When Gene Roberts stepped down from being mayor of Chattanooga in 1996, he went on the Fort Wood Board, where he served with such distinction, he was given an appreciation luncheon to celebrate his decade of service. They asked me to come and do a few songs and speak on his work there.
I arrived early and he was talking to Mayor Ron Littlefield. It was the first time I learned Gene was having problems communicating and knew the tentative diagnosis was Alzheimer's.
A few weeks later I took Gene to lunch at the Boathouse and he was expressing himself better than he had at the Fort Wood event. I was vastly encouraged.
In 2011, we again went to lunch at the Boathouse and I was thinking his ability to form words quickly had taken care of itself. We had a wonderful fellowship, talking about our work together on riverfront projects when I was Hamilton County executive and he was mayor. That was one reason we met at the Boathouse. It has such a great view of the river, especially from the window seats and the deck.
It was so good to have a relaxed, unhurried chat with my old city cohort and to talk about our years of joyous work. Part of my joy was the progress he seemed to making with his health challenge.
The next time I saw him, I was shocked. Betty Parker of the Freedoms Foundation asked if I would accept the Lifetime Achievement Award for him and take it to him at the Alzheimer's group home on Mountain Creek Road. I agreed and made brief supportive remarks about how much he deserved the award.
When I took the award to him, I could not help crying after seeing how much he had deteriorated in such a short time since our Boathouse luncheon. He had lost a lot of weight, and I could not understand what he was trying to say to me and felt sure he was not understanding me.
Gene died on Jan. 31 at age 80. I have lost a faithful friend, and we have all lost a man who made us proud.