Bob Deck, Smarmy Talk Show Guy

World's Fair V.I.P. Hosts & Hostesses

John Majors, Vol Football Coach

Richard Lakin & Charles Williams, Restaurateurs of the Unusual

Reggie Johnson, UT Basketball Hero


World's Fair V.I.P. Hosts & Hostesses

Spanning a particularly hot, humid summer and daily gorged with tens of thousands of the rudest and worst-dressed tourists in America, the 1982 World's Fair was not always a day in the Park. But walking among us were young women in impossibly white uniforms, always smiling, always helpful, always in charge. They strolled seemingly an inch or two above the hot asphalt the rest of us walked on, angelic demigoddesses who merely by their charm seemed to prevent the World's Fair from descending into bestial chaos.

They were the V.I.P. hostesses. We thought we might try to track some of them down, that is, if they had not already ascended unto heaven. Actually, there were V.I.P. hosts, as well. We had to be reminded of that, but we thought we might try to find a few of those, too.

Patricia Robledo might have seemed the least likely to be one of the few we found still living in Knoxville. Born and raised in Colombia, she moved with her family to Knoxville when she was a teenager, over a year before the Fair started. "It was all very foreign to me," she says. Fast food took some getting used to. The houses seemed too far apart. Mailboxes were outside, away from the house; when her father asked her to get the mail, she was afraid to walk to the mailbox. She was disappointed that the standard English she had studied in Colombia didn't always work in Knoxville. "You think you speak the language, and find out you don't," she says, now with only a trace of an accent.

Soon after the Fair opened, her parents sought work out west, leaving Patricia here alone. "It was a lonely time for me," she says. Meanwhile, the Fair itself was a daily trial. "I have mixed feelings about the Fair," she says today, recalling many days when maintaining her smile was difficult. "I remember one particular incident when a man asked me a question about a statue. I didn't know about it, and I couldn't really understand his questions. He got very, very frustrated."

One of the brighter moments was when Robledo joined the entourage that escorted Jimmy Carter and his then-teenage daughter Amy around the Fair, but she didn't get to talk to the former president. "I just went along to be official," she says.

The few VIP's she got to show around were ones she didn't know much about: boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, Olympic swimmer John Naber, and Maxine Andrews, of the '40s pop singing group the Andrews Sisters. Her colleagues came to mean much more to her than her "famous" guests did.

In 1985, Robledo married John Craig, a Knoxville native who had worked at the Fair. For 10 years they moved around the country with Craig's medical-services business: St. Louis, New Hampshire, Philadelphia. Four years ago they arrived back in Knoxville, this time with two children in tow. "It was the easiest move of all," Robledo says. "It was like—not coming back home—Colombia is my home—but coming back almost home." She says Knoxville is a good place to raise her children, and she's impressed with Knoxville's international community, which she found had grown in her absence. She has found a place in a circle of about 25 South American friends here who gather for parties and dances.

She's mainly a mom, but also teaches aerobics classes, translates occasionally, and does some modeling on the side. She also keeps in touch with several of her old colleagues. One is Missy Mashburn—now Missy Parker—who now works at UT. A former unsuccessful candidate for Student Government Association vice-president, in 1982 Mashburn was a UT theater grad, as might seem befitting of the daughter of prolific Clarence Brown director Bob Mashburn. "There must have been 80 of us," Parker says (others think that estimate's a little high). "There weren't really enough V.I.P.'s to go around." She recalls showing around the editor of the Nashville Banner, whose name she doesn't recall, and a delegation of brisk Disney executives performing reconnaissance on our World's Fair in a hasty three-hour tour. She says as they left they suddenly recalled a promise of souvenirs. "They had to catch a plane," she recalls. "But as they were leaving, they were handing me fistfuls of money to buy souvenirs: T-shirts, hats, everything." She duly bought them the stuff, packaged and mailed it.

However, her most hectic day may have been the very first. "The day of the opening of the Fair, when Ronald Reagan spoke there, I had to escort the White House press." It turns out they had little interest in the Fair, or in being polite to their hostess. "They were just trying to get as close to the president as they could, and run down everybody in the process." She recalls limping back to her car at the end of that day, wondering what she had gotten into.

She soon had enough of tour-giving. By summer, she says, "the most favored job was when you were assigned to an information booth, where you could sit out of the heat."

After the Fair, she went to UT's grad school, where she studied higher education. She worked for a couple of years at William and Mary before returning to UT, where she works now. She married in 1989 and now lives in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood with her husband and three kids.

What does she miss about those fleeting days of the 1982 World's Fair? "I don't miss looking like we were just off the Love Boat," she says. "I don't miss the straw hats that turned yellow in two weeks. I don't miss the black tap shoes we had to wear."

For some, hosting was hellish. Others recall it nostalgically. "I would sign up for it all again," claims one former host. Rusty Nunley was a Central High grad who got involved in the Fair when it was still under construction, hosting groups of investors.

The Fair may have led to his career choice; his lot as a host was escorting members of the media. When "Good Morning America" came to cover the Fair, he met Joan Lunden. Through interpreters, he dealt with Japanese press crews. He was even assigned to give Andy Rooney a tour. On a particularly crowded day, Nunley met him at the Henley Street gate. "He's as much a curmudgeon in person as he appears on TV," Nunley says, recalling he complained about the crowd. Nunley offered to give Rooney a tour, but the 60 Minutes essayist wanted to be cut loose and experience the Fair by himself. Nunley says it became obvious he was looking for things to berate, and he found them.

Tired of answering the same questions daily, Nunley came to envy his guests. "All they had to do was go around asking, being inquisitive, being curious," he says. It occurred to him that "It might be a lot easier to be on the other side, asking the questions." After the fair, he studied broadcasting at UT. No longer "Rusty," Nunley is now a reporter himself, of course, and morning anchor for WATE-TV.

Nunley got to meet the Fair's most distinguished visitor (with the possible exception of Presidents Reagan and Carter): Bob Hope. It was at the U.S. Pavilion, and Nunley recalls Hope's wife, Delores, was carrying a small dog—a species not ordinarily allowed through the gates. "But if you're Bob Hope's wife, well, hey," Nunley explains.

Several others launched from the World's Fair into national and international careers. Some are arguably V.I.P.'s themselves. Ed Ingle, for example, is now a lobbyist for the environmentally concerned Wexler Group in Washington, D.C.

And Tracy Griffith, for another example. When she was here, this V.I.P. hostess from California lived on Clinch Avenue in Fort Sanders. After the Fair, she enjoyed an interesting movie career. Playing a supporting role in the 1988 movie The Good Mother—a nude part, no less—she was later in some slasher movies, including Sleepaway Camp 3. And she still is, as she was in 1982, actress Melanie Griffith's sister; she was depicted with her family in a recent photo in People magazine.

Perhaps they're no longer as angelic as they seemed during that magical summer—but maybe even today, when they put on a white suit, they can glide through the noisy world at least a centimeter or two off the ground, just as they once walked through a World's Fair.

—Jack Neely