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By May of 1899 Emmie had left The Hardy House once again, and opened a private boarding house on South Main Street, Madison. She stayed there for almost a year. In May 1900, she moved to Athens (Georgia) to manage a hotel, but quit after just one day and went on to Atlanta, where her sister Susan had been resident for some time. Without Emmie’s involvement, the Hardy House was renamed The Brooks Hotel, and became the H. D. White Hotel and later, The White House.

After some poorly-chronicled excursions to Lawrenceville and Forsyth, Emmie took her family to Milledgeville, Baldwin County, in 1903 (making Norvell 11) to manage the formerly prestigious Hotel Milledgeville for the owner Judge Daniel B. Sanford. The hotel was a full-scale catering and accommodation venue, complete with ballroom, function rooms, a billiards hall, high-class restaurant and some 20 bedrooms of various classifications on two floors. It was a hotel well suited to a state capital city in the early 1800s, but had become run-down and notorious as the focus of low-life and organised crime, by the middle of the century. Emmie came highly recommended to Sanford, who charged her with the rejuvenation of the hotel to its former glory and status. It was a challenge that suited Emmie to perfection.

It was around this time that Norvell developed his fine boy soprano voice, often singing to the hotel guests. This was where he was happy. He was doing something no other boys he knew could do, and it was greatly appreciated by those listening. This partly compensated for the less happy parts of his young life, and gave him a feeling of worth and pride. Emmie had always encouraged the boy’s obvious love of music, and recognised his clear gift.

No account of anything to do with Norvell Hardy’s life would be complete without consideration of his size. He was a 10-lb baby, and on starting school he was clearly The Fat Boy, scaling 10 stone (140lb/64kg) at the age of 8. He was also abnormally tall for his age. Schoolchildren can be cruel and Norvell was the butt of a particularly brutal form of mockery. During the breaks, gangs of bullies would surround him so he had no escape, and would chant “Fatt-ee, Fatt-ee, Fatt-ee” over and over again, getting louder all the time. His size haunted him throughout his formative years, and he suffered from the taunts of bullies almost constantly.

But the portly young man found the opposite sex strangely drawn to him, and despite his innate shyness he revelled in the attention. He must have smirked to see the looks on the bullies’ faces as he walked out with the girls of their longing, and by the time most of his generation reached puberty, the bullying had stopped.

The girl who paid him most attention was Mary Pottle, all the more advantageous since she was the daughter of the local circuit judge. Other female friends included Addie Caraker, Floride Allen, Kate Braxley and Mabel Gause who – despite her youth – had the use of her father’s car and often took Norvell for short rides out of town. Hardy also made it known that he had a fancy for Mary Horne, daughter of the Mayor, and there are stories of him serenading her outside her window a la the Laurel and Hardy film Swiss Miss .

The strongest female relationships he formed in his youth were with two sisters, Edythe and Althea Miller. He visited their home on many occasions, enjoying the fresh, cool water from their very own family spring. Althea became a particularly close friend, and would confound the rest of the school by walking to class with Norvell in the mornings and carrying his books rather than the other way round, which would have been customary. Hardy maintained a life-long contact with Althea, mainly by letter, and some 45 years later she appeared on the “This Is Your Life” TV programme to give testimony to the schooldays relationship.

Norvell also got on very well with his half-brother Bardy, as they shared a deep love of music and singing. The two boys behaved like real brothers and did many boyhood things together, particularly on the Oconee river. Norvell and Bardy would pitch and catch a baseball almost constantly as they meandered around the town.

Emmie seemed to become settled in Milledgeville and married Charles Jackson in 1904, but little is known of this mysterious man. According to source, his middle initial was E, M or F for Francis, and he is said to have been a “railroad agent”. Certainly he did not live very long after the marriage, since records concerning the hotel as early as 1907 describe Emmie as a widow. The marriage created an unfortunate barrier between 12-year-old Norvell and his mother, the only parent he had ever known. It is possible that this union gave rise to the later tradition that Babe’s father had been a railway official. This would be true of Babe’s step-father (Jackson) but not of Babe’s actual father (Hardy).

During 1904, the Atlanta chapter of The Shriners – The Yaarab Temple – organised a Convention in Milledgeville, starting with its usual procession of Shriners, followed by the novitiates, officially called The Sons of the Desert. Then as now, The Shriners was primarily a fund-raising organisation, raising money for the poor and needy and – in more recent times – the upkeep of children’s hospitals. The base for the Convention was the Milledgeville Hotel, and the manager’s young son – Norvell – took note of all the activities.

Local tradition maintains that The Shriners held a Christmas party at the hotel two years later, and that a photographic session was arranged by local pharmacist George Case. He is described as a loud, brash prankster, but a competent enough exponent of the relatively new science of photography. The story goes that in setting up the ballroom for the group photographs, Case also rigged up a huge Chinese cracker, wired to detonate at the moment of photographic exposure. The expressions of terror were thus captured on film, all witnessed by young Norvell, who remembered Case doubled up in laughter, slapping his thighs and screaming “It’s a darb!!”

Georgia historian Prof. Bob Wilson tells us that on the family’s arrival in Milledgeville, Norvell and Henry (Bardy) were enrolled in the Georgia Military College, the local school which combined a normal educational establishment with military training. It was in the Old Capital building, within easy walking distance of the hotel and was the only school for white children in Milledgeville. The students wore uniforms and were required to partake in military drills and exercises alongside normal class work. In addition to the normal curriculum a two-year military training course was offered. Unfortunately the school suffered a large fire in 1941, and most of the records were lost. But we do know that Hardy was a pupil there in 1903/4, where his fifth-grade teacher was Effie Moore. In later years, when heard about the 1941 fire, he said in a letter to Althea Miller how sorry he was to hear about it, and that it had been “a fine school”.

Effie may have been the unwitting source of what was to become Babe Hardy’s trademark and place in history – his look of exasperation into the camera. Hardy is on record as saying that he learned the expression directly from her.

Hardy was not the academic type and for the 1906/7 educational year, Emmie sent him off to the residential Methodist Young Harris Academy, in the north Georgia mountains. She may have regarded the regime as even stricter there with benefits for his discipline, or perhaps judged that he was simply not doing well enough at school as Bardy was – he went on to graduate from the GMC.

Norvell completed the year at Young Harris, and returned to the GMC to continue his part-military schooling.