It's rhododendron time, and Herman Robinson was there at the beginning

John Thompson • Jun 21, 2019 at 9:41 PM

ROAN MOUNTAIN —The 72nd Annual Rhododendron Festival takes place this weekend at Roan Mountain State Park. The festival has changed quite a bit since its start in 1947.

In those years the festival was held on top of Roan Mountain, near the Cloudland Gardens. The only road to the top was narrow and steep, and it took the dedication of the entire community back then to put on a festival that attracted dignitaries from Nashville and Washington.

One person who was an important part of those early efforts was Herman Robinson, then the state senator from the district and the Elizabethton bureau chief of the Johnson City Press.

Robinson’s son, Bob Robinson, remembers his dad’s dedication and hard work in ensuring each of those early festivals was a success. Bob recalled those early days in an interview with the Johnson City Press on the eve of this year’s Rhododendron Festival.

“It was a big deal back then,” Bob said. The Roan Mountain Citizens Club had the idea for the Rhododendron Festival back in 1947.

Bob said his father worked with the club in the early days to help make the festival a success. The newspaperman even sold advertising for the club’s newsletter to help get money for the festival.

The biggest festival ever was the one when then Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, attended. But there were other years when Tennessee’s governor attended, and there were always state commissioners and other high officials who attended.

Bob said his father felt an obligation, both as the bureau chief and as state senator, to help make these visits enjoyable for dignitaries and comfortable. Bob said his father found a valuable ally in his wife, Marjorie.

The night before the start of the festival, Bob said his mother began cooking to feed the dignitaries, making enough baked beans and potato salad to feed a small army. She got up early the next morning and made an equal amount of fried chicken.

They then packed the cold food in ice and the hot food in insulated containers and placed everything in the trunk of Herman’s big Ford Fairlane he parked near the flatbed truck used for the VIP platform and speaker’s stand.

Bob said his dad also felt an obligation to get the news off the remote mountain on who was crowned the beauty queen of the festival. In those days before cell phones, Herman used a two-way radio to get the word to the newsroom — the mountain’s elevation helped with that task.

While he was in the Senate, Herman worked to get a new highway built that climbed up the mountain to Carver’s Gap. Bob remembers his dad would always leave church and drive to the construction site when the road was being built, asking the farmers how the contractor was treating them.

Herman sponsored the 1954 bill that authorized Roan Mountain State Park. It was Senate Bill No. 17, Chapter 4 of Tennessee Public Acts for 1959. Bob said the Democratic leadership, which controlled both the legislature and the governorship at the time, told his dad that there was no money for a state park that year.

Bob said his father told them to go ahead and pass the bill and he would find the money in the next year, which he did.

The original bill included $50,000 for the purchase of the land, but Gov. Frank Clement vetoed that section of the bill. The money was approved a year later.

He also led the effort to create a system of technical schools across the state that now include 27 colleges of applied technology.

Bob said his father accomplished all of this even though he suffered from cerebral palsy. He said his dad had to use a wheel chair as a child, but learned to walk at about the age of 10. He also could not talk at an early age.

After his time as a senator, Bob said Gov. Winfield Dunn appointed him as chairman of the Governor’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped in 1971. Bob said his dad told the governor “I accept the challenge.”

He died a couple of weeks later at the age of 57.

Sen. Rusty Crowe, who now holds the seat Herman occupied, said he has recently talked with Chancellor Flora Tydings of the Tennessee Board of Regents about keeping the Herman Robinson name as part of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology Elizabethton.

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