Yerger, 92, father of Mississippi GOP, favored principle over power, pragmatism
Wirt Adams Yerger, Jr., considered the father of the modern Mississippi Republican Party, who chose principle over power and pragmatism, died Monday, May 2, 2022. He was 92.
At Mr. Yerger’s insistence, the first Mississippi Republican Party platform did not include a plank supporting segregation, which went against the status quo segregationist Democrat Party of the day.
During the Eisenhower Administration in the 1950s and 60s, inspired by the classical conservative movement of those like William F. Buckley, Jr., anti-Communism, and a rejection of Mississippi’s status-quo of the time, Mr. Yerger launched the first Young Republicans organization in Mississippi and focused his leadership there into the creation of the Mississippi Republican Party of which he served as chairman from 1956 until 1966.
Under his leadership, Republicans won their first local offices, legislative seats, and congressional seat since Reconstruction.
Party leadership considered him the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Jim Eastland in 1966. At the press conference where many expected him to announce, he not only declined to run, but rather announced his resignation as chairman.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, said he stood on Yeager's shoulders..
“Wirt Yerger, Jr., was a trailblazer for the modern Mississippi Republican Party, who had a vision for what principled, conservative leadership could mean for our state and nation," Wicker said in a statement late Mondy following his death.
"Like many Republican officials today, I stand on Wirt’s shoulders and benefit from the foundation he helped to create. I appreciate his good leadership and will miss his friendship. Gayle and I send our condolences to his family, including his wife, Mary, and their children, as they mourn his loss and celebrate a life well-lived.”
In his book, “A Courageous Cause,” Mr. Yerger reflected on his decade as chairman, saying he’d stood on principle, including a belief in smaller government, lower taxes, and a strong defense. “I had fought racism, Communism, and big government. I had applied my principles in the political realm. In the end, a man standing on solid principles will remain but all politics is temporal. Because I always had made decisions based on principle, I had endured even the toughest times during my leadership of the state Republican Party, and I had even enjoyed them.”
After retiring from party leadership, Mr. Yerger refocused his professional work on his family’s insurance company, Ross & Yerger, Inc. But he never gave up his passion for conservatism and continued to invest time and money on national and state conservative organizations including The Leadership Institute, a training ground for conservative operatives that grew out of the Goldwater campaign.
In 2009, the Mississippi Republican Party honored Mr. Yerger as Chairman Emeritus. It had been 43 years since he resigned as chairman. He had always desired a two-party state dominated by the Republican Party and finally saw it under the leadership of those such as Haley R. Barbour.
Yerger had said at his resignation: “The conservative cause in this nation will rise or fall with the Republican Party and the same is true in Mississippi. I believe that it will be victorious because of the inherent love of individual freedom and the free enterprise system which we all value.”
Mr. Yerger watched the party he founded become the dominant party in the state. From the days when Democrats derisively remarked there were so few Republicans they could all meet in a phone booth, the party grew to capture both U.S. Senate seats, all but one House seat, the Governor’s Mansion and all other statewide elected offices and a super-majority in both chambers of the state Legislature.
Gov. Tate Reeves remembered Yerger as a “visionary” and as a friend, adding, “We are terribly saddened to hear of his passing, but we are confident that his legacy will endure for many years to come.”
A native of Jackson, Yerger was born March 18, 1930, the son of the late Rivers Applewhite Yerger and Wirt Adams Yerger. He was educated in the Jackson Public Schools and became an Eagle Scout at age 15. He received a bachelor of business administration degree from the University of Mississippi, where he was a member of Kappa Alpha Order fraternity. From 1952 to 1954 he served as First Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command. In 1956, he married Mary Polk Montague of Hattiesburg.
In 1954, he joined Ross & Yerger, Inc., Mississippi’s first insurance agency, founded in 1860. During his 48 years of leadership, the agency grew from three employees to 53. In February 2002, Ross & Yerger became employee-owned, and he continued to serve as Chairman Emeritus.
Yerger was the first insurance agent in Mississippi to hold both the CPCU and CLU designations and was the first Mississippian invited to be an underwriting Name at Lloyd’s of London. He also served as President of the Mississippi Association of Insurance Agents.
Yerger gave unselfishly and generously to his community. He was a past president of Metropolitan Boys Club, Metropolitan YMCA and Jackson Rotary Club. He received the Jackson Junior Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Service Award in 1956 and 1960. He founded both the Metropolitan Crime Commission and Fondren Renaissance Foundation. He was a former director of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, the Mississippi Insurance Council, and the Community Foundation for Mississippi, establishing one of their first donor advised funds. He was a founding trustee of Jackson Preparatory School and a member of The First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, where he served as a deacon.
He was State Chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party from 1956 until 1966. He was also Chairman of the Southern Association of Republican State Chairmen. In May, 2009 he was honored as Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Emeritus for his work in building a two-party political system in Mississippi. He ended his speech with these words: “The best advice I give to you is always choose principles over pragmatism and power. Standing on principles is not easy, you get tired and discouraged, but the satisfaction of accomplishing all you can for a better nation is worth it all.”
Yerger’s greatest reward in his life was being a husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and brother, his family said. He built special and ever-lasting relationships with each member of his family throughout their lives. He unselfishly gave of his time, talents, resources and love, not only to his family, but to many friends in all walks of life.
He is survived by his wife Mary Montague Yerger of Jackson, Mississippi; son Wirt Adams Yerger III and his wife Linda Biggers Yerger of Ridgeland; daughter Mary Yerger Dunbar and her husband Thomas Tarver Dunbar of Jackson, son Frank Montague Yerger and his wife Jane Prater Yerger of Oxford; granddaughters Mary Montague Dunbar and Sarah Jane Rivers Yerger; grandsons Wirt Adams Yerger IV and his wife Jordan Jones Yerger, James David Yerger and his wife Natalie Sink Yerger, Richard Montague Yerger and his wife Rachael Hardin Yerger, John Taylor Yerger and his wife Lauren Meyer Yerger, Thomas Yerger Dunbar, Wirt Yerger Dunbar, Frank Montague Yerger, Jr. and Harlan Prater Yerger, his great-grandchildren Jane Ellen Yerger, Anny Elizabeth Yerger, Mary Adams Yerger, Richard Montague Yerger, Jr., William Hardin Yerger, John Taylor Yerger, Jr., Anna Gray Yerger, Ellen Gray Yerger, his brother William Swan Yerger and his wife Gingia Palmer Yerger, his brother Ivan Bass Yerger and his wife Sandra Pate Yerger, his sister Rivers Yerger Lurate and several nieces and nephews.
In addition to his parents, Wirt was pre-deceased by his in-laws, Ida Lois Polk and Frank Douglas Montague, Mary Dixon and Frank Douglas Montague, Jr. and Lynn Williams and Richard Abner Montague.
The family said they wished to thank Sarah Robinson, Peggy Wilson, Tena Jenkins, Lola Walker, Katrina Rogers, Gladys Townsend and Anthony Langston for their untiring love and care.
Visitation was in Miller Hall at The First Presbyterian Church of Jackson on Tuesday, May 3. A private family burial service was held at Greenwood Cemetery on Wednesday, May 4 followed by a memorial service at The First Presbyterian Church.
His grandsons served as pallbearers.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to: The First Presbyterian Church, 1390 North State Street, Jackson, MS 39202; French Camp Academy, One Fine Place, French Camp, MS 39745; Revitalize Mississippi, 210 E. Capitol Street, Suite 1215, Jackson, MS 39201; or to a charity of choice.
Yerger was one of Mississippi’s six electors who cast an Electoral College vote during the 2016 presidential election. He voted for Donald Trump.
“He was fiercely committed to both the party and the cause of conservatism,” said Grant Callen, founder, and CEO of Empower Mississippi, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “When Empower was only an idea, I went to Wirt to ask for his advice. Not only did he warmly encourage the idea for Empower, he wrote one of the very first checks to support the mission and volunteered to join our board of directors.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.