Rube Yelvington: -30- for an editor's life
Rube Yelvington died peacefully this morning in a Louisville hospital.
Rube was my dad. He also was a newspaper reporter, photographer, editor and publisher. At various times in his life he was a soldier, a delivery truck driver, a railroad man, a tour company operator, the proprietor of a country-western music hall, a mayor of a small town and a community organizer. I think he was a great man.
He bargained on behalf of a union, he bargained on behalf of management, and he mediated an agreement that ended a bitter teachers strike. He worked for social justice and racial harmony in the angry times of the 1960s. His nose was broken by a bodyguard for a mobster when he was covering a police raid on a gambling and prostitution den.
He nearly died when his entire ice fishing expedition fell into the chill water of an Illinois lake one winter in the 1960s. But he lived to be 84, pushing past a quadruple bypass and cancer and a thousand other ailments while he continued to work 80 hours a week.
He was born in St. Louis, and as a young child he learned to speak Czech and drink beer from a bucket among neighbors sitting on the "stoop" in their working-class neighborhood. His parents, who hailed from Arkansas and Texas, moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, to spare him that deviltry.
As he grew up he published a neighborhood newsletter on a spirit duplicator and was rarely seen without a camera around his neck.
World War 2 intervened. He trained as an airfield engineer in the Dakotas, but wound up in India, where he worked in an Air Force photo lab, processing bomb-damage assessment photos for a group flying B-25 Mitchell bombers against the Japanese in Burma. He never liked to talk about the war very much, or for that matter, eat Indian food.
After the war, the G.I. Bill sent him to the University of Missouri, where he rose to become vice-president of the student body, working to racially integrate the institution, and was indoctrinated into the Mystical 7 secret society.
He worked summers in Colorado, driving a milk truck and as a dude rancher at the Sylvan Dale Ranch in the Big Thompson Canyon. I'm actually named, in part, after that ranch (my middle name).
He majored in sociology and criminology, intending to become a lawyer, and he wrote a few pieces for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Someone talked him into trying for a job at a the East St. Louis Journal -- where he could deal with people, not boring old law books.
In 1949 he started there as a cop reporter, hooked on journalism, and he never did get that law degree.
He rose to become editor of the paper and an important figure in Illinois, a good friend of U.S. Senators Paul Simon and Alan Dixon. When John Rendleman, executing Secretary of State Paul Powell's estate, found a closet full of shoeboxes stuffed with cash, Rube got one of the first calls. He worked with Dan Malkovich -- father of the actor John Malkovich -- to further tourism and conservation issues. (So now you can play the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.)
That was the environment in which he raised me and taught me much of what I know about journalism and life.
I was in business with him a couple of times. We bought and operated several country weekly newspapers. We tried to buy the Journal and save it from being closed in the late 1970s, but couldn't quite raise the capital.
My parents divorced, and around 1990 he moved south to begin a whole new life in a little town on the Ohio River. He remarried and got himself elected mayor of West Point, Ky., just in time for the 1997 floods, worst in recorded history.
He organized a community effort to buy a defunct music hall and reopen it, and ran a tour company running group excursions all over the country. And, of course, he published a newspaper on the side when he felt he had something to say.
He believed his role in this world was to bring out the best in others. He didn't believe in violence, because that was a failure to solve problems peaceably. He once told me that if you fire someone, you've failed as a manager. He never owned a gun. In the worst of times in East St. Louis he consented to carry only a carpenter's hammer under the driver's seat of his Rambler American.
I remember how he worked to get a talented reporter and writer released from the Menard State Prison to work at the newspaper and start a new life -- and how crushed he was when that reporter broke the terms of his parole and had to go back.
He once ran for the Illinois legislature as a Republican against a corrupt downstate Democratic machine, but as time passed he became appalled at the descent of the Republican party into jingoism and extremism and hatemongering. He wanted more than anything to live to see Barack Obama become President of the United States.
A couple of weeks ago he underwent chemotherapy for the prostate cancer that was eating away at his body and bones. It didn't go well.
He checked himself into a hospital and wound up in intensive care. I talked with him Saturday and he sounded great, cracking a joke that he was on "cloud 9 ascending," but Sunday he was exhausted and his mind was wandering. He knew this was his last journey and told my sister it was "dash 30 dash" -- the mark that reporters in the pre-computer era typed to designate the end of a story.
He didn't speak at all in his last day with us, so we knew it was time. My sister and I were at his bedside when he died quietly, without struggle. We could not have hoped for better, even though we all wanted just one more conversation.
His family and those who knew him will miss him terribly.