In 1992, meeting interesting people in Knoxville was a challenge. Downtown was sputtering, and coffee houses and real pubs were big-city fads, barely catching on here. The Utne Reader, a national monthly known for presenting fresh ideas outside of the usual tiresome political contexts, launched a project to germinate community “salons,” Tupperware parties for intellectuals, an effort to get curious people to meet, and maybe challenge each other. Robert co-hosted the first one I remember. Dozens of people showed up, but Robert stood out, as if he were a fictional character, one so unlikely that you would wonder about the author who created him.
He looked like a Roman centurion, a hard-nosed sergeant bearing the standard of pure thought. He was a former naval officer, Vietnam era, who’d washed out of SEALs for color-blindness. He had a Ph.D. in marine biology. He was more recently an accomplished blacksmith known among regional equestrians for his handmade horseshoes. In the real world, there are no Navy-veteran-marine-biologist-blacksmiths. This was Robert Loest, though, and in Robert’s world, everything made sense. Things that made no sense deserved no mercy.
He practiced flying off the handle as if it were an Olympic event. He didn’t tolerate ideas he considered foolish. Some people avoided him. But to those more interested in fresh ideas than manners, Robert was thrilling to be around.
His Darwinian perspective led him both to a militant atheism but also to what seemed an extremely conservative political and economic point of view. He espoused survival of the fittest as if it were his personal code. It seemed an agreeable philosophy to him; his physical vigor and tempered-steel intelligence would have placed him among the fittest. This blacksmith-biologist-philosopher could have passed for just a fascinating crank until, with the encouragement of one of his horseshoe clients, he applied his biological rigor to finance. In that esoteric world he became not only successful but famous. He was the Darwinian investor, favoring stocks in high-technology innovations, which he was convinced would change the world’s economic assumptions. His IPS Millennium Fund got Knoxville an unlikely spot in the world of global finance. In 1999, Millennium posted a return of 120 percent. It was just silly.
He became a finance geek’s celebrity, a commentator on national cable channels, profiled in international economic journals as the prophet of a bold and merciless new era.
The dot-com crash undermined some of his mystique, but inspired him to revise some of his theories. In Darwinian terms, he adapted. He shifted to a more sophisticated biological/economic model, based on the idea of complex adaptive systems, which permitted some nuance, including, in Robert’s case, an almost stealthy compassion, especially toward animals and the natural world. He was no longer in the national public eye as much, but as recently as 2007, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance hailed “A Second Act for Robert Loest.” In that interview, he described a very different point of view toward investment, one which incorporated moral ethics, human and animal rights, and concern for the environment.
When he moved downtown in the late ’90s, he did so extremely. Most of Gay Street’s 100 block was still known for pawn shops, the homeless mission, and big vacant buildings, but this famous investment advisor moved there alone, into an old wholesale building. All four floors of it. 10,000 square feet seemed barely big enough for Robert and his persona. (Robert’s wife of 40 years, poet Judy Loest, preferred, at the time, to live in a cozier condo on the other side of downtown.) His new home was already serving as storage for the big cast of the 10-foot statue of Sergei Rachmaninoff, years before its bronzing and placement in World’s Fair Park. On a landing halfway up the steps, the statue seemed like an aspiring rival.
He ignored age. He seemed to live outside of the age paradigm. At age 60, he was an urban roller skater, alarming friends doing backwards stunts on concrete steps. Age never seemed relevant to his persona until last week, when he died of a massive heart attack at 66. When he arrived unconscious at the hospital, attendants estimated he was in his late 40s.
The conservative, business-minded Loest tended to support Republicans until the last decade, when he began calling himself a political “agnostic.” As he loosened his moorings to the far right, he also, unpredictably, softened toward his longtime nemesis, religion. About a year ago, Robert flabbergasted his friends and enemies and began studying to become a Catholic. Knoxville’s unlikeliest Catholic died on Ash Wednesday.
He mellowed, and smiled more often. He still hated fuzzy logic and lazy ideology and the halfway measures that Knoxvillians recognize as a way of life. He was consistent about the long-term necessity of sustainable living, and the unsustainability of gasoline-fueled transportation. He hated what automobiles had done to the country’s environment and waistline and international ethics. He rode a bike, a small-wheel portable model. Last month, at the city’s public meeting about expanding the Henley Street Bridge, he was the one asking the tough questions, not accepting palliative answers. He was happy to hear bicycle lanes had been approved.
He defied all stereotypes, and demanded his city do so. When he needed Knoxville to be more like Paris, he could force it. One sunny day in 2008, I ran into him on the narrow sidewalk at Coffee and Chocolate, a favorite haunt. He was sitting at a cafe table, alone with a laptop.
“How goes it, Robert?” I said, knowing I wouldn’t get the polite answer we expect from ordinary people. Robert would tell me exactly how it goes.
“We’re heading into the worst recession since the Great Depression, and nobody’s taking it seriously,” he said. It was my first news of troubles. He added a complex explanation concerning the big banks and mortgage markets and expressed his disgust at the nation’s financial leadership.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said.
I almost believed him that day, even though I knew Robert spoke in extremes.
He was an honest and fearless man. He thought for himself and spoke for himself. He was a citizen.