LONG, Clay Clay C. Long, 85, of Atlanta, GA, passed away May 29, 2021, at home in the company of his loving family after battling a neurological illness.
Clay rose from humble roots in Demopolis, Alabama, to become a leading lawyer and conservationist. Tough yet compassionate, Clay was a problem-solver. His true moral compass, resolute but unassuming leadership style, clear-eyed analytic skills, and indefatigable work ethic enabled him to build a top law firm from scratch and serve as a trusted adviser to legal clients large and small and governors and mayors regardless of party.
A natural-born negotiator, Clay was a ferocious advocate for the people and causes he represented and believed in. But he knew when compromise was needed, and through the force of his personality and painstaking preparation, he was able to forge consensus as well. Clay was equally comfortable in dapper business suits and baggy hiking shorts. He cherished his role as a mentor—and family tennis matches and walks along the beach at St. Simons Island and mountain trails in Cashiers—far more than any formal position he held.
Had he been bigger and faster, Clay might have pursued football: his high school team won the Alabama state championship. The law called instead. He graduated summa cum laude from Birmingham-Southern College and then magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. As a law clerk for Justice Hugo Black of the U.S. Supreme Court, he drafted the ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark case which established that poor people charged with crimes have a right to an attorney. Despite his central role in the case, the most he ever allowed was "I did help."
Before law school, Clay studied on a Rotary Fellowship in London, England, where he met a California girl, Elizabeth Ehlers, the woman who would be his wife of 61 years. His oft-stated reason for marrying her was characteristically blunt: when he paid for a meal, she ate everything on her plate.
Settling in Atlanta in 1963 with Elizabeth and their baby daughter, Clay began his legal career at Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan. By 1974, he decided to strike out on his own, a risky move that was virtually unprecedented at the time. Clay and colleagues founded Long, Aldridge, Stevens & Sumner, a corporate and commercial real estate practice. Under his leadership, the four-person endeavor ballooned 100 times in size, becoming a leading corporate firm in Georgia and across the country. In 2002, Long, Aldridge and Norman merged with a Washington-based firm to become McKenna Long & Aldridge. Along the way, Clay owned a bicycle shop with a friend (the company T-shirts long outlasted the business itself), ran many miles, and played countless matches of tennis.
In 1989, Clay was the first recipient of the Atlanta Bar Association's Leadership Award. In 2002, he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Birmingham-Southern College. In 2004, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Anti-Defamation League.
As Clay's success grew, so did his desire to give back to the community. While chairing the growing law firm, Clay served as Chairman of the Board of MARTA and as Chairman of the Georgia Conservancy, where he helped develop its influential smart growth program called "Blueprints for Successful Living." He continued to work on environmental issues with the Nature Conservancy, the Jekyll Island Authority, and the Jekyll Island Foundation.
Clay chaired an Advisory Committee appointed by Georgia Governor Roy Barnes to recommend a program to protect community greenspace, then chaired the Georgia Greenspace Commission, which supervised the granting of over $60 million to local governments for the acquisition of greenspace. In 2004, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue appointed Clay to chair his Advisory Council for the Georgia Land Conservation Partnership. The Council proposed a state-wide, comprehensive land conservation plan, which became the basis of the Georgia Land Conservation Act of 2005.
Clay's public service extended far beyond environmental conservation. He served as President of the Atlanta United Way and was a member of the boards of directors of Research Atlanta, the Atlanta Urban League, the Atlanta-Fulton County Public Library, the Metropolitan Atlanta Community Foundation, Birmingham-Southern College, and many others.
Clay is survived by his wife, Elizabeth E. Long, his daughter and son-in-law, Katie Long and Adam Gelb, his grandchildren, Max Gelb and Kate Denton, and his nephews, Jimbo Clem and Hank Patterson. He was preceded in death in 2003 by his beloved daughter, Polly Long Denton.
There will be a celebration of life for Clay later this summer. The family requests that any tributes in his honor be made to the Clay Long Fund at the Georgia Conservancy.
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Published by Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Jun. 2, 2021.