When Mack Gentry reminisces about the late Bobby Gratz, his very good friend, we sit up straight and listen.
“Bobby had a creative side. He wrote poetry. He designed and built furniture,” said Gentry, longtime attorney in Knoxville. “Bobby had a bit of the free spirit. He loved to ride his motorcycle on long trips on the open road. Bobby loved life.”
Gentry and Gratz were Tennessee football teammates in the 1960s. They were together again at West Point when Gratz was on the coaching staff. As part of his military service, Gentry was assigned to the faculty and staff at the U.S. Military Academy.
“I assisted Bobby in recruiting high school football players,” said Gentry.
More than once, Gentry heard Gratz repeat what he had been told about air travel: “It only costs a dollar more to go first class.”
On one recruiting trip, Gratz decided he would take the booking agent’s suggestion and upgrade from economy to first class, just to see what it was like.
“He told me what a great experience the trip had been,” said Gentry.
To make a long story shorter, there was more leg room, better food and great service.
“A few weeks later, Tom Cahill, Army’s head coach, called Bobby into his office to have him explain why he had flown first class. I think that was when Bobby learned that it actually cost more than ‘a dollar more.’
“I am pretty sure Bobby never flew first class after that.”
Gratz, career coach, teacher and administrator with Knox County schools, died Dec. 28 after an extended illness. The Gratz family will meet friends today (Jan. 5) at Fountain City United Methodist Church from 5-6:45. A celebration of life will follow.
“Bobby, brother to me and to brother Ron, had a heart of gold and was a friend to all,” said Rebecca Gratz Hickman.
“He was always telling stories and jokes and always had a smile on his face. He wasn’t perfect but he wanted you to think so.
“He was my hero. He fought his battle with colon cancer for two years with such grace. I myself went through chemo and radiation this past year. He told me several times lately that he was so happy that I was finished with my treatments and he could leave this Earth knowing I would be OK.
“This is how he was, always making the other person feel better. He left wonderful memories for us all. Our Gratz family will miss him. Our world is a better place because he was in our life.”
Johnny Mills, former Tennessee receiver, another former teammate of Gratz, agrees with Rebecca that Bobby made the world a better place.
“When I was a freshman at UT, Bobby was the upperclassman to sort of take me under his wing,” recalled Mills.
“I’ll never forget the first contact. He asked if I was the kid from Elizabethton? He said I should sit with him at supper, that we East Tennessee guys had to stick together.”
Gratz was from Morristown.
“I never forgot that kindness. He was my friend the whole time we were together. His being nice to me sort of kept me off the list for others to pick on. Freshmen had to earn their place on the team and in the dorm. It helped to have Bobby Gratz looking out for me.”
Mills remembers Gratz as a team leader.
“When the three coaches were killed in the train accident, when we were all devastated, it was Bobby who invited guys into his room to talk. He got a bunch of us together again after supper to talk things over. He and Hal Wantland were really the glue that helped get us through it.
“If you look at some of the old pictures, it was Hal and Bobby leading us into church for the memorial service.”
Mills, more than once, thought about quitting Tennessee football.
“Bobby was always there to straighten me out, well, him and my dad. Bobby would say things like ‘Johnny, most people can’t do this, but we can and we will.’
“Bobby reminded me what a privilege it was to be in our position, how hard we worked to be there. He relished his time as a Vol and taught me to treasure it as well.”
(Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org)