WHAT WE ATE
Eggs, toast, grits w/ hot tea $4.69
Eggs, pancakes w/ diet coke $4.69
Add cheese $0.59
Editor's note: "Out To Lunch" is a periodic feature that allows readers a chance to learn about the people behind the titles in Gwinnett County through a lunchtime conversation with a member of the GDP staff. The subject picks the place, we pick up the tab and then share the conversations that occur during the meal. This week, we have a "Breakfast Edition" with Brooks Coleman.
DULUTH — The door swings open and Brooks Coleman walks in.
Before he makes it to his table, the waitress, Jeannie, has his styrofoam cup filled with hot tea and a mug of honey to sit before him.
This could be any day at the Rexall Grill in Duluth, because Coleman stops by just about every morning.
But this day, he has a date with the Daily Post for the feature “Out to Lunch.” We’ll call this one the breakfast edition.
Before the ordering, Coleman had to stop by and talk to some of his favorite people, introducing this reporter along the way.
There are the businessmen, the postman, the funeral director the retirees — most of Duluth’s movers and shakers make an appearance at least once a week, while others, like Coleman are there nearly every day.
At a table with Duluth’s first black police chief, now retired, another man makes a point to bring up legislation that just made news this week — a proposal to allow school districts to arm administrators in reaction to the Newtown, Conn. shootings last month. The man, who lobbies for the NRA occasionally, told Coleman he should vote yes. But the seasoned politician just listens, waiting to decide until he sees the bill and hears the debate.
In another corner, Coleman introduces his “favorite Democrat,” a man who comes by later to give the other side. Coleman, a Republican, said he could always count on that friend to keep him in check and make sure he listens to both arguments. And even though they don’t always agree, Coleman was proud when the man put his campaign sign in his yard.
Coleman picks a seat in the middle of the Rexall’s back half, among the banquet tables set out for the regular crowd to hold court.
He orders, but of course, Jeannie knows what he wants — eggs, grits and toast.
Sometimes he changes it up and has oatmeal or a biscuit, and many times, Coleman eats at home and just sips his tea. But by the time Rexall’s founder, 90-year-old Leonard Anglin, sits down toward the end of the meal it’s evident what the greasy spoon means to Gwinnett’s longest serving legislator.
Not only does he stop by before he heads to the Capitol when he can, but every Saturday, Coleman makes a point of holding his own town hall among the patrons. He starts by the door and stops at every booth, sitting down with those who invite him to learn what is on their minds.
Sometimes people make appointments, he said, like a group of teachers interested in a retirement law. But most of the time people know he’ll be there.
He sits with families and talks about classrooms — a very important topic since he spent his first career with the school system and now heads the House Education Committee. Or a hunter comes, after a morning in the woods, to talk about baiting laws.
Sometimes he invites the mayor and county commissioner along, and even Congressman Rob Woodall has joined him at the tables.
He’s heard everything from custody problems to food stamp issues, and he helps in whatever way he can, even if it is just by lending an ear.
Today, he talks to a pal about their mutual hobby of clock collecting and a friend’s sharing of his testimony at the Rotary Club.
Friends reminisce about the old days, and Coleman remembers how the pals rallied around him this summer, helping him campaign for another term in office.
And he adds that redistricting has transformed his Duluth-based district, where he taught school and served as principal for years. Now, he has half of Duluth and half of Suwanee, and he has been checking out spots in Suwanee to hold Saturday town meetings too.
“Some people, they say they see a politician once every several years, but I’ve made a point to be visible,” he said, as a friend points out that everyone in Duluth knows Coleman from his years — 45 in all — announcing the Wildcat football games on Friday nights.
“When the election comes around, they know I do care,” he said.
And all the joshing and joking — not to mention the politicking — has helped the business too, he said, pointing to the walls of the Rexall. Even when the state seized the Coca-Cola memorabilia and other assets due to an unpaid tax bill in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2010, the patrons bought many of the mementoes and put them back on the wall when the grill reopened under new management.
After the plates arrive, another regular enters the grill.
The man has been a friend for 50 years, stepping into Coleman’s office the day he took over as principal of both B.B. Harris and Duluth elementaries at the age of 22 and offered him support.
“After two days, I knew I was in the right place,” he said of his move from Atlanta to the suburbs to begin teaching.
In his 73 years, Coleman has met plenty of people who inspire him.
His mother takes the cake, and she has become as much a central figure to his motivational speeches as has Roy Rogers, the legendary cowboy/actor who became a friend of Coleman’s and has starred in his speeches via a six-foot cardboard cut-out.
“Most of my heroes were cowboys,” Coleman said, adding that his political heroes include Presidents Eisenhower and Truman.
But the educator can also remember the example from his very own Five Points-area elementary school principal, Mary Lin, who took him on the path to his career. Once in Gwinnett, B.B. Harris and J.W. Benefield guided him from teacher to principal to assistant superintendent.
After 31 years with the school system, he thought maybe he could make a difference in another way for education, so he decided to run for office.
The rest, as they say, is history.
As we walk out of the Rexall, the conversation turns to cars, both looking to find new wheels.
Coleman’s old Buick has 250,000 hard-earned miles on it, as he has toured every school system in the state, and been in a classroom in every state in the country, save Alaska and Hawaii.
From the trunk, Coleman pulls out a book to share: “The Dash,” which dissects a poem written by a friend of his about the dash that separates birth and death on a tombstone.
After bypass surgery more than three years ago and a brief paralysis due to Gaillain-Barre Syndrome a year and a half ago, Coleman said that dash has been on his mind a lot.
And after his lifetime of service he still wants to serve.
To do just that, he’ll be at the Capitol today to get started with his 11th term in the General Assembly.
And you may be able to catch him at Rexall Grill on his way.