Longtime Statesboro businessman and beloved family man Bruce Yawn died Thursday afternoon after suffering a heart attack in the morning. He was 74.
“It is with great sorrow that we share the news that Bruce has passed away. Please join us as we pray for Bruce’s family and remember this good man and wonderful friend,” said Benjy Thompson, CEO of the Development Authority of Bulloch County, on which Yawn served as chair.
Funeral services are set for 2 p.m. Sunday at Connection Church on Cawana Road in Statesboro with the Rev. Brandon Williams officiating.
Yawn is most well-known for operating Snooky’s Restaurant from 1971 until 2012, at first along with his father, the late Vivian D. “Snooky” Yawn.
Since retiring and closing the restaurant, Bruce Yawn continued in several business and community roles.
Along with his role with the Development Authority, he served on the local Synovus board and worked part-time as assistant executive director of Willow Pond Senior Care.
Yawn served on the Sea Island Bank board, and then on the local Synovus board which it became, for about 30 years. Wayne Akins, executive vice president and chief community banking officer for Synovus, saw Yawn as more than a friend.
“When you define a true friend, it’s somebody who encourages you when you’re doing things well and doing things the right way,” Akins said. “But it’s also that person who will say, ‘You know what, you could do a little bit better.’ And Bruce was just one of those friends who had a way of telling you, and expecting from you, to do better.
“As a friend and as a mentor, I’m going to miss him so much, because there’s not many friends in this world who will tell you when you’re not doing what you should do.”
Going to Georgia
After graduating from Statesboro High School, Yawn went to the University of Georgia on a football scholarship, and played offensive guard his sophomore through senior years. During that time the Bulldogs won the Southeastern Conference championships in 1966 and 1968 and also the 1966 Cotton Bowl over Southern Methodist University.
Billy Payne, who was head of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and chaired the Augusta National Golf Club from 2006 to 2017, first met Yawn when they played against each other in the 1964 Georgia All-Star high school football game.
Payne and Yawn were later freshmen together at the University of Georgia.
“My best memories of Bruce from Georgia are that he had remarkable character and ethics,” Payne said. “A lot of young men struggle for what to do and how to act when you go from high school to college. Bruce was always the example that everyone looked to. Smart in school. A very accomplished football player. Immense character. Totally dependable. He was all the things you would want your son to be and your best friend to be.
“I’m so saddened by his loss, but I am immensely grateful for the love that I shared with him and all that he taught me,” Payne said. “He taught me how to go from a cocky young guy in college to a mature, responsible adult. More than anybody he was always making me a better person.”
Payne also remembered Yawn’s ability on the football field.
“Bruce was a remarkable player, probably intelligence-wise even more so,” Payne said. “When the huddle would break, all the other offensive linemen would ask Bruce who they were supposed to block. He was an intellectual football player, as well as an outstanding athlete.”
Yawn met his wife Carol at Georgia, which Payne remembers well.
“That freshman year, the two young ladies we were dating were sorority sisters, so Bruce and I became best and fast friends,” he said. “And it turned out the ladies who later became our wives also were best friends.”
Former Georgia head football coach Vince Dooley also commented on the passing of his friend and former player.
"Bruce's loss is so sudden and sad," Dooley said. "I offer my love and condolences to Carol and his entire family. Bruce was an important part of our first full recruiting class that won two SEC Championships in 1966 and ’68. I'm proud that he was a starting offensive guard on the 1968 championship team. And even more proud he was an all-American person who led an exemplary life as a family man and citizen."
After graduating from Georgia, Yawn returned to Statesboro and brought his father, “Snooky” Yawn, an idea he had picked up in the college town of Athens. The younger Yawn recounted the story in a Statesboro Herald interview in 2012.
"My father was an owner in Webb's Georgia Fried Chicken," he said. "Dad and I decided to open a full-service restaurant in 1971, and we called it Snooky's after my father. I told my dad that we really needed to cater to the college community.
“I remembered when I was at Georgia, I went to places that liked doing business with college students, places that were nice to us,” Yawn said. “That mentality served us well at Snooky’s for all of these years. On any given day, you can walk into Snooky's and see a number of students, and I am very proud of that."
Snooky’s became one of the most popular restaurants in Statesboro.
Georgia Southern Eagles football coach and real-life legend Erk Russell “held court at the round table” in the center of the restaurant for years. Many politicians also visited Snooky’s for face-to-face meetings with Statesboro’s movers-and-shakers, as well as ordinary folks.
Yawn made the decision to close Snooky’s in February 2012, and said at the time:
"The time is right for me to retire, to leave the business where I have spent the vast majority of my life for the last four decades," Yawn said. "You just know when it is right. I don't have any regrets, but there is a sense of sadness. It isn't uncommon to have the third generation of a family that has eaten with me all of these years come in to eat. I consider my customers to be my friends, part of my family."
Pilot Club Breakfast
In 1980, Yawn’s mother, Nancy, started a benefit breakfast for the Pilot Club of Statesboro to help raise funds for the club that would go to “brain-related” projects. Bruce Yawn carried on the benefit for more than 35 years. Usually held in November, each year the Nancy Yawn Benefit Breakfast was held at Snooky’s and then moved to RJ’s Steakery after Snooky’s closed.
Among several charitable efforts, funds from the breakfast would help pay for dictionaries to all third-grade students in Bulloch County public and private schools; a “Brain-Minders” puppet show that taught school children to protect their brains for life; and Project Lifesaver, a rapid-response partnership with the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office to locate individuals who are prone to wander, such as Alzheimer's or dementia patients, or those suffering from Down syndrome or autism.
Yawn was named executive director of Willow Pond Senior Care in April 2015. He brought with him his usual excitement and compassion for Willow Pond’s residents and their families.
"I'm excited about being a part of it and working with the kind of people that work over there," Yawn said at the time. "We all have the same mindset: we just want to make it better for the residents."
Yawn also continued in his role as chairman of the Synovus board, and Akins said Yawn was a key factor in the success of Sea Island and Synovus.
“When Mr. Hal Averitt passed away in 2006 and the chairman’s position on the board opened, it was a quick and easy decision for the board to unanimously elect Bruce as chairman,” Akins said. “And that was for two reasons: Bruce cared about people and banking is really about people and relationships, and second was Bruce was a sharp businessman. He knew what it was like to run a business so he could give us the feedback when we were doing things and making changes. Bruce could give us that perspective as a business owner, which was exactly what we needed to help guide us.
“There is a not person on our team, there’s not a banker on our team that would say at some point in time that Bruce Yawn didn’t touch them and encourage them in a way that only Bruce could.”
Ellis Wood estimates tens of thousands of people encountered Yawn in his time at Snooky’s and all his other community efforts.
He remembered his friend as someone who “It would be impossible to find anyone who didn’t share an affection for.”
“Bruce was a special personal friend and a very strong friend to this community. He devoted his entire life to serving this community in different ways,” Wood said.
Prior to the funeral Sunday, visitation is set for 3-5 p.m. Saturday at Connection Church. Following the funeral, a private family burial will be held at Bulloch Memorial Gardens.
“There’s a reason why there’s going to be such a celebration of Bruce’s life,” Akins said. “He was a special guy, and our community will deeply miss him.”