Merri Brantley spent the better part of 30 years working the third floor of the Georgia Capitol.
Whether as a lobbyist or her six memorable years as Senate press director, she was stylishly impeccable, rigorously impartial (though personally conservative politically) and linguistically concise.
Most recently she was a “lobbyist” for Georgia Gwinnett College, where she had gone to work after leaving state government. College President Stanley Preczewski remembers Brantley escorting him inside the Gold Dome and saying, “Just follow me and don’t say a damn thing.”
“She knew everybody down there,” Preczewski said, “legislators and staffers and their children. She taught me quite a bit about relationships, about how to build them, maintain them and be fair.”
Merri Marlene Brantley, 58, died Sunday after a heart attack Friday night. She had just left the annual University System of Georgia Foundation gala at the St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead
A memorial service will be at Georgia Gwinnett College in the student center, March 8 at 9 a.m. Visitation will be at H.M. Patterson & Son-Oglethorpe Hill Chapel, 4550 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta, from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. A burial ceremony for immediate family will be in Albany, Ga., on March 10.
Brantley was born Nov. 3, 1959, in Okinawa, Japan. Her father Gene Brantley, spent 30 years in the Air Force, moving the family around the U.S. and Belgium before finally settling in Warner Robbins where he and Merri’s mother, Lucia Brantley, still live.
Of Brantley’s complex matrix of relationships, the most astonishing is with her adopted sister Beverley, who is two years older. Both had gone to Northside High in Warner Robbins but never met until they were freshmen at Valdosta State.
Beverley had grown up mostly in a housing project, and her divorced birth parents died when she was in high school. In October of their freshman year Merri took Beverley home, or as Beverley said recently, “took me in like any stray cat.”
Merri introduced her to Gene and Lucia — Beverley calls them “Marney” and “Pops” — and also to Merri’s biological first cousin Jimmy Goethe, who Beverley later married.
“It was Marney and Pops’ idea to adopt me,” Beverley said. “I was officially adopted in 1980 when I was 22.”
Beverley’s dream to attend the University of Georgia seemed improbable because her grades were spotty, largely due to the trauma of losing both biological parents. Merri, though only in her early 20s, called Governor George Busbee who directed her to UGA President Fred Davison.
“This girl is my sister,” she told Davison. “Give her a chance, she won’t disappoint. She’ll show you she will work hard.” After hanging up she turned to Beverley and said, “You better not let me down.”
Brantley never married. “She was married to her career,” said younger sister Sandra Brantley Creighton. “She was all about helping people achieve their goals. Marriage would’ve been a distraction to those things.”
Reporters remember her in the Senate Press Office, 2002-2008, as one of the best press liaisons ever. Jim Tharpe, former editor of PolitiFact Georgia, and a longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, called her an “icon of the state Capitol.” He added she could get a reporter access to anybody inside or outside the senate. Nancy Badertscher, another former reporter for the AJC said Brantley “would burn the midnight oil getting you answers.
“Around 2008 I was living out in the country, in Flowery Branch,” Badertscher said, “and I was driving to get to a (legislative) session. I hit a deer and totaled my car. I called Merri, who had almost reached the Capitol. But she turned around and came all the way out to pick me up. Who does that?”
Brantley was a personification of classic Southern manners and intellect. She was a voracious reader of fiction — even wrote a novel herself — and practiced consummate fashion. As her friend Amanda Seals recalled, “Her shoes matched her purse, which were coordinated with her earrings.”
During protracted lulls in the General Assembly she frequently posted etiquette tips on Facebook. You RSVPed the old fashion way, on a note written by hand on good stationery. In restaurants you drink out of a glass, not a bottle, while taking home a doggie bag is the penultimate display of gaucherie. A plaque on her office desk at Georgia Gwinnett read, “Please know while you’re speaking to me I’m correcting your grammar.”
Brantley went to work for Georgia Gwinnett College in 2008, and Preczewski credits her for securing much of the bond money for campus construction during years of high growth.
Last Sunday Preczewski was one of many people in and out of her room at Piedmont Hospital.
“It was pretty clear she wasn’t going to make it,” he said. “For that reason I wore a dark suit with a dark tie. I knew that if I’d gone there with golf shirt or tee shirt she would’ve been mad as hell.”
Survivors include Brantley’s parents, her two sisters, nieces Cara Leigh Creighton, Kimberly Creighton and Stephanie Creighton, and nephews Clint Goethe and Logan Goethe.