This time of year, the fictious George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart in the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” usually has exclusive rights to the claim of being the richest man in town.
But this December, Steve Yost is giving him a run for his money.
After 39 years of distinguished service to the citizens of Salem, as the City Attorney for both local government and the school division, Yost is retiring at the end of the year.
“I am the luckiest guy in the world because I have dealt with first rate folks who were in it for all the right reasons,” says Yost. “They loved their community and they not only wanted to do well, but also do better. So, for me, the real highlight of my career is the people.”
Those people include all four superintendents in the school division’s history and no less than five city managers.
“I go back to Bill Paxton, who was city manager when I was appointed in 1981 and my relationship with every city manager and superintendent since then has been outstanding,” says Yost. “They have been capable and delightful to work with from my point of view.”
“Steve is the most trustworthy and honest gentleman that I ever worked with,” says Forest Jones, Salem City Manager from 2000-2008. “He was dedicated, hard-working and he played an important role in the smooth operations of the city. Plus, he had the ability to keep me out of trouble all those years.”
Jones has the unique distinction of working with Yost on both the school and city sides. Each man played important roles when Salem made the decision to break away from Roanoke County and form its own school division in 1983.
“When the school board made the decision to go its own way, there was a large segment in Salem that did not think this could be accomplished,” says Yost. “Not only did we pull it off, but we became a recognized leader in the state.”
“Through numerous difficult and challenging times, dating back to the origin of our independent Salem City School Division, Mr. Yost’s combination of legal expertise, keen intellect and even temperament has often been the unseen steady hand helping facilitate positive outcomes,” says Alan Seibert, Salem Superintendent of Schools.
“Everybody wants to be associated with a successful entity and successful folks, and that has been the beauty of the school system,” says Yost. “The little part I played in that is very rewarding and I take tremendous pride in that.”
Yost also takes great pride in the fact that a Roanoke boy was able to make such a successful go of it in Salem. After earning his law degree from the University of Richmond in 1975 and being admitted to the Virginia State Bar that same year, he soon found himself working for his former competitors.
“As a guy who grew up in Roanoke, played sports at Patrick Henry and had a real rivalry with Andrew Lewis, I was always welcomed here,” he says.
Yost graduated from Patrick Henry in 1968 just before the school integrated. He played football, baseball, and basketball for the Patriots and later in life often found himself rubbing elbows with his former opponents.
“Many of those Andrew Lewis guys I played against are still around, so we talk about the good old days all the time,” says Yost. “Andrew Lewis always won, but Hal Johnston, John Givens, Charlie Hammersley and I go way back.”
Yost began working for the city in October of 1981 when he replaced the legendary Sagan Kime, who was Salem’s City Attorney from 1926-1981. Kime was 87 years old when he retired as City Attorney although he practiced law until the day he died a year later.
“I think everybody has their own personality, so most of what I am came from my childhood or my genes,” says Yost. “I never patterned myself after another attorney and I just always tried to be respectful of people and their views.”
“Steve’s personality made him well-suited for the job,” says Randy Smith, Salem City Manager from 1987-2000. “He was a true gentleman and very respectful of others, even when they had differing opinions and weren’t so respectful themselves.”
Throughout Yost’s nearly four decades of service most of the elected and appointed officials he has worked with have been independent in their thinking and their party affiliations.
“I have really never seen the role of politics manifest itself with council members in meetings or conversations I have had with them,” says Yost. “If there is a difference of opinion, it is a question of what you think is best for the city not something based on what political party you may be associated with. When that is your focus, you can have honest and differing opinions.”
“He is level-headed and big-hearted, and my favorite Steve Yost quote is ‘reasonable people sometimes disagree,’” says Lisa Garst, Salem City Councilwoman from 2008-2015. “It was a gracious way to acknowledge all of the voices in a heated discussion, while moving things forward to a vote.”
And in 39 years, there have been plenty of votes. The recent Simms Farm discussions, the Elizabeth Campus development and a case involving Wendy’s Restaurants that went all the way to the State Supreme Court are just a few samples of the issues on which Yost has advised and litigated.
“The rezoning for Wendy’s on 419 was denied because it went all the way back into a residential neighborhood,” says Yost. “The Wendy’s franchise owner sued the city and prevailed in the circuit court, but Assistant City Attorney Bill Maxwell and I appealed it to the Virginia Supreme Court and the circuit court’s decision was overruled and they found in favor of the city.”
The landmark case for the city is still cited today in pertinent zoning matters across the Commonwealth.
“Steve was always well-versed in planning and zoning law and could oftentimes bring order to chaotic, emotional zoning hearings by calmly explaining state code requirements for the highest and best use of land,” says Smith. “I still have copies of a memorandum he wrote in 1986 and updated in 1992 that clearly explains those things that must be considered before property is rezoned. I referred to this document countless times during my years in the city manager’s office and even into retirement.”
That retirement word is something Yost and his wife have been “stewing” over for the last year or so.
“You get to a certain age and you wonder if you are still effective and if you still have the energy and passion that you need,” he says. “I would like to think that I do, but I am sure it is not what it once was, so I think at 70 years of age, it is time.”
Like many individuals who are lucky enough to retire on their own terms, Yost knows the people and the relationships he forged over the years will be the things he misses the most.
“There is a Local Government Attorneys Association in Virginia and practically every locality is represented,” he says. “Whenever we are together, I always have someone look at me and say, ‘Yost, you are the luckiest SOB that ever lived. All those years that you have represented the city and the school board you have never had one knucklehead to deal with as a local government employee or on your school board or city council.’”
Both city council and the school board honored Yost in recent days with separate proclamations and heartfelt standing ovations that recognized his many contributions to Salem.
“We could never properly thank Steve for everything he has done for this community and Salem City Council,” says Randy Foley, Salem Mayor 2008-2020. “His commitment and service for four decades are very much appreciated, and his presence will be missed. He has helped the Council and the city navigate numerous complicated legal issues with thoroughness and aplomb. We all wish him health and happiness during the next chapter of his life.”
Make that a Wonderful Life.
- Submitted by Mike Stevens, City of Salem Communications Director