Anywhere you went downtown, sooner or later you were bound to get a glimpse of Ron Higgins' Savannah Movie Tours luxury coach. He drove the air-conditioned 16-seater nearly every day of the year, and on the back was the iconic image from Forrest Gump, slightly altered: The man in the white suit, perched on a bus-stop bench and looking off into the distance, was Ron Higgins himself.
He loved that picture. He was very proud that he'd thought up the idea.
Ideas, in fact, were Ron Higgins' stock-in-trade. He never seemed to run out of them - and, unlike so many of us, he turned most of his ideas into reality.
When he died of an apparent heart attack June 14, at the age of 45, Ron Higgins was one of Savannah's most successful entrepreneurs.
He had turned himself into a cornerstone of the city's all-important tourism industry.
Along with the movie tour, on which he pointed out the places in the historic district where dozens of movies had been filmed, he operated a restaurant tour, a ghost tour (much scarier, he liked to say, than any of his competitors'), a shopping tour and, most recently, a walking tour of downtown martini bars.
But he was obsessed with filmmaking. He'd left his native Savannah to try his luck at screenwriting in California, and when that didn't work out, he came home and started to apply for gigs - driving, hauling, security and even carpentry and set work - on movies being produced here.
He worked on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Gift, Forces of Nature, Something to Talk About, The General's Daughter, The Legend of Bagger Vance and, of course, Forrest Gump.
In Atlanta, he was one of Denzel Washington's assistants during the making of Training Day. On Remember the Titans, director Boaz Yachin hired the young man with the infectious enthusiasm as his personal assistant.
In 1998, someone gave him a ticket for one of the Savannah trolley tours.
"When I took that tour, I counted 70 movie locations," he told me 10 years later. "The tour mentioned three."
With the dogged determination he was famous for, among his friends and family, Higgins began to look deeper into the ties between Savannah and Hollywood. The Forsyth Park fountain? Look for it in Cape Fear, The Longest Yard and The Gingerbread Man. The Roundhouse? Filling in for troop barracks in Glory. Monterey Square passed for 1865 Washington, D.C. in The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd.
As the Savannah Movie Tour coach rolled through downtown, Higgins would chatter excitedly about this movie or that. As he pointed out a location - the corner pub where Julia Roberts confronted Dennis Quaid in Something to Talk About, or the old-timey barbershop in Bagger Vance - the pertinent clips would appear on the vehicle's DVD screens.
From Day One, it was an extremely popular tour. It usually sold out.
Ron was named Entrepreneur of the Year 2006: Most Unique Business by the City of Savannah's Entrepreneur Center, Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year 2007 from Cumulus Broadcasting, and Entrepreneur of the Year 2008 from the Savannah Chamber of Commerce.
I profiled "Hollywood Ron," as he'd come to be called (although he claimed to hate the name) for a local magazine in the fall of 2008; it was the first story I had published in Savannah. I liked him immediately.
"This is all amazing to me," he'd said. "I had no experience in tourism. But I'm the kind of person that when I say I'm going to do something, I do it."
Most recently, he associate-produced the independent film I Am the Bluebird.
Within hours of the news that Higgins had died unexpectedly, his Facebook page was overflowing with messages and tributes from friends, family - and people who'd only met him once or twice.
That was all it ever took. Ron made an immediate, and permanent, impression. That was his gift.
Ron Higgins was laid to rest on June 19. According to Rebecca King, VP of Operation of Savannah Movie Tours Inc., every one of Ron’s tours will continue to operate with his hand-picked staff. The reservation line is (912) 234-3440.
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"And you deserve better."
Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.