Right now, the memories from his laptop computer, connected to the high-definition TV in his living room, are digital, bright and richly colored and serve the purpose just fine. Weigant is tapping the laptop’s space bar to walk a visitor through a slide show of his unlikely life and career. Eventually, the presentation will answer the question: How did a kid from Indiana turn his self-taught art skills into an advertising career which, more importantly, led him to a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with legendary coach Paul Bear Bryant? And how did Weigant end up living in Jasper, Ala., anyway? And how the heck do you pronounce his name?
Weigant laughs when he’s told that an Internet search provides three different pronunciations. “Oh, there are lots more than that,” he says, and takes a quick narrative side trip into the family-tree research he’s compiled over the past 50 years — including the day that his ancestors from Germany literally got off the boat and started a new life in the U.S.
“It was a sailboat named Sophia,” he says. “There were 169 people on that boat — just passengers, they didn’t count crew back then — and when they landed in Philadelphia, the tide was out. So they had to throw their furniture overboard, and push it ashore. See that cabinet right behind you, there? It was on the ship.”
A close look at the beautiful, time-worn wooden cabinet shows water stains across the knobs of its drawers.
Nearly all of Weigant’s stories have visual support, and because he’s a natural raconteur even his narrative detours have beginnings, middles, and ends, with an occasional phrase in German for color. Pronouncing his name? “Our family says it as ‘WEE-junt,” according to Weigant. Apparently there are even more spellings than pronunciations — the Weigands being another branch, not to mention Wigand, Wigant, Wignand, Wieandt, Weingandt, Weiget and Weichand — to name only a few. Originally the most popular Americanization was Weigandt, he’s discovered, but it gradually changed because English speakers had trouble saying the “dt” ending as two syllables, the way it’s pronounced in the old country.
How Bob ended up in Alabama was entirely by chance. “When I was in the Air Force during the Korean War and people asked me, ‘Where are you going to live, when you get out?’ I’d tell them, ‘Birmingham, Ala.’ I don’t really know why.”
As an illustrator, one of his early jobs was — not surprisingly — with the advertising department of The Birmingham News. From there, he took an advertising job with Loveman’s Department Store. From there he went to the Bruno’s grocery company, where he helped develop the concept of the successful Food World chain. Eventually he took a job with Piggy Wiggly, and at one point was overseeing ad design for its 85 stores. Then, at the age of 50, he decided to leave the corporate world and start his own business — against the advice of nearly everybody: “The bank said, ‘You don’t have enough money!’” he recalls, “and the Better Business Bureau said, ‘You’re too old!” But he forged ahead anyway: “All they had done was to get an old German teed off,” he says now.
His new enterprise eventually gained him some 200 clients and was listed on Dun & Bradstreet.
And now, a quick narrative detour: It was about then that Bob began working, in his free time, on a large acrylic painting of beloved Coach Bear Bryant. He took his time, and when he was done he remembers being pleased with the result.
Some time afterward, he had to be in Tuscaloosa on business and, on a whim, put the painting in his car. He went to the University, located the Athletic Department, and carried the painting inside.
“I didn’t know any better,” Weigant says now. “I just walked up to the desk in the outer office there and told the receptionist I’d like to see Coach Bryant; was he available?
“She showed me in, and I showed Coach Bryant the painting. He told me, ‘I think that’s the best one I’ve seen. I really like it.’ I asked him, ‘Do you like it enough to sign it for me?’ He laughed, and signed it.”
That day was Wednesday, Jan. 5, 1983. Three weeks later, Bryant went to his doctor for a routine medical checkup, which he passed. But that same day he began experiencing chest pains and checked into Tuscaloosa’s Druid City Hospital. The next day, while being prepared for an electrocardiogram, he died of a massive heart attack.
As far as anybody knows, Bryant’s inscription on Weigant’s painting is the coach’s last signature.
In the years since, Weigant has approached the university about exhibiting his Bryant portrait. But an official there told him the painting would be displayed briefly and then “rotated” with other material over the years. The idea of rotation for Weigant’s keepsake rubbed him the wrong way; he brought the painting home, where it’s been ever since.
Occasionally, somebody asks him about buying it. “I tell them, ‘I’ll make you a special deal,’” Weigant says. “’If you can guess exactly how many hours it took me to paint it, I’ll sell it to you at minimum wage.’” He laughs. “So far, no takers.” Weigant retired at the age of 63. He’s now 80.
At the time he retired, he and his wife Paula — a native of Sumiton — had cared for her parents 25 years before they passed away, and Paula and Bob decided a change of scenery was in order. They moved to Foley, a historic storybook-like town on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where they built a house.
They were no strangers to hurricane activity there, but they developed a fall-back strategy. They bought a small camper, and each time a storm threatened they’d drive as far north as necessary, set up camp, and stay until the worst was over. Then, in 2004, came a hurricane named Ivan, which re-wrote the rule book. When the storm touched land from the Gulf of Mexico, it was the size of Texas. Besides its immediate shoreline destruction, it set off 119 tornadoes through several Southeastern states and became the fifth costliest hurricane in U.S. history.
Closer to home, Hurricane Ivan ravaged the neighborhood in Foley where the Weigants lived. Several older brick structures nearby were decimated and the wind propelled a dumpster through the house next door. But Bob’s and Paula’s house was, miraculously, almost undamaged. They saw the figurative handwriting on the wall, guessed they might not be that lucky twice in a row, and planned a move northward. Paula, being raised in Walker County, knew the area and they eventually found a place in Jasper where they’ve lived ever since.
As a result they’ve traded hurricanes for tornadoes, but Weigant says he’s impressed at how specific the meteorologists’ forecasts have become in the intervening years. “A few months ago we were sitting at Jack’s on Highway 78, and somebody next to us was tracking a tornado online. They said, ‘Right now it’s passing across the intersection of Wells Loop Road and Highway 5.’ “I said, ‘Hey, that’s where our house is!’ The guy asked me, ‘Are you going over there?’ And I told him, ‘Heck, no!’ As it turned out, the winds tore up some trees near us, but not much damage otherwise.
“So, we’re adjusting. Life is pretty good.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org