George Wyatt Banks died on Friday, March 18, and the Banks/Guillebeau clan members are heartbroken. Born in Lincolnton, Georgia, on July 3, 1938, he was a rebel from the get-go. There was an oft-told tale that one of my great aunts, who taught him in school, told him he would never amount to anything. Wyatt’s response was to leave Lincolnton at the age of 16, work hard, become a success, make his fortune, and then come back and make sure she knew it. He worked his way through the ranks in the construction business, eventually retiring as a project superintendent. Not long after he put his feet up, an engineering firm came calling, pulling him back out of retirement as a consultant. Sitting out at the campground he once owned on the banks of the Tennessee River a couple of years ago, he pointed out the PCA mill down the river and said that was one of his biggest jobs and the reason he ended up in Savannah, Tennessee. I’m not sure exactly what he did there, but he was certainly proud of the outcome.
Two tragedies gave me Uncle Wyatt. First, my paternal grandfather, LeRoy Hogan “Roy” Guillebeau Sr. was killed in 1943 at the age of 39, leaving Grandma Sara Reese Guillebeau with three young boys to raise (my Dad was 3 years old). Then, seven years later, Uncle Wyatt’s mother, Mary Cordelia Goldman Banks died in 1950 at the age of 31, leaving Papa Peyton Banks with five children, the youngest just 7 months old and the oldest, Wyatt, only 11. A few years later, Grandma Sara and Papa Peyton combined forces and an unborn me gained the only Papa I would ever know, plus Wyatt and Franklin as future uncles, and Mary Lou, Pat, and Judy as future aunts. Bonus all the way around. Once all those kids became family, you couldn’t tear them apart with a bulldozer.
As a child, I was pretty much in awe of Uncle Wyatt. I think all of us kids were. He always lived in faraway places that we’d never heard of. At family gatherings, he came strolling in wearing a western-style shirt, blue jeans, and boots, a cigarette in one hand and a toddy in the other. He talked guns and horses among other things, and as far as I was concerned, he was a modern day Jesse James (without the robberies and murders, of course). For many years he raised horses on his ranch in Savannah, which did nothing to dispel the image. A famous (in our family, at least) bit of Wyatt lore says that he once punched a giant horse in the face that bit him one too many times. I know the horse-lovers reading this are appalled, but it solved the biting issue. On my last visit, he showed me a picture of him with his favorite horse and said he missed the animals, but not the work. (He also once raised, showed, and raced pigeons, too, and was a Freemason…I had no idea!)
Definitely an outdoor guy, he loved the fresh air and open space. For quite a while, he and Aunt Mae had a boat big enough to live on. They took it all the way from Savannah to the Gulf of Mexico. What a trip that would have been! They also had a company for a while that sold boat accessories. He showed me an advertising pamphlet that had two tanned people on a boat enjoying life. It took me a minute to realize it was him and Aunt Mae! Another trip he talked about was their treks to Florida with Uncle Roy, Aunt Mary Lou, Aunt Pat, and Uncle Ken. They hadn’t gone down in many years, because he just wasn’t comfortable driving his big motorhome that far anymore. He sure did miss it, though.
Quite a prankster, Wyatt had a terrific laugh. Last year, just as we arrived at Pickwick State Park to spend a few days visiting with him and Aunt Mae, I received a phone call from his number. When I answered, it sounded like a crazy person speaking a foreign language. I couldn’t understand a word, and after repeatedly asking who it was, just hung up. While I was still trying to figure out who the heck had called and how it showed up as Wyatt’s number, the phone rang again. He said “why did you hang up on me?!” “Because you sounded like a crazy person!” There came the laugh. Still pranking at almost 83 years old!
A “work hard, play hard” kind of guy, Wyatt had a mischievous grin, even in pictures from his childhood. Underestimating him, though, would have been a mistake for anyone; he was tough as nails. As my son, Ryan, said, “He was a man’s man.” He had hard edges and could be crotchety, and gruff, and I’m sure, tough to live with, but for us kids, he was sweet and funny and cool.
As an adult, work, school, kids, and life in general kept me in other places, and I didn’t see Uncle Wyatt often. I’m thankful that changed in the last few years, and we were able to spend some time together laughing, telling stories, and having a toddy or two on the porch. MW and I happened to be near Tupelo and planned to drive up and visit with him, Aunt Mae, Aunt Pat, and Uncle Ken on March 19. God had other plans, though. I told Aunt Pat that we missed out, but he was sitting with their Mama and Daddy, his son Buddy, and Jesus, so he got the better end of the deal. I sure pray that’s true. He left behind a lot of people who sure loved him, though. Think I’ll go see if we have any Jim Beam in the liquor cabinet and raise a glass to our family’s last cowboy.