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Smiling Because of Ash Verlander

miller-article1We use sports to escape from everyday life. Maybe it’s because our lives need a break or sports imitate life. But, unfortunately, both life and our beloved sporting events come to an end. However, when life and sports mesh, a sports fanatic is created.

In addition to being a business titan, William Ashley Verlander was truly a sports fanatic and enthusiastically kept abreast of all sporting events on a daily basis.

On Tuesday, I was fortunate enough to experience the celebration of Mr. Verlander’s life. It was the life of a sports fan and ambassador. There is no end for this man; he has touched too many lives and will always be remembered for his generosity and integrity.

At the age of 89, William Ashley Verlander passed away last Friday, June 12. On Tuesday, I mournfully attended the funeral of this generous and humble man, whom I had never met, but heard much about over the years.

Endearingly referred to as “Ash,” he probably knew everyone in the greater Jacksonville area. More likely, they all knew him. Even if he didn’t know you, he would kindly approach you with a warm smile and welcoming handshake.

It has been said that his handshake was his word, and contracts were not necessary. After attending the service, I felt a sense of unqualified respect for this man, but also a special closeness. For this reason, respectfully he is Mr. Verlander, but I will refer to him as “Ash.”

My father has known Ash and his son Chris for close to 25 years. They met through the Rotary Club. Prior to attending the funeral service at Deermeadows Baptist Church, where Ash was a member, I carefully read his obituary. It qualified as the most extensive and impressive obituary I have ever read.

While perusing the obituary, it became evident Ash had made a name for himself.

At the youthful age of 15, Ash started his education at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Only four years later, in 1939, he graduated with a major in Industrial Management. At that time, he was the youngest to graduate from Georgia Tech. And, for the rest of his life, Ash was a Tech Man, a Yellow Jacket.

A number of locals have said that Ash Verlander is easily one of the twenty most influential people in Jacksonville’s history. A 53-year resident of Jacksonville, Ash was one of the founding members of American Heritage Life Insurance Company.

As its President for 25 years, Ash promoted the company nationwide.

Along with his business ventures, Ash led multiple organizations ranging from the Downtown Rotary Club to the Gator Bowl Association (GBA). During his time with the GBA, he was President in 1965 and was later elected into the Gator Bowl Hall of Fame. Impressively, in his honor, the Gator Bowl’s winning team receives the Verlander Trophy.

Sports were one of his obvious passions along with checking the Stock Market at 4 p.m. each day.

Ash also contributed his talents, time and money to The Bolles School, Jacksonville University (JU) and Georgia Tech. For three years, he was the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at JU.

Ash received the nickname “Mr. Wonderful” by Dr. Frances Kinne, former President of JU, because she did not know what the “W” stood for in W.A. Verlander. While the “W” actually stands for William, Mr. Wonderful is a truly fitting title for such a giving man.

There is no question that his family can vouch for Ash’s deserving such a title from Dr. Kinne. Ash and his wife Alice (married 67 years) had three children. He left behind to mourn his passing six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Most recognizably in the sports world, Ash’s grandson, Alan Verlander, has been JU’s Athletic Director since 2006. During the service, Alan performed a spectacular acoustic guitar version of “Amazing Grace” and sang the lyrics. His grandfather would have been “amazingly” proud.

Glancing around the church, I saw that Ash had numerous friends, and many notable ones at that. JU basketball legend Artis Gilmore, current JU basketball head coach Cliff Warren and GBA President Rick Catlett were in attendance. Past Gator Bowl Presidents served as honorary pallbearers.

The hour-long funeral service is perfectly summed up by Ash’s grandchild Natalie Soud reading the poem “Smile (Eyes Wide Open).” After hearing the uplifting stories about Ash, it was impossible not to smile.

The sports world and this Jacksonville community were blessed to have him. He put his heart into everything, and it showed.

While leaving the service, I was saddened that I never had the opportunity to meet Ash Verlander. But, as I walked outside, I shook Chris Verlander’s hand and gave him my condolences.

He seriously looked me in the eye and said, “Richard, if you can be half the man my father was, then you’ll live a great life.”

By telling a part of Ash Verlander’s story, I hope I’m on my way.

5 Responses »

  1. I knew Ash Verlander. I disagree about his ranking. He is in the top five of the great men and women who have lived in Jacksonville. It is impossible to imagine the lives this one man touched. A trophy, hah, they should name the entire stadium after him. Just think about the employees, customers, service companies, lawyers, bankers, philanthropic institutions and universities that benefited because this one man lived in Jacksonville. God Bless you Ash !

    Nice piece of work Richard.

  2. What a touching, yet informative article about a truly special man. Jacksonville will miss William Ash Verlander. I agree that this community has greatly benefited by the good deeds and financial support from W.A. Verlander. Everyone should also know that he received the Frank S. Sherman Award, which is an annual recognition for outstanding service to the community by the Rotary Club of South Jacksonville. And, THANK YOU Ash for all you did for Jacksonville University. God Bless the Verlander family.

  3. What a special tribute to William Ash Verlander, one of Jacksonville's most generous community leaders. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  4. Excellent article Richard. Your writing continues to be an inspiration. Keep up the good work.

  5. Thanks for the interesting article on Ash Verlander, Richard. It is always nice to keep up with things in Jacksonville while in foreign lands.