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Robert C. Watkins Jr., 1920-2013

CONNIE DIEHL
  • Connie Diehl

Robert C. Watkins Jr. was born here, educated here, served in the army during World War II and returned home. Then, he seldom left.

That's a good thing. For most of his 93 years he worked tirelessly to make his hometown a more cultured, sophisticated, entertaining, beautiful — and for those fortunate to know him — fun place. He was a keen judge of human nature, fiercely loyal to those he embraced and possessed a sharp wit.

He also was an arbiter of taste and a showman with a clear theatrical vision. In 1957, he founded the Ballet Impromptu — which would become the Richmond Ballet — and presented this city's first full-length production of "The Nutcracker." Later, he founded the Concert Ballet of Virginia and the Theatre at Bolling Haxall House.

Watkins died Sept. 16 at the Fan District home on Plum Street he long shared with his partner, deVeaux Riddick, and their friend, Scott Boyer.

For many years Watkins and Riddick operated their chic interiors firm, Design, from an office and showrooms that occupied a double townhouse, which no longer stands, at West Franklin and Third streets. On any given workday, their tiny back office saw a steady stream of interesting and colorful personalities.

The irrepressible Virginia Wortham, proprietor of the nearby E.B. Taylor, an elegant china and crystal shop, would pop in to gossip. The ever dapper and elfin Dean Levi, a reporter at the former Richmond News Leader, would waltz across Third Street after the afternoon paper had gone to press. Donald Haynes, the state librarian, would appear with a new book under his arm. "It is the only salon in Richmond," quipped André Bruce Ward, long the talented costume designer at the Virginia Museum Theater.

Always underfoot was Watkins and Riddicks' beloved dog, Lord Fartlington. (Don't ask.) Watkins' humor remained bawdy even as this most elegant of men neared the end. "I'll bet you can only recognize your patients from their behinds," he told his hospice nurse.

She replied, "No, honey, they all look the same."

Trust me, Watkins never was one of the rest.

Thirteen years ago, on the eve of the 21st century, Style Weekly and the Valentine Richmond History Center named 100 people as Richmond's prime "movers and shapers" of the 20th century. They included names as wide-ranging as William Henry Schwarzschild, Sydney and Frances Lewis and L. Douglas Wilder. Watkins was on the list. Like them, he shaped Richmond. — Edwin Slipek

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