Here’s how a longtime Knoxville official describes Ronnie Collins: “A calm, steady hand who really knows how to analyze a situation and be a most effective advocate for his community.” His soft-spoken demeanor belies his towering physique, which inevitably invites the description, “gentle giant.”
A recent Fulton High School (Class of ‘68) Wall of Fame honoree, he’s one of North Knoxville’s most active and influential community advocates, and for as long as we’ve been communicating digitally, smart reporters have learned the value of emails with an ABSHNA return address. That’s because they’re almost always from Collins, longtime president of the Alice Bell Spring Hill Neighborhood Association, and he doesn’t fool around. If he’s got something to say, it’s important.
Collins and his wife, Sharon, are the parents of two grown children, daughter Stacey and son Jody. Political candidates covet the front yard of their tidy Washington Pike home as a yard sign location every election season, and not just because it’s in a high-traffic location. He’s lost track of the number of years he’s been ABSHNA president, but clocks it at more than 30.
He had demanding fulltime job for the first 25 years he helmed ABSHNA, and spent most of his daylight hours driving East Tennessee’s highways for USF Holland. But he always managed to keep a steady hand on the concerns of his community, which included watchdogging zoning enforcement and proposed development and tracking the fate of East Towne Mall, which has been a longstanding ABSHNA concern. Since his retirement five years ago, he’s had time to devote to his volunteer activism and sampling a wide array of the city’s cultural offerings.
He misses the co-workers and customers he used to deliver merchandise to – he has friends in little towns scattered all over this end of the state (Collins doesn’t meet a stranger) – but he has kept busy attending events and public meetings. And although the pandemic has tried his gregarious soul, he still manages to get around.
Most days begin with a 6 a.m. walk with neighbor Nancy Gray. They typically get in four or five miles every morning, six days a week, weather permitting. They used to do it at the mall, but since it closed down, they’ve been walking outdoors, primarily at New Harvest Park, where they’ve gotten to know the habits of the local wildlife. About once a week, he’ll chauffeur his friend Hubert Smith around town, and he still makes the rounds of estate sales and consignment stores, taking care to choose hours when crowds will be sparse. He says he rarely buys anything, but loves to look, and shares photos of his “picking” finds with his Facebook friends.
ABSHNA meetings have been canceled due to restrictions on the number of people who can gather indoors, but Collins stays active monitoring the concerns of his community, and is hoping we get some COVID-19 relief soon. He says the thing he’s missed most is going downtown.
“I love the events at the history center – love those brownbag lunches and the Thursday night meetings with Jack Neely at the bowling alley. And the Pride parade is one of the best parades I’ve ever seen in my life. I love the Hola festival and the dog walks and chalk walks, the veterans’ parade and the concerts on Market Square. I just miss all that stuff.”
But he’s an optimistic guy and has faith that those days will return. In the meantime, he’ll keep doing what he’s always done – taking care of his neighbors.