by Karen B. Gibbs, photos by Candra George
WHEN ASKED TO DESCRIBE HIS LIFE, esteemed portrait artist and local media legend Garland Robinette simply says, “It’s the luck of Garland.” Luck? According to his lifelong best friend, Bill Sirmon, Garland’s a bit too humble. “Sometimes, you have to work hard to have luck.”
You be the judge.
The adopted son of Cajun mom, Lou, and Texan oil driller, William “Bill” Robinette, Garland grew up in the swamps of Des Allemands surrounded by other Humble Oil families. While asthma restricted his time outdoors, it gifted him with time alone to sketch. It also afforded him the opportunity to take piano lessons (from age 4 to 13) and cultivate a love of classical music.
When Garland was 10, his dad was diagnosed with scleroderma, a fatal condition that hardens the skin and blood vessels. The year before he died, Bill moved the family to Hahnville, to a simple house he’d designed but, sadly, never got to live in. After her husband’s death, Lou lived a comfortable life thanks to Humble Oil stock and a handsome nest egg that Bill provided.
Comfortable, but not stress-free, at least for Garland. At 13, he wanted so badly to fit in with his seventh-grade peers he accepted a dare to fight a classmate. That classmate was Bill Sirmon, and the two became best friends from that day on. Garland struggled again socially as a freshman at Hahnville High. “I felt out of place. I tried sports but wasn’t any good. And there wasn’t a band. I liked girls a lot but was too bashful to talk to them.” Instead of bellyaching, he took action. “I set out to become well-liked. I started saying hello, how are you, asking people about themselves. In my senior year, I was voted most popular!”
His A in popularity, however, belied his poor grades in academics. Unprepared for college, Garland failed out of Nicholls State and USL. Ultimately, he enrolled in LSU and signed up for ROTC. “They paid you sixty bucks a month and expected you to become an officer in the Army.” In his senior year, the Vietnam War was raging, and Garland didn’t want to be part of it. He purposely failed a couple of courses, thinking that would buy him an extra year in college, but at LSU, seniors couldn’t go on probation. “The Army was pissed and put me at the top of the draft!”
Garland joined the Navy, hoping it meant no combat, good food and clean sheets. Instead, he ended up in PBR—Patrol Boat River. “They called it the Riverine division, but we were never on anything bigger than a bayou. We could barely turn the boat around.” A team of four rode in each fiberglass boat and took turns manning the boat and shooting 30- and 50-caliber guns. Garland had several boats shot out from under him and was the only man in his original group to survive.
Although he sustained serious wounds that earned him two Purple Hearts, he eschews praise. “The guys that went and believed in it deserve praise. There was no courage in my decision. I didn’t want to go, but I had no choice. I couldn’t run to Canada, and I was afraid to go to prison.”
Garland survived the war but didn’t emerge unscathed. He had physical injuries, and emotional injuries scarred him for life. “When you survive a very dangerous situation, the chemicals you get—dopamine and serotonin—flood your brain. You go looking for danger again. You have a hard time adjusting to the white-picket-fence lifestyle you left.”
Once home, he disdained the “cush” life that Americans had. “All of a sudden, my brain chemistry wasn’t used to that. I’d gotten tough over there, and I was tough back here.” Garland became belligerent. “My mom was heartbroken.”
“There was no talk of PTSD back then and no talk of getting him help,” says wife Nancy Rhett. Many former soldiers tried to quiet their demons with drugs and alcohol, but Garland was never addicted to anything—except to “the edge,” to danger.
For most of the next year, Garland worked as a janitor, first at a chemical plant and then at radio station KJIN in Houma, where he bluffed his way onto the air saying he had radio experience in the Navy. Shortly after, the owner opened a new TV station, KHMA, and hired Garland as news director. “If you bluff, you better be able to deliver,” says Garland. “And I did. In every circumstance!”
KHMA was a low-budget station with a crew of two. Garland and the sportscaster alternated doing the weather and operating the camera. Once, while Garland was doing the news, the entire set fell on top of him, pinning him to the desk. “So, here I was, with a live mike and the cameras rolling and I kept saying, ‘I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!’”
While the set knocked him flat, the station’s faulty film processor actually helped lift his career. With no processor, Garland had to go to WWL in New Orleans to develop film. “Phil Johnson saw me and offered me a job as ‘barely a reporter.’ I told him I was a news director and had studied in college—but I didn’t. That was another example of ‘the luck of Garland.’”
A few months after joining WWL, that luck came through again when he was appointed temporary replacement for a news anchor who’d gone on the air drunk. “I’d only done a little bit of anchoring at the Houma station, so I was scared to death they were going to find out that I’d lied my way into the job.”
But they didn’t. Thanks to the support of co-workers like Angela Hill and Jim Henderson, Garland received excellent on-the-job training. “When I had an assignment, I’d ask Angela how she’d handle it.” Eventually, Garland and Angela became co-anchors of the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news—the first co-anchors in the United States. Their on-air friendship blossomed into romance, and they married in 1978. Nine years later, the couple divorced but remain friends to this day.
“I have great taste in women; they just had bad taste in men,” says Garland, taking responsibility for his three failed marriages. “Jim Henderson said he was getting a bumper sticker made that read: ‘Honk if you’ve been married to Garland.’”
Garland teased Jim, too—with a kitchen mitt that looked like a giraffe. “While we were on the air, I’d back up in my chair, put the mitt on my hand and make the giraffe come up behind Jim while he was doing sports. The crew was cracking up. When we’d go to commercial, Jim would ask what the hell was going on. I’d say, somebody told a really good joke.” Management wasn’t laughing, however, and Garland “retired” the giraffe mitt that night.
Another time, Garland was suckered by longtime friend Bill Sirmon with an April Fool’s joke. Bill called the station and told Garland his mom was downstairs trying to get in. Garland dashed down the stairs but found no one. “April Fool!” laughed Bill. Not to be outdone, Garland asked viewers on the 6 p.m. news to call Bill and tell him what a terrible thing he’d done. He flashed Bill’s name and number on the screen. “My phone started ringing so much, I took it off the hook,” says Bill. But Garland wasn’t finished. During the 10 p.m. news, Garland told viewers, “It’s okay. You can call Bill back and tell him you forgive him.” Again, Bill’s name and number flashed across the screen, and once again, his phone started ringing like crazy. But Bill didn’t realize that they replayed the 10 p.m. broadcast at 1 a.m., so his phone started ringing again at 1 a.m.!
Although a joker, Garland took his job seriously. When Dr. Sherwood Gagliano, a geologist, asked his opinion about the loss of the wetlands, Garland asked what a wetland was. Dr. Gagliano showed Garland a book of transparencies of the Louisiana coast. Flipping through it, Garland could see the coastland breaking up “like bread in a goldfish bowl.” At 60.2 square miles a year, Dr. Gagliano figured, if something weren’t done, Louisiana would disappear up to Baton Rouge.
Stunned by this revelation, Garland began the first in-depth documentaries on Louisiana’s coastal erosion. From 1970-1984, WWL sent him all over the world—the Netherlands, Israel, the Amazon rainforest—to document environmental problems. However, after fourteen years, audience interest waned, and management told Garland to stop.
The Art of Broadcasting
Garland mastered the “art” of broadcasting, literally. While on the air, he decorated the margins of news scripts with sketches of the floor crew. After the show, he’d toss the script in the trash. Unbeknownst to him, floor director Chuck Meyers retrieved them. Eventually, he confessed his “crime” and asked Garland to autograph the scripts so he could make copies, sell them and earn enough to pay for his books at Loyola. He even offered to split the profits. Garland responded, “If you can get money for these images, you can keep it.”
Sometime later, Fr. James Carter, president of Loyola, invited Garland to lunch. Loyola owned WWL, so Garland thought Fr. Carter had found out he’d been lying about his experience. Instead, Fr. Carter complimented him on the sketches that he’d seen around campus. “I can recognize every one of the floor crew. How’d you like to do a portrait?”
“I’d like that,” replied Garland. “Who is it?”
“That’s when I said, ‘S___! I’m an artist.’”
Pope John Paul II never sat for his portrait. Instead, Garland worked from photographs and sketches he made while the pope greeted people at St. Joseph Seminary. Remarkably, before John Paul’s visit ended, Garland had completed the portrait, and posters were selling like hotcakes.
Garland loved painting. Truth be known, although he’d spent 20 years at WWL-TV, he never loved the business except for the documentaries. “I never liked shoving a mike in somebody’s face and being confrontational.” So, it was only natural that Garland retired from WWL in 1994 and moved to a farm in Folsom to pursue his painting career. Or so he thought.
To his surprise, Jim Bob Moffatt, CEO of Freeport MacMoRan, offered him a job restoring his company’s image. Garland had reported on Freeport MacMoRan’s legal, though unpopular, disposal of gypsum. “My plan was to get ’em, not work for them,” Garland admits. After visiting the company’s operations around the world, Garland told Jim Bob that his oil and gas exploration and strip mining were harming people. Jim Bob replied that without copper and oil there would be no cars, phones, electricity, eyeglasses, cosmetics and more—people can’t have it both ways.
This was Garland’s “Ah-ha!” moment. “I had done 20 years of uneducated reporting. We say we don’t want drilling and mining, but we’re so damn spoiled, we couldn’t possible live without it.” Ultimately, Garland’s PR program helped turn Freeport MacMoRan’s stock around—and its image.
Garland also turned his life around when he began a relationship with Nancy Rhett, a former co-worker at WWL who worked at Freeport. Though she was beautiful, sexy and 24 years his junior, Garland says he was attracted to her intelligence. Their lively discussions made Garland re-think his intellectual inferiority complex. “Garland is incredibly smart and self-educated,” says Nancy. The couple married in 1994 and welcomed baby girl Charley three years later.
“At 54, I never thought about having kids,” says Garland, “but Nancy wanted a child, so I agreed. When I saw Charley in that nursery, O Lord, I had fish hooks all over me.”
Garland took to fatherhood like a catfish to a bayou, working from home and caring for Charley while Nancy pursued a career in jewelry, accessories and weaving. Eventually, Garland left Freeport MacMoRan to form his own crisis communications company, Planet Communications. Three years later, he closed the company to focus on what fed his soul: Nancy, Charley and painting. As idyllic as that life was, Garland couldn’t refuse when Diane Newman, operations and program director at WWL Radio, asked him to fill in for David Tyree, who was battling cancer. After Tyree died, Garland continued with The Think Tank, priding himself on looking at all sides of an issue. Then Katrina hit. Recalls Newman, “The G-man’s time in The Think Tank post-Katrina was explosive. Emotion and passion kicked in. Garland was the ‘voice of the people’—the rescue, recovery and rebirth. He was on fire. He didn’t care who he had to pounce on to move our city forward. Washington insiders told us the White House listened every day. President George W. Bush gave one interview when he came to New Orleans—to Garland.
“Garland’s was the first show to broadcast live from the state legislature. And he was the first to push for Louisiana’s fair share of oil and gas revenues. With all that toughness,” Newman adds, “there’s the art in him. He’s an amazing painter. God-inspired, really.”
Indeed, Garland has the soul of an artist. Some of his most beloved works are portraits he’s done of Charley on her birthdays. “My favorite’s the one from my eighteenth birthday. It’s in color—and he gave me a crown,” says Charley, a college junior.
“My dad’s the greatest man that’s ever walked this planet,” she continues, “but, he’s too humble. I wish he could see how great he is! He’s a New Orleans icon, yet he’s still so genuine. He’s the most generous man I’ve ever met.” Charley’s voice softens. “My dad was on his deathbed when I was in first grade (2002). Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. They thought it was pneumonia.”
“It wasn’t until the year after Katrina that doctors at Mayo Clinic diagnosed him with Wegener’s, an auto-immune disease,” says Nancy. After having chemo and being hospitalized for flare-ups, he’s in remission.
“I was having a flare-up while doing Jimmy Buffett’s portrait for the 2011 Jazz Fest poster,” Garland adds. “I was really very sick. I’d drag myself out of bed, oftentimes coughing up blood. I had to finish the portrait and I did.”
“Making art is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration,” says Nancy. “Garland shows up in the studio every day ready to let that magic come through. I admire his work ethic as much as his talent. It takes fortitude and discipline to do something so technical as portraits.” But they’re timeless portraits and will be handed down.
Garland agrees. “Portraits are where the magic is. I didn’t know my grandparents, but I’d love to have portraits of them to pass on to Charley. People hardly look at photographs, but they’ll stop to see a portrait.”
“Making (and viewing) a portrait is about slowing down, connecting and really seeing a human being,” says Nancy. “That’s even more important these days with the world speeding up.”
While creating those portraits, Garland strives to get every detail right. Randy Fertel attests to this. Of Garland’s posthumous portrait of Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Randy says, “Garland captured my mother’s likeness, her presence and the history of the restaurant. There’s this lovely, shimmering image of the steakhouse in the background.”
Another collector, Linda Baum, admires how Garland depicts more than physical appearances. “The portraits he did of my daughters make them come alive. He portrayed their spirits and personality so well that when I look at them, it’s almost as if they’re here.”
For Garland, such accolades evoke profound appreciation. “I’m grateful to so many for my incredible life. They’ve accepted me on television, radio, in the corporate world and now as a professional portrait painter with a waiting list of clients. I’m grateful and surprised to have a life I never planned for and one I never expected.”
So, was he lucky? Absolutely not! Garland Robinette made an ordinary life extraordinary by offering no excuses, accepting no limits and painting his world with broad strokes of “can do” and bold colors of passion!