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Sheriff's office employee gets mysterious seed package

An employee of the Jackson County Sheriff's Office received one of the mysterious packages of seeds this week that have been showing up in mailbpxes across the country.

The seed packages are apparently mailed from China, but what they are and why they are being randomly sent to Americans isn't clear.

Like some reports of other packages, the one received in Jackson County was labeled as containing earrings.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture sent out a warning Monday about the packages, saying those who receive them should not open the package or plant the seeds.

“At this time, we are not sure what the seeds are and therefore are urging everyone to be exceedingly vigilant,” Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black says. “If you have received one of these packages in the mail, please use extreme caution by not touching the contents and securing the package in a plastic bag.”

Agriculture officials around the nation fear the seeds could be an invasive species that could wreak havoc on native plants and agricultural products.

Those who receive a package of seeds are encouraged to contact the GDA Seed Lab at 229-386-3145 or email

‘An amazing legacy’: Longtime Jefferson coach Jack Keen passes away

Jefferson is mourning the loss of one of its coaching legends and pillars of its community.

Former Jefferson High School coach Jack Keen passed away Saturday (July 25) at the age of 85.

"Coach Keen was Jefferson," said former Dragon wrestling coach Doug Thurmond, who both wrestled and coached under Keen.

The highly-regarded Keen, who grew up in Atlanta, came to Jefferson in 1965 and spent 43 years at the school. He guided Jefferson to multiple state championships in wrestling (four), track and field (six) and cross country (three), winning 13 titles overall with 12 runner-up finishes.

He was inducted into multiple state and national halls of fame for his coaching achievements. Keen was also a co-founder of the Georgia Olympics and served as an athletic director for Jefferson.

Keen was a revered mathematics teacher, as well, earning Star Teacher honors 27 times.

"He was a great man, he was a great coach, but he was probably even a better teacher," Thurmond said. "Just an unbelievable guy, an amazing legacy."

Jefferson athletic director Bill Navas said Keen was admired by both his colleagues and students.

"His reputation as both a coach and teacher is renowned," Navas said. "Everyone that knew coach Keen has a coach Keen story with a consistent theme. That theme was about being pushed further than they thought possible and achieving more than they thought they were capable. He was a mentor to his coaching and teaching colleagues and to his students and athletes. He was a legend. It's truly a sad day in Jefferson."


Keen earned an undergraduate degree from Georgia Tech and a masters degree in mathematics from Arizona State University. He began his 50-year coaching career at North Fulton High School in the late 1950s and would go on to coach 111 individual state champions and 115 individual state runners-up.

James Pinion, who ran track for Keen in the late 1960s and later took over the Dragon track program in 1989, remembers a coach who taught technique better than many but got results by hard-wiring the virtues of hard work into his athletes.

“It was his attitude toward being disciplined and staying with the routine and just trusting in good, hard work, that really was his strong suit, I think, in coaching, more so than the technique that he taught,” Pinion said.

Pinion called Keen “the most organized person that I’ve ever been around.”

“From his classrooms to the field to wrestling, whatever it was, he was just very organized,” Pinion said. “There wasn’t anything it seemed like that was left undone.”

While Keen's background was in track and field, he was able to study wrestling and turn Jefferson into a power. He ended up coaching four state championship teams, laying the groundwork for the unprecedented dynasty it would become under Thurmond in the 2000s. He also inspired a host of wrestling-coaching careers.

“He gave us the love of the sport,” Thurmond said. “There’s numerous people that ended up coaching wrestling because of coach Keen as well as track … Yes, he did lay the foundation, but he laid it for a lot of guys, not only at our school, but surrounding schools.”

Keen, a college pole vaulter, was also known for his own athletic prowess.

“He was always a physical specimen,” Thurmond said, noting that Keen was also a competitive rope climber in college, “and always kept himself in great shape, too, and inspired other people to do the same thing.”

Pinion remembers Keen, on his 65th birthday, wearing street clothes and easily clearing three vaults, the highest of which was 10 feet.

“I thought he was going to keep going up,” Pinion said. “He said, ‘That’s it. I just wanted to see if I could still do that.’”


While athletes at times could be scared of highly-respected Keen, he possessed a gentler side, according to Thurmond. Thurmond said he saw that side of Keen while working as his assistant coach.

“He had a really good sense of humor,” Thurmond said. “You would never know that when you were his student because everybody was always scared of coach Keen. Everybody had so much respect for him, they were scared of him. What I treasure the most is the time I had with him as an assistant coach … that’s what I look back on and can’t help but smile.”

Pinion had a similar experience, saying Keen “became one of my best friends that I’ve ever had as time went by.”

Like Thurmond, Pinion said athletes could be fearful of Keen at times, but said that the coach was actually one of the most gentle people he ever met.

“You really had to get to know him to see that side of him,” Pinion said.


Due to COVID-19 concerns, a small, private family service for Keen is planned, according to his obituary, but a visitation and celebration of Keen’s life is planned for a later date.

Pinion pointed to the vast legacy Keen leaves behind.

“I don’t have any statistics, but if you could get your hands on it, you’d be amazed at how many of his students became teachers and how many of them became coaches … that might be his greatest legacy,” Pinion said.

Thurmond said Keen’s influence is immense and will continue to be.

"From what he gave to his students, his student athletes, it lives on," he said. "Coach Keen lives on because of what he gave as a teacher, as a coach and as a mentor."

COVID hospitalizations rising in area

Hospitals in the Jackson County area are treating a rise in COVID cases, according to data released this week.

Northeast Georgia Health System, based in Gainesville, is treating more positive COVID-19 patients now than it did during a peak earlier this year.

As of July 28, NGHS had 173 positive COVID-19 patients, 42 of whom are at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton.

Those totals are higher than the previous peak day on April 29, when the hospital system had 159 positive patients (28 at NGMC Braselton).

NGHS has seen a steady climb over the past few weeks. Throughout the month of June, the total number of COVID patients mostly hovered in the 60-70 range. But the numbers started to climb in mid-July.


Athens area hospitals also reported a rise in COVID patients this week. A July 27 statement from local political leaders said both Piedmont Athens Regional and St. Mary's Hospital are seeing their patient count's go up.

"We are seeing continued increases in the number of positive COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations in our area," the statement said. "As we heard in our last update, we’re seeing more community-spread related hospitalizations - whereas a few weeks ago, we were seeing more nursing home related hospitalizations. The age of in-house patients has decreased, as well."


Jackson County is seeing a rapid rise in its number of COVID cases this month as well.

The number of people who have tested positive more than doubled in July, from 341 at the start of the month to 793 as of July 27.

A total of 81 people from Jackson County have been hospitalized with the virus since the crisis began and 13 people have died.

One of the hotspots in Jackson County has been at Northridge Health and Rehabilitation in Commerce where 13 patients have died (some of those were not from Jackson County and were counted in their home communities.)

Across the state of Georgia, there have been 170,843 confirmed COVID cases, with 17,138 of those resulting in hospitalizations. There have been 3,509 deaths in the state as of July 27.

Services held for Deputy Bill Garner

A law enforcement-led funeral procession and services were held in Barrow County on July 25, for Franklin County sheriff’s deputy Bill Garner who was killed in the line of duty earlier this month.

Deputy Garner, 53, was responding to and assisting people involved in a single-vehicle car crash on Interstate 85 around 7 p.m. July 19 when another vehicle traveled into the median after the driver lost control and hit Garner, killing him, according to the Georgia State Patrol.

Abdulhafiz Tawfik Abdullahi, 21, of Lawrenceville, has been charged with first-degree vehicular homicide in Garner’s death.

Garner had a 22-year career in law enforcement. In addition to Franklin County, he had  spent time with the Jefferson Police Department, Norcross Police Department, Duluth Police Department, Braselton Police Department, Pendergrass Police Department, and the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office prior to joining the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.

A memorial service was held for Garner at Bethlehem Church. Prior to the service, a funeral procession with a law enforcement escort began at Smith Funeral Home in Winder, traveled westbound on Atlanta Highway into downtown Winder, turned south on Highway 81, east on Highway 316 and then north on Christmas Avenue to the church.

Garner loved his dogs, according to his obituary. His family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations in his name be made to Canine Pet Rescue of Dacula.

Jefferson schools to reopen Friday

The Jefferson City School System plans to reopen with in-person classes on Friday, one of the earliest opening dates in Georgia and the nation.

The move comes amid renewed concern over the spread of the COVID virus in the state. Some area school systems have delayed reopening, or are starting the new school year with online only classes.

Jefferson is moving forward with in-person classes, although it does offer an online option for students who don't wish to return to regular classes. So far, few students have chosen the online option, officials said.

Jefferson's reopening was a featured story this week in the New York Times, which profiled the school district's attempts to get students back to class despite the pandemic.

The Jackson County School System plans to reopen Aug. 12 while the City of Commerce School System plans to open Aug. 7.

All three school systems in the county have put in special rules and practices to minimize the impact of the virus, although none have go so far as to mandate students wear a mask, except on school buses.

The three school systems have also put in place a reaction plan should a student have symptoms of COVID or test positive for the virus.

Hwy. 334 to be closed for two days in early August

A part of Hwy. 334 near Nicholson will be closed for two days for construction at the end of July.

The closure will begin at 9 p.m. on July 31 and will reopen at 5 a.m. on Aug. 3.

Detour signs will be placed at the road during the closure.