May 13, 2016

Childhood Kite Hobby Became a Lifelong Passion for Austinite and His Family

Reporting Texas


Richard Robertson made his first kite when he was 8. After buying a kite from a five-and-dime store in Dallas, he decided to experiment with making his own. He laid out bamboo sticks for the structure, then added brown paper and a tail, ending up with a traditional kite shape called “barn door.”

That was 80 years ago, and the beginning of a lifelong passion for kites that he shares with his wife, Marian, their five children and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“It’s one of the universally wonderful, lovely, fun, laughing things that people can’t help but enjoy,” said Beth Mueller, the Robertsons’ youngest child.

Now 88 and suffering with leg problems, Richard Robertson no longer participates in events such as the annual Zilker Kite Festival. But his North Austin home attests to his continuing interest. More than 200 kites are rolled up and stored on racks in his garage, with a few more in the house.

“As opposed to flying a kite that’s already made commercially,” he said, “it’s really a lot more fun to see a kite up in the air that I’ve made.”

He even took an informal class in memoir writing at the University of Texas of Austin so he could put his passion down on paper.

“Kites have been so much a part of my life,” he said.

In the memoir, Robertson recalled the years he won the oldest flyer award at the Zilker festival, and when his grandchildren would win for being the youngest fliers. “That pretty well sealed the fact that the Robertsons were a kite-flying family,” he wrote.

For 51 years, the Robertsons were regulars at the festival, held on the first Sunday in March. They attended their first kite festival in 1962, after they moved from Temple to Austin for work – she as a nutrition counselor and he in human resources. After seeing the fun and pleasure involved in kite flying, they started making kites for their children and flew them at the festival the following year.

At the time, the contests were only for children. A few years later, the organizers changed the rules and Richard Robertson was allowed to compete. Since then, he has accumulated numerous awards – most unusual kite, largest kite, smallest kite, oldest kite-flyer and more.

The couple thought of their kites as a form of art, not just toys. Marian Robertson once made a kite shaped like Mary Poppins, complete with umbrella. A 12-foot-square kite had panels representing the six flags that have flown over Texas since it was under Spanish rule in  the 1500s. Another kite was shaped like an eagle.

“I was always worried about flying kites too close to Richard’s, because his kites were so wonderful and he is a better kite-flyer than I am,” said Dorsey Twidwell, the organizer of the festival for 18 years.

Because all kites at the contest had to be homemade and could only be flown at one event, the couple ended up making dozens of kites each year.

“Kite season would start the day after Christmas every year,” Marian Robertson said, because they needed to make enough by March for their children, who helped decorate the kites. It would take only 10 minutes to make a basic kite, but up to 10 days to create a 49-square foot parafoil kite, with open cells that give it enormous lifting power. One year, Richard Robertson made an inch-square kite from tissue paper and thread for Beth, his fifth child.

“As the youngestthe kite thing was very much part of our family culture by the time I came around,” Beth Mueller said. “We didn’t have family meals for like a month before the kite festival, because the dining table was packed with kites.”

With the growth of the Zilker Kite Festival from a couple of hundred people in the 1960s to around 30,000 today, the Robertsons found it harder and harder to stay through the whole event.

“Last time we went, we had to get up in the morning really early, and be there about 7 o’clock,” Marian said. “There was no way to go home until it was all over. So we would be there from 7 a.m. till 5:30 p.m., which is a long stand.”

“I wish we were going, but bad legs and age have caught up with me,” Richard Robertson said.

The Robertsons were born during the Depression, and said they learned to make the things they needed.

“It was a time when people were really into making things,” Marian Robertson said. “There was a certain pride and pleasure in that. It’s fun to make your own things. I am sorry that our life is so fast-paced right now. It leaves less time for all of the things that enrich our lives.”

Marian, now 84, started making kites for her children in the 1960s, and began to see kite-making as art.

“There is always a new art idea to make into kites,” she said.“You can never be bored.”

Even though they no longer attend the kite festival, the couple still build kites and hold kite-making workshops at Northwest Recreation Center every February. When they travel, kites are among the items in their luggage. Richard Robertson said he even carried kites with him on business trips in the 1980s.

Their last year at the festival – 2014 – was a fitting finale: He won the oldest kite flyer award, while great-granddaughter Penelope won for the youngest participant.

“It was really different without the Roberson family,” Twidwell said. “I think I will always feel the loss that there’s no Robertson getting a trophy for something.”

Richard wrote a farewell email sent to his family and fellow kite flyers in 2014.

“Zilker is 86 years old this year. So am I,” he wrote. “We look forward to some high-flying years ahead.”