The County’s Most Interesting Man

Newborn resident Tony Pless looks like your average older biker, clad in black leather and tattooed, with a long, white beard. Like most bikers, he has been places—some good and some he would rather not talk about. Inside his rough exterior lives a retired artist with a damaged but softened heart who longs to share God’s redemptive love.

by Kari Apted

A conversation with Tony Pless feels similar to watching the movie “Forrest Gump.” Each story sounds more incredulous than the last, but they are all surprisingly true. In fact, Pless has received several offers to turn his life’s story into a book, but the Newborn resident has declined them all. 

“They would focus on all the bad stuff, and I don’t want to go back to all that again,” he said. “I want to be remembered as the gracious old gentleman I am now.” 

Despite a rough and rocky first half of life, the 64-year-old has enjoyed years of wealth and reclamation. However, a testimony of redemption cannot be fully told without mentioning “the bad stuff,” and Pless has experienced significantly more than most. Pless believes there is one primary reason his life went down a dark path as a preteen. 

“I was rebellious,” he said. “It was pure rebellion. Nobody was going to tell me what to do. I hated my stepfather. He was abusive, overbearing and over-religious. I got kicked out of school and had my first job at 11. I was living out on the streets at 14. I hated school, but I’ve always loved hard work.” In contrast to his stepfather, Pless remembers his mother as a pillar of strength and faith. “My mama was the best friend I ever had,” he said. Pless speaks fondly of her memory, of how grateful he was for her support and that she lived well into his adulthood. Before she died, she asked her son for one last favor. “She knew I didn’t like church back then, but she made me promise not to shed one tear at her funeral,” he said. “She asked me to just smile and be proud of her.” Pless did not cry at her memorial service. He stood at the church door, shook hands with everyone who entered and said, “Welcome to Mama’s last sermon.” 

“I want to be remembered as the gracious old gentleman I am now.”

Tony Pless

Pless knows his mother’s prayers covered him during some trying times. His rebellion grew as he did, and he connected with people whose influence led him to dark places. He shares very little detail when he talks about the years he spent as a self-described “wild gangster,” preferring to keep those regretful memories in the past. However, his exploits led to his receiving a life sentence for murder—which was ultimately pardoned. Pless met his wife, Laurie, while they were both incarcerated, and the couple built a relationship through letter writing. “Laurie started going to church services in jail and asked the warden to please not keep us apart,” he said. Eventually, they were allowed to have a jailhouse wedding in 1994. The couple lived happily together for many years after they were both released. Some of Pless’ most cherished memories happened during the huge house parties they hosted. They would invite hundreds of guests who were entertained by the Dixie Rebel Band, a musical group Pless managed. Laurie raised prize-winning German Shepherds, while Pless worked as an electrician and an artist, specializing in leather. He made countless purses, wallets, gun holsters and belts, each artfully detailed with embossing and hand-painted dyes. 

“People think I must own a lot of the belts I made,” he said, “but I never made one for myself despite making thousands of them.” 

The Plesses enjoyed traveling around in his hippie van and setting up displays at craft fairs to sell his leather wares. He also enjoyed creating oil and pastel paintings, many of them on commission. He painted one piece for rock star Elton John and another landscape for former Georgia Governor and United States Senator Herman Talmadge. Some of his and his wife’s favorite pieces were his series of Native American portraits, which Pless often signed with Laurie’s name instead of his own. 

“It was a way of keeping her alive forever,” he said.

In 2002, Pless’ cousin asked him to work alongside him on a major remodeling project for an Atlanta celebrity. The home belonged to musician and actor Chris Bridges, better known as Ludacris. Pless formed an ongoing friendship with Bridges and his extended family, and he still works for him today. 

“You couldn’t ask for a nicer young man,” said Pless, who describes Bridges’ mother, Roberta Sheilds, as the loving big sister he never had. “The average person has no idea how much it costs and the hard devoted work these actors have to give their life up to. I’m personally proud to [have] had the pleasure of watching such growth in a person.” 

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As middle age came upon Pless, years of hard living began to seriously impact his health. To date, Pless has had seven major heart attacks and suffers from chronic congestive heart failure. He is unsure of exactly how many stents he has in his body but estimates there are around 10. He has gone through multiple surgeries, including one to remove a third of his colon. A stroke disabled his dominant left hand, which brought an end to his leather crafting and painting. 

In 2014, Laurie suffered a major stroke. Though the doctors gave her a poor prognosis for recovery, she lived another two years before she died on her birthday. Pless describes the years following her death as a deeply sorrowful season during which he spent a lot of time reading the Bible. Although he had always believed that God existed, he did not fully commit his life to Christ until he faced his own eternal fate. 

Pless describes himself as someone who had never been scared of anything, but his near-death experience shook him to the core. During one of his many surgeries, he was pronounced dead. “I saw the team working on me and the flat line on the monitor,” he said. “I heard the surgeon say ‘he’s gone’ and saw them turn the bright lights off.” Pless is reluctant to say he went to Hell but describes the next place he saw as very dark. “Terrified is no word to describe what I felt there,” he said. “I was surrounded by this evil power.” He described a structure like a staircase, or perhaps an altar, illuminated by a bright, colorful light. A large figure in a black robe kept walking by, and in his terror, Pless began begging God for forgiveness. “I told God if he sent me back, I’d never let another day go by without telling people how good He is,” Pless said. It would be another two days before he became fully conscious again, but he remembers hearing what people around him were saying. 

“I could hear people talking,” Pless said. “I heard the doctor say he had already called my brother to tell him I’d died.” 

Years ago, Pless’ doctors told him he would not live for three more months. He continues to defy their predictions. He has suffered through multiple episodes where chronic congestive heart failure caused his lungs to fill with fluid. 

“Every time, I’d have this last thought before passing out, that if I could have a drop of air the size of a BB, I’d be OK,” he said. The last time it happened, Pless could feel an episode coming on as he backed out of his driveway. His neighbor heard him lay down on his horn and called 911. Pless got out of the truck and fell on his face. “It’s like being drowned alive,” he said. “Water was gurgling out of my mouth, and I said, ‘God, I know you’re fixing to take me. Please take me to see my mama.’” Then he passed out. Help arrived within three minutes, and it turned out he had a collapsed windpipe. “Every time I leave the house,” Pless said, “it wouldn’t surprise me if I died backing out of the driveway.” 

Earlier this year, Pless was told that he would need to have another invasive cardiac procedure. However, no doctor was willing to take the risk of putting him under anesthesia again. Pless accepted his fate. “I told the doctors, ‘You can’t keep putting me together again like a mechanic,’” he said. Nevertheless, he continues eating healthier and staying active by doing maintenance work and various projects for Ludacris and his family. He frequently attends Rushing Wind Church in Newborn with other Bikers for Christ and has kept his promise to tell people about God’s goodness. 

“I grew old, and I chilled out,” Pless said. “I am ready to die as a peaceful old man. At the end of the story, I just want people to know that God is real.” 

Click here to read more stories by Kari Apted. 

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