John Shearer: John Guerry Enjoyed A Life Long On Years And Service

  • Friday, April 12, 2024
Shown a few years ago with Carolyn and John Guerry are, from left, grandchildren John Guerry, Ann Wright Guerry, Virginia Guerry and Charlotte Guerry
Shown a few years ago with Carolyn and John Guerry are, from left, grandchildren John Guerry, Ann Wright Guerry, Virginia Guerry and Charlotte Guerry
photo by Courtesy of Bill Guerry
On Jan. 9, John Guerry – who was about the last man still living who was heavily involved in prominent Chattanooga business and volunteer civic affairs dating to the mid-20th century – died at the age of 98.

He was uniquely involved in three major business and financial firms in Chattanooga and was also active in countless other civic and volunteer organizations with an apparently altruistic heart.

But for some reason, he never really seemed from a distance to want extra attention on himself, even though his uniquely reddish hair and naturally friendly disposition drew recognition.
At least I felt that way when I tried to call him once within the last three or four years wanting to do a profile on his long life. He did not immediately say no to my inquiry, but after we talked just a little longer, he politely declined the offer, although with an apparent sense of appreciation.

That was typical of him, his younger son, Bill Guerry, remembered recently over the phone. “He shunned the spotlight for much of my life,” he said. “He saw that as one of the great Chattanooga traditions in the spirit of someone like Scotty Probasco and he tried to instill that in us as well.”

John Guerry and I had also talked once or twice before prior to my interview request, including when he kindly called to thank me for a story I had written about his late father. Alex Guerry Sr. had headed Baylor School, the University of Chattanooga, and Sewanee before his death at middle age from a heart ailment.

Unlike his father, grandfathers John A. Patten or William Guerry, or slightly more dynamic older brother Alex Guerry Jr., John Guerry would reach an advanced age before his death. In fact, he saw every year in the last century after having been born on Halloween 1925 and living until the dawn of 2024.

Since I was unable to interview him, in the weeks after his death I went back and found some old newspaper articles where he did give occasional interviews. They also include some additional and somewhat forgotten information, as does the nicely detailed book, “The Patten Chronicle,” by John Wilson.

Born while his father was leading Baylor and seven years after the birth of his older brother, John spent his early years living on the Baylor campus. After his father became president of the University of Chattanooga, the family lived in the still-standing president’s home by the corner of Oak and Douglas streets.

Chattanoogans might be surprised to learn that John Guerry only attended Baylor for one year --- from 1937-38 – after attending Bright School because his father was made vice chancellor -- or top administrator – of the University of the South in 1938.

He then transferred to Sewanee Military Academy preparatory school before graduating in 1943 and volunteering for World War II military service shortly after beginning collegiate studies at Sewanee.

Serving in the Army and following in the military service footsteps of his father and brother, he saw combat in a big way. In November 1944, he was leading a rifle platoon with the unenviable task of clearing some buildings in a German town that still had remnants of the German enemy. He was wounded in the tough work, but his courage earned him a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and helped lead to the capture of 27 Germans.

After the war, he came back to Sewanee and continued leading, but in easier ways. He was president of the student body and followed in the footsteps of other Guerrys by becoming a champion tennis player. John Wilson’s book mentions that the family’s early connection with tennis included enjoying a court next to the John A. Patten family home on the top of Minnekahda Road in Riverview.

John A. Patten’s daughter, Charlotte, had married Alex Guerry Sr. The family tennis tradition is continuing among the descendants of both Alex Guerry Jr. and John Guerry, including with Bill’s daughter, Ann Wright Guerry. She is a sophomore member of the Yale University team after playing at Westminster in Atlanta.

John Guerry also played on the Tiger football team while in college. He then taught English and economics for one year at Baylor School from 1949-50 and coached tennis, football and basketball before being called up again to military duty during the Korean War. He served as a tank commander and saw combat again but was not injured.

He had planned on returning to Baylor as a teacher after Korea, with some additional first-hand history and geography lessons to pass along to the students. But Scott Probasco Sr. of American National Bank, the father of Scotty, offered him a job. He eventually worked in business development in the now-razed former bank building at Eighth and Market streets before becoming a vice president in 1958.

Somewhere along the way, he also got a law degree from McKenzie College of Law simply to help him in the business world. He had also moved to West Brow Road on Lookout Mountain with his widowed mother.

In 1963, his brother, Alex, who was heading Chattanooga Medicine Co. (later Chattem), asked him to join the family firm. While there in the early days, he worked with foreign sales representatives and headed up a blossoming athletic-related medications and supplies division.

He also developed another product there, at least a personal one in the form of a love potion. Long an eligible bachelor in town, he had started dating at the bank the former Carolyn Wright, who worked as a secretary in the installment loan department. She had grown up as a Baptist in Polk County and her family had long been active in Democratic politics, somewhat different from his background. But they had a nice long courtship before marrying on Sept. 4, 1965, just before he reached age 40.

They would have two sons, Pat Guerry and Bill Guerry, who graduated from Baylor School in 1985 and 1988, respectively, before both played tennis at Sewanee. John and Carolyn, who also survives him, had four grandchildren, Charlotte, John, Virginia, and the previously mentioned Ann Wright.

Bill Guerry, who now lives in the Atlanta area as does his brother and works in data analytics, said he was a little different in terms of interests from the rest of his family, but that his father always supported him no matter what.

Bill was also happy his father, unlike John’s father, lived long enough to enjoy multi-generational family blessings, adding, “We were pleased that Dad got to know his grandchildren and see them graduate from high school. That’s a nice thing.”

In early 1977, John Guerry had made the unusual move of leaving the family business to become head of First Federal Savings and Loan, although he stayed on as a member of the Chattem board of directors. He would serve at First Federal until 1987 before using his upbeat and persuasive skills to focus on various civic and fund-raising efforts. The latter included countless groups, from the United Way to Baylor School, to the YMCA, to Memorial Hospital and many others.

He was also actively involved with both Church of the Good Shepherd and First Baptist Church.

While he admittedly did not like to note his involvements, others did. In early 1998, he was presented the Chattanooga Kiwanis Club’s 1997 Distinguished Service Award, long considered the city’s top award for career civic volunteer service.

In an interview with Jan Galletta of the Chattanooga Free Press at the time, he did not want to take a lot of credit for all his volunteer work, saying, “Everything I’ve done has been accomplished as part of a group. I have a great deal about which to be modest.”

But others continued to sing the praises of this man during his long life. I remember after Alex Guerry Jr. died suddenly in 1990 from a heart-related issue, I was working at the Free Press, and city editor Julius Parker wrote a column about him, or the paper had given the family some kind of positive publicity.

John Guerry evidently called to thank him, and Mr. Parker after the conversation remarked to the staff with a praising comment of his own. He said something like, “John Guerry called to thank me. He was showing that typical Guerry class.”

* * *
In more recent years with John and Carolyn Guerry are, from left, grandchildren Ann Wright Guerry, John Guerry, Charlotte Guerry and Virginia Guerry
In more recent years with John and Carolyn Guerry are, from left, grandchildren Ann Wright Guerry, John Guerry, Charlotte Guerry and Virginia Guerry
photo by Courtesy of Bill Guerry
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