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Tech Mourns The Loss of Jo Atchison

THE FLATS – Longtime Georgia Tech fan Jo Atchison, whose loyal support of Georgia Tech football spanned nearly a century, died on Sunday. She was 95.

Atchison and her sister, Alae Risse Leitch, became well-known for their longstanding attendance at Tech football games, which began shortly after they were born in 1913 and 1927, respectively. They attended games together in nine different decades. Leitch died in 2018 at 104 years old.

Below is a story from the Winter 2011 edition of Buzz Magazine that details Atchison’s and Leitch’s allegiance to the Yellow Jackets.

TECH’S TRULY GOLDEN GIRLS

Sisters Alae Risse Leitch (above left) and Jo Atchison (above right) have followed Tech football for nearly a century

By Matt Winkeljohn (Buzz Magazine – Winter 2011)

A gold walking cane covered with Buzz and “GT” tips the passion of Alae Risse (pronounced Al-uh-reese) Leitch, and her sister Jo Atchison is every bit as big a Georgia Tech fan herself.

Really, though, it takes a time stamp to grasp the passion these siblings have been sharing at nearly every home football game for over three-quarters of a century.

Leitch, after all, first fell for the Yellow Jackets when Johnny Heisman was still helming the Golden Tornado. Forgive her for a shortage of memories specific to the first few games she attended; it’s been a while. She’s 98. Atchison is 84.

Still, a few details from the Barron family’s early trips from their home in Toccoa in northeast Georgia to the Flats are fresh on Leitch’s mind.

“We’d have to ride the train, the Southern 29 (the old Crescent), to Terminal Station, and we’d have lunch and do some shopping. Then, we would ride a street car to the game,” she said. “My recollection is riding the street car, and people laughing because my nose was pressed against the glass because it was crowded.”

Much has changed over the decades. Atlanta’s old Terminal Train Station, which stood where the Richard B. Russell Federal Building now stands, closed in 1970 and was demolished in ’72. Street cars are long gone.

While there is talk of both returning, one thing never left. Tech runs in the Barron family blood.

The Toccoa-to-Atlanta treks began when Red Barron, their uncle, a two-time All-America halfback and a younger brother of Alae Risse and Jo’s father Virgil, played for the Jackets from 1918-’22.

Red also played baseball and ran track at Tech, and is in the school’s Hall of Fame. His brothers Carter (’24-’26) and Pat (’30-’32) also played football for the Jackets.

Several other family members have attended the school, and Patrick Barron — a nephew of Leitch and Atchison — is a junior on the cross country team.

Jo and Alae Risse could fill a book with Ramblin’ Wreck recollections. Their eyes twinkle with re-tellings.

“Once, Pat caught the opening kickoff and ran it for a touchdown,” Atchison said, “but they called it back because his nephew, Tom Jones, was offsides.”

A trip to the Citrus Bowl following the ’90 season remains Alae Risse’s favorite memory. Watching the Jackets whip Nebraska to earn a share of the national championship was epic. “We went to Orlando on the Tech bus,” she said. “Everybody was so happy because we won, and Tech played a beautiful game.”

For all the love of football, the game wedged its way haltingly into Barron family veins.

Virgil Barron was the second of 10 children raised in a tiny town near Toccoa. The ladies said their father and his siblings attended a one-room school that went through sixth grade.

Virgil encouraged Red (David by birth) to take up football, and was instrumental in helping his brother find his way to now-defunct Monroe Agricultural & Mechanical, a sort of preparatory school east of Atlanta. Years later, Red – whom Leitch and Atchison say was a fine story teller — coached there.

“Dad was the one who was really interested in education,” Alae Risse said. “He got Uncle Red a scholarship to Monroe, and then helped him get to Tech. Grandpa Barron didn’t approve of football too much.”

That shouldn’t surprise. Grandpa Barron was born just a few years after Abraham Lincoln was president, and even as he grew up football was yet to be born.

Red, who was born in 1900 and died in ’82, was one of Tech’s brightest stars in the first half of the 20th century. He and fellow halfback Buck Flowers powered Heisman’s new-fangled, “Jump shift,” offense in ’18.

Heisman, who said of his new offense in a 1918 Pittsburgh Press article, “The whole idea of pulling 10 men of the team back of the line is to give to the team concerted action and a preponderating force when it is driven against the enemy line.”

The enemy usually lost in the early years of Alae Risse’s fandom.

Although Red’s first Tech team didn’t quite measure up to the national championship squad of ’17 that was led by the backfield of Joe Guyon, Everett Strupper, Judy Harlan and quarterback Albert Hill, the Jackets trounced most opponents in ’18.

Eventual national champion Pitt was the exception. Even after the Panthers tripped the Jackets that day in the Steel City (one of Tech’s first-ever games played out of the Southeast), Pitt coach Pop Warner went out of his way to compliment Barron for playing heroically with a broken jaw wired shut.

Leitch has been alive at the time of all four of Tech’s national title teams (’17, ’28, ’52 and ’90). Although she never saw the ’17 team play (she believes her first game at Tech was in ’22, Red’s final season, and the third for Heisman successor William Alexander), she witnessed all the others during their respective regular seasons.

The Barrons moved to Decatur in 1931 because, “it was the heart of the depression; there were no jobs to be had anywhere. Dad had been offered a job [by an Atlanta candy company],” Alae Risse said. “He was a traveling salesman.”

Trekking to Tech games became more convenient with the move.

Leitch and Atchison both graduated from Agnes Scott. Alae Risse married a Tech man, the late James “Ike” Leitch. Jo’s husband, the recently deceased Ben Atchison, frequently joined her until he no longer could, and although he was an Emory graduate, “He knew every word of the [Tech] Alma Mater,” Atchison said.

In more recent years, there have been only occasional issues.

Alae Risse’s two daughters went to Duke and Vanderbilt, married Georgia men, and several of her grandchildren and great grandchildren are allegiant to the Bulldogs. Her thought: “That’s the punishment I get.”

It’s easy to wonder if the topic comes up in family conversation.

“They don’t talk about it,” Leitch said.

That’s because, Jo added, “They know better.”

Leitch and Atchison command respect.

Jo said that fans near their seats – section 124, row 32, seats 1-2 — “all know us. They look after us; they take care of Alae Risse.”

You can find them at just about every home game.

Jo lives in a retirement center near the V.A. Hospital in DeKalb County. The baby sister still drives. When the Jackets have a game in town, she picks up Alae Risse at her nearby center, and they head down to the Flats once more.

No trains, no street cars, no noses against glass; just two regal ladies, decked out in gold.

If you look them up, there will be ground rules. Their interests are made clear in Jo’s answer when asked if she and her sister follow any other sports.

“After football, we keep up with the basketball team,” she said. “I follow the Braves a little, and I’m kind of interested in the Falcons. But they started off on the wrong foot because the Smith family dressed them in red and black.”

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