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Top Parade Job No Bed of Roses : Holiday: Robert Cheney, president of Tournament of Roses, has met controversy with compromise but remains a traditionalist.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Somebody buttonholed Tournament of Roses President Robert Cheney at a recent meeting and tried to read him the riot act about the crimes of Columbus, whose arrival in the New World 500 years ago will be celebrated in the Rose Parade.

Cheney listened calmly for a few minutes, then started to bridle at the woman’s broad-brushed characterization of his organization as “insensitive.”

“You know very little about the Tournament of Roses,” Cheney said evenly.

“You know very little about Columbus,” the woman said.

“I know a little,” conceded Cheney, 53, a trim, craggy-faced man with iron-gray hair. “But I’m learning.”

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The events of the past few months have been a painful learning experience for this retired aerospace executive and longtime parade volunteer. After he named a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus as grand marshal for the 103rd annual parade in October, the chain reaction of public relations disasters came so rapidly that people around the tournament headquarters on Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena began calling their president “Chief Black Cloud.”

“Personally, it has certainly been disappointing,” confessed Cheney, who spent 29 years as a tournament volunteer and nowadays wears the scarlet blazer denoting his status as president.

But the charges of insensitivity, sexism and cultural myopia, along with Sheriff Sherman Block’s threat to keep sheriff’s deputies away from their customary posts on New Year’s Day, have brought out in Cheney an unflappable leader consumed with the notion of doing the right thing, friends and supporters say.

“It would drive me nuts,” said Lai Leishman, 87, tournament president 52 years ago when child star Shirley Temple made her first appearance as a grand marshal. “I think he’s handled it admirably.”

Cheney has also become--of necessity, friends say--one of the most aggressive tournament defenders in memory, holding forth whenever he can about the dedication of volunteers and the altruism of the organization.

“We could have gone totally commercial,” he told an audience at Pasadena City Hall recently. “We could have sold everything . . . had an official hot dog of the Rose Bowl game. But that’s not the class of the act we like to do.”

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The trials of Bob Cheney began when, shortly after he named Spanish aristocrat Cristobal Colon as grand marshal, American Indian critics and others gave him a harsh dose of revisionist history.

It went something like this: Columbus didn’t “discover” America, he sort of bumped into it. He was no hero, but a zealous pragmatist who enslaved and brutalized the Indians of the Caribbean. His arrival marked the beginning of a century-long “Holocaust,” leaving millions of Indians dead, and it’s nothing to celebrate.

Cheney was offended for a day or two. The choice wasn’t so bad, he still insists. “If I had been in school and had seen a person who was the 20th-generation descendant of Columbus, I think it would have made history a little more meaningful,” he said.

But then he started looking for a compromise. There had to be a constructive way to include the Indian point of view in the parade, he told his tournament colleagues. A month later, in an unprecedented concession to parade critics, he named a second grand marshal--Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.), the only American Indian in Congress.

It was Cheney who “ramrodded” the compromise through, overcoming resistance from a lot of stand-fasters who feared setting a precedent of giving in to pressure, said tournament Vice President Gary Hayward.

Cheney still simmers at the charges of insensitivity.

“If I was so insensitive, I wouldn’t have worked day and night for five weeks to bring in a creditable individual (like Campbell),” he said. “Ask my family what it’s been like. There were sleepless nights, everything. I felt I was sitting on a powder keg.”

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Cheney’s compromise failed to satisfy some ethnic groups, who dismiss Campbell as a sell-out. “We knew they’d find an Indian somewhere,” scoffed Helen Anderson, chairman of the Alliance of Native Americans, whose members will be there New Year’s Day, protesting Colon’s presence in the parade.

Cheney considers the prospect of demonstrations, maybe even disruptions, with pained apprehension. “The last thing you want is to have something positive turn out wrong,” he says.

To understand Robert Cheney you have to know that he comes from a “parade family.” His father, Lyle, was a longtime tournament volunteer and former chairman of the Queen and Court Committee. Cheney’s wife, Ruthie, is the granddaughter and niece of former Pasadena mayors, and as such she made childhood appearances in the parade.

Cheney grew up watching his father, in the volunteer’s white suit, escorting Rose princesses around, seeing the big floats come to rest a couple of blocks from his house and feeling the annual event become part of his blood. “I can remember as a kid, sitting there on the curb, watching the parade go by,” Cheney said.

It was only natural for Cheney to put on the white suit himself. “It’s a lifetime hobby,” said Cheney, who is nearing the end of his year as president.

He talks warmly of his own years on various tournament bodies, such as the Music Committee, which selects the bands for the parade.

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“I couldn’t carry a tune in a handbag,” he said, “but you can see when a band has sharp lines, it looks good and the music is good. You’re the same as John Q., looking at the band come down the street.”

Tournament members--there are 850 of them now--get their kicks from spending long, unrecompensed hours pulling it all together. Tournament officials estimate that members of the Queen and Court Committee, for example, put in 25 hours a week between October and December.

The parade is an event that stitches people all over America together, insists Cheney.

“There will be 5,000 kids here with marching bands, from Colorado Springs and Springfield, Oregon, and Springfield, Missouri,” he said. “My concern is that these people have worked so hard to become an outstanding band and they’re working very hard to raise the money to get to Pasadena. It would be a shame if their experience were anything less than positive.”

Cheney has shown himself to be a stickler for tournament traditions, tournament members say. “Sometimes traditions have a tendency to slip,” said Vice President Hayward, who will get the scarlet blazer next year. “It gets so you might see people wearing red sweaters under their suits or black Reeboks instead of white bucks. Under Bob, you don’t do that.”

Ironically, though, it was Cheney who went against tradition in the face of critics warning that he could be setting a precedent.

“There are always those who say that if you bow to anybody that way, you end up with a political platform, which is something you don’t want in the parade,” Hayward said.

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Above everything, Cheney says, is saving the New Year’s Day show.

“It’s a beautiful event, enjoyed by everyone,” Cheney said. “A million people will come to the parade this year. Look at every one of those faces and you won’t see a grump in the bunch.”

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