By GLENDA CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
You couldn’t pay Robert Kirkland for what he’s worth to Obion County. That’s what the letter nominating him for the honor of Pride of Obion County points out, and area citizens who are familiar with even a few of his contributions would agree. Out-of-town judges who recently reviewed recommendations for the honor and selected the retired Union City businessman officially confirmed the opinion.
Kirkland will be honored at the annual CornFest Pride of Obion County luncheon Sept. 12 at noon at the Hampton Centré on West Reelfoot Avenue in Union City. Tickets must be purchased in advance and will go on sale Aug. 20 for $15. They will be available at the Obion County Chamber of Commerce office or by calling (731) 431-8132. The deadline for making plans to take part in this prestigious event will be Sept. 4, a spokesman said.
Kirkland was born Feb. 19, 1938, and moved to Union City with his parents, the late Hayden and Sadie Kirkland, when he was a year old. His parents owned and operated the local Ben Franklin 5 and 10 Cents Store from the 1940s into the 1970s. A 1956 graduate of Union City High School, he enjoyed an outstanding athletic experience there as a member of the football, basketball and track teams. He was president of his senior class and went on from there to graduate from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1960. Following graduation, he worked for the University of Tennessee Alumni Association for a time and then, benefiting from his parents’ experience, he opened a Ben Franklin store in Nashville in the early 1960s and by 1968 had also become involved in the popular Nashville Shop of John Simmons, along with other business ventures there.
The call of home was strong, however, for Kirkland and his wife, the former Jenny Darnall, who also grew up in Union City. The family returned to Obion County in 1971. By that time, Kirkland had joined forces with his cousin, Carl Kirkland, and had opened a chain of businesses known as Kirklands Gift Stores in Jackson, Nashville and Knoxville. These eventually expanded to include more than 250 shops in malls in the eastern U.S., and even stretching west beyond the Mississippi River at some points.
At home again, Kirkland wasted no time in becoming involved in another business venture with his cousin. They established CBK Ltd. in Union City, selling home decor and gift items in 50 states and several foreign countries from the local distribution center. Kirkland made a conscious decision to open and maintain the company in Obion County and, in so doing, provided hundreds of jobs for people in the community and surrounding area.
The nominating letter points out that Robert Kirkland has since sold his share of both operations and embraced retirement. However, the benefits to the local area provided by his determination to draw on the work ethic and ability of people who have been his friends and neighbors for years continue to be felt and his business ventures have been a boon to the area.
Those experiences, however, are simply background information for the contributions Kirkland began making while he was still actively involved in the business world and has simply stepped up more recently.
The Kirklands established the Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation based on proceeds from the sale of his business interests. Their generosity is reflected in a wide array of interests.
• The Promethean Project — This program pays the full cost of attending daycare from birth to 5 years old (at which time they will be enrolled in kindergarten) for at-risk children in Obion County. This five-year-commitment in the lives of more than 1,000 children to date has as its goal to bring these youngsters up to the entry level of the general population in the local school system. Promethean also works with daycare providers in the area to ensure their standards are the highest and to promote a values-based educational program, in addition to exposing the preschoolers to cultural and cognitive experiences that will prepare them for school.
• European travel for students — This year, for the fourth time, eight rising seniors from the three high schools in Obion County enjoyed an all-expense paid learning experience in Europe, courtesy of the Union City Rotary Club. The Kirkland Foundation has been a major supporter of this club effort which pays for students who are carefully selected for their ability and commitment to preparation, hands-on learning and willingness to promote their community by their involvement with people from many other countries to travel for 12 days to Europe’s leading cities. The experience includes time spent in London, Paris, Lucerne and Rome, among other highlights. The students gain knowledge of the world beyond their borders — both in the preparation they commit to undertaking and in the actual travel — and then profit from the experience of sharing what they are learning with others as they travel and on their return home. These trips have been life-changing opportunities for several of the teens who have participated. The Kirklands — firm believers in the lifelong benefits of travel and exposure to other cultures — suggested in the planning stages for the unique program that the young people selected must come from families who could not afford to offer the opportunity themselves.
• Distinguished Speaker Program — Nationally-known speakers whose life experiences encompass many different areas visit Obion County each year as part of this program supported by the foundation. Thanks to Kirkland, local residents have enjoyed meeting and hearing of the experiences of a variety of well-known guests, including sports figures, highly successful businessmen and businesswomen, political figures and those who have benefited this country by their commitment to military service.
For the past two years, award-winning authors whose books focus on life-changing themes have been the special guests at the speakers’ series, and the Kirkland Foundation has had a hand in supporting this effort, as well. The authors — Jeannette Walls and Rick Bragg — have not only been the featured speakers at the banquet but have spent time in the county’s high schools sharing stories of their own lives and giving encouragement for overcoming early challenges to students who have read their books in preparation for the visit.
• Union City Rotary Club Scholarship Program — The Kirkland Foundation is a contributor toward the club’s annual scholarship program that benefits both new graduates and upper classmen who have graduated from the county’s high schools.
• Boys & Girls Clubs of Northwest Tennessee — This nationally-affiliated club, which was begun in Obion County in 2004 and which has served well over 1,000 children and teens, has benefited greatly from the generosity of the Kirkland Foundation and Kirkland’s sound management advice.
Robert Kirkland’s purpose in supporting, promoting and providing guidance for all these efforts has been to make Obion County a place where education and opportunity make a difference and ultimately work to the benefit of everyone in the area. He believes this effort should begin with the birth of a child and that the opportunity to experience the wonders of the world should be as available as possible to all who are willing to seize the chance. His idea for a special place where such dreams might be born and nourished for others is under construction now.
It is called Discovery Park of America and the project includes a 50-acre complex that will enhance the educational experience of children and adults and inspire them to reach their full potential. The mission statement selected for the massive and magical park is based on education and entertainment value. DPA’s exhibits and programs are being put together to encourage visitors of all ages to “see beyond” their current level of knowledge in multiple arenas.
It is estimated that the effort will attract from 150,000 to 250,000 visitors annually. This will be a huge economic opportunity for the county. It is the largest development in the recent history of Obion County and it has involved hundreds of local citizens in the planning — at Kirkland’s insistence. As the nominating letter points out, DPA will come into being entirely because of Kirkland’s vision and commitment to his community and his faith in his fellow Obion Countians to help create it.
The letter continues, “There is no question that Robert Kirkland is making every effort to give back to this area and to promote the growth of business and development. In addition to the commitments already noted, he also provides financial and advisory efforts on several other projects he prefers to support anonymously. His resources have contributed more than any other donor to the educational opportunities afforded Obion County’s citizens. Robert Kirkland grew up in Obion County, was educated here, brought jobs to this area, invested in area schools, provided funds to develop area growth, supported the youth of Obion County in tangible ways, provided funding for DPA, raised his own children here and continues to promote it wherever he goes as the best place in the world to call home. He is more than well-respected by his fellow Obion Countians and is recognized for his humor, charisma, honesty and compassion for his fellow man.”
Kirkland’s friends and neighbors will have the opportunity to show their appreciation — and to enjoy the quips and asides that are a well-known feature of his personality — at the luncheon Sept. 12.
Previous Pride of Obion County recipients include Union City attorney and former state Rep. Judy Barker (2011); businessman Al Creswell (2010); Judges William Acree and Raymond Morris and artist Pat Wade (2009); community businesses (2008); educator Dan Boykin (2007); community activist Myrtle Harton (2006); businessman Clay Woods (2005); businessman Robert Wood (2004); the Rev. James Kinsey (2003); Obion County executive the late Norris Cranford (2002); businessman Jim Rippy Jr. (2001); Gail Latimer (2000); the Rev. Bobby Williams and businessman the late Barry White (1999); businessman the late Mike Dickerson (1998); businesswoman Hattie Lou Brown (1997); former state Rep. Phillip Pinion (1996); businessman the late Charlie Vaughn (1995); businessman the late Bill Burnett (1994); former Congressman John Tanner (1993); and the late former state Sen. Milton Hamilton (1992).
Published in The Messenger 8.10.12