Jim and Natalie Haslam pose with the new portrait of her at the East Tennessee History Center. (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams.)
Benjamin Franklin said the only way three people can keep a secret is if two of them are dead!
Somehow a lot more people than that managed to keep a secret and surprise Natalie Haslam with an oil portrait of her on her birthday. Here’s how it went down.
Bill Cobble, who along with Natalie is a member of the board of directors for the East Tennessee Historical Society, came up with the idea eight months ago or so. He wanted to surprise her with an original oil portrait, which would hang outside the Natalie L. Haslam Signature Gallery at the Museum of East Tennessee History. So Cobble, along with fellow board members Carrington Montague of Lookout Mountain and Joe Swann of Maryville, formed a group called “Friends of Natalie” and started soliciting funds to commission the portrait. Everyone was sworn to secrecy.
In on the idea from the beginning, of course, was Natalie’s husband, Jim. It fell to him and to Natalie’s three daughters, Jennie McCabe of Nashville, Carol Pattison of Vail, Colo., and Susan Robie of Marblehead, Mass., to gather scores of photographs of Natalie and get them to painter Ellen Cooper, an award-winning portrait artist from Pennsylvania who had been selected for the project. I had assumed that the artist would simply work from a photograph of Natalie, but the painting she completed was actually a composite of many photographs.
The result is absolutely beautiful. Ellen Cooper is known for really capturing the personality and essence of her subjects and that was certainly the case with Natalie. Jim Haslam said that toward the end of the process, the artist sent a photograph of her work in progress to Natalie’s daughters. It was then that Jennie noticed a big problem — there were no rings on Natalie’s fingers in the picture. And she always wears her rings.
Natalie entering the room to everyone yelling, “Surprise!” (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Jim had to figure out how to get a photograph of the rings to the artist without letting Natalie know what he was up to. So he approached Natalie one day in the kitchen and said, matter-of-factly, “The insurance company needs new pictures of your rings.” She held out her hands and he snapped a couple of photos. Problem solved!
Getting Natalie to the History Center on her birthday was another issue. “I just told her to wear something nice and not ask any questions!” Jim said. They got in the car and he started driving toward Maryville. “We’re going to Blackberry Farm,” Natalie said. “No,” he responded. “Oh, we’re going to eat at Foothills Milling Company,” she speculated. “No,” he said. He turned the car around and headed back toward Knoxville. “I bet we’re going to the Music Building!” she said.
When finally they approached the East Tennessee History Center on Gay Street, Jim explained that they needed to make a brief appearance at an unveiling of a historic painting the center had acquired with the financial help of the Haslam Family Foundation. (That part actually was true.) But Natalie had no idea that she would be walking into a room filled with more than 100 of her family members and friends, including two of her daughters, grandchildren and her stepson, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, and his family. Her eyes briefly brimmed with tears as everyone said, “Surprise!” and burst into applause.
Icing on the cake was that “Friends of Natalie” was so successful in its fundraising that it exceeded by $10,000 the cost of commissioning the portrait. That money was turned over to the Historical Society, as well.
From left, Judy Morton, Bill Arant and Donna Cobble at the reception prior to Natalie’s arrival.
Ann Bailey and her brother, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
Jeff Chapman, left, and Alan Carmichael at the reception.
From left, Bill Reeves, Joe Ben Turner and Neal Allen
Rich and Jane Ray, left, with Randy and Jenny Boyd
First Lady Crissy Haslam, left, Judy Morton and Rodney Lawler.
From left, Pete Claussen, Carol and Ed Wheeler, and Linda Claussen (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
From left, Rodney Lawler, Elisabeth and Bill Sansom and Dick Williams (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
From left, Jane Wright, Becky Swann and David Wright (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
From left, Whitfield Bailey, Judy Morton, Ann Bailey and Annie Haslam Colquitt (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Linda and Buck Vaughn (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
From left, Jon Lawler, Randy Gibson and Bill Arant (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Jimmy Smith, left, and Dr. Hugh Hyatt (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Steve Bailey, standing, greets David Colquitt. At left is Annie Haslam Colquitt. At right is Hannah Haslam. (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Sol Holcomb and Patricia Bible
Susan Arp, left, and Susan Williams
Betsey Bush, left, and Sherri Lee
The artist, Ellen Cooper, right, with Gary and Jo Anne Haynes. Haynes Galleries of Nashville represents Cooper.
Sarah Stowers and Kent Faires
Jon and Toni Lawler were among our tablemates.
It was clear that Natalie was surprised — and pleased. Great job, everyone! (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Here’s the picture Natalie thought she was there to unveil. (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Here’s Natalie when the portrait of her was unveiled. (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Dr. Frank Gray made some remarks beside the portrait that was the real reason for the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Bill Cobble with Cherel Henderson, executive director of the East Tennessee Historical Society, in the background (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Gov. Bill Haslam making remarks. (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Finally, Natalie got to speak. (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
The evening really wasn’t about the food, but I gotta give a shout-out to caterer Holly Hambright. She outdid herself. These fig and blue cheese numbers were great.
They and these tiny crab cakes were served during the reception.
Here’s a look at someone’s plate after they went through the buffet line! Yum.
The centerpieces were lovely. Natalie loves flowers.
Joe Swann congratulating Natalie. (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams.)
I love this sweet picture Jack Williams took of Natalie and her friend Bobbie Congleton.
Natalie and artist Ellen Cooper. (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Susan, right, and Eliza Robie (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
It wouldn’t be a birthday party without . . . (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
From left, Matt Avery, Leigh Haslam Avery, Natalie Haslam, Annie Haslam Colquitt, Hannah Haslam and David Colquitt (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Gov. Bill Haslam and Susan Robie, Natalie’s daughter (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Gov. Bill Haslam with Jennie and Rob McCabe. Jennie is another of Natalie’s three daughters. (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Natalie and Glady Faires (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)
Natalie with two of her daughters, Susan Robie, left, and Jennie McCabe (Photo courtesy of Jack Williams)