Leaving the Press of Work
By Thomas K. Arnold
(page 1 of 2)Bill RobinsonIt was a Monday morning, Indian summer, September 25, 1978. It was just after 9 a.m., and Bill Robinson, the San Diego Police Department’s public information officer, was in a chief’s meeting when a secretary poked her head in the door.
“She said, ‘We just had two planes collide over North Park; it doesn’t appear there are any survivors,’” Robinson recalls. “I had no idea what to expect.”
It was worse than anyone could have imagined. Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 182, en route from Sacramento, had collided with a private plane in the sky over North Park, raining fire and destruction over two square blocks of what had been a peaceful residential neighborhood.
All 135 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 727 were killed, as were the student pilot and his instructor aboard the single-engine Cessna 172. Seven people on the ground were killed—among them two children and their mother.
A police sergeant took Robinson to the scene, and what he saw would stay with him for the rest of his life. “It was Armageddon,” he says. “It was absolutely shocking to see the wreckage of the plane and pieces of bodies all about, hanging from trees and telephone poles. ... It was a hot day, and you could smell burning flesh...”
His voice trails off. More than 25 years later, the memories are still painful. Robinson clears his throat, then continues: “My subconscious was absorbing everything, even as I went about my job. At one point, there were at least 300 reporters from all over the country. We would take them out of the perimeter and bring them in as close as we could and then, when they had seen enough, take them back. On and on it went, and the bodies and the body parts and the smoke and the smell, that horrible burning smell...”
Eight months later, on a flight home from Mexico, “I started having flashbacks about the crash as the plane was descending,” Robinson says. “And I felt a strange sensation in my head.” The next morning, Robinson woke up with slurred speech and a paralyzed right side. He had suffered a stroke.
The symptoms disappeared as quickly as they had come on, and within a few days, Robinson was back at work, “not knowing what had happened.” Less than a year later, on another flight from Mexico, the same thing happened: flashbacks during descent, slurred speech and paralysis the next day. This time, it was his left side.
But this time, Robinson wasn’t so lucky. The symptoms didn’t go away. An examination revealed he had lost one of his vocal cords. To this day, his speech is slurred, and he walks with a limp.
If this story reads like a eulogy, accept an apology. Obviously, Bill Robinson is not dead. It’s just that Robinson, who’s retiring this month after nearly 30 years as the voice of the San Diego Police Department, is a great guy, and it would be difficult—if not impossible—to find anyone who’d disagree.
Robinson, who turned 62 in August, is a man with marvelous stories to tell. To those who know him well, the personal anecdotes and professional vignettes blur in a colorful tapestry of comedy, tragedy and drama. Lots of drama.
There are stories like that tragic plane crash that stunned and saddened an entire city, and of a debilitating illness that nearly killed him. There are stories of police scandal, of horrendous crimes and savage slayings, and of a forthright, determined man who shook up the old guard, weathered six police chiefs and changed the way crime is reported in this city. And there are stories of giant vegetables, and of a Mexican bullfighter who stole his heart and took his only son.
“He’s one of the greatest press men ever, and he’s probably released more stories than any human alive,” says Rick Carlson, a member of the Violent Crimes Task Force who was Robinson’s sworn-officer compadre in SDPD’s press office from 1985 until 1988. “The reporters respected him; they always went to Bill for information first.” “I remember him as being very easygoing, very cooperative and very professional,” says Jack Williams, a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune who covered the police beat for The Evening Tribune when Robinson took command of SDPD’s press office in April 1975. “He would do anything to help out.”
Ah, but not this morning. A phone call to Robinson elicits an uncharacteristically terse response: “We had a shooting at a hospital in Chula Vista, a child molest in Logan Heights and a suspect who escaped a S.W.A.T. action in Tierrasanta. Call me back after lunch.”
Down goes the phone. Robinson’s on the job, doing what he does best.
The first thing you notice about Bill Robinson is his enormous head. Big, round—a vast expanse of forehead shades a pair of riveting blue eyes and long, teen-idol lashes. It could be a metaphor for one of Robinson’s more peculiar tales—about the giant vegetables he discovered in a rural Mexican farm village.
It was 1979, four years after Robinson had joined SDPD. His bullfighter wife had been called to the Mexican state of Guanajuato, 265 miles northwest of Mexico City, to test some bulls. Robinson accompanied her. “Someone mentioned there was a farm near town where they grew giant vegetables. I wanted to know more,” Robinson says. The locals sent him to a photo studio, “and the photographer showed me pictures he had taken of a 60-pound cabbage, an 8-pound onion and 5-foot-long collard greens.”
giant vegetablesHe persuaded the photographer to take him to the farm, where, indeed, the place was a harvest of giant vegetables—including the 8-pound onion. The farmer gave it to Bill as a souvenir. He showed Robinson a square of paper with hieroglyphic-like symbols, given to the farmer 30 years earlier by a stranger who claimed to have been given it by alien abductors. This, he said, was the magic formula that allowed him to grow such magnificent produce.
The symbols meant nothing to Robinson, but he had seen the vegetables. After returning to the United States, he couldn’t stop thinking about the Mexican farmer and his bounty. A former newspaper man, Robinson was compelled to write about his discovery. He sold the story to San Diego Home/Garden Magazine. “It got picked up by [the wire service] UPI,” he says, “and it got a good ride—I got 300 letters from all over the world, and people traveled from the far corners of the globe to this little village, offering the farmer money for his secret. But he always refused.”
Billy Joe Robinson was born in Abilene, Texas, on August 16, 1941. His mother died shortly after he was born, and he was raised by his grandparents. He attended Church of Christ schools and was a champion sprinter in high school. In 1960, Robinson joined the Marine Corps and spent four years at Camp Pendleton; he liked it here so much he returned and took a job as a bank teller in Downey. He went to night school, a junior college at first and then Cal State Fullerton, from which Robinson graduated in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications.
He sent out scores of résumés throughout the Southland, and soon got a bite: He landed a gig as public information officer for the Model Cities Program in San Diego, a federally funded program that sought to improve the quality of life for residents of Southeastern San Diego. Among his duties was writing, editing and distributing an eight-page newspaper, which he enjoyed the most. “I had been a newspaper carrier in Abilene,” Robinson says, “and one day while I was folding papers, this columnist walked into the circulation room and said, ‘Hurry up and get these papers out; people are hungry for news.’ I never forgot that.”