“He was always concerned like, 'I gotta go help people.' Those were his family values you do good with your family gifts that you've been bestowed.' ”
Friends and colleagues Dave Lang and Bobby Stone decided to venture out on their own in 1985 when they co-founded Atomic Films, and for the last part of their 30-year working partnership, which ended when Bobby retired in 2015, there was one rule that could not be broken.
"We couldn't schedule anything during lunch on Wednesdays," Lang said. "That's when he went to lunch at Mount Vernon with his Nana [Margaret Finley]. She was in her 90s then. She died at 102. He looked forward to that all week. He'd come in on Wednesday mornings and call her and make sure she was going to be ready."
Stone drowned last Saturday, and all this week leading up to a Friday church service and a later memorial at the Tivoli Theatre, friends and family have been trying to make sense of what happened to the man people have described as supremely smart, exceptionally compassionate and passionate, fiercely proud of the city he called home, kind and, very simply, nice.
In talking about his friend and colleague, Lang used all of those words and phrases and more.
"He was just brilliant, but the most compelling thing was his compassion. It was amazing how much he cared about people."
Jeff Brakebill talked to Stone every day, usually to call each other names or to share a joke, but sometimes it was to ask for a ride.
"For about the last 20 years, one of us always seemed to be running out of gas. Usually, it was me. The last time, I was on Manufacturers Road. He showed up with gas for me, and there was a guy farther up with a flat tire. Bobby said, 'Let's go help that dude.' He had a bald tire on one side, and we looked at the other, and it was bald, too. What do you think Bobby did? Yep. We went to Quality Tire and he bought two new tires.
"The guy was saying, 'Aw, I've got to be somewhere.' Bobby said, 'Naw, come on. You'll be happy.'"
Brakebill said Stone had a deep, physical need to help people and to make people feel good. He didn't do it for recognition and often never told anyone about what he'd done. Both Lang and Brakebill said their friend knew everyone, and going to a restaurant or bar or concert with him meant being aware that he would stop and talk to lots and lots of people along the way.
"He got his value from helping and communicating with everyone," Brakebill said. "Self-admittedly, I hold close and he didn't, and it didn't embarrass me a hair to watch him do it because I found out in about two minutes that I was interested in whatever they were talking about too.
"He wanted to know everything. He said to me last week, 'There is so much stuff I want to learn, and I don't have time. He was talking about this new [computer] program language and how it uses blocks to build apps."
Anyone who knew Stone saw this week on social media just how many people truly felt like Stone was their best friend in the world.
Stone and I were casual acquaintances for many years, but we share many mutual friends. He and I ran into each other while watching Amanda Shires at Bonnaroo a few years ago and again a few weeks later at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, and we talked like we were friends since birth. He had an amazing ability to make anyone feel like they were old friends, and no matter how many were around, he was interested in only what you had to say.
"Absolutely," Lang said. "At tonight's [Friday's] service at the Tivoli, you'll hear 90 percent of the people share that sentiment."
Lang called Stone the best cinematographer he's ever worked with, able to walk into any space and immediately know where the best shot was. He said that from day one, he never felt like going in to Atomic Films was like work.
"I was going in to hang out with Bobby and have an adventure. I remember when we got our first paycheck from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, we just stared at it. We couldn't believe we could get paid to do this."
He said Stone loved Chattanooga, and he put his heart and soul into Atomic Films. "And whether it's true or not, we felt like we were part of the [city's] renaissance.
"We were here when you could shoot a cannonball down Market Street at night and not hit a thing. When he retired, he signed up for whatever he could to help. He loved this city, and he loved doing things for people."
Stone was with Lang a few years ago when they got a call that Lang's brother had died.
"Bobby never said a word, never hesitated or questioned. We drove to Marietta to be with my parents, and he wouldn't leave until he just had to. He didn't have to think about it or process it."
Brakebill said that as smart as his friend was, he had one nemesis: plumbing.
"He was a genius when it came to electricity, but he couldn't figure out plumbing. I could do that. He was a Mac guy, and I was a PC guy. He had a P-trap under his bar that leaked, and he he couldn't figure it out, but he helped me rewire my entire boat."
As we talked Friday afternoon, Brakebill was on his way to check on the planned memorial service at the Tivoli scheduled for later in the day. The more he talked, the more he seemed to recollect just how special his friend was, and the words come into focus.
"I talked to the guy 10 times a day about the stupid stuff. I never grasped the grandiose stuff until now that he is gone. Now, I'm thinking about how honored I am that he talked to me at all, much less 10 times a day.
"I think about all the stuff he did for people. I was honored that he would call me when he needed something or when he'd ask me to go help one of his friends. I'd think, 'Oh my God, he needs me. He needs something.'
"He was always concerned like, 'I gotta go help people.' Those were his family values you do good with your family gifts that you've been bestowed.'"
As he was walking into The Tivoli, what appeared to be a couple down on their luck interrupted Brakebill to ask if he could help them out. Instinctively, he said, "No." Then he looked up to see that he was standing under the Tivoli marquee, which read: "In Memory of Bobby Stone."
Suddenly he was reaching through his wallet to find some cash he'd forgotten he had and ran after the couple.
"Bobby got me, again."
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.