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Retired lake manager was passionate about Lanier

GAINESVILLE — Chris Lovelady recalled disagreement in the office over Erwin Topper’s idea to set up campground housing for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers volunteers working at Lake Lanier.

But there wasn’t much debate, as Topper, Lake Lanier’s longtime project manager, knew what he wanted, said Lovelady, now assistant project operations manager.

“You don’t understand. I didn’t ask you to evaluate the idea. I asked you to come up with a plan for a village,” Topper said.

Corps officials and others are remembering the innovative, tough but fair corps retiree, who died Saturday in his Dawsonville home at age 72.

Topper served with the corps for 28 years, 23 as operations manager at Lanier.

Known by just last his name, he was widely recognized as he brought nationwide attention to the north Georgia reservoir, bringing it acclaim as the “the best lake in the nation,” according to his obituary.

He was also recognized as the corps’ employee of the year. Upon retirement, he was selected for the Hall of Fame in the corps’ Mobile, Ala., District. The National Recreation Society selected him as a “legend” in the field of recreation.

“One of the things that Topper was really good at was developing relationships around the project,” said Lovelady, who has been with the corps since 1985.

Topper retired at the end of 2004, completing what was his second career.

He also served in the Marine Corps, including tours in Vietnam, where he was injured and later received two Purple Hearts. He retired from the Marines because of his wounds.

Tim Rainey spent the early part of his career at Lanier when Topper was in charge, returning later as Lanier’s operations manager.

“I think he kind of looked out for me a little bit and saw something in me, helping me get where I am today,” Rainey said.

He also recalled Topper as someone overseeing the lake through much of its early, rapid development.

“He had a large impact on what’s out here today and how it works,” he said.

Nick Baggett, the corps’ natural resource manager at Lanier, said Topper interviewed him for his first job as park ranger, and he ended up working for him for 10 years.

“He challenged me to be the best that I could be,” he said. “[Topper] was one of a kind. He was a true leader.”

Val Perry, president of the Lake Lanier Association’s board of directors, said Topper “was always fair with us.”

“I always felt Erwin thought it was his lake, which it kind of was, so he protected it,” Perry said.

He recalled corps officials trying to get Topper to release water for navigation and Topper replying, ‘I’ll tell you when you can have water for navigation.’”

“And he could make it stick — the guy was that good,” Perry said.

“Some people were afraid of him. He was tough but fair, and he would listen. That’s a pretty good set of qualities.”

Topper’s obituary states that, away from work, he served in veterans groups and also was a member of the American and Georgia Quarter Horse associations, “showing his horses on a local and national scale and winning many prestigious awards.”

Memorial services were held Thursday at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Cumming.