‘You can pay me later’

By Tom Mattingly

It was early on the second Monday in November 2006. That was more than 15 years ago, but it really seems more recent than that.

That’s when a cursory examination of the day’s News Sentinel obits revealed this significant piece of information: “Langston, Robert Joseph (Bobby), 64, died Nov. 10 in Cookeville.” The funeral would be at 1 p.m. CST in Jamestown, where Bobby had lived for several years.

That sent the memory banks into overdrive. I called Marvin West, given that he and Sarah had made Bobby their traveling companion during Tennessee’s December 1975 trip to Hawaii. He and Bobby were friends, much the way Bobby was likewise close to Condredge Holloway. The three of us compared notes about Bobby on a regular basis.

Bobby was well-known at the Cumberland Avenue Krystal, the main venue where he plied his trade.

Each summer, he would call the office and ask a very pertinent question: “Are ‘we’ going to have a good team this season?” More often than not, ‘we’ did. That made him happy.

Following these and other recollections, all that was left to do was to hit I-40 and follow U.S. Highway 127 north into Fentress County and ultimately to Jamestown.

Bobby’s longtime friend Jack Williams, born 10 days later in 1942 and a fellow Rule High School Golden Bear, called about the time our cars passed on the bridge separating Cumberland and Fentress Counties.

“Anytime I started feeling bad about something that had happened in my life,” Jack said, “I thought about Bobby and all he had experienced and realized I had it pretty good.”

I occupied the last few miles by watching the clock inch closer to 1 p.m. and was also keeping careful lookout for the local police, given my haste not to be late. I had the folks from the funeral home on the phone, asking them politely if they could hold the service until I got there. They said they would, and they did.  I finally arrived at 1:02 p.m.

Bobby never allowed the circumstances of his life, specifically cerebral palsy, get him down. He was all over the University of Tennessee campus, selling newspapers and his own special brand of optimism to all who would listen.

“Buy one,” he would say, and most people did. Sometimes passers-by bought more than one. “You can pay me later.” And most people did.

The end of the line had come three days earlier after a two-month battle with pneumonia, but he left behind a passel of memories for those who knew him and loved him. His newspaper bag was prominently displayed on the podium.

Forty or so of his friends gathered in a small-town funeral chapel to celebrate his life.

Bobby Langston taught valuable lessons on character, courage, and perseverance.

There were those who might have made snap judgments and dismissed him based on his speech, his appearance, or his battle with the bottle, but when you got to know him, he was something special.

It was a relationship that dated to December 1966 and a bus trip to the Gator Bowl. It continued through good times and bad, through many memorable moments, way more good than bad. There were numerous football trips and conversations about important matters.

He was, as the Rev. James Moody noted, “an ordinary person who overcame extraordinary circumstances. He loved talking about UT football and his recovery.”

“I tried to be as good as friend to Bobby as I could,” said Rod Meadows of Monroe, Tenn. (Overton County). “We had a good relationship. We wouldn’t have met without AA. The last few weeks were hard for him, but he had his life in order. He had cleared away the wreckage in his past.”

The 45-minute service was laced with frank references to the battle against alcohol, more than one speaker referencing Bobby as a source of inspiration.

There had been a sad moment in the early 2000s. Bobby was at a low point when the bottle had him by the throat. He came to see me at my office and then left quickly heading somewhere. I didn’t know where. “Where” turned out to be Jamestown.

I only saw Bobby once more after that, at the Cracker Barrel in Crossville. He proudly introduced my wife and me to one of his counselors and said something I’ll never forget: “I want you to be proud of me.”

Believe me, I was.

Those who were there at a small funeral home chapel in Jamestown the second Monday in November 2006 knew he was something special.

Those who knew him over the years knew likewise.

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