By Donna Cornelius
The Beaux Arts Krewe Ball made its festive debut in Birmingham in 1966. In the 50-plus years since that time, the annual gala has created many beloved traditions – among them, the selection of a king and queen to reign over the festivities, the presentation of princesses and a colorful pageant.
But, like many social gatherings, last year’s event fell victim to COVID-19 restrictions.
The ball will be back with a bang this year. Set for Feb. 25 at Boutwell Auditorium, it will be bigger than usual, as princesses from last year and this year will combine for a total of 51 presentees. While the queen’s identity isn’t revealed until the night of the ball, the king is introduced beforehand, and the 2022 sovereign promises to be a very merry monarch.
King Tommy – Thomas Atkinson Roberts – is a family man, sportsman and fourth-generation resident of Birmingham. He and his wife, Laura Susan, have been married for 53 years, the same amount of time he’s been in the insurance business. He learned that he’d been chosen as king through a bit of crafty deception on the part of two fellow Krewe members.
“Last summer, a couple of individuals contacted me and said they wanted to talk about a business matter,” Tommy said. “We scheduled a time to meet. They asked me some logical questions that I could answer, having been in insurance for so long.”
Soon, he found out that the actual purpose of the meeting was to ask him to be king.
“I was totally surprised,” Tommy said. “In fact, I was speechless.”
Laura Susan couldn’t resist good-naturedly teasing her husband a little about that last statement.
“That’s unusual for him,” she said with a smile.
While at the University of Alabama, Tommy was a Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and Laura Susan was a Kappa Delta. They met at Lake Martin, where Laura Susan’s family has spent summers at a lake house since 1956.
Following his graduation from college, Tommy began a career in the property and casualty insurance business with Sevier Insurance Agency. He later became principal owner of the agency and, after 20 years as its president, sold the agency but remained as its managing director for six years.
Tommy later joined Bates Insurance Agency as a producing agent, at which time the name became Bates, Roberts, Fowlkes and Jackson.
One of Tommy’s favorite pastimes is quail hunting, which has led to a bit of a family enigma.
“The number of bird dogs he’s had over the years is a great mystery,” Laura Susan said. “It’s never been known.”
Tommy admitted to at one time having 10 German shorthaired pointers, which he kept at his hunting property in Uniontown. He’s also owned English setters.
“I have a lifelong love for bird dogs,” he said. “I have two dogs now. Jake is almost 7 years old; he’s a German shorthaired pointer from Nebraska and is the father of my puppy, Zeke. It’s the first time I’ve had a puppy fathered by one of my own dogs.”
Tommy coached his children’s competitive youth soccer teams for more than 16 years, traveling across the Southeast for tournaments. He was the first state referee administrator – and was a referee himself – for the United States Soccer Federation.
“Some of my former players still call me ‘Coach,’” he said.
Tommy also coached a grandson’s youth basketball teams for several years. He likes golf, too.
A Family Affair
Tommy and Laura Susan have three children. Their sons are Atkins Roberts and John Allen Roberts, both of Birmingham.
Atkins and his wife, “Fluff,” have three sons: Thomas Atkinson III, John Killebrew and Owen Anderson.
Daughter Laura Roberts Clay and her husband, Stewart Clay, who live in Nashville, have a son, Stewart Campbell, and twin daughters, Laura Thomas and Anne James.
The grandchildren range in age from 8 to 19 years old.
Both Tommy and Laura Susan are looking forward to having family members involved in the fun of the ball.
Son Atkins will be a duke in the King’s Guard, which also includes Tommy’s friends and fellow Krewe members Walter McFarland Beale Jr., Arthur Philip Cook Jr., Harry Huey Gardner, Gerald Palfery Gillespy, Harold Henderson Goings, Henry Barnes Ray Jr. and James Whitfield Waitzman Jr.
Granddaughters Annie and Tommie and grandson Stewart will be train bearers along with Margaret Leary Ray, Laurie Price Ray, Charles Sheppard Caldwell Whatley, James Vann Worthen and James Oliver Wood.
Guards for the King’s Box are grandsons Atkins, John Killebrew and Anderson as well as Krewe member Joseph Henry Brady.
“It’s so exciting to have family members involved,” Laura Susan said. “It’s so special not only for Tommy but also because it’s a family affair.”
Tommy has been a Krewe member for 35 years and has served as a duke and as a member of the Queen’s Guard. He presented his daughter and several out-of-town nieces at past balls.
He served on the board of directors of the former Carraway Methodist Hospital and on the boards of several insurance organizations. He’s a member of Mountain Brook Club, The Club, the Redstone Club and the Monday Morning Quarterback Club.
Tommy and Laura Susan are active members of St.-Mary’s-on-the- Highlands Episcopal Church. They also love attending University of Alabama football games. They said two of their favorite trips have been to cheer the Tide to national championships over Notre Dame in Miami and over Clemson in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“Games in New Orleans are always fun, too,” Tommy said.
The Krewe King is expected to dress up for the ball in traditional regal attire, complete with a crown. Tommy is giving his costume a run-through when he and Laura Susan host his train bearers at a party complete with ice cream, cookies and a magician.
While Tommy is looking forward to the ball and its festivities, it’s important to him that the event has a charitable purpose, too.
“The ball is unique in that it not only is a beautiful evening with lots of pageantry, but also because the Krewe provides a large donation to the Birmingham Museum of Art and has done since its origin,” he said.
As for the big night itself, Tommy has just one kingly decree: that everyone who attends has a “merry old time.”