An amazing mansion is rising from the tallest hill overlooking this southern town.
From the front, it will be a replica of Mount Vernon; from the back, a replica of the White House. It will have 35 sliding glass doors, nine bathrooms, an elevator, a wine cellar and, to top it off, a weathervane, When it is finished July 4, the newly elected board chairman of the biggest bank in town will move in.
His name is T. Bertram Lance, the same Bert Lance who left here a hometown hero in 1977 to join the Cabinet of his close friend, President Jimmy Carter, only to return eight months later pursued by four federal agencies and hordes of investigators.
One year ago, he emerged a free man from the most extensive bank fraud trail in modern times.
Now, after four years of legal entanglements that cost him more than $1.2 million in lawyers' fees, Lance is making a forceful and flamboyant comeback that has angered much of the town establishment while making him a folk hero among many as the man who whipped the federal government.
Several weeks ago, Lance regained control of the Calhoun First National Bank, starting point of his much-investigated banking career. But to do so, he had to wage a proxy fight so bitter that six directors resigned rather than serve on a divided board with Lance.
Then last week, the new Lance-recruited board voted to pick up $504,500 of his legal fees, overturning a unanimous vote by the old baord to reject Lance's request for reimbursement.
As the heart of the comeback is Lance himself, a man emboldened by his victories in court and in Calhoun.
"Unfortunately, when you get to this stage, it's a game of who wins and who loses," he said of his return to the bank and the bitterness it has spawned. "Now I learned that in Washington. That's all they talk about up there: Who won and who lost."
But while Lance won back control of the bank, his tactics lost him the support of some longtime friends and defenders.
James Beverly Langford, the country lawyer who introduced Lance and Carter 15 years ago, and whose daughter is married to Carter's son, Jack, was among the stockholders who opposed Lance. So was Mayor Billy Burdette, a featured speaker at Calhoun's nationally publicized "we-loved-Bert" rally on the day he resigned as federal budget director.
Both men refused to discuss the matter or the man they once defended so publicly.
Meanwhile, outside the town etablishment, Lance's rebound has placed him "right next to God," in the words of a carpet mill manager lunching at Smitty's Restaurant and Barbecue.
"You hear a lot of talk about the bank and his house. But I think he deserves whatever he can get, after all he's been through and all he's done for people," said courthouse clerk Suzanne Roland.
Regardless of their feelings toward Lance, people all around this bustling, north Georgia town of 12,000 seem seized by a fascination with the rise, the fall and the rebound of the beefy figure who grew up among them. They insist that his shifting fortunes harbor lessons for all of them about money and power, about heroism and vallainy, pride and respectability, justice, loyalty and fate.
The Lance rebound began to take shape within weeks after his bank fraud trail, which left him legally in the clear for the first time in three years. He had been acquitted on most counts, and prosecutors had just dropped the other three, on which the jury was deadlocked.
And so, Lance said, he expected to get a call any day from the management of Calhoun First National Bank, soliciting his adivce as the bank's largest stockholder and past president.
The call never came.
One by one, Lance called the bank directors to the wooden, lakeside cottage where he now runs his business affairs, and voiced his objections to the conservative style they had imposed on the bank in his absence.
He wanted them to replace the president and the chairman of the board, and bring in "new blood." He wanted more liberal loan policies to spur Calhoun's economic growth. And there was a personal request: he wanted the board to hire his 26-year-old son and protege, David, as an officer.
On all counts, they turned him down.
"He wanted it done his way, and I had gotten in trouble the last time I did that," said Y. Atkins Henderson, the former board chairman who resigned after the proxy fight, and the only departed director who agreed to discuss the matter. "I told him I was just worried it was going to mean problems with the government all over again if any Lances got in there. His words to me were that he whipped the govenment once and he'd whip 'em again."
The bank board, which has rallied behind Lance through his years as president, had been through some ordeals of its own during the protracted "Lance Affair." Officers and directors had been threatened with prosecution because of their roles in Lance-related transactions; the bank had been clamped under a federal consent decree requiring an end to the popular easy credit and liberal over-draft policies that Lance made famous.
In bowing to the regulators, the directors had come under attack from longtime customers, who complained more and more: "It wasn't like that when Bert was here."
Not long after the standoff developed, Lance filed a request that the bank pay $630,000 of his legal fees under a standard bank policy that covers directors and officers in cases arising from their official duties. The board had covered its legal fees during the Lance probe, but in Lance's case, the members voted a unanimous "no."
The standoff served to intensify a deep distrust that the string of investigations had bred between Lance and the board that had supported him unquestioningly in earlier days. Lance's friends accused board members of becoming too friendly with federal prosecutors to protect themselves from indictment, a charge they hotly deny.
Former directors say Lance had become obsessed with "getting the bank back" as a form of public vindication, a theory he dismisses as preposterous.
"It deteriorated until I really didn't have any choice," Lance said. "I regret that it came to that, but you do what you must." So the proxy fight began for control of the bank.
Both sides hit the streets in February for a lobbying campaign that shaped up as the most out-in-the-open feud that townspeople say they can recall. Management partisans warned Lance's return would spell disaster for the bank. Lance's team said the old board had turned the bank into "more of a New York bank than a country bank," chasing customers away and hurting stock values.
Each side accused the other of trying to intimidate shareholders who had large loans from Calhoun First National.
Management took an early lead, and in two weeks had gotten commitments from enough stockholders to control 11 of the 16 positions on the board. But as the battle continued, it revealed Lance's awesome powers as a salesman, which he had used in earlier days to bring new business to the bank and the town.
Lance made phone calls to each of the stockholders who seemed open to his complaints about management. He sent emissaries to visit them, and met with those who wanted to hear his story.
d. F. Williams, the mayor of nearby Adairsville, who owns only 11 of the 527,313 shares of bank stock, says he had three visits from a Lance emissary. A stockholder with about 500 shares says he got a phone call from Lance, three visits from one emissary and four from another. "One would have been enough," he said.
Gradually, some of management's early supporters began to change sides. One director recalls a stockholder who switched to Lance's team, saying, "Bert ain't going away. He'll wear you down until sooner or later, he's going to win. And when he does, I want to be with the winner."
"The people in the community wanted Bert back. Time after time, people said to me, 'If it weren't for Bert Lance, I wouldn't have what I've got,'" said Gene Pass, one of Lance's emissaries who was elected to the board along with him. "This was a chance to pay him back for what he'd done for them."
On stockholder who said he refused to vote with either side was Lance's lifelong friend, pharmacist Jack Mullins, who was a co-defendant in his criminal trial and whose fortunes in the past year contrast sharply with Lance's. Since the trial, Mullins has lost his house in a bank foreclosure for unpaid loans and he is preparing to file for bankruptcy.
"Bert called me for my proxy, but I just didn't feel like I could vote," said Mullins, now the pharmacist at the local K-Mart. "I just decided I'm staying out of it this time. I gave him 20 years of my life and this time it was his fight, not mine."
The showdown came at tbe annual stockholders' meeting on March 9 in the Calhoun bank's Red Carpet Room. Instead of lasting the normal 10 minutes, though, the meeting stretched seven hours as accountants and lawyers went through the complex technical process of counting votes.
Then, a bizarre clerical error changed the course of the bank's history. Nine of the anti-Lance candidates got enough votes to be elected, but their lawyers acidentally left a digit off the vote total for the No. 9 man, contractor John Wayne Hall.
The official tally sheet showed Hall with 19,000 votes, and no one noticed unitl after the tally was signed. That made it a draw: eight for the old board, and eight for the Lance team.
"It's like signing your golf score," one former director explained. "There's no going back on it."
Minutes later, Henderson resigned and five of the seven other reelected members from the old board left with him, leaving Lance in control of the board "I just decided to go on home," Henderson said. "I had had enough."
The next day, Lance announced the bank "has a unified board now and is ready to move forward again." The newly elected directors voted the next day to make all the changes Lance had asked of the old board during the meetings at his cottage months earlier.
In addition, the new directors voted to terminate Henderson and former president John Davis without severence pay.
Lance and the new board invited Hall to join them as a director, since he had received enough votes to warrant a place. But he soon resigned, he said, because "I just didn't feel comfortable. I felt like a turncoat."
The new board includes several of Lance's defenders from the years of scrutiny, including his two oldest sons, once a sharecropper and now an agribusinessman who testified as a character witness at Lance's trial, and, as the new president, longtime bank officer Marvin Taylor, who brought down the house at the trial by testifying that he never tried to halt the now-infamous Lance family overdrafts because "if you've got a good thing going, why change it?"
Last week, with Lance and his two sons absent, the board voted to pay $504,500 of the $630,000 in legal fees Lance had requested. A month earlier, the National Bank of Georgia, which Lance ran in 1975 and 1976, had agreed to pick up $477,000.
If the Calhoun stockholders go along with the board, that will leave Lance with $218,500 of the original $1.2 million tab.
Back at his lakeside cottage, Lance seems eager to put the bank battle behind him, along with his other ordeals. He now devotes most of his energy to his new career as a broker for foreign investors, which started with close ties to Arab financiers and has since branched out to include clients all over the world, he says.
But Lance refuses to reveal any deals he has swung, or to explain what has become of his multimillion-dollar loan that was still outstanding from an Arab-controlled bank at the time of his trial.
"My finances.? They're coming along fine," he said with a smile, adding that he plans to answer no questions on the much-explored subject from now on.
Meanwhile, in Calhoun, the feud rages on. Henderson has placed a plaque in his living room that reads: "Will Rogers never met Bert Lance." Old board members and their friends have started moving their money from Calhous First National to Gordon County Bank, the young, No. 2 bank down the street.
"This thing has like to tore up the town, but it sure helped our business," observed Gordon County Bank president Tom Bond. However, Calhoun directors report that many Gordon County accounts are starting to shift their way.
Aside from the bitterness, Lance appears on the surface to have turned back the clock to the days before he and Carter went to Washington and met hard times.
He is back in his old job at the Calhoun bank, building a mansion to rival the 60-room Atlanta estate he left behind in 1977. (Lance and his wife, LaBelle, recently sold the Atlanta mansion for $1.4 million, $900,000 more than they paid for it.)
And there is even speculation he will run for governor in 1982, just as he did, unsuccessfully, in 1974.
Lance is doing nothing to discourage the speculation, leaving open the possibility that he will once again venture from the quiet world of finance to the hazardous realm of politics.
"The only reason to make a move this early is if you need to build name recognition," Lance said with a wry smile. "And of course, after the last few years, I don't have that problem." s