published Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Dalton Roberts: Bob Elmore instilled Chattanooga's new attitude


by Dalton Roberts

Self-image is so important. It is not a silly idea of Norman Vincent Peale and his merry little band of positive thinkers. It is a fundamental law of the universe.

As far back as I can remember, Chattanooga had a problem with its self-image. We were losing industries. Our air was bad. But here's what I have come to know as the truth: Every town, just like every person, has enough problems, if they dwell on problems, to keep everyone depressed.

All that has changed. Chattanooga now has a "can do" spirit. We like to think we have a "can do" attitude because we have done it (cleaned up the air, gotten new jobs, etc.), but someone had to convince us we could do it before we would try.

I think Bob Elmore had a lot to do with that. Back in the 1960s, he was active in the Jaycees when that great organization was at its peak here in Chattanooga.

When I joined the Jaycees, more than 300 young men were members. They knew they could do the impossible because they had always done it -- things such as building the Jaycee Towers and starting a juvenile court.

When a tourist told Elmore he had asked a taxi driver about Rock City, and the taxi driver told him, "It's just a blankety-blank pile of rocks on the mountain," Elmore knew we had a self-image problem that was costing us dearly. He set out to correct it.

He designed a "basic-information-about-Chattanooga" program and presented it to taxi drivers, waitresses and those who make first contact with tourists. He explained how many jobs are created by tourists.

For the general population, he created Billy Bragger, a cute little freckle-faced, redheaded boy with his fingers under his suspenders in a bragging posture, who loved Chattanooga and bragged on it. Billy distributed bumper strips that said, "Chattanooga is great and growing greater." We actually had a Billy Bragger contest and picked a young boy who looked most like the caricature of him drawn by Chattanooga Times cartoonist Little Willy King.

To give us additional bragging points, he started a weekly TV show called "Backyard Safari," which gave a weekly plug to some great places in Chattanooga. We got this weekly lesson in all the things and places that made Chattanooga great.

Speaking of all our great places, Linda Burton, the gifted lady who published my book "Kickstarts," also wrote a great book titled "Chattanooga Great Places" (Phase II Publications). It is now out of print, but I have seen some remaining copies in bookstores, and it is worth a place on your bookshelf. I think something similar needs to be perpetually available locally in either book or magazine form.

Elmore's final gift to us was a great, inspirational mayor. He talked his friend Ralph Kelley into running for mayor and, against all odds, he beat incumbent P.R. "Rudy" Olgiati. Elmore was Ralph's right-hand man, and they changed the political atmosphere in town. We heard how great this town could be and set about making it happen.

Elmore and Kelley inspired me to see the possibilities of politics for turning a town around just as little Billy Bragger showed the power of our own conversations to change our attitudes.

Thanks, Bob. I miss you.

Email Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com.

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