By Ross Williams, For the Forsyth County News
VININGS — There’s a party at Dick Yarbrough’s place.
The guest list includes Junior E. Lee, general manager of the Yarbrough Worldwide Media and Pest Control Company from Greater Garfield, Georgia, and Skeeter Skates of Skeeter Skates Plow Repair and Stump Removal of Ryo, Georgia. Jack and Jill the mules sent regrets. They are stranded in either Canada or Montana.
The occasion for the gathering? On Friday, May 10 (in the Forsyth County News) the humorist published his 1,000th syndicated column that appears in 35 newspapers across Georgia.
Yarbrough is known for his wacky sense of humor, his zany characters – Junior, Skeeter and all the rest – and his propensity to go after targets of any political persuasion.
Sitting in the office of his Vinings home, Yarbrough said he thinks his apolitical zingers are part of the reason people keep reading.
“I’m not predictable,” he said. “I’m not conservative, I’m not liberal. I write about whatever I want to write about, and that, I think, has drawn a lot of people to the column. ... You’ve got some people, every week, they’re going to bash [Donald] Trump. Some people, every week, they’re going to praise Trump. You’ve got people, you just know what they’re going to do. ... I’m the only person you’ll probably ever know who has been called, within a period of about a month, an [Barack] Obama bedwetting liberal and a racist redneck.”
Yarbrough said he was accused of wetting beds because he suggested in a column that a statue in the Capitol of Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, be replaced with another Georgian, musician Ray Charles.
He earned the racist redneck moniker after going after NFL player and activist Colin Kaepernick.
“I love it,” he said with a big laugh. “If I got called a racist every week, there’s something wrong with me. If I got called a bedwetting liberal all the time, there’s something wrong with me. But when I get called both, that’s something right. Sometimes I can hear them sputtering through the email, they’re so mad at me.”
Yarbrough said his targets are “the humor-impaired,” and gave the example of state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah. In 2013, Yarbrough wrote a column skewering Stephens for taking a junket to Turkey and Azerbaijan.
“I got a call the next day, he said ‘Dick.’ I said ‘Yes, sir.’ He said ‘Ron Stephens.’ I said ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘Funniest damn column I’ve ever read in my life.’ … I told him at the end of the conversation that’s the last time I write about you because you have a sense of humor. I crossed him off the list. Fortunately, there’s enough people out there that don’t have a sense of humor.”
Yarbrough came to the life of a humorist after spending a full career in the business world, where he retired as vice president of BellSouth in 1993 after 40 years. He went on to join the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic games, serving as managing director.
Two years after the Olympics, Yarbrough got a call from the Atlanta Business Chronicle asking him to write a column about his thoughts on the games. Yarbrough was reluctant at first, but eventually decided to write it.
“I got it all out of my system,” he said with a laugh. “I blistered the city government, the business community and the media. I said Atlanta wasn’t even the next great city, Charlotte took that title along with our banks. And it got a tremendous response. … The Business Chronicle asked if I’d write another one. I told my wife, who wanted me to retire, I’ll write another one, and that will be it. And then I’ll write one every three weeks. And then I’ll write one every week.”
More than 20 years later, Yarbrough is still at his laptop typing away. He said he’s blessed to have found a second career that is so fulfilling, especially after his first career did not quite lend itself to creativity.
“It was very structured, and you had lawyers looking over everything you said,” he said. “You used a lot of language that was arcane on purpose, but I’ve always enjoyed creativity. … I’m an artist. I love painting, and I love writing. So it was a sort of latent opportunity to write like I wanted to. I could write well in the business world, but a lot of it is just corporate writing. … Now I say what’s on my mind, which is very liberating, if you’ve been in the corporate world.”
Often, Yarbrough says what’s on his mind through the mouths of characters he has cooked up. His favorite is Junior E. Lee.
“I have him patterned after a real person, I can’t tell you who he is, who thinks he knows everything about everything, so I just sort of made Junior E. Lee sort of a spoof of this person, and Junior E. Lee can say things about politicians that I can’t say. That’s really fun to write through somebody like that because it gives you a lot of latitude to say a lot of things, then you can deny it,” he said with a laugh.
Looking back, Yarbrough said he is proud of his accomplishments in the business world, but he sometimes thinks he may have been happier starting out as a writer.
“I probably would have started out doing this, now that I know how much fun it is for me,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of a living I would have made at it. … I don’t regret one day of my career. I have a lot of awards and honors, and I’m very grateful for them. I was named one of the 100 most influential PR people in the 20th century. It must have been a slow century for PR if I got to the top 100. … But I sure enjoyed doing this.”
Yarbrough said he gets most of his ideas from reading newspapers and from conversations with readers.
“I listen a lot and I’ve got on my computer, what I call working columns,” he said. “If somebody says, ‘You ought to write a column about so-and-so,’ and I think that’s a good idea, I come back and I will write a few words to be sure that there’s something there. But I get a lot of ideas from people, and that’s why I like to make speeches.”
Yarbrough said some columnists come across as lecturing or haranguing their audience, but he sees his columns as a conversation.
“I’ve got friends all over the state that I will never meet,” he said. “I’ve got people that write me every week. We just become friends.”
Yarbrough said the moment that solidified his relationship with his readers came in 2008 after the death of his grandson, Zack Wansley. Wansley was 20 years old and a junior at Georgia Tech when he died suddenly training for a marathon.
Yarbrough, a graduate of the University of Georgia, is a dyed-in-the-wool Bulldogs fan who enjoys needling Georgia Tech in his columns.
“I wrote a column after Zack died, and I said I can never pick on Tech again after losing Zack,” he said. “And Tech people covered me up with notes, ‘Don’t you dare. You keep it up. We can take it. That would be disrespectful to Zack. You give it to us, and we’ll give it right back.’ Now that’s a relationship. I had been in a pity mood. It gives me goosebumps to talk about it. … I still have people today who will write me about that. It’s just like we’re friends and they suffered through that with me.”
Yarbrough said while he does not usually take himself seriously, he always takes his column seriously because he knows it has an impact across the state.
Among the issues he is most proud of pushing for is government transparency, for which he received the Freedom of Information Award from the Associated Press Managing Editors Association. He is also the recipient of the Georgia Press Association’s Best Humor Column four times in eight years.
“I guess I’m only funny every other year,” Yarbrough said.
Yarbrough is also known for his support of Georgia’s public schools and his dismissal of school vouchers.
One column he wrote went viral and spread to high school band rooms across the country: a 2009 column in which he said marching band students deserve more respect.
“That went all over the country,” he said. “I got mail from Kansas, Illinois, California, people saying thank you for taking up for the band. … I made myself the unofficial band director of the Marietta Daily Journal. It resonated, and I still write about the band every so often because I think what they do is extraordinary.”
Yarbrough has a lot of articles he’s proud of, but he said there’s only one he regrets writing. It came after the bombing of the USS Cole.
“I went ballistic and was pretty demeaning to the Arabs,” he said. “The papers, Marietta and Northside papers, got some really ominous threats, I mean big time. [The publisher] called me and said ‘This is not good.’ … That’s the one if I had to do over, I probably wouldn’t have written. It was a tense time. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny then.”
Yarbrough lives with his wife, Jane, who constantly tries to trick him into eating broccoli. They have two children, three surviving grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Looking back, Yarbrough said his biggest influence as a writer was his mother, who never got past seventh grade.
“Momma would have been an incredible writer,” he said. “Momma had an insatiable curiosity and read a lot and wrote a lot and encouraged me. The only thing my parents ever pushed me to do where I had no choice is my momma made me go to the library every summer and read enough books to get that little gold star you got for reading books. It just made me fall in love with words.”
Growing up, Yarbrough said he was a bit of a class clown, but is not as much of a jokester in person as people might expect.
“In high school, I kind of was a cut-up,” he said. “As I got in the business world, I got serious, because cut-ups don’t go far in the business world. I’m fairly quiet. … I’m a little more guarded with people than you’d imagine I am. I put a lot of humor in my column, and I put a lot of humor in my speeches, but … I’m a little more guarded with people than you’d think I’d be. … The thing about writing for me is it’s an escape. I just get into this little world and talk to my readers, and I have a platform. It’s an enjoyable thing for me.”
Yarbrough said he has no immediate plans to slow down after hitting this milestone.
“I’ve been so lucky that I sort of stumbled into this,” he said. “I was asked to write one column one time, and it’s gone into this. Somebody told me it’s over half a million households a week, over a million readers a week. I’m so blessed to do this. I’m enjoying the heck out of it, and I’ll continue. I don’t know if I’ll make another thousand, but as I tell my readers, you keep reading, and I’ll keep writing.”