TUSCUMBIA --Ribbon adorned the doors Thursday of the Palace Ice Cream and Sandwich Shop and Robbins Property Development on Main Street as a reminder of owner Harvey Robbins.
But a simple walk downtown provides plenty of reminders of Robbins impact. Robbins died Wednesday evening at age 80.
The local industrialist who helped build National Floor Products Co. into a world leader in the trade dedicated his retirement years toward revitalizing Tuscumbia.
Revitalization included renovating the Palace and other downtown buildings, bringing changes to Spring Park that have made it one of the most popular places in the area and renovating the old Tuscumbia Depot.
Robbins also helped the entire Shoals, playing a key role in cementing a major joint economic project between local governments and the Retirement Systems of Alabama when he donated land in Colbert County for two Robert Trent Jones golf courses.
While the community mourned the news of Robbins’ death Thursday, much talk centered around celebrating his life and recalling how he influenced the lives of others.
“Just look at what good he did for all of the Shoals area,” former Tuscumbia Mayor Wade Gann said. “He just touched so many people’s lives, and a lot of people probably don’t realize how much he did overall for the Shoals area. In a roundabout way, he helped everybody in the Shoals.”
Leslie Keys, owner of the downtown clothing store, Audie Mescal, said she could not have started her business more than 10 years ago without Robbins, a member of the Alabama Business Hall of Fame.
Keys said she approached Robbins while he was building the Palace and Cold Water Books downtown. She had a business plan for the store but was unable to get a loan.
“He said he’d help me out and cosigned on my loan,” Keys said. “I literally could not have done it without him.”
She said Robbins occasionally visited the store to see how things were going. She laughed when remembering he would admonish her when she didn’t have a full line of merchandise.
“He’d tell me, ‘You need to keep your wagon full,’” Keys said.
Tuscumbia Mayor Bill Shoemaker said he and his wife, Pat, visited their close friends, Robbins and his wife Joyce Ann, this week.
“Everyone is really going to miss that boy,” Shoemaker said.
He said Robbins died at 6:55 p.m. Wednesday at his residence.
Former Gov. Bob Riley called Shoemaker to express condolences and ask about funeral arrangements.
“He was talking about what a unique person Harvey was and how he was always looking for an opportunity to do something different,” Shoemaker said.
The mayor recalled Robbins and his father, Stanley Robbins, talking with him in 1996 about making Spring Park a landmark.
As they discussed Harvey Robbins’ plans — a replica train that runs along 4,000 feet of tracks, a light show with dancing water set to music at Spring Creek and a waterfall 48 feet tall — Shoemaker told them it could take years to secure funding for those ventures.
“Harvey said, ‘No, we don’t want to wait for all that’ and wrote a check,” Shoemaker said.
Eventually, Robbins added a carousel and small roller coaster to Spring Park. He also added a statue memorializing a Chickasaw princess, a reminder of the area’s strong Native American heritage.
Robbins wanted generations of children to enjoy the park, and was able to see that dream come true, Shoemaker said.
“He was thrilled to death when he’d see seven or eight buses come into that park,” Shoemaker said. “It’s what he wanted to happen, those kids there, having fun.”
The train depot was renovated specifically to look like the original depot. Since then, a roundhouse and turntable were added and Robbins was seeking to find an antique engine to become part of the attraction.
Gann was mayor when the renovations got under way and vividly recalls Robbins approaching him about the plans.
“In our initial conversation, he came to my office and sat down and started giving me his vision of what he wanted for Tuscumbia,” Gann said. “I actually put my hands up and said ‘Time out, Mr. Robbins. Every time you mention something you’re going to do, you always pause and say that you’re going to pay for it. Am I right in hearing that you’re going to provide all this money for this?’” Gann said. “He said, ‘Yes, I want to help out. I’ll put up the money for projects and seed money for grants.’
“He talked about how the city helped his father start his business in Tuscumbia, and he felt like he needed to return the favors the city had done for his father. It was an amazing story, really.”
Gann said Robbins had an unassuming disposition despite all he had and what he had done for the community.
“It was always funny when people would come up to me on the street and Harvey would be standing next to me and they’d say ‘When you see Mr. Robbins again, tell him how much we appreciate what he is doing for Tuscumbia,’” Gann said. “I’d just smile and listen and when they’d finish I’d say ‘You just told him,’”
Harold Kimbrough, of Kimbrough’s Automotive and Power Services, in Tuscumbia, did business with Robbins for many years. Kimbrough said his and Robbins’ families have known each other for a long time.
“They are just a fine family of people,” Kimbrough said. “It’s no secret what all he did for Tuscumbia. He just resurrected the dead there. This little town has come back to life after what he did.
“He was a very successful businessman but he was not selfish.”
Robbins’ philanthropy didn’t stop at Tuscumbia city limits. The land he provided for the Robert Trent Jones golf courses gave life to a major economic development project that seemed to be falling apart when land for the course couldn’t be found. That project also brought the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa to Florence and brought Renaissance Tower back to life.
“That was the biggest thing to happen to North Alabama in many years,” Kimbrough said. “He just gave them 800 acres of property to set up the course.
“And yet if you’d meet him on the streets, you wouldn’t know he was the wealthy individual he was. He was just so cordial, the kind of person you always want to be around.”
George D. Pillow Jr., owner of Senators Coaches Inc., in Florence, worked for Robbins at NAFCO and considered him a close friend.
“What I think of when I think of Harvey is he was one of those special people we’re blessed to have as part of our lives,” Pillow said. “He helped a lot of people, touched a lot of people and loved his family greatly. He was extremely proud of what he and Joyce Ann did for Tuscumbia and thrilled that they were able to help revitalize it.”
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 256-740-5739 or bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com.