familiar. Ask him if he remembers a long talk you had with him half a decade before. You never know in A-Town and at its huge airport.

Greg Markley moved to Lee County in 1996. He earned a master’s in education from AUM and a master’s in history from AU. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he contributed to the Observer since 2011.