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Gift-givers mourned by towns

LAWRENCEVILLE - Two men who gave a lifetime each to their cities were mourned Wednesday.

This week, Gwinnett County lost Earley Biffle, who started working at the city of Buford at age 14 and retired after 50 years as city manager, and Otis Pharr, Dacula's former chief of the volunteer fire department who served on the City Council for 19 years. Both were 80.

Both men were known for gifts to the community - Pharr and his wife, Edith, placed presents under the Christmas tree at City Hall for employees and Biffle delivered fruit baskets to the elderly.

Buford's jack-of-all-trades

For 50 years, people in Buford called Earley Biffle when something needed fixing. As superintendent of Buford's utility department, Biffle knew how everything in the city worked and he could fix it.

If the sewer pipes were clogged, Biffle was the first man on the job. When the electricity went out, Biffle climbed up a pole and got to work. When Pat Pirkle's clothes dryer stopped working, she knew who to call.

Biffle tried to fix more than just mechanical items. When Christmas came around, elderly and needy people found a basket of fruit on their doorstep, courtesy of Biffle.

Biffle started working for the city of Buford in 1939 at age 14, working his way up from a garbage collector to the city manager.

"He went to work to help support his family," said Tim Biffle, his son. "Buford's always been an awfully poor place. His dad was in bad health and couldn't work steady, and his twin brother was crippled, and there they were, poor in a little house."

City Commission Chairman Phillip Beard curiosity and natural talent made him adept at fixing everything from water pipes to electrical wires.

"One of my kids cut the telephone cable, and we called Biffle," said Dan Pirkle. "He came on out and fixed that phone cable, and he didn't have nothing to do with the phone company. You'd try to give him money for his services and he'd throw it on the ground and say, 'Let the wind blow it away if you're not going to put it in your pocket.' He didn't want no money. He just wanted to help. He was a very unusual man."

Countless Buford residents were touched by the man, who collected food, clothing and coal for those in need.

"Biffle is a hard man for any community to replace," Beard said.

Dacula's historian

Otis Pharr's history is nearly as long as the city he adored.

He grew up with Dacula, which celebrated its centennial last year.

Interviewed a year and a half ago for a story about 100th anniversary, Pharr talked about the cotton days of Dacula, playing on bales and jumping from one to another without every touching the ground.

He recalled sitting on the front stoop of his father's store and watching as workers cut the pathway for U.S. Highway 29, and he called the road's construction "the nail in the coffin" on Dacula.

A councilman during the 1940s and '50s, about the time the Dacula charter was changed to take it from a town to a city, Pharr and his wife were chosen to take a city census.

"I knew everybody around here within a six-mile radius," he said. "I didn't see a use for disturbing everybody and knocking on their doors. So Edith and I sat at the kitchen table and looked at a map. We went road by road and named everybody and their children."

Decades later, Dacula's population is 10 times the census tally, and Pharr no longer knew the neighbors.

But he was still considered a town historian and he made Christmas special by placing presents for city employees under the town tree.

"We'll miss him a lot," Mayor Jimmy Wilbanks said. "If we needed to think about something that happened a long time ago, we just had to call Otis. We'll miss him personally too. He was a fine fellow."