Reflections on a grandson who left us much too soon


My oldest grandson, Zachary Earl Wansley, died 15 years ago this past week while on a training run for an upcoming marathon. He was 21 years old. I am not sure what he would be doing today were he here, but I am positive whatever it might be, he would be a success. He always was.

As to what happened, I do not know. Zack was at the peak of physical condition. The results of the autopsy were shared with his parents, my daughter and son-in-law. I never asked because it wouldn’t bring him back.

One of the first calls I received when word got out that my grandson had died was from former Gov. Carl Sanders, who had lost his own grandson after a long and debilitating illness. No one, he told me, should ever outlive their children or grandchildren. Wiser words this great man never spoke.

But outlive Zack, I have done. And now I am left with the memories of an exceptional young man who was the epitome of an achiever. He was an honor student, president of his high school senior class, captain of the cross-country team and winner of the Journal Cup as the school’s Outstanding Graduate. None of this went to his head. If there was a vote for Most Likeable, he would have won that, too. Zack was the total package.

Both of his grandfathers were graduates of the University of Georgia as were his father and mother, so there was no question as to where Zachary would be going to college. And off to college he went – to The Georgia Institute of Technology. Not a spur of the moment decision, either. This kid was always an unrepentant and unapologetic Yellow Jacket, who could more than hold his own with all the Bulldogs in his family.

As with everything else he did, Zack excelled academically at Tech and was a member of the cross-country team until he chose to participate in the institution’s co-op program, where he would work a semester and attend classes a semester. And, of course, he was highly regarded by the firm for whom he worked and who made a sizeable donation to Georgia Tech in his memory when he passed away.

When our four grandsons turned 10, the Beloved Woman Who Shared My Name decided we would take each on a trip of their choosing in the U.S. No parents allowed. Zack and his younger brother, Nicholas, wanted to ride a domed train overnight from Seattle to San Diego. One of their cousins, Brian, wanted to go fly-fishing in Montana, and the other, Thomas, chose Boston.

The trips were such a success we decided to do it again before the grandboys were grown and gone. This time, Nicholas decided to go to Scotland where his grandmother’s ancestors had lived. Brian opted for the bright lights of New York City, and Thomas, a visit to the D-Day beaches at Normandy. That left only Zack.

As the oldest grandson and the one I had loved the longest, I told him we would go anywhere on this planet he wanted to go. Just name it. His request? He wanted to go to Yankee Stadium to see the New York Yankees play and then to Boston’s Fenway Park to see a Red Sox game. I reiterated that I was talking about anywhere on this planet. He reiterated he was talking about Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. So we went to Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.

It was, appropriately, the trip of a lifetime. We had our own private box at Yankee Stadium. In Boston, we were treated like royalty by the fans around us when they discovered a grandfather and his grandson had traveled up from Georgia to see their beloved “Sox” play. Four months later, Zack was gone. But that memory is forever.

Three months after Zack died, Cameron Charles Yarbrough made his appearance as the family’s first great-grandchild and, soon to be 15, is showing much of the same drive to succeed as the cousin he never got to meet. Cameron is an excellent student and a promising high school cross-country runner. I have reminded him he could have no better role model than Zachary Earl Wansley.

There is no use questioning why someone so special with so much potential was taken from us so suddenly. It happened and nothing can change that fact. All I know is that no one should ever outlive a child or grandchild. And I have.

You can reach Dick Yarbrough at or at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139.