How an impoverished flower man inspired Richmonders to give back

RICHMOND, Va. -- As Richmond analyzes the history and significance of its world-famous monuments and the Monument Avenue that holds them, perhaps we can learn something about the heart of Richmonders from one of the city’s smallest monuments just two blocks away.

It’s a ground-level stone the size of a cafeteria tray sitting just off the sidewalk at the corner of Kensington Avenue and the Boulevard.

It was made and donated by the Grappone Monuments family and was given space by the city because many citizens pleaded that we must not forget the man it honors.

No, he wasn’t a war hero, or leader or prominent teacher, scientist or athlete, but an impoverished and disabled man who won their hearts with flowers.

For a half-century, John Gilbert Robertson was known for his kindness, his smile and his flowers at a busy corner across from the Virginia Historical Society.

Grown-ups today remember going to see him with their parents to buy flowers for special occasions.

John Gilbert Robertson

“My Dad and I would by flowers from Gilbert when I was a little girl, May Ellen Tyler recalled. “We would take the flowers to my grandfather’s grave.  He was such a good kind man.”

He had lost the use of his legs in childhood - early news reports said paralysis - and diabetes later claimed one of them.

“He was such a nice gentleman and a beloved fixture on the Boulevard,” recalled Beth Fitzgerald. “He would always give me a flower and a smile as I headed to VCU.”

Robertson and his wife, Virginia, were far from wealthy.

“He used to be a shoemaker,” Virginia Robertson told me many years ago. She said he told her, “I want to be with you and sell flowers.”

His popularity was such when the police had his metal flower shack removed as a nuisance in 1967, the public demanded the city return it. And it returned.

When he died from diabetes and other health problems in the fall of 1988, Richmonders were shocked to learn (see story below) that Robertson died so poor, the city was arranging for an unmarked pauper’s grave. No flowers for him.

No way was the Flower Man going out like that!

Within days an anonymous donor - and there were several offers - paid for a flower-filled funeral and burial at Mount Calvary Cemetery.

A fund was set up to help support his beloved wife.

And, a little more than a year after his death, his little monument was in place.

The day after its October 7, 1989 dedication, the following editorial about it appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

“Monument Avenue, with its statues of heroes whose names children learn in school, runs only a block or two from Mr. Robertson’s stone. His monument is neither imposing nor large, but its humble simplicity raises it to a grandeur of its own -- for it is written that the meek shall inherit the earth.”

The Times-Dispatch follow-up story about the reaction to Robertson’s death:

CITY'S FLOWER VENDOR DIED POOR, BUT WAS RICH IN FRIENDS AND LOVE

Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA) (Published as Richmond Times-Dispatch) - September 29, 1988

* Author/Byline: Mark Holmberg; Times-Dispatch staff writer

"I ain't going to die rich," Gilbert Robertson, Richmond's most beloved flower vendor, predicted several years ago.

But if love and caring can be measured, Robertson will go to his grave a wealthy man.

When Richmonders learned yesterday that the body of the man who sold flowers at the corner of the Boulevard and Kensington Avenue for half a century was in a funeral home awaiting state funds for a pauper's funeral, the response was spectacular.

Within hours after sunrise, an anonymous donor paid for a burial at the Mount Calvary Cemetery.

"There were a couple of people who were willing to pay for the whole thing," said Joseph Jenkins Jr., director of O.F. Howard Funeral Home, where Robertson's body has been since he was killed by a stroke Friday.

That was only the beginning.

Calls flooded the funeral home and The Times-Dispatch. Several of the callers were tearful. "We care!" one woman said.

The early morning also found Claire Shaffner, vice president and general manager of WRXL-FM, trying to figure out how she could raise funds to bury Robertson, who was disabled, and help his widow, Virginia.

Then Annette Dean, who owns a shop in Shockoe Slip, called the station with a $500 pledge to bury the flower man and aid his widow -- along with a challenge to other area merchants to match the amount.

Before the sun went down, WRXL's impromptu appeal had collected more than $13,000 in pledges for the Robertson fund.

"They're wonderful," said Ms. Shaffner of her listeners. "I've always known they were wonderful."

In another part of town, Kate Hansen, a longtime Robertson friend, started getting calls.

On the advice of one of her first callers, a lawyer, she left her office at the Medical College of Virginia and opened a trust fund for Robertson's widow at a nearby bank.

In a few hours, she had received more than 40 calls from area residents. Ms. Hansen said she had no idea how much money she will be able to place in the fund because many callers didn't specify how much money they would be sending.

"It feels good that everyone shares a common regret," said Ms. Hansen. "I just wish we had thought to do something sooner."

Calls also came to The Times-Dispatch from all over the area. One woman recalled buying flowers from Robertson when her daughter was 7 years old. "She's 47 now."

Helen Tripp of Richmond called to make a donation. She said she used to give tours of Richmond and would always point out Robertson "as one of the city's landmarks."

Another woman called, offering one of her family plots in Oakwood Cemetery.

Tony Grappone with A.P. Grappone Stone offered to donate a burial stone. "We've been buying flowers from him for a long time. I'd like to give him a stone."

Jacquelin Bowles, president of Booth Memorial Co., called with a similar offer. "I would see that flowers are carved on it, so he would always have flowers," she said.

Faith Strong called after making a contribution. She said she is intent on seeing that a small monument is erected at Boulevard and Kensington in Robertson's memory.

"The inscription could be something like, `Gilbert Robertson -- the city's most beloved flower vendor and friend,' " she said. Grappone said he would be proud to provide such a stone.

"I'd much rather be here than anywhere else," Robertson said of his corner of the Boulevard when he was interviewed 10 years ago.

The outpouring of love, money and remembrances taxed Ms. Hansen, who suddenly found herself executor of Richmond's generosity. She spent yesterday trying to figure out how to administer the money to Virginia Robertson without jeopardizing the widow's Supplemental Security income and Medicaid.

According to Pamela Turner, chief of Medicaid benefit programs for the city, any cash Mrs. Robertson receives over $1,900 could terminate both SSI and Medicaid benefits.

Last night, Mrs. Robertson, a tiny 71-year-old woman, was watching the Olympics in her modest apartment on the seventh floor of the Frederick A. Fay Towers. Her husband's Power Premier wheelchair held down a corner while pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and her husband looked on.

"Oh, no! My God!" she exclaimed when she heard of Richmond's caring. "You know, God will bless these people. . . . I'm proud."

Today, Ms. Hansen is meeting with Ms. Shaffner and hopes, with the help of others who knew and loved Robertson, the right thing will be done in the flower vendor's memory.

Robertson will be buried Saturday. The 11 a.m. funeral will be held at the O.F. Howard Funeral Home and the burial will follow at Mount Calvary.

One thing appears certain: There will be plenty of flowers to send off Richmond's beloved flower vendor.

"They're already starting to come in," said Jenkins, the funeral director.