Sept. 5, 2010
BY DREW EDWARDS
On Friday night, Don Weller arrived at Neyland Stadium for what he thought would be a tour of Tennessee's newly renovated home field. If he'd known the real reason he and so many family members were there, he never would have turned up.
"This is a humble guy," Joe Weller said.
Don Weller sits in the West Club at Neyland Stadium on Saturday evening and mostly smiles as he talks about Friday night's visit to the stadium.
He arrived at Gate 17 expecting to meet Greg Hulen, UT's assistant athletics director for development, for an up-close look at the recently completed renovations. Don, who attended his first Tennessee game with Joe during the 1955 season, loved what he saw.
"Boy, they have really fixed it up," Don recalled. "About that time, Greg started talking about all this stuff that had been going on. I thought, `Oh, this is really nice. Joe's going to get a plaque on the front of the building.' " Just then, Don's wife, Barbara, nudged him and told him there was more to the story.
Turns out that Joe's name wasn't on the plaque.
It was Don's.
Don and Joe Weller grew up in Chattanooga, which is to say, they grew up loving Tennessee football.
Joe chuckles as he recalls Saturdays spent at the kitchen table listening to George Mooney call the games.
"He'd say that bit about, `Today the Vols will be moving from left to right on your radio dial,' and we'd look right in. Mooney was great."
In Joe's view - and plenty of others - so was Don.
Eleven months younger than Joe, Don played tackle and his brother played end alongside each other for two years in high school.
Joe went off to play football at Duke, while Don came to Tennessee and played one season on the freshman team. By then Vietnam had begun, and Don left school to join the Marine Corps, where he served as a crew chief and .50-caliber gunner on a Boeing CH-46 "Sea Knight" helicopter.
A severe ankle injury from his playing days at Duke left Joe unable to serve. But Don, as he always seems to do, contributed more than his share.
"He didn't do one tour of duty in Vietnam," Joe said. "He did two tours of duty. He did one for me, and one for him."
It wasn't exactly an easy assignment, either. Don's helicopter was shot down multiple times, according to Joe's account.
"I've always been lucky, I guess, and the good Lord's always been looking after me," Don says. "They weren't bad shoot-downs, if you could say that. Really where we had to make emergency landings."
Don's service made a big impression on his older brother.
"You think of the Marine Corps motto, `Semper Fidelis,' " Joe said. " `Always Faithful.' This guy was always faithful, before he joined the Marine Corps and after. Of course, a Marine's always a Marine, right?
"You can depend on this guy for anything."
Just a few years later, Joe found out just how dependable his brother was.
A Major Gift
About 25 years ago, Joe Weller was diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, a condition that limits the kidneys' ability to function.
Joe, who spent 14 years as CEO of Nestle, was working in California at the time. With his family so far away, he kept the news to himself.
"I never told my family, because what are they going to do about it?" Joe said. "I was living in California, and they were living back here. I got on the transplant list at UCLA, and I was moving along."
But a medical question for Don's wife, a nurse, sparked a question - and a phone call from Don.
"He found out about it, by hook or crook," Joe said. "I didn't want anybody to know about it. So he called me one day and said, `Do you need a kidney transplant?' "
Joe, only a few months away from having to start dialysis, tried to downplay it. Don persisted.
Then Don, as he always seems to do, put someone else's needs ahead of his own. Joe tried to reason with his brother, but Don had made up his mind.
"He said, `Let me ask you a question. Would you give me a kidney if I needed one?' " Joe said. "What do you say to that? No? I almost started to say no, just to wave him off."
During the process, Don flew from Chattanooga to Los Angeles six times. He was a match, and he did what he set out to do - give his brother a new kidney.
"This guy lives `Always Faithful,'" Joe said. "Anytime someone in the family needs somebody, this is the guy who's always there. He wants to be there. He's mad if he's not there. This guy has character written all over him."
`A Real, True Vol Fan'
Joe Weller has always looked up to his younger brother.
"You can't spend 20 minutes with Joe and not hear about Don," Hulen said. He's long wanted to do something to express that admiration - for Don's service to his country, for a 31-year career as a police officer in Chattanooga, for the selfless gift of a kidney. Mostly, though, for always being faithful.
But Don isn't the kind of guy who's comfortable accepting gifts.
"He won't take anything from you. He won't let you do anything for him," Joe said. "But I wanted to do something, and I started talking to Greg. Greg's a great guy to work with. He's the best."
Don loves the Vols. He loves being in Neyland Stadium. But his dream of playing for the Vols ended when he joined the Marines. After Vietnam, Don joined the police force in Chattanooga and recently retired as a highly decorated officer.
Working with Hulen and the Tennessee Fund staff, Joe decided to make a gift to help with the Neyland Stadium renovations. The recognition would go to his brother.
"I'm thinking, there's no place he'd rather be on Saturday than Neyland Stadium, watching the Tennessee Vols," Joe says, looking over at Don with a smile. "This guy is a real, true Vol fan.
"If our guy throws an interception, this is not the guy up there booing him. This is the guy up there knowing he's an 18-year-old kid, and is learning and all that. If you're sitting around him and you're saying that, you could be in trouble. He can give you the death stare."
On Saturday, though, Don is smiling a few hours before the Vols' 50-0 victory over UT Martin and only a few hours after he learned that Gate 17 at Neyland Stadium would be known as the "Don Weller Gate."
"I about fainted, I'm telling you," Don said. "I just couldn't believe that." Had he known what was in store, Joe says his brother never would have made the trip to Knoxville. That's the humble side of Don.
"I really wanted an opportunity to thank him for his service to his family and his country, his really heroic service to the community of Chattanooga," Joe said. "And as a Vol fan, what more could you want? He is the epitome of a Vol fan."