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Champion Tobacco Auctioneer was Reluctant to Go Into Business at First

November 30, 1991 GMT

LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. (AP) _ Leading buyers up and down rows of golden tobacco leaves, auctioneer Page Roberts reels off prices in a sing-song voice.

″Sixty-three-three-three-three-four-four-four-five-six-six-six-six, ″ he calls out in dizzying speed that befuddles anyone without a practiced ear. Only the buyers, the warehouse owner and the ticket marker know what he’s saying.

But the silver-haired Roberts said auctioneers have to be more than a quick talker to keep up with bidding. Some buyers bid by holding up a finger or three fingers.

″A glance at me is a bid,″ he said. ″One guy used to flick his cigarette. (Or) he’ll be looking at tobacco like that and he’ll look up at me and that’s a bid.″

″He’s clear,″ said ticket marker Wilson Cook, who logs tobacco sales for the growers. ″He watches his ticket marker. He watches his buyers.″

Roberts’ father, John Edward, was an auctioneer as was his older brother. The 60-year-old Roberts took up the profession in 1955 and won the title of World Champion Tobacco Auctioneer in 1982.

″I just heard it all my life,″ Roberts said in a recent interview. ″We’d ride around when I was just a young teen-ager and he’d (his father) get me to sing the numbers out. He said, ’Don’t worry about speed. As you sell tobacco, the speed will come.‴

Roberts resisted auctioneering at first. ″I kind of fought against going in the business,″ he said. ″I just didn’t know what I wanted to do.″

He went to college a year, then got a job running computers for a mill. But that job got old and his father suggested Roberts get some experience in tobacco auctions.

″I thought it was awful,″ said Roberts’ wife, Ann Gayle. They had been married about a year when Roberts heeded the call. ″When he gave up his job to go into the tobacco business, I didn’t know how we were going to make it. We lived on my teaching salary.″

Roberts spent time with an auctioneer in South Carolina. ″The next year I had a job,″ he said. But he said it was five years before he felt secure in the business.

Roberts, who lives in his hometown of Clarksville, starts the season selling to tobacco companies at warehouses in Lawrenceville and nearby South Hill, then follows the aromatic golden leaf to Kentucky.

The tobacco selling season begins in the summer and ends in the fall.

″It’s a fast business,″ he said. ″It’s always changing. You especially feel good if you really get the thing to going ... if I get my chant in a good rhythm, it’s a good feeling. If the tobacco is selling well and the farmers are smiling, that’s like hitting a home run.″

Roberts said he doesn’t see the fast-talking auctioneer becoming obsolete because auctions are still the best way to sell the tobacco crop. ″This is the fastest form of selling a product,″ he said.

Even at home, Roberts talks fast.

″When he has something to tell me, he tells me quickly so I have to listen,″ his wife said.