Kennedy: McCallie School's John 'Yo' Strang, WWII POW, inspired generations

Contributed photo from McCallie School / John "Yo" Strang, shown here with McCallie School students, was a beloved Bible teacher and tennis coach at the school. Strang, who died in 2003, is the subject of a new podcast, "Yo: The Long Road Home."

John "Yo" Strang's funeral in 2003 was said to have been the largest ever held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Chattanooga.

This was odd because those who knew him best said the late Bible teacher and tennis coach at McCallie School had few close friends.

But what Strang did have were legions of admirers. For more than 50 years he lavished young men with encouragement and prodded them with corny jokes at the school on the western slope of Missionary Ridge.

"Yo!" they would call out to him.

"Hey, Bud," he would answer, often handing them a piece of candy in a transaction that became his trademark.

Strang is the subject of a new podcast, "Yo: The Long Road Home," which is available through Apple and Spotify. Produced by Great Feelings Studios in Nashville, the podcast paints Strang as a jolly jester at McCallie who made a promise to serve God during a harrowing brush with death during World War II.

Depending on who's telling the story, "Yo" was a nickname Strang earned either from his love of yo-yos (he was an expert at tricks) or his frequent mood swings.

John Strang was one of four sons of prominent Chattanooga attorney S. Bartow Strang who served their country during World War II. A graduate of Baylor School and the University of Virginia, Strang served as a medical clerk in the U.S. Army's 99th Infantry Division. He was captured by German soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.

Much of his military story was revealed in research writing done by McCallie School history teacher Duke Richey, a contributor to the podcast who was recently named Tennessee History Teacher of the Year.

On a forced march as a prisoner of war in Belgium, Strang, then 26, was in a group of captured Americans handed over to members of the Hitler Youth for a time. Strang said the youth lined the men up and executed them one by one, but the shooter ran out of bullets just before it was his turn to be shot.

In what he thought were his final moments, Strang had prayed to be delivered from death and promised to devote his life to God if he survived. By all accounts, Strang felt his life had indeed been saved by divine intervention and kept his end of the deal.

"By teaching and immersing himself in the life of a school endlessly renewed by new blood, he was trying to forget old bloodshed," said historian Jon Meacham, a McCallie graduate who knew Strang and contributed to the podcast.

" He was a respite [at McCallie]. He could control the popular kids and lift up the kids that were quiet and shy," Meacham said in the podcast. " He conducted a kind of boys' symphony in a way that endures."

As a result, many McCallie grads remember Strang as a whimsical figure who gave out candy and bedeviled kids (and adults) with a dollar bill placed on the ground but tied to a string. As the podcast elegantly explains, "[Strang] hovered at the edge of their childhood, somewhere between a grandfather and friend."

But as Meacham and others would notice, there were shadows that sometimes passed across Strang's sunny demeanor.

He was a lifelong bachelor who lived with his mother and became a hoarder late in life. Sometimes he would wear heavy coats in the summer and short sleeve shirts in the winter. While perpetually friendly, he didn't let people get too close to him, some family members said.

Sam Strang, who operates a Nashville building supply and distribution company and served as executive producer of the podcast, is a great-nephew of John Strang. He remembers visiting with his great-uncle during summer visits to Signal Mountain.

Strang said he learned of his great uncle's McCallie legacy from Meacham and came to see him as a complex figure. Using film analogies, he said Strang's story struck him as "part 'Saving Private Ryan,' part 'Hacksaw Ridge' and part 'Dead Poets Society.'"

"I was amazed at the legend he was to the McCallie people," Sam Strang said in an interview. "The hardship [he endured in war], turning into the kind, gentle nature of a father figure to so many, was really heartwarming and worth telling."

After John Strang was liberated at the end of the war, his physical recovery from captivity was swift. He is said to have gone into war at 160 pounds and left weighing 80. Nevertheless, he recovered quickly enough that months after his return to Tennessee he became the Chattanooga city tennis champion.

Later in life, Strang gained fame leading summer services at the Little Brown Church on Walden's Ridge.

Sam Strang said the podcast has been well received so far and has been a conversation starter for people to tell their own stories about the wages of war.

"It brings out a lot of heart-warming stories from people who want to tell you about their family member who served," he said.

Life Stories publishes on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at [email protected]