editorial (2005-52)

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Downtown during the Holidays:

Robert Webb, 1919-2005

Downtown during the Holidays:

A couple of weeks ago in this space, we implied some criticism of downtown businesses closing for the holidays, and we have to say that phenomenon is less true this year than ever before.

Downtown still has some issues with staying fully open during the holidays, based both on the limitations of small staffs and on the fact that many downtown institutions, from entertainment venues to government offices and especially offices associated with the holiday-cherishing university, do take more than a day or two off for Christmas.

Several businesses that are used to serving commuters seem to be struggling with the idea that downtown business is not all commuter-oriented these days. Quite a few downtown diners, and a few shops, still limit themselves strictly to weekday bankers’ hours, as if bankers are the only ones who ever need a sausage biscuit, or flowers, or chewing gum. Some of them tend to take more days off for the holidays than their counterparts in West Knoxville do.

But nearly all of the retail shops on Market Square are, for the record, being troopers this year, many of them opening as soon as the day after Christmas.

An example of the non-business-hours resurgence on the square is Tomato Head: Four years ago, it wasn’t even open on Sundays. Two years ago, the restaurant was all but empty on Sunday nights. Recently, Sunday nights have been just as busy as Friday and Saturday nights, with  waits for most of the evenings.

The square’s not seen such wintertime popularity in many years. The skating rink is slated to stay up an extra four or five days (Jan. 1 was originally the last day it would be up) and Scott Schimmel is pushing to keep it going through the first weekend in January.

However, the New Years’ Eve celebration that was such a success a year ago won’t happen this year, at least not as a big headliner event. That’s a shame. Knoxville has always offered plenty for drinking adults to do on the holiday, but kids, and the parents whose social fates are determined by kids, are often shut-ins on that allegedly festive evening.

Last year’s fireworks and ball-dropping, sponsored by the city and radio station WIVK, drew 5,000 to World’s Fair Park. If that turnout surprised anybody, it didn’t surprise us. This year, the city said, WIVK couldn’t commit to the event due to a sponsor pulling out.

This year, though, there will be a public event that organizer Scott Schimmel describes as “low-key.” The skating rink, which has been open most nights until 10 p.m., will be open through midnight to 1 a.m. The city events staff is putting together a marshmallow roast, and perhaps some other vendor offerings, to be part of the occasion. Schimmel says there won’t be any heart-stopping fireworks, but they’re going to try to work out “some sort of ball-dropping.”

The original ball-dropping in Times Square was, as we mentioned, the idea of a former Knoxvillian: Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times , who began his career in journalism at the old Chronicle office on Market Square, ca. 1870. Maybe this Saturday will mark a sort of spiritual homecoming.


Robert Webb, 1919-2005

Bob Webb grew up in Knoxville, but attended the Webb School of Bell Buckle, Tenn., the school founded by his famous grandfather “Sawney” Webb; it was already famous for its unusual institutions, including its honor code. After earning a masters in education at UT, he taught at Bell Buckle, and at the Webb School of Claremont, Calif., which had a reputation as one of the progressive schools in the Los Angeles area.

In 1955, he returned to his home town, and started his own Webb School with only four students in a church basement. It grew rapidly, and in 1959 the school moved to its current campus, off Mabry Hood Road. The school was originally divided between boys and girls, but in 1968 it became the first of the Webb schools to be co-educational. When many Southern private schools were still fortresses of white defiance to desegregation through the ‘60s, Webb was a leader in insisting that all schools needed to desegregate, not just those legally obligated to by the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board ruling.

Webb’s school has graduated many of Knoxville’s leaders, including Mayor Bill Haslam.

By the time Robert Webb retired as president in 1984, Webb School enrolled more than 700 students; it remains Knoxville’s largest independent school. But Webb didn’t retire from public life. In his last 20 years, Webb took a strong leadership role  in several major downtown projects. He kept an office in the Bijou Theatre, and as its director, led much of the major renovation effort to that landmark. As president of the East Tennessee Historical Society, he led efforts to establish the first Museum of East Tennesseee History, and co-chaired the campaign to expand the East Tennessee History Center.

 He and his equally active wife Julie surprised some of their contemporaries when they moved downtown. We’ll miss his quiet strength, and his faith in Knoxville.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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