Three weeks ago, I joined more than 60 of my former USA Today colleagues and family members at a surprise retirement party for Robert Robinson, who had toiled as an editor/writer for Gannett newspapers for nearly 40 years, including USA Today from its inception in 1982.
Robert (aka ‘Roberto’ to some) wore a look of sheer shock on his face when he peered into a banquet-roomful of folks, that welcomed him with a standing ovation at a Tyson’s Corner (VA) restaurant. Mission accomplished, Barbara. You flummoxed him good, Mrs. Robinson. In fact, I hadn’t seen him so confused since a 1999 golf outing when one of his 14 tee shots on the Par 4 and 5 holes, soared 250 yards before landing softly on the fairway. His other tee shots that day found water, woods, bunker or rough. But on the Par 4, 18th hole, Robert’s eyes reverently followed the trajectory of his ball and seemed to ask, ‘Did I do that?’ He flashed a similar awestruck gaze two weeks ago when he saw the crowded room and wondered ‘How did they get here?’
You drew us there, my friend, with magnetic qualities that define you as a consummate professional, a man of principle, an advocate for those without voice, a beloved family man and a blessed shoulder- to- lean-on soul. You went to work every day armed with work ethic character traits useful in any field: discipline, determination, dedication and directness, to name a few. Observing from a distance, you surveyed nearly every critical issue with a thoughtful gaze and calm demeanor and spoke your mind even when you knew your view wouldn’t be shared by those in charge.
One-by-one, family members, friends and former colleagues praised and extolled Robert for being a loving father, conscientious church member, as well as one of our profession’s more gifted and committed practitioners. Robert’s adult children, Demarcus and Nicole, reflected on life with ‘dad’ during their younger years and spoke touchingly of their father, who kept them close even when he was far away on assignment.
One colleague thanked him for his concern and comforting words on the passing of a loved one; another noted his emphasis on fairness and sensitivity when debating the pros and cons of publishing a story that might damage severely the reputation of an organization or individual. If there were Pulitzer prizes given for squashing or re-working stories of questionable value, Robert most likely would have been among the nominees on several occasions.
As a top editor at a newspaper that has maintained more than 2 million readers for the last 20 years, Robert never took lightly the impact and influence of USA Today. By example, he encouraged others to follow his lead. When I joined the sports department in 1986, Robert was the copy editor in charge of indoctrinating me and other sports department newcomers on, among other things, the USA Today ‘write-tight’ philosophy. Our easy-to-read style prompted some competitors to dub us ‘McPaper.’ My job was to edit, rewrite or do follow-up briefs for our now defunct For the Record and Sportsline columns. Once in a hurry, I sent him an edited story that accused someone of a crime, but didn’t include the word ‘allegedly’. With his eyebrows raised, Robert strolled over to my desk and asked calmly, “Are you sure we want to say this?” Correction was made and his message understood.
He readily showed his tender side, as well. When tragedy struck my family, in the form of the death of two of my brothers, Robert, then a deputy managing editor of sports, was among the first to express his condolences and probably had something to do with the USA Today flowers sent to each funeral.
‘How boutcha,’ and ‘Man, you crazy,’ are among his best known Robert-isms. My most enjoyable times with him have been spent on the golf course, where his antics kept me giggling (silently, of course)from start to finish. He moans and groans after each errant shot and manages a smile or two when the subject shifts to sports. We played on a Disney World course a few weeks ago and Robert woke up the birds with a drive off the first tee that ricocheted through the trees. “Ah, man, I quit,” he said. A few holes later, his drive on No. 5 found the water, which prompted him to declare, “I’m going home.”
He was in a much better mood – and groove – when we made the turn. On No. 16, a par 4, he smacked his drive down the middle of the fairway, lofted his approach shot onto the green, his ball landing a mere three feet away from the flag. He missed the birdie putt and, again, derided himself harshly. “Ah, I could have been somebody,” he lamented.
No need to worry about that, Robert, who retired in June as a deputy managing editor, operations. Judging by the surprise sendoff you recently received from family, friends and colleagues for a superb career in journalism, You Are Somebody.
Let me know when you want to tee ’em up.