I’ve still got a couple more Jesus Trail travelogues left, but I must interrupt that series to write about the passing of a great Mississippian, a great Jacksonian and a great American, Wirt Yerger.
It’s been a great blessing to have known and worked with some of the greatest men of our city and state — Leland Speed, Billy Mounger, Stuart Irby, William Winter among others who have passed. Wirt Yerger is certainly among this constellation of greats.
If I tried to print every great story from everyone who was influenced by Wirt Yerger, there would not be enough ink and newsprint to chronicle them all. I don’t really feel worthy to be the one writing about this great man, but Northsider Jack Geary implored me to do so and I will tell you of my memories of Wirt.
I did a search of my old columns and found a column I wrote about Wirt in 1991, 31 years ago. I was 32. Wirt was 61, two years younger than I am today. I shake my head in amazement when I look at the young lad in the column photo.
“Wirt Yerger Jr. is about as patrician as they come in Jackson. Tall, handsome, intelligent, successful, concerned, gentlemanly. . .these are fitting adjectives.
‘The Yerger family has built up one of the most successful independent insurance firms in the state, occupying the entire 16th floor in the Capitol Towers building.
‘The 16,000 square feet of office space is modern and well-decorated. Networked microcomputers sit on every desk. "We decided the only way to get through this recession was to make a big push and work our way through," Yerger said in a softly determined tone that echoed decades of doing battle with business cycles.
“Since the turn of the century, the Yergers have been a progressive and moderate force in Jackson, indeed the state, including during the stormy civil rights period.
‘Mr. Yerger asked me to lunch the other day to tell me about a trip that he and 27 other concerned Jackson citizens went on recently.”
The column went on to talk about how a group of city leaders traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to learn how that city turned its dying downtown into a vibrant city center. Those on the trip were Kelly Allgood, Mike Bemis, Jim Moore, Kane Ditto, Elaine Crystal, Richard Dortch, Jeff Dukes, Rob Farr, E.C. Foster, Paul Fugate, Jim Hassinger, George Smith, Leland Speed, Michael Stevens, Zachary Taylor, Cornelius Turner, Steve Watson, Wirt Yerger, Charles Irby, Harvey Johnston, Paul Latture, Maxine Lyles, George Norris, Billy Orr, Bud Robinson, Tom Shafer and Virginia Shirley.
I wrote, “The success in Columbus is proof that white flight and downtown deterioration is far from inevitable. In fact, downtown Jackson can boom with vibrancy, if our city leaders work together to make it happen.
“Wirt gave me a packet of literature on Columbus. The impressive literature documents a phenomenal turn around.
The centerpiece of Columbus' success is a major downtown shopping and convention center with 135 stores occupying more than 1.4 million square feet of retail stores.
“So what are the prospects of a similar downtown center for Jackson?
“Wirt Yerger is optimistic, if we can overcome our governmental and social fragmentation.
"The salvation for us is going to be overcoming the city-county problem. If we could all just work together, and maybe even with some of the surrounding counties as well, and realize that we're a lot better off working together than fighting each other, then we might have a chance," Yerger said.
"Our biggest problem is negativism. At one meeting, everyone started off saying we're crazy, but then by the afternoon, they started agreeing that there might be some possibilities to this," he added.”
I quote this old column because it shows how Wirt Yerger was always trying to make his city, state and world a better place. That is an incredible legacy, along with a huge and amazingly successful family.
When crime was raging during the crack epidemic, Wirt organized the Metropolitan Crime Commission. He recruited me and I later became co-chairman along with ex Jackson mayor Frank Melton. Oh the stories I could tell!
He also recruited my tax accountant and dear friend Tony Huffman who was in his twenties at the time. Wirt kept insisting that Tony call him “Wirt” but Tony couldn’t ever do it. It was always Mr. Yerger. “I was in awe of him.” As the decades rolled by it became a sign of affection between the two. Every call they started, and there were many, Wirt would insist that Tony call him by his first name and Tony declared that would never happen.
My friend David Beard said, “Wirt was a man of great clarity and integrity. He was good at sizing up people and candidates.”
Wirt’s crime commission galvanized the community and in the ensuing years crime dropped dramatically. We could use such leadership today.
This is but one example of Wirt’s civic engagement.. There are dozens. Who, in the middle of their career, devotes years to building a dead state Republican Party and succeeds? All while raising a family. And he did it! He is truly the father of the Mississippi Republican Party (along with Greenville’s Clarke Reed and, of course, Billy Mounger.)
Wirt’s oldest son Wirt Yerger III, who has been immensely successful in the wireless bandwidth business, said this about his father: “Some people think and talk. My father thought and did.”
Wirt was friends with my grandfather, Oliver, and my father, John. When in New York in his early single days, he socialized with a group of young people which included my Aunt Fae and always asked about her.
Wirt was a conservative Republican, there is no doubt about that. But more so he was a patriot and wanted good government and competition among parties. He and I both lamented that Mississippi went from a one-party state controlled by the Democrats to a one-party state controlled by the Republicans. Two conservative, progressive parties competing vigorously in our state was an ideal we both wanted to see.
We spent countless hours fishing and talking on his bass pond in Madison and he saw me catch my biggest bass ever. The photo has hung on my wall for decades.
Other than my mother, no person in my life has ever complimented me as much as Wirt Yerger. He must have called me a hundred times complimenting me on a column or editorial. He hated that I was a pilot. “You’re too valuable to the state of Mississippi. Be careful.”
Boy did he love to use that phone to rally his posse. When he started dialing, things started hopping!
I will never forget being at a function and standing next to Wirt and my father. “John,” Wirt said in his deep, confident, unmistakable voice. “I want to tell you something about that son of yours. If I was fighting in a war, your son is who I would want down in that foxhole with me.”
As we left the meeting my father, whom I loved dearly but who was quite chary with his compliments, turned to me and said, “Son, he really does like you, doesn’t he.”
Wirt was always sizing up people and was an excellent judge of character. When he met my wife Ginny for the first time he said, “So Ginny, what do you bring to the table.” Ginny, a people pleaser, didn’t bat an eye. “A lot of really good food,” she said.
Like Wirt himself, his funeral was brief and to the point. First Presbyterian Pastor Wiley Lowry gave a perfect sermon quoting Psalm 16 “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” Surely this was true for Wirt.
I am saddened I will have to wait a bit until Wirt and I have yet another long conversation about politics and life. But I am also joyful that he was in my life and lived such an abundant life. We should thank God for all the people in our lives who have made life so wonderful. There are so many and Wirt was one.