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Garland Robinette: Embarking on retirement with a paintbrush in hand

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09/09/2017 | 06:00 am

Most know the story of Garland Robinette, the Louisiana boy who grew up in the swamps and went from janitor to iconic New Orleans anchorman almost overnight.

That's the Twitter version in 140 characters or less of WWL radio's former "The Think Tank" host, who stepped away from the microphone in July at age 74.

But there's also a "War and Peace" version of Robinette's life. The war was Vietnam, where a young Robinette was a member of the "brown water" Navy riverines, patrolling the canals in Vietnam, facing fire fights daily and being wounded twice.

Peace is Robinette the portrait painter in his Uptown studio. In between is a life journey that some might dream of and others would run from.

"It's time to put down my second passion and pick up my first," wrote Robinette on July 2 in an open letter to WWL radio listeners, when he informed them he was putting down the microphone and picking up the paint brushes.

A resume with multiple careers (maintenance worker, anchorman, public relations director, crisis manager, radio talk-show host, artist) barely skims the surface of a life that went from harried happenstance to happily ever after. Robinette has been a husband four times.

"I had great taste in women who had terrible taste in men," says Robinette. "I could be very difficult."

He and his fourth wife, Nancy Rhett, have now been married 23 years and have a daughter.

The yin and yang of their personalities reflect a trusted balance. He is the passionate painter with a reputation for speaking his mind, and she is the textile artist who projects a serenity as calming as the faint vibration of a Tibetan singing bowl. Even though Rhett is 22 years Robinette's junior, she says common life experiences brought them together.

"We all have our Vietnams," she says.

From battle to broadcast news

Robinette would return from Vietnam with a postwar anxiety that would be without an official medical classification for another decade. But the PTSD that was his souvenir of survival would manifest itself with fearlessness and a craving for challenge.

"When anyone survives complete danger, it has been explained to me that dopamine and serotonin pour into the brain. It's a reward system that acts almost like a drug. You constantly want to recreate those chemicals so when as a veteran, you return to a picket-fence (life), you only stay in check for so long. You are rewired to take chances and constantly push your comfort zone," says Robinette.

It made sense that when Hurricane Katrina came like an enemy in the night in 2005, and the federal government was unprepared to fight for New Orleans, Robinette was. He became the tireless broadcast voice of weary flood victims.

The legendary anchor of WWL-TV news in the '70s and '80s, who had left journalism for more than a decade to direct public relations for Freeport McMoRan, was now the premier talk-show host of WWL radio. He found new energy where callers and host interacted, opinions ran hot, and there was no buffer between live guests and lively issues.

Robinette coined the political terms "Demodonts" and "Republicants" when he spoke of government shortcomings. When callers tongue-twisted his name into Robin Garlandette, he embraced the nickname.

Small-town roots

The adopted son of an oil rig worker and his wife, Robinette treasures growing up in an oil refinery camp of 12 houses outside Des Allemands, where "it was communism at its best; everyone had the same things." But rather than taking to a roughneck style of life, he spent his boyhood drawing and taking classical piano lessons from a nun.

Just to set the legend straight, Robinette, a college dropout who challenged the educational institution more than it did him, did not go from janitor in his early years to heartthrob news anchor overnight. "Overnight" was actually about four months, still a mere sound bite in television years.

In late 1969, the Vietnam vet and the recipient of two Purple Hearts was cleaning bathrooms and hallways at a chemical plant on the river near Amite when, taking a break, he sat down on a bench by a man who suggested Robinette come do maintenance work for him at his radio station in LaPlace. It was a very small station, so minimalist in fact that the owner asked Robinette to break from daily janitorial duties to read the weather report and the grain prices over the radio.

Exaggerating those radio seconds into a broadcasting resume, Robinette bluffed his way into a job as the station manager of a Houma television station, where he had to learn everything at once.

"I ran the camera, developed the film, reported and produced. I basically learned the business on the job," says Robinette, who would drive to New Orleans to consult with TV news veterans Alec Gifford and Phil Johnson. The latter eventually offered Robinette a job as a reporter on WWL.

Right place, right time

"A cub-cub-cub reporter," says Robinette, who once again found himself in the right place at the right time: On Christmas Eve 1970, a drunken anchor at WWL-TV was fired just before he was to go on the air, and Johnson asked Robinette to fill in. His temporary anchor debut turned into a 20-year stint.

"I had sweaty palms every evening I went on," he says.

To keep his hands busy, the rookie anchorman would scribble and draw sketches in the margins of his news script. One evening, the floor manager, a Loyola University student, confessed that he had been taking Robinette's drawings out of the trash.

"He asked me if he could Xerox - well, that really dates me - yes, Xerox them and sell them on campus," says Robinette. Weeks later, the president of Loyola, which owned WWL at the time, called and asked Robinette to come in.

"I thought I had been found out. He knew I had lied on my resume, and I was about to be fired," says Robinette. No. He was about to be hired - commissioned rather - to do a portrait of Pope John Paul II, who was coming to New Orleans for a visit. That portrait would turn into one of the official posters of the papal visit.

Robinette would also do the official 2011 Jazz Fest poster of Jimmy Buffett. Painting was always there, and at one point, he would even move to the country to find more time for it. But the airwaves would remain the place where Robinette would earn his bread and butter. A five-month bout with pneumonia this year may have hastened his retirement, but the studio was always waiting.

A fine romance

The low point of Robinette's life was Vietnam, and the high points, he says, "are my wife Nancy and my daughter Charley." Robinette and Rhett would marry at the Criminal Courts building at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street on July 22, 1994. His second marriage, to his WWL co-anchor Angela Hill in 1978, was a media spectacle. The Times-Picayune referred to the union as "marriage made in Nielsen heaven." Hill and Robinette would divorce 10 years later, but remain friends until this day, something Rhett valued as positive and reassuring.

"When Garland called Judge Dennis Waldron (a friend of Robinette's) and asked him to perform the wedding, the judge replied, 'Garland, are you sure you should be doing this again?' " recalls Rhett. But the 28-year-old Millsaps graduate had known Robinette both as an anchor when she worked at WWL-TV (Hill had gotten Rhett the job), and at Freeport McMoRan where she worked for eight years in communications when Robinette was the firm's public relations director.

"I came in with my eyes wide open, but I had to have him," she says. "When you see someone at work, you know them pretty well."

Twenty-three years later, their lives have intertwined in a way they never predicted, the matrimonial vows they made for the future bringing their pasts into the present.

"We have done a lot together. Our relationship has been bigger than the two of us. There was so much love and intensity, we had to have a child to expand that container of love we have with each other," said Rhett. But Robinette had a war injury that prevented him from having a child.

California sperm donor 929 may have been a number selected by Rhett and Robinette based on the man's interest in art and music; 12 years after daughter Charley was born, there would be a reunion no one could have predicted.

"I was a member of the nonprofit Donor Sibling Registry because we always told Charley that we would let her know if there were any others conceived by her donor. I read about it somewhere and joined when Charley was around 8 and she had asked about siblings. There were four listed but I didn't reach out to anyone," says Rhett. "Life was full at the moment."

But when she received an email that her membership for the site was about to expire, Rhett went online and saw a message from Donor 929, who had provided his contact information and said he was open to meeting any of the children he had fathered.

"Garland and I cried when we looked at his face and saw how much Charley favored him," says Rhett.

Adoption stories

Paternity was something both she and Robinette had wrestled with regarding their own births.

Robinette had been adopted at the age of 4 and never knew his biological parents, and Rhett would discover at the age of 19 that the man she who raised her was not her biological father. Both would eventually make contact with their biological dads.

Robinette would meet his father as an 80-year-old man, a World War II vet who had been wounded and lived his life in a nursing home. His father had become mentally incapable of living a normal life and had no recollection of a son. The only thing the two could share at that odd meeting was that both had been shot in the right shoulder during separate wars.

"We were super sensitive about being open with Charley," says Rhett. We had done a lot of work together in that area, and we were very clear. We told her right away, and she decided she wanted to reach out to meet him and she wanted us to all go out to Los Angeles together.

"Since then, she had met almost all of the siblings (at last count, 18 had come forward) and we consider Mike (Rubino, now 57) a cherished person in our lives. He and Garland share photos of their works in progress and really enjoy each other a lot," says Rhett.

"Little did we know Mike would end up being such a kind and receptive man," says Robinette. "The day we met, and I walked behind Nancy, Mike and Charley, it was like I was in a dream. There was a sense of fulfillment and awe. Next to holding Charley when she was born, it was the second most incredible moment of my very lucky life," says Robinette.

Charley Robinette, 22, is a sophomore at the University of Charleston in South Carolina, majoring in communications.

Health and illness

Overcoming medical challenges (in addition to PTSD and physical war wounds) while forging a career is another chapter in Robinette's story.

His post-Katrina raspy voice became as much of a trademark as did his passion for issues that came too close to home, home being New Orleans and "too close" being the welfare of war veterans.

Although most assumed his voice change (and for a time, the loss of his voice and a disappearance from the airwaves) was the result of complications from surgery to repair a snoring problem, his hoarseness was due to a rare disease that causes inflammation to tissues and blood vessels, most often sinuses and lungs. He was diagnosed with Wegener's in 2006.

Robinette's most recent challenge was pneumonia, from which he is just now in the final recovery stage, but hastened his retirement from WWL-radio's "The Think Tank," in July. Former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand has been named Robinette's successor.

Where time stands still

Robinette's Uptown studio is part of, yet separate from, the three-story townhouse he and Nancy moved into after their daughter left for college two years ago. Welcoming window light, as well as the two wagging tales of a pair of hospitable, fluffy rescue dogs, make any visitor welcome.

This is Robinette's happy place, where paints and pastel crayons and art books (from John Singer Sargent to Odd Nerdrum) and canvasses have a singular purpose. This is where portraits come to life.

The painter's range of subjects is already impressive: Pete Fountain, Gayle Benson, Ruth Fertel, Bobby Hebert's children, (and don't forget the Pope and Jimmy Buffett), not to mention countless portraits of other well-known New Orleanians. Full-length oils are currently $25,000, and there's a waiting list.

A small canvas of a dark-haired woman hangs above his workspace. She is enchanting, with eyes that invite but an expression that is mysterious. The image is captivating in a siren-versus-angel sort of way.

"She is just a face I made up. She is no one I know. She just came to me as I was working on a canvas," says Robinette.

"If you saw me paint, you would want to put me in a mental institution," says Robinette, who lets the crescendos and allegros of classical music dictate the rhythm of his brush strokes, even the thickness of the paint.

"This is where I lose track of time," says the man who has lived his life on deadline.

"I am still the kid in the swamp who likes peace and quiet."

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