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THINKING OUT LOUD

David Carroll's memories of the late Dalton Roberts

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How many hats did Dalton Roberts wear?  Guitar picker.  Teacher.  Politician.  Songwriter.  Storyteller.  Poet.  County Executive.  Newspaper columnist.  Friend to the birds. Singer.  Erlanger watchdog.  BS detector.  Visionary.

Dalton passed away on Wednesday.  He’d been in failing health for a while.  As he told a friend at his favorite barber shop recently, “I just ain’t doing no good.  Everything seems to be falling apart.” As Dalton struggled to put one foot in front of the other, we didn’t see him much any more.  The music was silenced and the writing ceased.  Still, it was comforting to know he was still around.  It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if he had come roaring back like a lion.  Now we’re left with only memories of an unforgettable man.

He packed a lot of life into 82 years, didn’t he?  He’d be the first to tell you, and he frequently did, that he was the product of good parents.  Roy and Nora Roberts were opposites in many ways, kindred spirits in others.  Roy was a man of few words, and some said that was because Nora used them all.  Dalton was a great mix of the two.  He had his dad’s sly humor and work ethic, and his mom’s love of reading and FDR-inspired Democratic advocacy.  I did a Mother’s Day story on Dalton’s mom back in the 80s.  I’m proud to say, he loved this story.  If you want to understand Dalton Roberts, you really need to watch the video below:

Dalton was a frequent guest on my TV shows, and what a blessing he was.  On a slow day, my boss would say, “David, can you find a news story to fill some time?” I’d call Dalton and say, “Do you wanna get something off your chest about Erlanger?”  He’d respond, “Bring that camera over to my office, I’ll give you some news.”  The hospital’s CEO at that time was Tom Winston.  Dalton was infuriated by the hospital’s high executive salaries, and its agreement to accept infectious waste from other hospitals.  Winston would choose his words carefully when challenged by the loquacious County Executive, and soon learned what the rest of us already knew: you don’t win a war of words with Dalton Roberts.

Anyone who blames a lack of education on a poor upbringing should study the life of Dalton Roberts.  His family didn’t have much, for sure.  But he read every book he could get his hands on. It used to be fun to watch dual public appearances featuring Dalton and the other local leader of that era named Roberts: Gene, the mayor of Chattanooga.  Dalton grew up in a community called The Watering Trough.  Gene, a few miles away in Onion Bottom.  They would try to “out-poor” each other. Although they had vastly different styles, both were well-read, articulate leaders.  Neither ever lost an election.

You can read elsewhere about Dalton’s massive list of achievements, resulting in the development of the Trade Center, the Riverpark, Enterprise South, and so much more.  It’s obvious that at the end of his 16 years at the helm of Hamilton County government, he left it in much better shape than he found it.  I want to focus on one Dalton Roberts story that sums up this very impressive man:

About four years ago, Dalton was slowing down physically, but would still speak, pick and sing when he got an interesting invitation.  A nearby library club in north Georgia hosted Dalton at its monthly luncheon.  During the business portion of the meeting, the club president shared mostly bad news, about decreasing revenues, and the threat of closure.

A few minutes later, Dalton was introduced.  He greeted the audience, sat on his stool and mixed in some funny stories with his songs.  The library folks loved his show, rewarding him with laughter and applause.  Like a lot of entertainers, when he finished his show, he held up his latest CD.  “If y’all like those songs,” he drawled, “I brought some CDs to sell.  They’re twenty bucks each, and I’d be honored if you’d take one home with you.”

The audience lined up to shake hands with Dalton, get his autograph, and buy that CD.  It’s what happened next that I’ll never forget.  After Dalton had shaken every hand and sold every CD, he grabbed the stack of 20 dollar bills, walked over to the club president and said, “Here, this money’s for the library.  I know you’ll put it to good use.”

That kind gesture didn’t make the news.  Dalton didn’t do it to get attention.  It’s just another example of a man who loved words, music and good deeds, and still inspires us all to do the same.

(From David Carroll's ChattanoogaRadioTV.com)

Bonus video: 1988 profile of Dalton Roberts by WRCB’s Scott Montgomery, detailing his battles with Erlanger, and his thoughts on power and persuasion:

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