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Robinson Museum gains momentum

Obstacle of location appears to be solved

May 7, 2006
By Nick Deriso TheNewsStar.com

GRAMBLING — The ninth item on last Thursday's agenda might have been the single most important development in seven years of struggles to construct a museum honoring legendary former Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson.

The Louisiana Legislature passed a resolution authorizing the project in 1999, but it has never had a home. That is, until the museum board's building and grounds committee suggested, and got unanimous approval for, converting Grambling State's soon-to-be-vacant Women's Memorial Gym into exhibit space this week.

GSU president Horace Judson has signed off on the idea, as long as logistics can be worked out, said museum board chair John Belton. "This is huge," enthused Belton, a Ruston attorney. "Everybody is on board; there were no dissensions. All we have to do now is raise the money for renovations."

Retired GSU baseball coach and family friend Wilbert Ellis, named to lead the Friends of the Eddie Robinson Museum fundraising group last month, played a key role. He met with Judson, along with Belton and longtime faculty member David Lewis, on Monday to lay out the proposal. He then sold the idea to Doris Robinson, the ailing former coach's wife, who attended Thursday's meeting in a show of support.

"I'm excited because of the history; that would be an ideal place for it," said Ellis, who worked as an assistant to former coach and school president R.W.E. Jones and then led the baseball team for a staggering 43 combined years. "It's exciting and encouraging," Ellis said, "and Coach would love it."

Mrs. Robinson pledged to return for every board gathering until the project was complete. Alumni — including D'Wayne Priestley, an active supporter from Dallas — quickly warmed to the idea, as well. Priestley, in an e-mail of support to Judson on Friday, said: "If the women's gym can be used in this capacity and renovated to a representative facility, this site appears to be a win-win situation. This may ensure some degree of continuous funding and maintenance from the state of Louisiana, by having the museum on the GSU campus."

Indeed, re-energized state officials, along with prospective sponsors and potential museum designers, could be found this week in prominent seats on the bandwagon — which continued to
pick up speed. Representatives from the Secretary of State's office agreed to work on funding for maintenance and staffing. Two exhibit companies out of Tennessee made pitches to work on the project. Chase Bank is considering a major underwriting initiative.

That flurry of activity was particularly meaningful for former Robinson assistant coach Doug Porter. He and Belton are the only members to attend every museum board meeting over these seven long years. "For me, there was never a question of feeling like it wouldn't happen," said Porter, the board's vice chair. "Some people said we were underdogs. But when I was coaching at Grambling, we always felt we could win. That's the same way I felt about this. I knew there were enough people who had a sincere desire to do something for Coach that it wouldn't die."

The 8,000-square-foot gymnasium, which was being used as practice space by GSU spirit
groups, is certainly large enough to accommodate even the most grandiose exhibit plan.

"That's three times larger than the (former Alabama coach Paul) 'Bear' Bryant Museum," Belton said. "You have enough space to build an museum exhibit — and to expand in the future. The space is not limited. Even with (the originally appropriated but never administered) $5 million in state money, we couldn't build a museum space that large."

The gym, set to become vacant with the opening of a new Health, Physical Education and Recreation facility, would have to be retrofitted to provide adequate climate control and security. But, it's a prime location: on the village side of Grambling and in a visible spot on campus next to GSU's administration building, Long-Jones Hall.

Locating the museum there, and in this renovated historical setting, would work as a critical tool in recruiting, Priestley said. "A possible by-product is the visitors to the museum may consider GSU for their child's higher educational needs," he said. "This will give alums, friends and others another reason to visit the campus and bring others. Hopefully, the exposure will generate more funding towards GSU."

About the designers
Two Tennessee-based exhibit designers made presentations to the Eddie Robinson Museum board in the hopes of getting a bid on the project.

They were:
Matthew Carden, executive vice president of the museum services division at 1220 Exhibits of Nashville, Tenn., put together a slick, hardcover presentation which included the museum logo. He detailed previous work with university halls of fame at Auburn, Arizona State, Florida State, Kansas and Oklahoma, as well as the Louisiana Arts and Science Museum in Baton Rouge.

Carden said 1220 would be "honored at the invitation to partner with you to recognize this legendary icon and his accomplishments." John D. Gruber, a former vice president at 1220, made a presentation in his new role as president of Access Museum Services, also of Nashville. Access has implemented sports hall of fame exhibits for Tennessee, Connecticut and Vanderbilt. Other clients include the renowned National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

 

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The Eddie G. Robinson Museum is a landmark that officially recognizes the outstanding contributions to the state of Louisiana, the nation, the world and the game of football made by Coach Eddie G. Robinson.  - more