Bill and Terrilyn Donohue dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, riding on a motorcycle.

Bill and his wife, Terrilyn, make their rounds as Santa and Mrs. Claus.

The retirement of Bill Donohue as executive director of the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority and the North Georgia Mountains Authority leaves some big shoes to fill. With more than 43 years in the tourism management and operations business, he has been a major influence on tourism from the beaches to the mountains of the state.

“He’s left big shoes to fill, but he has also built some stairs for his successor to tread and keep the operation of those facilities at the high-quality level that presently characterizes them,” said Lonice Barrett, former Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner and LLIDA Board Chairman. “I can’t say enough good things about Bill Donohue and what he’s meant to the State of Georgia over the 30-plus years we’ve worked together.”

A native of New Jersey, he graduated from Cornell University with a degree in hotel and restaurant management, moving to Atlanta in 1980 to work for a private hotel management company. In 1989, he moved into the public sector as Lodge Operations Manager with Georgia State Parks, overseeing the openings of the lodges at Red Top Mountain and Amicalola Falls state parks.

In 1989, Bill focused his attention on the public/private partnership to develop, build and operate Brasstown Valley Resort. He was tapped by then-Gov. Zell Miller to serve on the governor’s Privatization Committee from 1995-97 and shortly thereafter was named executive director of the Jekyll Island State Park Authority.

“During my 10 years in Jekyll Island, one of the things I’m most proud of is the creation of the Jekyll Island Foundation’s initial project to design, fund and build the $3 million Georgia Sea Turtle Center,” he said. “Not only did the center address the mission of the Authority for conservation, preservation and economic development, it created a hospital to save hundreds of sea turtles to return them to the ocean and an education center that’s been very successful.”

In 2008, Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Donohue executive director of the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority and 15 months later his work expanded to the North Georgia Mountains Authority for a second time, overseeing Brasstown Valley Resort in Young Harris and six other lodge/parks across the state.

For the past 15 years, he has worked with the Lake Lanier Islands Management, created by Virgil Williams to manage the 1,100-acre resort property. During that time, Donohue oversaw numerous infrastructure improvements at Lanier Islands, including replacing a 50-year-old water treatment plant, road work and other projects that has totaled nearly $45 million investment by the state. LLIDA’s partner LLIM has invested $85 million dollars in the past 15 years.

Over the past five years, Donohue’s work has focused on plans for a new conference center and hotel at the Islands.

“The State of Georgia has made a serious funding commitment, and we have a great site, but we’re not quite ready to break ground,” he said. “We’re working with LLIM to finalize the private funding and the final design of the hotel.

Throughout his career, Donohue has left the places he’s been involved with better than he found them.

“Bill brought a true hospitality industry mindset to the operation of all these sites, and his biggest goal was to lead them to operate as much in the ‘black as possible,” Barrett said. “Through his knowledge of hotel operations, personnel management, marketing, facility construction and his limitless energy, the sites did very well and constantly saw attendance and revenue production perform beyond expectations.”

William Bagwell, former DNR board member and former chairman of the NGMA, has worked closely with Donohue for more than a decade.

“I’ve known Bill on both a personal and professional level and there is no finer individual out there,” Bagwell said. “He has a gentle demeanor and the ability to make tough decisions, moving forward in difficult situations. His depth of wisdom and level-headed approach are rare.”

“His interests are not just for the betterment of state properties; he’s also interested in individual people and helping them succeed. He’s a blessed and special person.”

Donohue is a family man of strong faith and it shows in many aspects of his life. Married for 40 years to Terrilyn, the couple are members of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch, where he is an ordained deacon. They have an active Santa Claus ministry and Santa and Mrs. Claus volunteer at churches, nursing homes and hospitals and make house calls to children with special needs. Donohue’s long white beard makes him indistinguishable from the Jolly Old Soul who makes his home at the North Pole.

When their oldest son AJ was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, the teen raised money for Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, where he was a patient. He created #TeamAJ to help purchase new recliners for every room on the 5th floor of the hospital. By the time he passed away in September 2006, #TeamAJ had raised more than $50,000.

Today #TeamAJ has become the AJDonohue Foundation and supports pediatric oncology nursing scholarships, specific projects at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville and Brunswick and financial support to patients and their families especially at Christmas.

The couple’s three other children – Luke, wife Diana, is an attorney for Equifax; Grace Reed, husband Corey, who works in conference services at the Legacy Lodge; and Wil, who is an adventure guide in Zion National Park in Utah.

When they lived in Brunswick, for four years the couple also provided a home and family for two international students from Nigeria – Lucy and Martin – who came to Georgia to study at Georgia Southern as part of the Georgia Rotary Student Program. They became legal guardians to Harsha when she was 14; she graduated from West Hall High School and Valdosta State University and now lives in Pennsylvania.

When Donohue retires at the end of June, he has plenty of plans to keep him busy.

“With a trip to the Holy Land in November and more time for ministerial work, I know I’ll keep busy,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. “My goals are spending more time with Terrilyn, traveling on my Harley and enjoying family. I’m eager to see what else life holds for me.”

Photo: Feature photo caption: Left to right: Grace, Bill, Luke, Terrilyn and Wil Donahue.