A few years ago I wrote a piece about a local Matriarch whose death left a void in the lives of so many in her community. For those of us who grew up in the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s in Savannah, Tennessee – especially in or around Yeiser subdivision – she was a fixture in our lives. Now we have lost a well-respected gentleman in Robert Hurst Yeiser. Bob or “Captain,” as he was affectionally known, possessed so many of the traits I admire in a man. His passing leaves a void few men of this modern era are qualified to fill.
Bob was a product of Tennessee and proudly carried his birthright. He was born in Wayne County but made Hardin County home. Bob graduated from High School in East Tennessee in 1949, before his military service interrupted college. After serving for a few years in the Army, he continued his education at the University of Tennessee and was a proud Sigma Chi. I never heard Bob talk about his military service. I do know it shaped his view of the world and our current events. He was an American through and through and deeply loved his state and country.
Some of my earliest childhood memories involve Bob’s family. I grew up with his children, Bobby and Julianne, and fondly remember Ginna too. Bob worked hard all his life, and I don’t have many memories of him in our neighborhood, but I do recall his support for Tiger football, especially when Bobby played for Savannah in the late 1970’s. Yeiser Oil Company’s logo was a fixture in and around Jim Carroll Stadium, and his company’s trucks were seen continuously delivering gas throughout the region. And did he ever love the Tennessee Volunteers?
The majority of my interaction with “Captain” came later in life and revolved around politics. During my time in elected office, Bob was a tremendous resource and a welcome reminder of my home county when I encountered him in the halls of the State Capitol or at a GOP dinner. Bob was a deep-red Republican. His political involvement naturally was shaped by the East Tennessee Republican values espoused by the late Sen. Howard Baker, former Congressman Robin Beard, and former Governor Don Sundquist. Every modern-day, statewide elected official knew Bob Yeiser, and when campaign season rolled around, he was always their first call in Hardin County. Captain rarely, if ever, missed a GOP event in West or Middle Tennessee. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. Captain made sure of that.
Some people beat around the bush and have difficulty communicating their thoughts and intentions. Others are more direct and blunt. Let’s just say Bob took it one step further. You never walked away from a conversation with Bob without knowing where he stood on the issue. Captain wasted no time letting people know why his opinions should be theirs too. It was his gift, and he used it well.
My best and most recent memories were around the breakfast table at the Toll House restaurant in Savannah. Bob had suggested for years that I drop in and have coffee with him and the 10-12 other men that gather around the long table against the wall and to the far left once you enter the restaurant. The “Captain” was always the first to arrive each morning and occupied the coveted seat at the head of the table. I have never seen anyone other than Bob hold that seat. I can’t imagine anyone else there today.
The morning’s conversation is similar to any men’s coffee group. Local current events, sports, politics, and more political discussion if Bob thought your thinking was not in sync with his views. Waitresses at the Toll House fought one another to wait on the Captain’s table. Tara, Sam (Samatha) and a host of others incessantly poured coffee while listening to Bob rant about the topic of the day. Some waitresses could have found Bob’s manner of delivery and comments offensive. To put it mildly, Bob never grasped with the #MeToo movement. What he loved most was when the waitresses would give it right back to him. I think most of Bob’s opinions and statements were intended to evoke emotion and response from others. He loved to “stir the pot,” and few mastered the art any better than Captain.
At the end of breakfast and before everyone moves on with their day, the group plays a numbers game to determine who picks up the tab for coffee. The first three times I participated I got stuck picking up everyone’s coffee. Naturally, I thought I had been set up and suspected Bob was the culprit. He mastered this no-rules game better than anyone, and it irritated him to no end when others would gang up with the intention of sticking Bob with the losing number. Whenever he detected the strategy was in play, he would start verbaling his thoughts as the number inched closer to his end of the table. When he got stuck with the tab, he didn’t fail to express his complete and unfiltered opinion to the person that caused the defeat. However, he so enjoyed sticking his brother Grady with the tab as often as possible. So much so that Grady – who always sat to Bob’s right – stopped giving his brother so much joy by deciding not to play. The strategy never phased Bob. He merely turned his focus to sticking it to another unsuspecting soul.
As good as his communication skills were, Bob wasn’t quite up to speed on the latest technology. A flip-phone was all he needed. Bob loved teasing people and participating in practical jokes. “Stirring the pot,” came naturally to him and whenever he found himself on the receiving end of the fun, he took it so well. Some of the guys figured out how to get the best of Bob. A couple of minutes after he headed toward the Toll House restroom, someone would dial his cell phone and hang up right before he answered. Moments later Bob would come storming out of the men’s room, wanting to know who dialed his number. No one could answer because they were laughing at the wet spots running down Bob’s khaki trousers from his attempt to answer his phone while relieving himself. The joke was played on Bob too many times to count. I sensed he enjoyed it as much as everyone else.
Bob was a handsome man. I always thought of him as a “man’s man.” Captain was smart, knew what he wanted, charming and popular with the ladies. Women of all types always made their way over to Bob to flirt with him, and he always enjoyed returning the favor. It was “Miss Nina,” the woman he dearly loved for so long that received is full and everlasting love. They were a striking couple. They fit like a hand in a glove and were by one another’s side until Nina’s sudden passing earlier this year. Part of Bob died with Nina. Many will miss him, but I am glad they are reunited once more.
Captain also had to endure the premature passing of his oldest son Bobby. I know he’s excited to watch this Saturday’s game between Tennesse and Auburn with him though. Thankfully, Bob had his daughters, Julianne and Ginna and his brother Grady to lean on.
There are so many more stories I could share about Bob. Others who knew him better have thousands more. I will miss Captain. I will miss his wisdom, humor, and advice. I will miss him telling me my hair is too long. In his unique way, he made me a better person, and for that I am grateful. Captain will be missed by many, but he will not be forgotten. Not for a very, very long time. He accomplished what so many desire; he left a legacy and made a difference.