The following is a eulogy which I wrote for my uncle’s memorial service.
George Cole died earlier this month in Nashville, his hometown. He was 89 and lived a rich, full life. He was an avid sports fan all his life, a ferocious competitor in handball and racquetball, huge supporter of Vanderbilt and Montgomery Bell Academy, the high school where he was a football standout, a devoted golfer, and an entrepreneur in the car business following in the footsteps of his own father, who in his heyday owned two of the largest Ford dealerships in America. He was a husband, father, stepfather, grandfather, and friend to many. But for me he was just my Uncle George.
My relationship with my uncle was special. I knew from a very early age that my mother loved her “little brother” very much. They had gone through hard times together when their father’s car dealerships failed during the Great Depression and when their parents’ marriage broke up. Because they were almost ten years apart in age, she was part older sister and, I think, part surrogate mother. They had to stick together to survive, and that bond stayed with them until my mother died in 1997.
Because my mother’s brother was only 14 when I was born, the age difference between Uncle George and me was not that different from the age difference between George and my mother. Whatever the reason I knew that there was something precious about Uncle George and something precious about our relationship.
Before I reached my mid teens, Uncle George had taken me–and whatever friends happened to come along–to dozens of Nashville Vols baseball games, to MBA football games, and to basketball games at Tennessee State where we were the only white faces in the arena. He had taken us cruising on the Cumberland River in front of the foul-smelling, meat packing plants in a speed boat that he acquired in one of his car deals. When I was older, George and my Aunt Sis took my best friend, Dick Barry, and me to Louisville in 1957 and 1958 where we saw Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robinson compete for the NCAA Basketball Championship. He took me and another best friend, Allen Wallace, to Birmingham to watch Alabama trounce Vanderbilt in football. It seemed like he was always showing up at our house and asking if I would like to come along on some excursion and always would ask if I would like to bring along a friend. All my friends thought of him as part of my immediate family and called him Uncle George. I remember asking myself on more than one occasion how many kids have an uncle like that.
By the time I was in high school, George had married Aunt Sis, and they had started their own family with three sons, who have always been more like brothers to me than first cousins. I admit that I was a bit jealous when I learned that Uncle George and Aunt Sis were going to have a child. What would happen to me? So when my first cousins got older, Uncle George and I did not do things together as we used to, but he routinely attended MBA football practices where I was the student trainer, and I felt he was cheering for me at MBA football games when I brought water out to the players during a timeout or taped a halfback’s ankle.
He also sold me used cars. The first car was actually a loaner. When one day he heard that I had a special date, he showed up unannounced at our house with a Mercedes Benz “Gull Wing” 300. This was the hottest sports car of its day and was called a “Gull Wing” because when the doors opened up instead of out, the car resembled a bird. He casually tossed me the keys, saying “have a nice date, nephew.” I do not remember the special date, but I surely remember the car.
Not long after that he arrived in the driveway around my sixteenth birthday with a sky blue, 1952 Chevrolet, with spinner hubcaps, whitewall tires, and a lowered rear axel, which made it look like a NASCAR racing machine. The motor apparently had been tinkered with and spiked up. He said he had tested it himself and believed it to be the fastest drag racer he had ever driven. I immediately fell in love with the car and purchased a special tag, which read “Dragons,” to go below the rear license plate. My friends were so envious! Why didn’t they have an uncle like Uncle George?
Their enthusiasm waned a bit when a week later the car came to an abrupt halt in the middle of one of Nashville’s busiest intersections when the universal joint (whatever that is) broke. Police arrived on the scene, and one of them remarked, “The Dragons. He’s a Dragon. I know that gang. They are dangerous.” The two friends who were with me stood on the corner laughing and pointing at me pretending they had no connection with me as the tow truck pulled the sky blue Chevy away. I remember thinking it was a miracle the cops did not lock me up; and a few days later when the car was repaired, I immediately removed the Dragons plate and tossed it in the trash.
The next car was a black Volvo, the kind with the classic design with a sloping roof that made it look like a gangster car. I bought this car from Uncle George my sophomore year in college in 1962 when my Davidson roommate, Sam Glasgow, and I drove across the U.S. to Seattle where we boarded a plane to Japan to spend a summer working on an experimental dairy farm. Volvos may be great cars, but this one needed two cans of oil every time we filled up with gas and had seven breakdowns or near-breakdowns along the way. The day we returned I sold it back to Uncle George for what I paid for it.
George also introduced me to sailing. In the late 60’s he invited me out to Percy Priest Lake where at a friend’s house he kept a tiny Sunfish sailboat that he had just taken as a down payment on a car and directed me to take the boat out for a sail on my own. I had never been on a sailboat before. I jumped on the boat and two hours later returned, smiling and drenched, the boat having capsized at least a half dozen times. I have been an avid sailor ever since.
So I owe a lot to my Uncle George. His family is part of the Howell extended family, and we are part of the Cole extended family.
I remember one of my friends, Walter Wilson, winsomely commenting that he wished he had an uncle like Uncle George, “He has got to be the greatest uncle in the world.”
And he was right. For me he was.
But uncles are people. And we humans are complex.
When Embry and I got married in 1965, I remember looking around for the Cole family and asking my mother where they were. She looked embarrassed and said that George had purchased tickets for his family to go to the Rose Bowl, and that is why they weren’t at the wedding. I did not think a whole lot about it then, but it was the beginning of a pattern of Uncle George’s occasionally missing important family events–not always but enough to get your attention–like children’s and grandchildren’s birthdays, school plays, and graduations. You were just not sure if he would show up.
And then there were the ups and downs of his various used car dealerships and other business ventures. One year George Cole Motors would be flourishing and making money big time. The next year the company would have been sold or folded, and George would be on to something else. He was the first person to open Datsun (Nissan) and Volvo dealerships in Nashville. Along the way there were pizza parlors, a car wash, a liquor store, and some real estate. Then there would be another used car venture, and that looked good–at least for a while–until another disaster hit. You could not keep this guy down. He would give almost anything a try, stick with it while it was good, make his money, take his lumps, lick his wounds, and move on. All this he did without a whine, complaint or whimper, and more often than not, with a twinkle in his eye and a good story to tell.
The George Cole business cycle seemed to repeat itself until in middle age George ended up working for other people—probably the first time in his life that he had had to report to anyone besides himself. He worked for several dealerships mainly selling new cars, and ended up working for a Lexus dealer. I recall feeling very sad when I heard that he no longer had his own business.
The Lexus job did not last long, however, because the pressure got to him, and he suffered several strokes, which along with some other health issues, eventually caused him to get out of the car business altogether. Long before that his first marriage to Aunt Sis had failed, and he had married Bookie, who brought along three children with her from a previous marriage and an aging mother, “Grammie,” whose father had actually served as a Confederate officer in the Civil War. They soon moved from Nashville to the far suburbs where they lived on a lake and then to Columbia, about an hour from Nashville, which accounts in part for the emotional distance some of George’s first family felt from him from time to time.
Uncle George recovered from the strokes and rebounded but did not return to the cutthroat car world. He decided to do something much more challenging. He became a substitute teacher in the public school system, working with kids of all ages and backgrounds in public schools spread out all over the Nashville and Columbia, including some troubled public schools. Some of the students he worked with were poor, and some were African American. Uncle George had always been a maverick and outspoken, occasionally using politically incorrect language. He was not what you would call a bleeding heart liberal. I could not help wondering how this experience would work out.
Well, he loved it. He loved his students, and he loved his work in the classroom. He kept doing this for a number of years even though it was grueling work, and he needed a cane to get around. I once asked George if he had trouble with discipline, to which he responded “rarely.” His son, Buck, later reminded me that his father was known for springing up from his chair and with cane in hand charging an unruly kid acting up in the back of the class. The terrified kid often scampered into the hallway but later returned to apologize to George. Many of his fellow workers applauded; and after one or two incidents like this in a particular school, discipline was never again a problem. When he finally threw in the towel–or perhaps the school administrators threw it in for him– George must have been one of the oldest employees in the school system.
Uncle George’s final years were not easy. As is often the case when people reach their eighties, disabilities begin to set in. George was single again, and the big worry was where was he going to live and who was going to take care of him. The answer came when he moved into a HUD, low income housing development for seniors, sponsored by a retired teachers association. This seemed particularly ironic since Uncle George was not known for his love of the federal government or low income housing. Cousin Hal spent a lot of time with his father helping him get adjusted and providing help when needed. The icing on the cake was that George was then only a short walk or ride on a scooter or wheelchair away from Cousin Curt’s Firefly Restaurant where on many evenings Uncle George could be found at the bar, holding forth, sipping his Jack Daniels, and complaining that his son had put him on a two-drink limit. Curt had even worked out a meal plan where his father would pay a monthly discounted rate for meals at the bar whenever he wanted one. Does it get much better than this?
I was unable to visit George the last two years when he had moved into an assisted living community. There he got frequent visits from his sons and their families, and Cousin Buck assured me his dad was doing fine. “Well,” he said, “he still has an eye for the ladies!”
My father, who was very close to George, but as a proper banker, about as unlike him as you can get, summed up George on one of our fishing trips when I was around ten years old and just learning how to fly fish. Uncle George was with us one lazy, Saturday afternoon in the summer when we were fishing our beloved Harpeth River. George had left us and charged upstream splashing along without a fishing rod.
“You know,” he said, “Your Uncle George is one tough guy. I tried to teach him how to fly fish, but he would have nothing of it. All he wants to do is go after fish hiding under rocks and catch them with his bare hands, ‘grappling’ he calls it. But you know something? He always catches fish.”
Uncle George was a grappler from day one until he died.