Robinson Museum journey: Organizers celebrate in 2007 as project finally funded

Nick’s note: A series of stories from TheDerisoReport.com looking back at key moments in the journey to construct a museum in honor of the late Eddie G. Robinson, who achieved a still-standing Division I record for career wins as football coach through six decades at Grambling State. The museum is set for its long-awaited grand opening this week on campus:

May 17, 2007
Earlier this month, the long-delayed Eddie Robinson Museum project found a home.

Today, supporters hope it will receive funding.

The state’s Bond Commission will consider a $1.3 million line of credit, money to be used for renovating exhibit space on campus and hiring an exhibit designer.

“The other day was a big one, when we got the building,” said local fundraiser and Robinson family friend Wilbert Ellis, “but this will be even greater because we will have the funds to do all the things we’ve dreamed of.”

At Grambling from 1941-97, Robinson retired as the winningest football coach in college history with 408 wins — leading the Tigers to 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles over the years. He passed away on April 3 at age 88, sparking renewed interest across the nation in this project.

The museum was first proposed eight years ago — two years after Robinson’s retirement at Grambling and several before the onset of the Alzheimer’s-related symptoms.

One of the points of contention for years was where the museum would be located, though that was resolved when Grambling and its oversight board agreed to transfer the school’s former women’s gymnasium for exhibit space.

More consistent has been the issue of funding.

A temporary exhibit of Robinson-related items opened in the lobby of the GSU Stadium Support Facility in June 2005. But Hurricane Katrina’s devastation drew away whatever resources might have come from the state to build on that momentum.

The Robinson Museum, organizers say, has never been closer to becoming a reality.

“What the $1.3 million will do for the museum,” said governor-appointed commission chairman John Belton, “is allow us to hire an architect, commission the museum exihibit designer as well as a local contractors to renovate and design the building that will hopefully become one of the top museums in the state of Louisiana.”

The project’s closest brush with funding had previously come as former Gov. Mike Foster prepared to leave office, when he approved a wide variety of favored projects. His final state budget for fiscal year 2004 included $5.5 million dollars earmarked for the Grambling facility.

But the Robinson museum was part of nearly $700 million in projects slashed by his successor, Kathleen Blanco, in an effort at budget balancing.

Renovation costs for the gym — Robinson coached basketball there early in his career — have been estimated at $3 million to $4 million. An additional $2 million, Ellis said, would likely be required to complete the space — money that will need to come from outsider donors.

The museum will be a part of the Department of State Museums Program, administered by the secretary of state.

Jay Dardenne, the third person to serve in that role since the museum board was formed, took over in February — and quickly discovered that it could become the centerpiece for larger economic and tourism goals.

“He’s a true Louisiana legend, the benchmark for coaching,” said Dardenne, who spoke at Robinson’s local memorial. “There is such a broad base of respect for Eddie Robinson as some one who influenced young lives.”

The project was originally mentioned during the Louisiana Legislature’s 1999 session, when then-Sen. Randy Ewing introduced Senate Bill No. 919. That bill, co-sponsored by the late Rep. Pinky Wilkerson of Grambling and several others, created the commission that has worked off and on since to develop a Robinson museum.

“From ’99 up until this point, we’ve come a long way,” said Ellis, a longtime former Grambling baseball coach and athletics administrator. “We are making some progress. We are just going to keep taking it one step at a time until we get there. But we’ll get there.”

***
Robinson Museum, finally, gets more than a million in state funds
May 18, 2007
The long-delayed Eddie Robinson Museum is, all of a sudden, on a roll.

Eight years after first being proposed, the project received quick approval on Thursday from the Bond Commission for state funding of $1.3 million.

“It took less than five minutes,” said local museum fundraiser and Robinson family friend Wilbert Ellis. “They made a motion, and it was done.”

Organizers sought the money for renovating exhibit space on campus and hiring an exhibit designer, said board-appointed museum board chairman John Belton.

“In 12 to 18 months, we will be able to see one of the greatest museums in the state of Louisiana,” Belton said. “I’m looking forward to that day.”

The commission voted unanimously to shift $300,000 from an administration project for repairs on state facilities to the museum project, transforming that allocation into available cash.

Another $1 million was allocated as a non-cash line of credit, which means museum officials can make agreements to begin the project — which the state budget will then fund.

State Treasurer John N. Kennedy, who chairs the Bond Commission, said: “We wanted to fast-track this. That’s why we did it with lines of credit. They can move right along and get it done.”

The Thursday funding came less than a month after Grambling State’s oversight board approved transfer of the former women’s gymnasium for exhibit space on the Grambling State campus where Robinson coached for 57 years.

At GSU from 1941-97, Robinson retired as the winningest football coach in college history with 408 wins — leading the Tigers to 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles over the years. He died on April 3 at age 88, sparking renewed interest across the nation in this project.

“We’ve had Coach with us that whole time,” Ellis said. “I think he’s working right along with us on this. I feel Coach’s hand in all of it.”

This museum was first proposed eight years ago — two years after Robinson’s retirement at Grambling and several before the onset of the Alzheimer’s-related symptoms that ultimately led to his death.

But these are the first state funds ever specifically earmarked for it.

“We are on our way,” said an enthused Ellis, a former longtime GSU baseball coach and athletics administrator. “This is the booster shot we needed! I’m tickled to death.”

The museum will be a part of the Department of State Museums Program, administered by the secretary of state.

About Robinson
Eddie Robinson was hired as a coach and teacher in 1941 by what was then the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute, which would later become Grambling. By 1995, he had become the first coach to win 400 games. Robinson eventually amassed 408 victories before retiring in 1997, a mark that stood as the best in college football until the 2003 season. A member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, he led Grambling to 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles.

GET IN THE GAME:
Previous editions of the Robinson Museum journey —
The Eddie G. Robinson Museum: A dream fulfilled
Temporary exhibit opens with emotional 2005 ceremony
The project found a home on Grambling’s campus in 2006
Long-anticipated 2008 groundbreaking moves many to tears

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