In 2009 some guy called 911 to report that his accelerator pedal on his Toyota was stuck and he couldn’t get the car to stop. He said his brakes weren’t working. Ultimately, his car crashed into another and then plunged into a ravine. Everyone inside the vehicle was killed.
The call went viral and birthed the biggest scam ever perpetuated on the American people. I thought the ruse was ridiculous from the start because Toyota, flat and simple, makes the best cars in the world. The hysteria was fueled unmercifully by the auto worker’s union, desperate to stop Toyota’s growing dominance on American soil because the UAW is the biggest reason American auto manufacturing is still in the tank.
If you’ll go back and look – as I did back then – all the rancor and blabber in Congress was from only those politicians that were elected with UAW money.
Two years later, the Department of Transportation did an extensive study and most of the “black boxes” of involved automobiles revealed the brakes in those cars were never activated. It was all due to “driver error.”
This was in 2010, right after I’d spent the best of two years in the hospitals with horrible infections. I had no dog in the hunt so I wrote about 25 stories saying the whole thing was garbage. The series won awards and was quoted all over the country but I bet on a hunch and I was right. Somewhere in those stories was a disclaimer that even though Toyota had to repossess a car when my money wore thin, they are the best manufacturer in the world and their cars are equal to none.
About a week later Joe Prebul called me and asked if Toyota really did repossess a car. Joe, the victim of a far bigger scam that sent him to jail for awhile, said it was urgent we talk. When I got to our lunch appointment, Bob McKamey and his daughter Karla were already at the table. I told them I wasn’t ashamed my world crashed and, casting a glance at my lifelong pal Joe, said something like ‘sometimes bad things happen to good people.’
Bob never offered me a job; he told me I was already working for him. When I got home from lunch my ‘company car,’ maybe the most gorgeous Lexus you ever saw, was parked in the driveway and I became part of the McKamey family, doing odd jobs and this-and-that, and within the first three years of the last eight, Bob McKamey became one of the dearest personal friends I have ever had.
Suffice it to say I became his chauffeur, driving him wherever he needed to go, but it was far more than that. I spoke about a half-dozen times about Toyota’s greatness at the huge assembly plant in Georgetown, Ky. And I tried to take him to every doctor’s appointment because, with my chatter and mischief, every time we’d get together we had a gorgeous time.
I can also say that during those years, I learned more about Bob than maybe anyone alive. I learned the good stuff, the bad stuff and all in between, so I can say, this one week after he died last Tuesday, Bob was easily one of the five greatest men I have ever known in my life. He was constantly doing things for others. Both Capital Toyota and Lexus of Chattanooga had a record-breaking year in 2018 and, while he was a business genius, he put his every effort into his managers and his employees.
Just as the New England Patriots are today a pro football dynasty, head coach Billl Belichick has never made a tackle or scored a touchdown. Belichick’s gift is handling his people and, let me be dead honest, the football coach was a piker compared to the McKamey family, which included every single one of the 200 who make the dealerships the best in Chattanooga.
Very purposely I made sure I was on the back row of Graceworks Church one hour before Saturday’s funeral. I wanted to watch the people Bob loved the most walk through the door. It was absolute joy, especially because in the past five years I have become so very fond of so many of them.
I must tell you that the vision that hit me hardest were those who are no longer at Capital or Lexus, who had been released, or let go, or whatever you call it. There is no word to explain the love Bob held in his heart for those who were no longer employees but remained his close friends. He would talk to them all the time, ask about their families and then his trademark: “Is there anything you need, anything I can do for you? Then try to think of something and call me back,” he would laugh with each one, especially because he meant it.
There was one day when, out of the blue, three employees – completely removed from one another – had heart attacks or serious symptoms. Bob spent almost the entire day making calls, doing some “big things” to put all three stricken at ease. And, what’s that … are you serious? You want to know why his companies are so flawless?
McKamey could have easily been a great politician but instead he was heavily involved in supporting the candidates he knew that were best for the community. He not only contributed to their campaigns, he hosted receptions and made personal calls and – get this – said prayers. Bob was deeply religious and, while he may have hid his light under a bushel, the Christ-like work he did was unbelievable.
One day when he was really sick I was the only person in the room when he asked me if I thought he was going to heaven. I really think he was scared. I said, “You’ve got a warranty, don’t you? You believe that Jesus Christ is your personal savior” and Bob nodded. “And you’ve asked him to forgive every sin you are aware of,” again he nodded.
“Then it's guaranteed for as long as you’ll sell a car! No question … no doubt …” I laughed, "but … er, this is one thing …”
Bob immediately perked up. “You realize you have to ask Jesus into your heart, and that only you can ask for forgiveness? Well don’t quit doing that … we got to make sure one of those prayers sticks!”
So help me, I can still hear the waves of his laughter.
Last Tuesday morning, with his family at his bedside, Bob’s life began to slip away and the doctors quietly whispered there wasn’t much time. So Bill Owens, both his pastor and his personal friend, was summoned to the room. By then Bob would live only minutes longer and Dr. Owens whispered in his ear, “Bob, I’m going to kneel beside the bed to pray…”
And in a line that will soon become part of the man’s legend, Bob said his final words in a strong and clear voice, “ … Can’t you just get Him on the phone?”
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What in heaven’s name was there not to love about Robert Gerald McKamey, 1935-2019? He would have celebrated his 84th birthday yesterday.