Former state Rep. Ralph Yelton dies, age 88

Former state Rep. Ralph Yelton, a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War who served as a Democrat from Kingsport from 1977 until 1989, has died at age 88. (Obituary HERE.)

From a Kingsport Times-News story:

“To the veterans, he was kind of an idol … He was a double (veteran). He served in World War II and Korea,” said Arles W. Pease, a veterans service officer based in Kingsport and a member of the Korean War Veterans Association.

…Yelton was able to conduct his legislative service on his feet by walking with the aid of crutches and metal leg braces.

State Sen. Rusty Crowe, a Vietnam veteran, served with Yelton and described him as a good friend and relentless advocate for his Sullivan County constituents.

“As a wounded Korean combat veteran, himself, Ralph was the key go to representative for veterans and their issues for many years here in the Tennessee General Assembly,” Crowe, R-Johnson City, said in an email. “He often told me that one of our missions as veterans and legislators was to make sure that our young people understand that our veterans cared more about our liberty and freedom than they did about their own safety and lives … putting themselves first, above all, for the freedoms we enjoy … He was a great American who endured terrible combat wounds, but never complained or let his physical wounds slow him down … He will be missed by all.”

Former state Sen. Carl Moore, a Bristol Democrat, said Yelton was instrumental in establishing a Korean War memorial in Nashville.

“I’ve never seen a person with the disability he had and injuries from the Korean War run a (political) campaign like he did on crutches,” Moore said of Yelton. “He went door to door like all the rest of us, and it didn’t bother him one bit … He was very, very in tune with his constituents, even though he was a Democrat and most of them were Republican, they got on well together … He was just a hard working, common sense legislator. I enjoyed working with him.”

Robert Houk remembers Yelton’s service in a column this week:

He was a hard-working servant of his constituents and a lawmaker who could truly see the big picture (a trait that is sorely missing in too many of today’s myopic state legislators).

I respected Yelton for both his courage and energy. Yelton was just 17 when he enlisted in the Army during World War II. The Mitchell County, North Carolina, native was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and the Silver Star for his combat service in the European Theater.

After the war, Yelton retuned to this country to work in a steel mill in Detroit. In 1951, however, Uncle Sam called Yelton back to active duty in Korea. It was there that Yelton was hit in the spine by a 50-caliber machine- gun shell. While the injury might have taken the use of his legs, it didn’t take his spirit.

After a few years of grueling rehabilitation, Yelton moved to Tennessee in 1954 and earned a degree in accounting from East Tennessee State University. He later opened a successful accounting business in Kingsport, where he became an active leader in the community.

It wasn’t long before Yelton was representing the 3rd District of Sullivan County in the state House of Representatives. Despite wearing metal braces on both his legs and needing crutches to get around, Yelton seemed tireless. He would make the trek from his office in the Legislative Plaza to the state Capitol Building for floor sessions without complaint or assistance.

It seemed Yelton would never slow down. But he did.

I was there when Yelton tearfully announced he would not be seeking re-election. He explained his heart and mind were willing, but his damaged body was beginning to fail him.

He will be greatly missed by his family and friends and by the thousands of Tennesseans who were impacted by his work in the state Legislature.