The irony here is that in all my years working with Bill Robinson, I never had to write a "eulogy column." Whenever a prominent local sports star died, Robinson wrote the column.
"You won't need to write these," Robinson told me once. "They're hard to write. It's tough getting the essence of the man in 500 words."
Then, he jokingly said, "Well, you might have to write one. When I die."
I always liked that phrase: "essence of the man."
Robby - as I called him - had a knack for getting the "essence" of a man, or woman, in a brief 500 words. His columns were simple, usually praising someone or pointing out something significant that happened in a game. Sometimes they were just brief nuggets where he listed what local high school stars were doing in college, or beyond. But they were enjoyable reads.
He had a folksy way of writing, almost as if he was talking to you on your front porch. I always attributed that to his Tennessee background and his hometown of Milan, a place he described as being much like Marietta where "people stopped and talked to you on the street."
Robinson was a consummate teacher, too. Many of his words of wisdom I use in my classroom today at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.
One of his favorites: "Don't tell me about it, show me." In other words, don't just "tell" someone the score, "show" the reader how it happened. He firmly believed his reader was the most important person in journalism. He wrote for that reader.
Another bit of advice for budding journalists ala Robinson: "If you don't have a lead, forget it. Just write. One will come to you. But don't stare at the damn computer."
Just Thursday I shared that Robinson caveat with a student, telling them to start writing from the second paragraph on and then come back to the lead. Just write: "My lead goes here" and move on. I probably should have added "don't stare at the damn computer."
Robinson, whether in his writing, editing, or page layout, was a perfectionist. The occasions when you'd see his temper was when something didn't go the right way in the composing room, or he didn't get the space he thought needed in the sports section.
On one occasion, I remember him telling me about the time he kicked a trash can down the stairs. The Marietta Times was located on Putnam Street then and the newsroom was upstairs. When you entered the front door, you could turn left into the advertising and business office, or climb the stairs to the newsroom.
Well, something didn't go as Robby thought it should have that day and he kicked a large trash receptacle at the top of the stairs on his way out of the building. It tumbled down the stairs, scattering its contents, and coming to rest at the feet of Publisher William McKinney, who had just stepped out into the foyer.
"I thought I was going to get fired on the spot," Robinson recalled.
McKinney just looked up and said, "Are you feeling better now, Billy."
On another occasion, during a stressful time of learning a new computer system, Robinson had just sent a story into oblivion with no idea of how to get it back. We had to call in our computer guru to find the story. Finally, after much trepidation, and the pressure of trying to make deadline, the story was retrieved and pasted on the page. As a compositor whisked the page to the camera room, Robinson strode back into the newsroom.
Upon reaching our sports corner, Robbie moved the chairs out of the way, as I looked on in confusion. Once he had cleared a spot on the floor, he lay down on his back, resembling a turtle in need of assistance. With his arms and legs flailing out at his sides, he began screaming for about 10 seconds, just a high-pitched "eeeeeeeeeeee." Then, just as quickly, he got up and dusted off his pants, looked at me, and said, "Well, where's lunch?"
"What was that?" I asked.
"Primal scream therapy," he said. "I feel so much better now."
While that may have been one way to release tension, Robinson usually found his best relaxation with his collies. He owned seven in his lifetime. His collies, and sports, were the loves of his life.
In 1986, Robinson was invited to go to USA Today for a four-month internship. He said there was no way he was boarding his collie for that long - and the apartment complex in Washington D.C. did not allow pets. He asked me to take his place. I did.
When I came back, Robbie said, "Tell you what, why don't you be the sports editor and I'll be the assistant." And we did just that, swapping job titles.
However, Bill Robinson could have taught those folks at USA Today quite a bit had he gone.
You see, he was way ahead of the curve. He believed that a story longer than 500 words would bore the reader.
So, here was a new national newspaper focused on telling a story in a dozen column inches or less - and Billy G. Robinson had been doing just that for his entire career.
He was an icon in his field, just as much as Grantland Rice and Red Smith were in their day. He was named to the Ohio Prep Sports Writers Hall of Fame and received Marietta College's Distinguished Service Award. His tireless promotion of the community was instrumental in getting the first NCAA Division III World Series in Marietta in 1976.
And he loved covering Marietta College - especially its baseball program, although he wasn't afraid to tell the legendary Don Schaly that he had "no business playing baseball in 25 degrees and snow." If there was a historical moment in Marietta College athletics, Bill Robinson covered it.
Today, in that big, "heated" press box in the sky, Billy G. Robinson is covering a game. Such legends as Rice and Smith might be seated right next to him. Myron Cope is doing the play-by-play. Don Schaly is on the field, turning in his lineup card.
I can hear Robbie saying to them both, "Gentlemen, watch and observe. You are about to see how the game of baseball is supposed to be played. Oh, and Grant, save that four horsemen stuff for Notre Dame football. You're about to watch Marietta College baseball. All nine of their players are 'horsemen'."
Sorry, Robbie, but this is longer than 500 words. Like you said, it's hard getting the essence of a man in 500 words. Forgive me for using twice as many, but you're worth it. And I don't think the reader will mind.
David Grande served as Bill Robinson's assistant sports editor for seven years, and worked with him for 19. In 1986, Robinson and Grande swapped roles, working together for another five years. When Grande founded the weekly Marietta Leader, Robinson joined him as sports editor for seven years.