I first met Robert Loest 15 years ago when I wandered into the kitchen at a house party off Kingston Pike and found myself in the crossfire of an argument over Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve. I don't remember the exact position Robert was staking out, but I'm pretty sure it was one designed to provoke a strong response. Robert loved strong responses, big ideas, loud voices, boisterous debate.
Over the years I had the pleasure of his company at other parties, dinners, breakfasts, coffee breaks, and the kind of random afternoon encounters that seemed inevitable if you happened to be in or around downtown Knoxville. Almost every time I ran into him, he had a new passion, a new brilliant book he'd read, a new well-considered jeremiad about the idiots running local government, big corporations, state universities and/or the global economy. A biologist-turned-blacksmith-turned-financial guru, and a Navy veteran too, he was a polymath whose success at virtually everything he tried made him more than just another Knoxville eccentric (although he was certainly that, and the town was all the better for it). He thought broadly and perceptively and made good on his ideas, parlaying his investing acumen in the dot-com boom into a platform to talk about bioeconomics and the environment and whatever else was on his mind. At a certain point, thanks to his frequent guest appearances on CNBC, he was one of Knoxville's most visible emissaries to the outside world. Even after the tech bubble burst, Robert remained enough of an intriguing figure in the industry to be profiled just a few years ago by Kiplinger's Personal Finance and the Christian Science Monitor.
But his professional life was just one part of Robert's world, and those who knew him through his other roles—as a tireless intellectual explorer, an adventurer and raconteur, an evangelist for low-impact living (he owned the first Prius I ever saw in Knoxville, and later converted to an all-bicycle lifestyle), a forceful voice in roiling debates about the future of the city—might have marveled that he had time left over for any remunerative activities at all. Without Robert in town, it is unlikely Knoxville would ever have had a weekly discussion group aimed at applying the principles of complexity theory to downtown redevelopment. With Robert in town, it was almost inevitable. He had a mind that was both voracious and capacious, eager for new concepts, new faces and personalities, and able to absorb them quickly and connect and reconnect them in unexpected ways. He loved art and books and music, alongside cycling and strolling and boating and all kinds of physical activity. A profile of Robert in a 1997 issue of Metro Pulse included a photograph that showed him grinning with his feet propped up on his office desk, clad in rollerblades.
In all of this, he had the great fortune of a good companion. His wife, Judy, an accomplished poet, matched his energy and oratory with grace and wit. The loss of Robert is communal, but it is also private and hers. Condolences and sympathy are too weak as words to convey the pain many of us feel on her behalf.
Robert could seem combative if you didn't know him well, and even if you did. He loved a good argument, though he'd settle for a mediocre one if that's all that was available. But his exuberance made even his denunciations seem like an expression of joy—he loved having things to talk about, even things that made him mad. And he was hardly all warrior. He was also contemplative, generous and fundamentally gentle—where some Wall Street types favor Sun Tzu, Robert routinely quoted Gandhi. Living away from Knoxville, I did not get a chance to witness his most recent—and, from what I'm told, deepest—passion: his conversion to Catholicism. He was planning to be confirmed this Easter, and even his most skeptical friends were persuaded of the depth of his newfound faith. "He was absolutely filled with joy," one friend says. It's my loss that I will not get the chance to hear about it from him.
I'm moving back to Knoxville next month, and on a recent preliminary visit I told another friend that I was impressed with the progress the city has made on many fronts since I last lived there. "Lots of things have gotten better," I said, "and nothing's gotten worse." That's not true anymore. I'm sorry the Knoxville I return to will be one without Robert. It is a small consolation that the conversations he started and ideas he planted will long survive him. But the city will miss him terribly. And so will I.