published Sunday, May 25th, 2014

Clark: Behind the public image of Roberts Sparks Walker

By Alexandra Walker Clark

The real personality of well-known people is often masked behind praise and admiration. This is true of my grandfather, Chattanooga author and naturalist Robert Sparks Walker. While the glowing commentary about him is factual, the man I knew and loved is hidden among descriptions of his many accomplishments.

I remember a man who laughed more than most people, tipped his hat to dogs, spoke to wildlife and came from a long line of practical jokers.

By the time I was in junior high, he had become a syndicated columnist and popular lecturer, sought by garden and writing clubs. But instead of self-importance, this popularity increased his inclination to surprise listeners. I recall an incident with a ladies' club, which took place in his parlor.

The room was filled with well-dressed ladies perched on his uncomfortable sofa, chairs and one remaining rocker. (We had wrecked the second one playing a game.) I was bored, and snuck out to poke around his dining room, whose table and sideboard sported fascinating bowls of bird eggs, wasp nests, stacks of nature magazines and books, and great piles of dried leaves in elegant silver serving pieces.

Suddenly he appeared to join me in this bleak netherworld of the dining room where all pretext of civilization ended -- having slipped from his guests through the single pair of heavy dark green portieres dividing the two opposing worlds of sociable parlor and no man's land.

"Come here," he whispered, tiptoeing to the curtained doorway, reaching for something. He rummaged in a corner and pulled up an eight-foot pole covered in accumulated dust. Wiping it with his shirtsleeve, he pointed to its tip, and I realized the pole was covered in a snakeskin, head intact.

"A kingsnake!" he whispered. "Someone gave me this. I almost forgot to use it." He was grinning like a 'possum. I was thrilled.

"Go tell them I'm looking for something," he commanded, a general ordering his troops. I complied, stationing myself at the parlor's far end for the best view.

Minutes elapsed. I was on the brink of leaving to locate him when conversation suddenly transformed into shrieks of alarm. From the hem of the portieres dividing the two rooms emerged a snake's head, its body undulating back and forth in a most serpentine manner. The snake skulked stealthily into the room, darted back under the curtain and then reappeared.

Cries of, "Snake! It's a snake!" split the refined gathering. Women jumped from chairs, and a few stood on them. Granddad fiendishly slid the snake pole across the rug toward the shoes of the nearest woman, and she leapt off the floor. It was disappointing when they finally realized it was a fake snake, but they had already forgiven him.

My grandfather viewed life as an unstructured laboratory. Maintaining artificial order required too much time; order was restrictive, tedious, boring -- and as he had discovered, generally unnecessary. Yet he was far from undisciplined or careless. He simply had a different standard by which he measured himself and charted his course.

In 1954, the Chattanooga Kiwanis Club selected him as Man of the Year. My father, a perfectionist, helped select his attire. But as they were leaving for the banquet, Dad's sharp eye found Granddad wearing one red sock, the other blue. (Let me add, this was not an oversight: Granddad knew all along the socks did not match. He simply did not think it important.) Failing to locate matching socks in Granddad's dresser, Dad tore into his own footgear. Like a trophy, he held aloft a pair of dress socks.

"There!" he raved. "He would have gone to that banquet with one red foot and one blue! If he needed socks, I would gladly have bought him some!" He was simply beside himself.

My mother, stifling amusement, asked what was wrong.

"Why, he couldn't understand the fuss!" Dad answered, agitated. "As long as both feet were covered, why did it matter if they matched?" Dad flew downstairs, the acceptable socks clutched as if they contained life-giving properties.

Granddad's socks apparently received no further attention, for I found no mention of them in the newspaper. The affair must have gone well, and my father satisfied that mismatched socks had not blighted the occasion.

These excerpts are from Alexandra Walker Clark's book, "Chattanooga's Robert Sparks Walker; the Unconventional Life of an East Tennessee Naturalist." She also has published "Hidden History of Chattanooga" and "Colorado's Historic Hotels" through History Press of Charleston.

For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.

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