I first met Wirt Yerger, Jr. in 1999. I was political director at the Mississippi Republican Party and there were two desks in my office. One was a very functional, large, circa late 1950s metal desk. Its broad top was perfect to support the computer, printer, and workspace holding the Republican voter databases and used to generate walk lists and voter target materials.

Yerger walked into my office and introduced himself. I recognized him from his picture on the wall. He was the MSGOP's first chairman serving from 1956 until 1966: an Eisenhower Republican. He had come by, I think, to see the new building. The Party had just moved from rented offices at the corner of Tombigbee and South State Street to a purchased building on the corner of Yazoo and Congress Street in Jackson.

We spoke and he looked over at the voter file desk and remarked that was his desk when he was chairman. The Party had new digital phones, but the main line number (601-948-5191) were the same digits secured by Yerger when he opened the first Republican Party office.

Ten years later, I have been privileged to get to know Yerger and his family better.

On May 12, a thousand Republicans from five decades packed the Jackson Marriott to honor Yerger as founder of the modern Mississippi Republican Party, and to salute him as "Chairman Emeritus." Many guests called the dinner more a family reunion than fundraiser.

Early Republican pioneers for office attended: Reubel Phillips, the Republican nominee for governor in 1963 and 1967; Gil Carmichael, nominee for Senate in 1972 and governor in 1975 and 1979; Leon Bramlett, candidate for governor in 1979 and nominee for governor in 1983. Former Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Charles Pickering, a Republican candidate for Senate in 1978 and nominee for Attorney General in 1979 attended. Pickering himself is a former Party chairman, and he was joined by every living former chairman and every current Republican statewide elected official.

Remarks by Governor Haley Barbour and the evening's designated historian, Madison attorney and author Andy Taggart, were joined by an appearance by Buddy Klumb who served as party finance chairman with Yerger.

Speakers recounted the opposition faced by Yerger in creating the Republican Party: character attacks, public ridicule, even death threats. Barbour said the reason was simple, "race." The white power structure in the Democratic Party feared a Republican Party would split the white vote in Mississippi. Yerger was more concerned with conservative principles that had no home with the Democrats than race, and when asked by a television reporter in 1964 if blacks were welcome in the Mississippi Republican Party, Yerger answered, "If they're conservative, they are."

Some division remains in the Mississippi Republican Party from the 1976 convention fight, personified in Billy Mounger of Jackson and Clark Reed of Greenville. But Yerger predates that split by 20 years and recalling those early days seemed to ease (if just for the night) some old scars. When the idea to honor Mississippi Republican pioneers first surfaced in discussions at the 2008 Republican National Convention, Reed and Mounger and other pioneers like Victor Marvar all insisted: honor Wirt first.

Current Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Brad White said post-dinner comments have been encouraging, "Everyone left in such a positive mood, a renewed sense of unity, ready to go to work. Some people who have not been involved for many years are joining the URF and signing up to volunteer." White said just as Yerger launched the party in 1956, honoring him has relaunched the involvement of many pioneers.

White also said that while this was an occasion to honor the past, it was also a challenge for the future. "He started this party when he was 26 years old. If young people are waiting for a time to get involved and be a force in the Republican Party, they've already waited too long. They can be involved today and if they work hard and have vision, they can help shape history."

White should know, he led conservative reformers to take control of the Simpson County Republican Party with himself as chairman when he was18 years old, and at 31 became the youngest Republican state chairman in the country.

I think inordinately about that desk in the office: strong, steady, enduring and supporting the tools and resources the Republican Party uses to win elections. It is still there.

Cory Adair, the current political director of the Mississippi Republican Party, uses it. There are pictures of Yerger at Republican headquarters: one as chairman, now one as chairman emeritus, and soon to be a group shot from the dinner with everyone living who has served as chairman from Yerger in 1956 to White today. But in my mind, that desk is the most fitting tribute to Yerger: still solid and sturdy, and still working to elect Republicans.

Brian Perry, a former congressional aide, is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.