He was one of the most civic-minded people in all of Augusta. A true Southern gentleman, who was never afraid to speak his mind, but would also treat everyone with respect and kindness.
A visionary. A community leader. A friend to all who knew him.
This was Augusta’s Julian Osbon.
After fighting leukemia for more than two years, Osbon died last Thursday at the age of 74.
But his legacy will live on in the CSRA for decades to come.
For those Augustans who never had the pleasure of meeting Osbon, he was a quiet and extremely thoughtful man, but he was also very colorful.
He could talk about his family’s history and his father’s erectile dysfunction invention with such pride you would forget to blush.
As the story goes, when Julian Obson’s father was 60 years old, he had a problem with, as country folk would say, “his nature.”
This was two decades before former presidential candidate Bob Dole would appear on national television to discuss his own “erectile dysfunction” and promote the now infamous “little blue pill.”
Therefore, while doctors were sympathetic to Geddings Osbon, Sr.’s predicament, they could offer little in the way of a solution.
So, Geddings Osbon found one himself.
At the time, Geddings Osbon owned a tire business and he was fairly innovative in “several vacuum devices used in retreading,” Julian Osbon would openly explain.
Yes, by now, you know where this is headed.
As Julian Osbon would tell you, his father’s “genius was being able to simplify things.”
Geddings Osbon reasoned that an erection was caused by blood flowing into the penis. He figured suction was a way to make that take place.
He was right. Using a section tube to engorge the penis with blood, and an elastic ring at the base of the penis to keep the blood there, Geddings Osbon found his love life restored.
And that is how the Osbon family’s erectile dysfunction invention came to fruition.
In 1983, Geddings Osbon closed the tire business and turned his full attention to restoring the love lives of men everywhere who had, up until then, kept their problem in the closet.
It’s an incredible story that Julian Osbon was always wiling to share.
But starting the business was a battle. For example the Osbons were forced to deal with a lot of run-around with the Food and Drug Administration and accusations of selling pornographic items through the mail, but Geddings and Julian Osbon were finally able to transform their curious device into what would become a $26 million-a-year business.
The Osbon ErecAid changed mens’ lives all over the world.
Eventually, Osbon Medical Systems was sold in 1995 for $45 million to California-based UroHealth Systems, Inc. even as the threat of Viagra loomed on the horizon.
By 1998, the little blue pill exploded onto the market as the first drug approved by the FDA to treat erectile dysfunction.
Proving his wise business sense, Julian Osbon could not have chosen a better time to sell the company.
“The timing was right because we knew the drugs were coming along,” Julian Osbon told the Metro Spirit in 1999. “The people that bought my company, I think that sort of rattled their cage and I think it disrupted what they were doing. We sold the company and got out at the right time, but the company that bought it, blew it.
“Had we not sold the company, we would have been ready for Viagra. We would have looked at it as an opportunity rather than an adversarial thing, because what Viagra basically did was what we were trying to do for over 50 years, which was to get the awareness of impotence or erectile dysfunction more widespread.”
Julian Osbon explained in 1999 that Viagra was successful to a point, but reports of side effects like heart attacks and strokes made the drug a gamble for some patients.
“It (the ErecAid System) was the only thing that gave predictability and control,” Julian Osbon said in 1999.
A few years later, Julian Osbon got back into the erectile dysfunction business by first opening SOMA Blue Inc., which later closed in 2003, and then starting Augusta Medical Systems, which is still thriving today.
But before he entered back into the impotence business, he was focused on investing in downtown real estate. In the late 1990s, he purchased the old fire station on Broad Street and a row of adjacent properties which became known as the Shoppes on Marbury.
Osbon did not invest in downtown for the money, but more for the future growth of the city, he would often say.
John Younginer, Jr. who performed Osbon’s homily at the funeral this past weekend, described how much Osbon loved and enjoyed downtown Augusta.
“The inner city was his domain – he lived there, kept his offices there and lobbied for its rebirth and future vitality,” Younginer said. “Perhaps few in the history of Augusta have devoted so much entrepreneurial spirit with a vision for the future. The medical community is indebted to him for his creativity and genius as an astute businessman and pioneer.”
Osbon was extremely proud of being a founding member of the First Bank of Georgia and serving on the Research Institute Board Executive Committee at the Medical College of Georgia.
His business success was undeniable.
Throughout the 1990s, Osbon received numerous awards for his achievements including the Spirit of Georgia Award for his contributions to Georgia’s economic development, the Presidential “E” Award for innovative contributions to the U.S. Export effort, the Georgia Small Business Person of the Year Award in 1995 and he was named the Augusta Philanthropist of the Year in 1996.
Osbon’s success attracted national attention when he was featured in several The Wall Street Journal articles on small business entrepreneurs.
Osbon also played a prominent role as a volunteer during the restoration of the childhood home of Woodrow Wilson in downtown Augusta.
“President Woodrow Wilson once said, ‘We are here to enrich the world and if we forget the errand, we impoverish ourselves,’” Younginer said during the homily. “Julian Osbon never forgot the errand. From a humble beginning working with his father Geddings in the tire business and later leading his own highly successful company, he was a philanthropist who enjoyed making good things happen for other people. He invested his time, energy and resources into the City of Augusta and our beloved Wofford College.”
Over the years, Osbon became well aware of the fact that owning property in the downtown area was not always easy, but he refused to turn his back on Augusta.
In October 2000, Osbon was forced to battle the highly influential Curtis Baptist Church on Broad Street over a request for an alcohol license involving a restaurant called Off Broadway Dining & Dancing. While Osbon was not directly involved in the restaurant, he owned the property that housed Off Broadway located at 1285 Broad Street.
During the first public hearing about the requested alcohol license, more than 100 members of the Curtis Baptist Church packed the commission chambers demanding the license be rejected because it was threat to the congregation’s safety.
At the time, the church was led by Senior Pastor Mark Harris, a very spirited and confident speaker who seemed to have a great deal of influence over the members of the Augusta Commission.
Osbon attempted to explain to the commission in October 2000 that Off Broadway was not a threat to the church because it was to be an upscale restaurant.
“This is basically for an older crowd,” Osbon told commissioners. “And if they are like me, they are going to be in bed, asleep by 10 o’clock anyway. “
But for weeks, Curtis Baptist Church waged a war against Osbon and Off Broadway.
Speaking out against any church’s wishes was an unusual position for Osbon.
After all, Osbon was no stranger to religion. His grandfather was the founder of Augusta’s Church of God on Crawford Avenue, as well as two other churches in South Carolina.
And his father, who died in 1986 at age 85, “lived” his religion by routinely reading the Bible every morning and every night before he went to bed, Osbon once told the Metro Spirit.
“For about 40 years, my father read the entire Bible once a year because that’s what he just liked doing,” Osbon said in 2000. “My father was probably the most religious man I’ve ever known.”
While Osbon, himself, was a member of Grace United Methodist Church in North Augusta at the time, he openly acknowledged that his attendance record at the church was poor.
“I think your membership in something is how you feel and how you deal with life,” Osbon told the Metro Spirit in 2000. “And I have very strong personal convictions.”
That’s why, with such a long family history in religion, Osbon was surprised during the alcohol license debate to discover two messages on his answering machine from an anonymous woman calling him a sinner.
“Mr. Osbon, you will do anything for money,” the woman on the answering machine said. “But you know there is a verse in the Bible that condemns this. There is a curse on you for doing this and I’m going to read it to you: ‘Woe unto him that giveth his neighbor drink. That putteth they bottle to him. And maketh him drunk.’”
At the time, Osbon simply shook his head, smiled and said, “I think that is the Southern interpretation of the Bible.”
That was simply Julian Osbon. He refused to back down from the fight because he knew in his heart he was doing what was right, not only for Off Broadway, but for the entire downtown area.
“I can totally sympathize with the mission of Curtis Baptist and where they are coming from, but I totally disagree with them,” Osbon said in 2000.
During the debate, he had faith that the Augusta Commission would do the honorable thing and approve the alcohol license, which was already supported by the city’s license and inspection department and the sheriff’s office.
“Hopefully, elected officials don’t respond to mob rule,” Osbon said in 2000. “I don’t want something done down at the commission because you bring enough people and they cave in. That’s a frightening way to run a community.”
He expected the commission to do what was “right for the entire community.”
“My philosophy in life is that you try to focus on the things that you can do something about,” Osbon said in 2000. “So I’m not going to let the church dictate the way I run this property.”
Unfortunately, Osbon had too much faith in the then-sitting Augusta Commission.
Despite the fact that the restaurant was more than 840 feet from the church, which was well beyond the city’s distance requirements for an approved alcohol license from a place of worship, the Augusta Commission voted 6-4 in 2000 to deny the restaurant’s application for a liquor license, as well as a dance hall license.
“I’ve been approached by many other businesspeople in the community very concerned that what happens here may affect the long-term use of all the properties downtown,” Osbon said in 2000. “One told me if you eliminate all the liquor licenses in downtown Augusta, you might as well put a fire to it, because downtown would be gone.”
In the end, the commission would only allow the restaurant to have a beer and wine license, but no liquor license or Sunday sales.
Osbon was outraged, to say the least.
“Today, Augusta moved a little closer toward insignificance,” he said in 2000. “It was agonizing to watch in disbelief as six commissioners — Jerry Brigham, Ulmer Bridges, Andy Cheek, Richard Colclough, Willie Mays and Marion Williams — drove a stake into the heart of revitalization for downtown Augusta and the city in general.”
In a letter to the editor published in the Metro Spirit in October 2000, Osbon did not hold his tongue.
“The six (commissioners) parked their municipal responsibility along with their spines outside the commission chamber door as they caved in to the onslaught of religious prejudice,” Osbon wrote. “In denying a business license to a new upscale restaurant in downtown Augusta that wanted to serve beverage choices other than sweet or unsweet tea, they demonstrated once again that Augusta needs elected leaders who don’t think that the ultimate in fine dining is found at the Waffle House.”
The entire commission hearing was like watching sheep being herded into the “slaughterhouse of ignorance,” Osbon wrote.
“It’s becoming an embarrassment to be from Augusta. I thought this kind of intolerance went out with the Middle Ages,” Osbon stated. “For every great opportunity there is a window. Augusta’s opportunity to be a significant player in our region during the next 50 years is being squandered by an incompetent government and religious zealots.”
“With the political leadership we have today our descension into the annals of mediocrity is all but a certainty,” he added.
They were tough words coming from a man who was generally soft spoken and not confrontational.
But when Osbon felt strongly about an issue facing Augusta, he didn’t back down.
For example, when Augusta Tomorrow decided to become a completely private organization in the early 2000s, Osbon, who was president of the group at the time, didn’t hesitate to explain the reasoning behind the change.
Ever since the early 1980s, Augusta Tomorrow’s goal was to serve the community at large by planning, promoting, and implementing the development of Augusta with a particular emphasis on the city center.
“In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the exodus of retail to the Augusta and Regency malls devastated our historic downtown area,” Osbon explained. “In 1982, the city of Augusta and a group of business leaders formed the public/private partnership of Augusta Tomorrow with the mission of revitalizing our downtown.”
When founded in 1982, the city agreed to match the financial commitment of the private business group, dollar for dollar, to finance the operating costs of Augusta Tomorrow. For the first 18 years, that combined commitment totaled almost $2 million.
But in 1999, the city’s contributions began to drastically decline.
To satisfy Augusta Tomorrow’s fiscal operating budget of about $140,000, each private business leader agreed to pay almost $6,000 annually.
“The requirement for Augusta Tomorrow members to financially support the partnership is one of the primary obstacles to attracting new members,” Osbon explained in 2000. “Not too many individuals are wiling to write a check for almost $500 each month to have the privilege of working for nothing as a volunteer.”
But, despite the members of Augusta Tomorrow’s obvious commitment to the organization, some of the city commissioners were critical of the group’s lack of diversity.
On occasion, Osbon acknowledged that Augusta Tomorrow had declined some requests for membership. But Osbon was insulted that some commissioners suggested that the decision to deny membership was based on anything but the individual’s skill, background or experience.
“Let me state, unequivocally, that no one has ever been declined membership because of gender, race, religion or national origin,” Osbon said in 2000. “Simply put, we have enjoyed the past 18 years of existence by attracting the very best people possible based on abilities, talents, character and ethics.”
Osbon was also shocked that the commission suggested Augusta Tomorrow seek additional members to compensate for the loss of funding from the city’s budget.
“Augusta Tomorrow members are resolved to provide the additional monies, personally, rather than risk a compromise to the organization’s mission,” Osbon said. “I would be remiss not to point out that the $200 million in economic development for our community, that has resulted from the Augusta Tomorrow partnership over the past 18 years, is evidence that the Augusta Tomorrow formula has been good for Augusta.”
Osbon insisted the city was the one not keeping up with its end of the bargain.
“In 1999, the city reduced its annual commitment to the Augusta Tomorrow partnership from $44,000 to $11,000. The reason, given by the commission, was the need to divert more funding to indigent care needs,” Osbon said in 2000. “This reduction put a disproportionate share of the operating cost on the business partners but it was accepted out of sensitivity to the indigent care situation. When indigent care was no longer a budgetary concern, I appeared before the Augusta Commission and asked them to restore funding to this partnership at the pre-1999 level of $44,000.”
Osbon’s request was denied with a vote of 7-2-1 by commissioners in 2000.
“This lack of commitment to the partnership has resulted in a loss of confidence by Augusta Tomorrow in the current commission’s commitment to long-term needs of the city and the mission of the Augusta Tomorrow partnership,” Osbon said. “For that reason, and after a unanimous vote by Augusta Tomorrow’s executive committee, Augusta Tomorrow will not request any membership funding for the coming year, therefore ending the 18-year partnership with the city.”
And that was the end. Under Osbon’s leadership, Augusta Tomorrow simply walked away from the city government and became a private entity working for the good of Augusta and the surrounding area.
“For the sake of our community, it is essential that concerned citizens think globally — beyond Augusta’s eight political districts, or two super districts— of what is best for our total community, in terms of our city competing regionally with other cities,” Osbon stated in 2000, adding that Augustans should also consider a change in leadership. “It is important to research, get involved and cast your ballot for the candidates you believe will lead Augusta to its best possible future.”
The truth of the matter is Julian Osbon cared deeply about this community and the future of the entire city. He never stopped wanting the best for Augusta.
And he didn’t just talk about improving the city.
He put in the work.
As a result, Augusta is a much better place because of his efforts. He will be sorely missed.