Exactly 100 years ago, two things were happening in Nashville that would eventually change the landscape of the city. One was northern industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s $100,000 donation for a new Nashville library, a gift that led to the creation of the city’s library system. The other was the Dec. 27, 1901, auction purchase of the National Life and Accident Insurance Co., a business that probably created more private wealth than any other company in Nashville history.
Incredibly, it took a century for the two events to weave themselves together. Now, the Belle Meade society that National Life helped create has merged with the civic spirit exemplified by a downtown public library. No one has done more to join the two worlds than Margaret Ann Robinson.
Robinson has been the Nashville public library’s board chairwoman for 15 years. During that time, the library system has progressed from inadequate to exemplary. That’s partly explained by former Mayor Phil Bredesen’s 1997 proposal, passed by the Metro Council, to fund a $115 million library system upgrade, including not only the construction of a new 300,000-square-foot downtown library but the addition of five new branches and the renovation of three others.
But the Nashville Public Library Foundation, which Robinson was instrumental in founding, can also be credited with Nashville’s library renaissance. The organization has raised more than $10 million during the last three years, convincing wealthy Nashville benefactors to contribute to the public library, a feat unprecedented until now. “She has played a huge role in every step along the way for the library,” says Bredesen, whose office is just across the street from the downtown library, in the old Castner Knott building on Church Street. “Without Margaret Ann, the new library would not be sitting there.”
Robinson is the first to say that for much of her life, she didn’t give the public library system a second thought.
In 1977, then-mayor Dick Fulton appointed her to fill a vacancy on the library board. At the time, Robinson was surprised by the appointment. “I told Mayor Fulton that I really hadn’t had much of an opportunity to think about the library or even read much in recent years, what with raising four children and everything,” says Robinson, who speaks with the kind of Nashville accent unique to old society (much like her cousin, state Sen. Douglas Henry). “But he told me that he wanted me on the board because I knew how to run a budget, which was true. So I did it.”
Nine years later, Robinson attended a lunch with then-library chairman Bob Shell and previous library chairman Charlie Trabue. “In the middle of the lunch, Bob Shell told us that his bank was sending him to St. Louis, and so he couldn’t be the chairman anymore,” Robinson says. “And then Charlie Trabue turned to me and said, 'Well, Margaret Ann, you’re it.’ And that’s how I got to be chairman.”
What Robinson didn’t know at the time was that she would head the library board for at least 15 years, and that the job would involve far more than simply being a caretaker.
In the 1990s, several factors worked together to change the status of Nashville’s library system. One was a general public feeling that Nashville needed to improve its standing in that area. Historically, the city hasn’t had an especially strong library system. A 1992 Scene article pointed out, for example, that the budget for Nashville’s library system was about half the amount of those in Denver, Charlotte and Minneapolis. Largely because of this disparity, the percentage of Nashvillians with active library cards (37 percent) was one of the lowest in the country.
Another important reason that the library turned itself around was Bredesen’s 1991 election. Years before becoming mayor, Bredesen formed his first health care company while doing research at the Ben West Library. When he was elected, he made no secret of his intention to build a new downtown library.
But as those involved in the process remember, getting a new downtown library funded was no easy task. In 1997, when Bredesen asked the Metro Council to raise property taxes to fund $330 million in capital projectsincluding the downtown and branch librariesmany council members balked. “It was a close call, probably one of the most difficult things to get through the council during Bredesen’s term,” says at-large council member Leo Waters.
In the end, there were two competing capital plans: One, sponsored by current Vice Mayor Ronnie Steine, included a downtown library; the other, sponsored by council members Don Majors and Durward Hall, left out the downtown library altogether and slashed Bredesen’s funding proposal for school construction.
During the weeks when those two proposals were on the table, Margaret Ann Robinson was one of the key lobbyists on behalf of the library. “It was pretty interesting to see someone like Margaret Ann Robinson lobbying the Metro Council, because she was not your typical lobbyist,” says Waters, who helped clinch votes for the proposal that included the downtown library. “But she was very gracious and very persuasive.” In the end, the downtown library plan passed 29-9.
Majors and other council members who voted against the library say their main concern was a belief that most citizens are more likely to use branch locations than a downtown facility. But there was also a sentiment that the downtown library would have been an easier sell had it been undertaken earlier in Bredesen’s tenurebefore the merger of Hubbard and General hospitals, the arena, the stadium and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But Robinson argues that Bredesen’s choice to wait until later in his tenure helped the library’s cause. “We always knew that he would eventually build a library, because he is such a library person and he wanted his legacy to be a great public library system,” Robinson says. “But he had to do the other things first, because we never could have sold the city on dollars for a library until we had pro sports. Pro sports were something that the city really lacked. And if you ask 10 people, four of them will be really interested in the library and six of them will want the pro sports.”
To really understand Margaret Ann Robinson, one must start with her maiden name. She was born Margaret Ann Craig. Her grandfather, C.A. Craig, was the founder of the National Life and Accident Insurance Co., which for more than half a century was Nashville’s most important locally owned business. Not only was National Life a huge employer in its own right, but its founders helped start countless other businesses, one of which was the Third National Bank (later acquired by SunTrust).
Margaret Ann’s father was longtime National Life president Edwin Craig, who in the early 1920s developed the idea for a radio station called WSM. A few months after its debut, WSM started a Saturday night radio show that eventually became known as the Grand Ole Opry. That show is credited with giving birth to Nashville’s music industry after World War II.
In an era when prominent companies change directions and leaders frequently, the culture of National Life (which became a small conglomerate known as NLT in 1968) seems like a distant memory. From the 1930s until the 1970s, the peak years of National Life’s stature in Nashville, the business culture was more conservative than it is today. But even by the standards of the time, National Life was slow to change. For its entire existence, it remained committed to one core businessselling disability and burial insurance (also known as industrial insurance), mostly to the working class.
Suggestions that the company shift its focus to other types of insurance or services were generally ignored, despite the fact that industrial insurance was a declining part of the insurance market after World War II. To maintain the single-minded company mission, it kept outsiders out of its boardroom and top executive positions. During National Life/NLT’s eight decades, the company had only one chief executive officer who was not a founder or a founder’s relative (Rusty Wagner, who held the job from 1977 until 1981).
National Life’s conservative culture was reflected in the Craig home. For Margaret Ann, family dinners, often formal, were spent listening to her grandfather’s stories about starting the insurance company with a group of his friends. Margaret Ann and her mother cooked for countless company picnics. On many Saturday nights, she accompanied her father to the Grand Ole Opry, listening to his conversations with legendary Opry stars such as Roy Acuff and Uncle Dave Macon.
When Margaret Ann got married, her mother invited more than 250 National Life employees to the wedding. And as she grew older, she dutifully kept in touch with hundreds of other National Life wives and helped organize company social functions. Those functions created an informal structure in which wives were expected to participate.
National Life and the Grand Ole Opry were so much a part of the Craig family culture that Robinson still remembers the surprise she felt upon learning that there were people in Belle Meade who were embarrassed about Nashville’s status as the home of country music. “My family just loved country music and the Opry and country stars like Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl,” Robinson says. “But we also lived in this house and were members of the Belle Meade [Country] Club, and we went to good schools. So I suppose in that regard, we spent our time on both sides of the tracks.”
As a child, Margaret Ann had about as good an education as any girl of her day, attending high school at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa. “Girls like me went to boarding school in those days,” she says. After high school, she went to Finch College, a now defunct all-girls school in New York City.
Then came World War II. Like it did for hundreds of thousands of American women, the war gave Margaret Ann a chance to perform jobs traditionally held by men. During the war, she moved back to Nashville and went to work for the Red Cross. “I learned how to drive large trucks and to do mechanical work on them,” she says. “I did a regular route around town, collecting blood so it could be shipped overseas. I remember that one of my regular stops was the state penitentiary. Prisons were serious blood donors during World War II.”
Robinson says working during the war was one of the most rewarding experiences of her life. But like most other women of her generation, she returned to a more traditional life when the war ended. In 1949, she married Walter Robinson Jr., a promising young attorney whose father had helped start the brokerage house J.C. Bradford & Co. in 1927. After a short time in New York City, the couple moved back to Nashville, and her husband went to work as an attorney for National Life. They have four children.
Today, Robinson says that the very idea that she would go to work for the family companylike her father, her husband, her brother, her brother-in-law and her cousin was out of the question. “The world was a different place then,” she says. “It never occurred to me to hope that some day I could be in a management position at the National Life.” But she says she has no regrets about living during an era when women were expected to stay home. “I feel sorry for young women today, because the demands that they put for themselves are horrendous. Young women today have to a large extent been brainwashed into the idea that they have to be their own person and compete with the men. They are also told that they still have to marry and have a family and be a hostess. I don’t know how they do it, because they only have 24 hours a day like I do.”
Today, Robinson’s brother Neal Craig says it’s too bad his sister didn’t get a chance to work for the family business. “If she had been out there selling insurance like the rest of us, she’d have beaten my brains out, because she is absolutely the most people-oriented person I know, and that is what you need to sell insurance.”
Martha Ingram, a longtime friend and former neighbor of Robinson’s, says she “learned a long time ago not to underestimate her.” Ingram, who heads the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust and is the Nashville Symphony’s prime patron, says their friendship developed “through our children, which is how many of the most rewarding friendships develop.
“And I am not at all surprised that Margaret Ann has been able to help pull off this wonderful library project,” Ingram says. “When I saw the new downtown library for the first time, I felt like I was seeing so many signs that she had played a part in its development. The building is so wonderfully done and is done with such grace and style that it even reminded me of her.”
By the late 1970s, NLT had been regarded as a conservative business and a potential cash cow for so long that takeover rumors began in earnest. In the spring of 1982, a Houston-based insurer called American General made an open offer to buy NLT. What followed was the most dramatic hostile takeover in Nashville historya five-month-long drama that nearly saw NLT take over American General instead. In the end, American General prevailed, largely because Wall Street believed that American General CEO Harold Hook would be more aggressive with the combined assets than NLT’s ruling families would.
Margaret Ann Robinson and her family still have some bitterness about the American General takeover and the events that followedincluding the sale of WSM and Opryland to Oklahoma City businessman Edward Gaylord. “It was the biggest blow that Walter and I have ever survived and the biggest blow that our family has ever survived,” she says. “It was a terrible, crushing, personal blow because we were so closely involved with the people who worked there and their families. The National Life was run like a family.”
But Robinson says she doesn’t dwell on the company’s downfall as much as she used to. And in that regard, her involvement with the library system has given her a new focus. “Before I was appointed to the library board, I had been involved in some charity work and some nonprofit things, such as the Travellers Rest Historic House and Cheekwood,” she says. “But the constituency of each of those things was pretty much limited to the 37205 zip code. The library let me have the thrill of seeing how big the city was.”
In addition to helping lobby the council, Margaret Ann Robinson has played an important role in many other key chapters of the library. One was the 1995 recruitment of library director Donna Nicely, previously the director of the DeKalb County Public Library in suburban Atlanta. “Donna has done so many things, not the least of which is to make us realize that Nashville deserved a better facility and that it should have a better facility,” Robinson says.
The other was the formation in 1998 of the Nashville Public Library Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization whose mission is to raise money for library facilities and programs.
Today, foundation president Keith Simmons says Margaret Ann Robinson inspired him to create the organization. “Margaret Ann, Donna Nicely and [library board member] Judy Liff came by my office and asked me if I would do the paperwork and set up the foundation, and I did,” says Simmons, a partner with the law firm Bass Berry & Sims. “Then they came back a few months later and asked me if I would be president. Now, that’s a pretty persuasive group, and there was no way I could say no. And it’s a good thing I didn’t say no, because it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career.”
In its first three years, the library foundation has raised about $10 millionmost of it in large contributions from the Memorial Foundation, the Joe Davis Foundation, the Ingram Foundation, local businessman Bill King and his wife Robin, the Bridgestone/Firestone Trust Fund, Phil Bredesen and Andrea Conte, the Nashville Junior League, music executive Mike Curb and Walter and Ann Robinson. About half of that money funded enhancements for the downtown library building. Part of the Memorial Foundation’s gift, for example, paid for the 82 hammered copper plates lining the wall of the Grand Reading Room and depicting key events in Nashville history. Another large chunk of the contributions has gone toward endowmentmoney that will be invested and used to develop programs for the entire library system.
“The idea is that half of every gift that we raise we will hold back to build an endowment so that someday the library will not be as dependent on the government as it is today,” Robinson says.
Six months after its opening, Robinson and Nicely are proud to say that the new library has been well received. During the months of July, August and September, visits to the downtown library rose 220 percent from the same period a year earlier at the old Ben West Library location. More importantly, circulationthe number of books, videos and other items patrons borrownearly doubled, and program attendance was up almost fivefold, indicating that public interest is about more than just the novelty of a new building.
“Our society needs people who know what is happening in the world, and the one institution that everyone from the CEO to the young person trying to get a GED can use to do that is the public library,” Simmons says. “We have some great facilities, and now it’s our job to develop enough programs and get a large enough collection to make this library system here second to none in the country.
“If we pull this off, Margaret Ann Robinson deserves a lot of credit.”
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