LAWRENCEVILLE - Don't feel sorry for William McLane.
Many who passed him, if they made eye contact at all, only saw his unkempt clothing or scraggly beard, or his modest tent in a wooded area off Buford Drive. But what most people don't understand about McLane is almost impossible to believe in the modern age of consumerism and material fixation - this 54-year-old man with little else but the clothes on his back was quite content.
Family members and friends said McLane craved a simple life, and he wanted it on his own terms.
If there was any tragedy for McLane, it was the inescapable kind that life doles out indiscriminately, not his humble circumstances. He had a father who was murdered and a long-lost daughter whom he had not seen for more than two decades.
But the homeless man who was struck and killed by a car while crossing Buford Highway on Monday night had a far richer life than many of the Good Samaritans who took pity on him. It was only after his death, when dozens of Lawrenceville residents who were affected by McLane came forward to share their experiences, that his unexpected story began to unfold.
Life on the margins
Contrary to public perception that vagrants are alcoholics or drug addicts, McLane was neither.
According to the Lawrenceville Police Department, McLane had no arrest record for public intoxication or drug use. In 2001 and 2002, when he is believed to have moved into the area, McLane had several run-ins with officers who arrested him on charges of urban camping, loitering or disorderly conduct.
But after a while, people just got used to him being around.
"So many people knew him. He was a local character," said Lt. Jeff Smith of the Lawrenceville Police Department.
"He was basically moving from place to place and it made some people uncomfortable. But up until his death, he had been here for quite some time and the area around there had become acclimated to his presence. Unless he was causing a problem, and he wasn't, we were just leaving him be."
Many people became familiar with McLane after he settled in Lawrenceville. Almost daily, he could be found in the Waffle House or QuikTrip gas station, both located on Buford Drive near Ga. Highway 316. Sometimes patrons bought him food or let him bum a cigarette, nearby resident Bryan Smith said.
By all accounts McLane was eccentric, but not crazy. In fact, people described him as extremely intelligent.
And although he was unemployed and homeless, McLane didn't seek out money from the government or from well-wishers. He was not registered with Social Services for public assistance. At the time he died, a $250 Wal-Mart gift card someone gave him long ago was found unused in his back pocket - apparently kept for so long that it had bent to the curve of his body.
James C. Turner got to know McLane over the past few years because his pawn shop and bail bonding company is across the street from where McLane bedded down at night.
"The main reason I allowed him to stay around was he didn't do drugs, he didn't drink and he didn't steal," Turner said.
Turner gave McLane odd jobs to do to for extra money, such as painting, hanging doors or installing flooring, and allowed McLane to use his office phone and computer almost daily. When they got to talking, Turner realized there was a lot more to McLane than met the eye.
"He definitely by first impression kind of looked basically like just a homeless person," Turner said. "The more he would come around, you could tell by conversation with him that he was very, very intelligent."
But McLane turned down a construction job that Turner lined up for him.
"He said he wasn't the type that could work for somebody, he had to work for himself," McLane said.
A brief encounter that Dacula resident Richard Sammons, 36, had with McLane about two years ago changed Sammons' life.
Sammons had been unhappy with his career and was having marital difficulties at home. During a counseling session with his pastor, he prayed and asked God for a sign. Then he drove out of the Lawrenceville Church of God on Buford Drive and spotted McLane holding up a piece of cardboard that said he needed a ride.
It was totally out of character for Sammons, but he pulled over. Then he took McLane to fast-food joint and bought him a hamburger before dropping him off at a local gas station.
As they talked, Sammons took a step back and took stock of his life. A humbling truth dawned on him - he had everything he could ever want.
"I was basically feeling sorry for myself," Sammons admitted. "I was thinking I deserve better than this and I should be getting that, and really none of that was true. Here was a man with nothing and he was absolutely a joy to be around."
Sammons and his wife recently celebrated their 10th anniversary, "and we're better than ever," he said.
Nancy Snyder, 48, of Lawrenceville never spoke a word to McLane, but he made an impression on her life as well. She frequently brought him food and left it at the gas station. It made her feel better to help someone else in a small way.
"I just kind of adopted him as my little homeless man, but I never really talked to him," Snyder said. "I have not been able to get him off my mind, ever. I just felt like I knew him and I was so sad, you know, when I heard that he died."
Tall tales, big personality
Roy McLane, William McLane's fraternal twin brother, said his brother always had the ability to make good money.
In his younger days, he worked as a journeyman carpenter and insurance adjustor. McLane even wrote poems and had a few published.
"He was a very colorful guy," said Roy McLane. "He either lived like a king or he lived homeless. Normally it was either one or the other."
Roy McLane described his brother as "super-smart" and said he once owned an apartment complex.
With a magnetic personality, McLane had the uncanny ability to make friends almost anywhere he went, Roy McLane said.
But he suffered some personal setbacks that Roy McLane believes sent his brother spiraling into a long-term depression, eventually leading to homelessness.
Their 89-year-old father was murdered in 1998 in Pensacola, Fla., when someone broke into his house and beat him to death. Police never caught the killer.
"William seemed to go downhill at that point," Roy McLane said.
McLane was also convinced that his father and other family members had swindled him out of an inheritance. Their grandfather had been wealthy, Roy McLane said.
After that, McLane became something of a self-taught lawyer, Roy McLane said. He was known to carry around a notebook with legal notations in it referring to various cases he had found on Internet searches.
McLane told several locals that his forefathers once owned all the land in the Lawrenceville area. He also believed older generations of McLanes helped start the banking industry in the United States, another friend said.
No one could ever quite ferret out whether grandiose stories McLane told about his past were true, Lt. Smith said.
Roy McLane recalls his father telling them that three McLanes ended up in Atlanta several generations ago. One stayed in Georgia, another went to Florida, and the third settled in Texas.
In 1995, William and Roy McLane went to a county courthouse in Florida to look up property records and other documents regarding their ancestor, some of which led them to believe there had been a sizable inheritance.
The brothers never found out what happened to the money.
But another obstacle McLane encountered affected him even more deeply, Roy McLane said.
Reunited too late
McLane once had a common-law wife with whom he split in the early 1980s. After they parted ways, he lost touch with his 2-year-old daughter, Amy McConnell, although he tried desperately to re-establish contact, Roy McLane said.
"He was actually haunted by it," Roy McLane said.
Unaware that McLane was looking for her, McConnell also started searching for him when she turned 17. However, she didn't find him until two years ago, when she mailed a letter to Roy McLane's house in Pensacola, Fla. By that time, McLane had already moved out of his brother's house and headed to Georgia for construction work.
Roy McLane had no way to get in touch with William to share the news about his daughter. He left a message at the pawn shop where he was known to hang out. Then just four months ago, Roy McLane finally spoke to his brother on the phone and broke the good news.
Yet for some reason, McLane didn't contact her. McConnell believes it's because he was ashamed about his circumstances.
After his death this week, McConnell traveled from her home in Houston, Texas, to Lawrenceville, where she met her uncle and cousin for the first time and saw her long-lost father at last.
"The first time I ever saw him, he was dead," McConnell said Friday as she sat on the bed of a Lawrenceville motel room, tears welling up in her eyes. "I'm looking at a man I've never seen before and knowing I'll never get to meet him or talk to him."
McConnell said she wished she could tell her father she was proud of him and touched by the positive impact he had on others. When she went to the Waffle House on Buford Drive Thursday night, McConnell said she and other family members were swarmed by customers who wanted to meet her and talk about her father.
"I'm proud that he didn't ask for any help," McConnell said. "I'm glad he wasn't afraid to live his life the way he wanted and not the way society expects you to. It wasn't that he had to live the way he did. He had the ability to make more of himself. This is what he wanted."