Chattanoogan: Scotty Probasco's Great Work

Wednesday, August 6, 2014 - by John Shearer
Scotty Probasco
Scotty Probasco
- photo by John Shearer
Longtime banker Scott L. “Scotty” Probasco Jr. is known for praising the efforts of others through two words – his familiar “great work” line.

Other people, on the other hand, have captured him with one word – enthusiastic.

Through his distinctive and naturally charismatic personality, he has been known for offering encouragement along with bank loans over the years, a trait that for him comes naturally.

“I’m a very happy person,” he said recently. “I get down once in a while, but I don’t stay down long because of two things in my life – I love people and I love the big man, the Lord.”

Now 85 years old, Mr. Probasco has retired from helping with any day-to-day operations of SunTrust, the bank that in 1995 bought the parent company of the financial institution with which his family was long involved -- American National.
However, he does still serve as chairman of SunTrust’s executive committee of advisers.

He spends part of the year in Florida, including playing golf with his wife, former champion golfer Betty Probasco, at the famed Seminole Golf Club near Palm Beach.

But he has not retired from wearing enthusiasm on his sleeve along with his familiar bow ties around his neck.

As he reminisced recently from his office on a lower floor of the SunTrust Building downtown – a building he helped open in 1968 as the then tallest in town -- Mr. Probasco claimed that he has never been good at coming up with ideas. He said he has simply been a promoter and encourager of others’ suggestions.

His penchant for enthusiasm came to fruition when he enrolled at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire after finishing at Baylor School in 1946 and became the lead yell leader on the cheer squad.

“It was fun because you try to get people steamed up on a subject, and I’ve done that all my life,” he said.

Mr. Probasco was told he gained his upbeat personality in part from his grandfather, Harry Probasco, who, before his premature death in 1919 following an infection, was known for being outgoing.

Scotty’s father, Scott L. Probasco Sr., was a natural leader who served in both World Wars I and II, Mr. Probasco said. The two elder Probascos and E.Y. Chapin had also founded American National Bank in 1912.

Mr. Probasco – who also attended the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania -- said that when he was finishing at Dartmouth, he told his father after a conversation that he wanted to be a banker, too.

He has not forgotten what his father told him at the time.

“He said, ‘I want you to be more than a banker. I want you to be a businessman. And the definition of a businessman is the man who gets the business,’ ” Mr. Probasco recalled.

Mr. Probasco had started working at the bank at age 14 as a runner, doing simple chores like working in a vault or counting coins. He had also gained some money as a youngster caddying at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club.

“I was over there a lot,” he said of the historic Riverview golf club near his childhood home. “I caddied for several years. I used to get 50 cents a bag.”

He decided to attend Dartmouth in part because he knew he might not get a chance again to live in another part of the country, and because such area residents as his uncle, Pat Williams, had attended there.

Mr. Probasco started out on the freshmen golf team at Dartmouth and was an aspiring golfer until his banking career later limited his playing opportunities somewhat as an adult. However, the game did offer an opportunity in the area of romance. He met his future wife, Betty, while she was playing in the Women’s Southern Amateur at the Chattanooga club in 1953 on the way to a distinguished amateur career.

Mr. Probasco said she is still playing a lot of golf and regularly beats her age by 8 or 10 strokes.   

Once Mr. Probasco began working at the bank as a young adult, he became involved in a number of boards, thinking that what was good for the community was good for the bank. He has estimated that a third of his work hours were spent in civic work.

Some of the organizations or boards on which he served were scholastic, Christian or charitable, while others were more corporate in nature.

Perhaps the civic work of which he is most proud was when he encouraged the then-private University of Chattanooga to become part of the University of Tennessee system in 1969.

He said that as much as he loved the University of Chattanooga, he realized early on that UT was going to build its own four-year school in town regardless of whether or not UC became part of it, so he pushed for the merger. Part of the thinking was that he feared UC might have trouble surviving by itself with a state school also in Chattanooga.

“It wasn’t a very popular thing,” he said of his outward support for the merger. “I got my head cut off because we were giving up a private institution. But it worked out well.”

As a banker, Mr. Probasco also tried to look at the larger collective goal and not at any personal ambitions.

Although his family had a large financial holding in American National, he always wanted people like Sam Yarnell and John Wright in day-to-day leadership positions, he said. He jokingly said he was looking for people smarter than he was, or the bank did not need them.

“I’ve just been a cheerleader,” he said.

However, banking has given him plenty of reason to cheer, he added.

“I love people, and banking is nothing more than a people business,” he said. “You work with folks and it’s a personal relationship. I am interested in people and how well they are doing.”

Although he keeps shorter hours these days and often brings a Subway sandwich to eat at his office by himself, he still keeps a close eye on the larger business world and world in general.

Among his observations are that he is amazed at how many banks or financial institutions operate in Chattanooga now compared to years ago, and that he thinks the Tea Party is not good for his beloved Republican Party.

He is also saddened at seeing all the wealthy people he knows or meets who may have inherited a lot of money, but they do little constructive work themselves.

He is proud that all four of his and Betty’s children – Scott Probasco III, Zane Brown, Ellen Moore and Ben Probasco – have enjoyed positive marital and family lives.

As for Mr. Probasco’s opinions about himself, he said he has few regrets and is simply thankful that he has been able to try to leave a positive mark on the world while living longer than he once thought he would.

“It has been a great pleasure,” he said. “The Lord has blessed me.”

To hear an audio clip of Scotty Probasco discussing what he has enjoyed about banking, listen here.
To hear Mr. Probasco talk about where he got his enthusiasm, listen here.

To hear Mr. Probasco’s memories of his father and grandfather, listen here.

To hear what Mr. Probasco has been doing in recent years, listen here.
Scotty Probasco
Scotty Probasco
- Photo2 by John Shearer

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