ATLANTA (AP) - Henry “Hank” Huckaby, for decades a consummate insider called on by Georgia governors from both parties to oversee finances and make tough choices, died Wednesday at age 79.
Huckaby’s death was announced by Gov. Brian Kemp and House Speaker David Ralston.
Huckaby rose to prominence as budget director for Gov. Zell Miller, who had been a professor to Huckaby when he earned an associate degree at Young Harris College in the north Georgia mountains.
He crowned his career as chancellor of the University System of Georgia, overseeing the mergers of multiple schools in an effort to streamline the system and save money during the Great Recession, while navigating political tensions between Republican leadership and the state’s sprawling university system.
Huckaby’s experience spanned state government. He headed the Georgia Housing and Finance Authority from 1980 to 1991 and served as commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs under Gov. George Busbee.
“I can’t think of someone who dedicated so much of his life to the state of Georgia in so many different ways,” said Ben Tarbutton III, who chaired the regents when Huckaby became chancellor.
Sonny Perdue, on becoming the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, called for Huckaby as his transition team’s chief financial officer. Huckaby filled that role while on loan from the University of Georgia, where he retired in 2006 as the senior vice president for finance and administration. Huckaby then won election to the state House as a Republican from Watkinsville and was immediately tapped as a floor leader by Gov. Nathan Deal.
It was from his seat in the House that Huckaby was plucked to be chancellor, after then-chancellor Erroll Davis had drawn fire from state lawmakers for his proposed responses to $200 million in budget cuts, including proposing to eliminate the 4-H program and drastic tuition increases. Huckaby was Deal’s preferred candidate and offered a bridge to unhappy legislators.
“He knew so many people from all over the state and over at the legislature that he could walk into a room and instantly command respect,” Tarbutton said.
As chancellor, Huckaby started a merger process that ultimately cut the number of schools from 35 to 26. He worked to make sure more students graduated on time and expanded the use of free textbooks. Huckaby could push back on lawmakers, though, opposing their efforts to let people carry guns on campus. And tuition increases proved unavoidable.
He was succeeded by Steve Wrigley, another insider who is now retiring. Wrigley called Huckaby a friend who put “Georgia on a path to be a top public higher education system in the nation.”
“Hank was devoted to this state and served it in many capacities, including as state budget director, a senior leader at the University of Georgia, and as chancellor,” Wrigley said in a statement. “He always kept the people of this state first in his work.”
House Speaker David Ralston said Huckaby’s range of experience was “unparalleled.”
“We will miss his brilliant mind, his compassionate heart and his reasonable and thoughtful approach to whatever problem needed a solution,” Ralston said in a statement.
Huckaby earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in business administration from Georgia State University. He taught in community college and at Emory University, and then worked as an administrator at Gordon College and directed the Fiscal Research Program at Georgia State University. At the University of Georgia, he directed the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
Georgia Trend magazine named Huckaby the 2015 Georgian of the Year, and Leadership Georgia awarded him the 2015 J.W. Fanning Award.
He is survived by his wife Amy, daughter Mori, son Clay, and six grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were incomplete Thursday morning.
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