It is a fairly serious time, and we are fairly serious folks dealing with fairly serious issues: guns, mental health, economic disaster, global warming, war, Michelle’s bangs. It feels a bit like that time when you had to babysit your younger brother and younger sister. Your folks were gone, you were scared silly, and — listen for it — there’s the dreaded bump from downstairs in the dark. If you remember, you were pretty sure the noise was the cat knocking over the pizza you had balanced on the TV. But there was an outside chance the noise was a mass murderer. So you sent your younger sister down to check it out. Today is a similar time. A time for decisions and responsibility. A serious time.
But do serious times require only seriousness? Consider Dr. Greg Robinson.
Dr. Robinson’s size is the first noticeable feature. He is a BIG MAN. With his shaved head, broad smile and large body, there is an urge to step back a little while shaking hands. He’s just too imposing. Too big. Too close. But then he talks. He speaks of compassion, children, his adult children, other’s children, kindness and more children. Really. It’s amazing. Soon you realize that conversation is a piece of sparkly yarn that Dr. Robinson swats first one direction and then the next, until he eventually ends up rolling around on the floor. As a listener, your job is to enjoy and periodically give the yarn a tug. It is mesmerizing.
“I remember my elementary school principal who wore wingtips with some type of taps. I could always hear him pacing up and down the halls. He never came in the classroom. Ever. I thought if I ran a school, I’d do it differently… A lot of principals work really hard to learn kids’ names. I’m sorry to say that as you get older, all you remember are the names of the families. Come on, what do you expect from me? I’m a guy who had a stroke… When I go to Hy-Vee and see all my former students working and I can’t find anything on my shopping list, I just cry out: ‘For God sakes, help me.’ It works.”
Dr. Robinson began his career in Urbandale as the principal at Jensen Elementary School. He soon became Superintendent of Urbandale Schools. Nine years later, a stroke pushed him into an early retirement. Life.
His message to first graders, teachers and parents over all those years was simple: “I want everybody to take a breath; we’re going to do our best.” This notion of “trying your best” was leavened with more than a sprinkling of pixie dust. “I dressed up as a clown when I was the principal because it should be fun to come to school.” And each first-grader was sent home with a “we are going to work hard” picture and a “we are going to have fun” picture.
“Expect the Best” was his motto. Still is. However, humor softens the edges of his life. Recently, he fell down the stairs — perhaps not the most hilarious event. As he lay crumpled in the stairway, holding his broken arm, he heard the EMT say, “Dr. Robinson, are you OK?” Of course, the EMT was a former student. Dr. Robinson was OK as he shouted nonstop questions from the back of the ambulance on the way to the hospital: “Can we open the windows back here?” “Can’t we turn on the siren and race down Aurora?” “Did you really grow up to be an EMT?”
Dr. Robinson still follows his students. He still visits them at the hospital. He still makes calls when families are in trouble. He shaved his head to show solidarity for an injured friend and pierced an ear to motivate a student struggling with life. He is concerned about education in the State of Iowa. He meticulously follows the legislature’s decisions. And his heart breaks when tragedy strikes the school-age population. He is a serious man dealing with serious issues. On the other hand: “I sit with strings of Christmas lights and change the bulbs to Urbandale colors, blue and white. Am I crazy?”
Well, yes, but perhaps a balm for serious times. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.