Category: In Tribute

The Power of Local Journalism in Alabama

For the first time since 2006,  I didn’t make it to Birmingham, Alabama in the spring for the Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum at Samford University in honor of my late husband, a pioneering legal journalist.   There were delays this time in scheduling the busy speaker, Brian Lyman, a political reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. He was tentatively scheduled to appear in March, but local political events kept interfering – and even the April 10th appearance was cancelled that morning when the Alabama Governor suddenly resigned in a major scandal.

In the end, I was grateful that Samford’s  Journalism and Mass Communications department was able to set up a live electronic  feed when the Forum was finally rescheduled to May 1st and I got to be a faraway participant.*  Lyman had a positive message for Samford’s journalism students – arguing that despite the struggles, local newspapers like the Montgomery Advertiser  were evolving in exciting times.  He explained that the declining newspaper revenue that resulted in fewer editors monitoring a reporter’s copy also could have a positive result:  a new freedom to pursue the kind of human stories first crafted by heavyweights like Jimmy Breslin back in the 60s.  He concluded that today’s reporters must be story tellers – “we must show how facts are experiences.”  Lyman further said  that political journalism focuses on power – and stories about the use and abuse of power are important and need to be covered, summing it up with the challenge that  “Reporters must be the bridge between the council chamber and the living room.”

In a time of change and increasing public distrust of the media, it was refreshing to hear a reporter champion the challenges today, and glorify the local beat .  My late husband started on local beats in Alabama during a time of great change in the 60s and was always just as proud of those years as his later part in pioneering legal journalism on a national scale. I was thankful for this affirmation of the power of local news.  And this fall I plan to visit Tim’s amazing family in Birmingham – and also look forward to meeting the latest students to benefit from the Robinson Forum , as well as from the scholarship program and an internship at the Washington Post.  Go Samford!

For more background, visit and


*My thanks to Bernie Ankney, Chair, Journalism and Mass Communications Dept.  and Jackie Long, Recruitment and Alumni Affairs Officer for coordinating the electronic feed – and to my brother in law Michael Robinson and his wife Carolyn, who kept me informed on all the changes and represented the family in person this year.

Our Wise Elder – A Lesson from Jimmy Carter

“I have had a wonderful life…and I am placing my fate in God’s hands,” former President Jimmy Carter

told the nation at a press conference on a steamy August day in the south.  Already an honored senior

statesman thanks to his direction of the Carter Center – which is renowned the world over for its

advocacy of human rights and democracy and earned him the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize — Carter gave a

statement  that day which emblazoned itself into the American consciousness as truly heroic.

Yet this evolution into statesmanship  came after a rocky presidency.


Like many Americans, I remember the scathing economy under President Carter, the oil shortages and

high prices and ultimately the Iranian hostage crisis and botched rescue.  Yet the President so

humiliated by his ultimate defeat in his run for a second term, has become a moral giant in his battle

against a melanoma that has spread to his liver and now his brain.


Now 90, Carter displayed humility, humor, gratitude and amazing wisdom in accepting the diagnosis

and remarking “I’m ready for anything and I’m looking forward to a new adventure.’

According to a story filed by CNN, Carter described his partner Rosalynn, the former First Lady as the

“pinnacle” of his life for 69 years now.  Thank you, Mr. Carter, for showing us what grace looks like in the

face of a horrific medical situation.  That is true leadership.

The Power of Teams

I have often lectured  on the power of teams in shaping one’s career – and I recently completed a dream team assignment over the holidays with the Honors College at Wayne State University –revamping and preparing a research website for launch.  I was a graduate of Monteith College at WSU, but after that small experimental college closed its doors, graduates became affiliated with Honors.

Last winter I finally got a chance to start networking through the WSU alumni association and met the Honors Dean,  Jerry Herron, who turned out to be both a southerner from Texas, (my late husband was from Alabama) and a former New Yorker  (Brooklyn felt like my second home) before he was recruited to Wayne State University. He chose to live in downtown Detroit for many years and wrote lyrically about his belief in the resilience of the city, including AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History.

One of my dreams since I recently returned to my hometown from Brooklyn was to help in the revitalization of a once great city.  I already had experience in watching cities fall apart and finding ways to impact their revival, in both Brooklyn and LA.  I also had a lot of experience in launching new projects, both organizations and websites, including in SF during the dotcom boom years.

The key, I always believed, was not in individual glory, but in working with great teams.  After meeting and talking with Dean Herron, I was sure the Honors College was already a leader in Detroit and I just wanted to help spread its influence through vital research and community service (part of the four pillars of the College) on the area’s future.  While my time on the project went by too quickly, it was long enough to verify the influence of powerhouse individuals both at the college and WSU or partnering with the University.  I am including the link where you can see all the extraordinary individuals affiliated with Honors (  I also worked closely with Andre Moses, a graduate of Eastern’s Honors program, who served as my student intern and associate.  I remain so grateful for this opportunity and only hope I can continue to be involved in Detroit’s future as it emerges from bankruptcy into a bright new day.

Clowning and the Power of Laughter – A Couple’s Journey for 50 Years

I’ve always believed in the healing power of laughter, but I didn’t realize what an affirming  lesson was in store for me recently when I  flew to Northern California to help celebrate  the 50th wedding anniversary of my late husband’s oldest brother Gerald and his wife Martha.  Both southerners, they met when he was stationed at an army base near her hometown.  I was expecting a rather traditional event, but instead the community center in their Coarsegold community near Yosemite Park was even more a celebration of their years together as clowns!

I had experienced the special joy Martha and Gerald shared with others through their clown company, Carrousel of Clowns, when my late husband and I lived in Los Angeles.  I was especially honored back then in the early ’90s when they asked me to help them create a brochure and invited us to many of their events, including cheering up the elderly in nursing homes and sick children in hospitals, as well as clowning at festivals and parades and private parties.  But I didn’t realize that the clowning began so early in their marriage – and that Gerald had already discovered his lifelong avocation before they met.

Carman George, a reporter for Sierra Star, a local newspaper, captured the joy that clowning brought to their lives and to those around them in a half page article before the event that seemed to set the tone for the actual day.  She also was there that day to chronicle the fun and laughter shared with their friends.

As we entered the community hall, each guest was quietly given a squeezable red clown nose to hide In a pocket so that everyone could surprise the couple before they cut their anniversary cake.  More than 80 people crowded the hall. I sat next to three generations of a family involved in my relatives’ clown company, which is still active in Los Angeles.  They talked about what great role models Martha and Gerald were for them as they shared their love of clowning.

Finally it was time for the toast and Gerry and Martha were asked to close their eyes while everyone put on the red noses.  We toasted the surprised and delighted couple and laughed at each other’s funny faces.  Thank you, Luther and Molly( their clown names), the revelers seemed to be saying, for taking your magic and  laughter to Coarsegold and brightening up the lives of yet another community!!  They love you for it!


Tom Petty and Dream Teams

There’s a lot being written lately about the importance of “dream teams” in success.

Malcom Gladwell writes about it in Outliers and Keith Ferrazzi in his new book Who’s Got Your Back. My late husband Tim Robinson, a legendary journalist, often said he wasn’t sure if it was talent or pure luck that got him bylines covering major civil rights stories and then a key role on the Watergate team at the Washington Post, pioneering legal journalism and finally one of  the early experts inventing the editorial side of search on the internet – he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.  But he also surrounded himself with amazing “teams,” and I think the most remarkable was his family.

It all started in the south, in a small town called Dora, Alabama.  I remain so proud to have been accepted as an honorary Southerner and part of the extraordinary Sumner and Robinson families. Tim’s parents, Clarence and Edith Sumner, both alumni of Samford University in Birmingham (then known as Howard College), were the first dream team in Tim’s life.  He adored them.  Samford was the school that gave the entire Robinson family the key to a brighter future. Clarence Robinson had started college at Howard but dropped out because of the depressions to work as a coal miner for most of his early career until around the age of 40. That’s when the mines started closing and he lost his job. Tim’s father’s solution to this midlife crisis?  He found the courage to go back to college and. finish his degree in education at Howard, becoming a high school teacher. He also encouraged his wife Edith to get her education degree, and later pushed all their kids to attend: Terah, Gerald, Mike, Nelson and Tim, the youngest.  When they were together, the Robinsons generated amazing warmth and love as a family, something I got to experience when I was first engaged to Tim.  He father was also a Baptist preacher and the first time I flew south to meet the family, Tim happily took me to the small Baptist Church near their home for Sunday Service  (where his father preached while Tim played the piano), followed by a potluck lunch on the grounds with heaping servings of his mom’s delicious chicken and potato salad.

When Tim announced to his parents at an early age that he wanted to be a Washington Post journalist when he grew up, they encouraged him.  Tim was taught his first lessons by his mother in a one-room schoolhouse in Pumpkin Center. He had mastered the violin and piano by age 5 and tested out at 170 IQ long before he graduated from Dora High School at the age of 15. He started college and also landed the first job in his storied newspaper career at the Daily Mountain Eagle, where he had already been calling in football scores to the sports pages while in high school.

Before he could vote, he was assistant city editor at The Birmingham Post-Herald and working on the weekends as a reporter for UPI, all as he finished his degree at Samford.  And yes, he made it to the Washington Post, but not until he was turned down a few times by the hiring editor as too young. Tim’s solution to this setback was to get his graduate degree in journalism from American University and keep trying.  He then took an interim job as an editor at the weekly Examiner, but was still in his early 20s when he finally was hired and eventually named to the Watergate team.

Tim always loved to talk about his family and the importance of being in Alabama for Christmas while his parents were alive.  Even after their death, Tim still had the strength of family to lean on  – when we moved out to California, we got to live near the two oldest brothers he had missed knowing well as an adult, Gerald and Mike and their spouses Martha and Caroline in LA and his Uncle Mike and Aunt Adah’s large family in  Northern California..  Then when the economy got tough in southern California and both of us found our jobs threatened, Tim kept listening to LA’s Tom Petty and Heartbreakers singing “Running Down a Dream” and refused to look back as he took on the Internet and brought me along, all the while remembering his courageous parents were not afraid to dream big when the world was changing around them.

Re Tim

Joe Chapman wrote that Tim was “a bit of a carouser.”

Oh Joe, you do Tim a disservice. He was a ball of fun! Party boy extroadinaire. Right Al?

Surely Ron Tate could attest to that. Tim and Howell Raines were contemporaries at the BX Post-Herald in 1964-65; BX-born and bred Howell was a recent graduate of Birmingham-Southern College, a Methodist school. Tim was a full time student at Howard College, a Baptist institution. Did Tim and Howell’s somewhat divergent personalities tell us something about the difference between the Baptists and the Methodists?

You know (skuse, uk) that’s an ongoing study in the South, or at least it used to be. While Tim was a daytime student at Howard and a nighttime full-time journalist for the P-H, his school acquired Cumberland Law School and moved it from Tennessee. That gave Howard university status, Tim noted.

BXers will recall that BX’s Howard’s prexy at the time, Leslie Wright, was an ardent champion of Gov. George Wallace. Tim noted that, too. So Howard was renamed Samford University after its most generous benefactor, Frank Samford, founder of Liberty National Life Insurance Corp., which was a huge success (It’s name now is Torchmark Corp.).

As I recall, Tim graduated at a tender age, 18, or thereabouts. His youth came up at dinner Virgie and I had him over the house for while he was visiting Atlanta to make a speech in the mid 1980s. He was editor of the National Law Journal by then.

Once, he told us, a staffer of his suggested that Tim could graduate from college at such a young age because Howard must’ve been “one of those crappy southern schools.”

“No,” Tim said he responded, “I’m smart.”

Indeed, he was one of the smartest persons I’ve ever known. The expansiveness of his mind could be breathtaking. For example, he liked all kinds of music, including the subversive variety. On more than one occasion he, I and others would gather in my apartment (near the Charlie Boswell golf course) to guzzle some beer and listen to Pete Seeger do his kommonist songs, including We Shall Overcome, as well as hear early Bob Dylan (Tim especially liked The Ballad of Hattie Carroll). We were joined at least once by two of Tim’s hometown friends, Jimmy Blackwell and a fellow named Monk whose full name I cannot remember. They were Tim’s age, and like Tim they were fine young men.

Besides being a fan of subversive music, Tim was also an aficionado of classical European music. So when the BX Symphony season was underway Duard LeGrande (was he news editor?) assigned him to review opening nights.

I usually accompanied him, free-loading on the comp ticket Tim was entitled to. We were both impressed by an operatic rendition of “Knoxville 1915,” which was adapted from the opening chapter of James Agee’s masterpiece novel, “A Death in the Family.” Tim thought Agee was a tragic genius, too.

Tim and I recently exchanged e-mails on how we both still remember the Knoxville 1915 performance. And, of course, he was into Rock, becoming an aficionado of the Doors. When its lead singer Jim Morrison died, Tim wrote the obit for his then-employer, the WA Post.

In the process, Tim had the task that all of us in our business hate — getting comment from Morrison’s father, a retired U.S. Navy admiral. Tim told me about that while I visited with him in WA. What was doubly awful was that it was Tim who broke the news to the father. (Tim and I had gotten together while I was stationed in Richmond, just from the road from the Nation’s capital).

I guess you could say Tim was good to me before we even met. Or better, I should say, a friend of UPI. While he was assistant state editor of the BX P-H I was manning the one-man UPI Mobile bureau. The P-H’s bulldog edition circulated in south Alabama and therefore it contained just about every south Alabama story produced by UPI and AP. Consistently, more than 90 percent of that copy was UPI’s. Tim was responsible for that section.

When I arrived in Birmingham in summer of 1964, I learned from our stringer budget that we were paying Tim the grand sum of $5 per month and his boss, State Editor George Cook, the princely amount of $10 per month. But Tim was also on our regular payroll as our part-time weekend staffer. Even though he was a mere teenager, he handled filing both the newspaper wire (7562) and the broadcast wire (7551) like an old pro. And for his $5 per month stringer fee, he was always on the lookout for stories that UPI could use that the P-H would reject. Translation: racial stories.

One of his highlights was the story that he and his friend and roommate Al Benn, a full-time BX Unipresser, ran across at the Alabama State Fair: A Ku Klux Klan exhibition booth. Manning the exhibit was one Gary Thomas Rowe.

Later, Tommy Rowe would burst onto the national scene as an FBI informer who tipped the Feds to who the Kluxers were who assassinated Viola Liuzzo as she drove blacks from Montgomery to Selma at the conclusion of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march. Rowe and three other Kluxers were in the car from which the fatal shots were fired. Rowe would maintain he pointed his pistol away from Mrs. Liuzzo. (Al, correct any confusion here on my part since you were directly involved in the KKK exhibit story).

Prior to the Selma-MG march getting underway, three of Selma’s low-lifes one night bludgeoned one of the “white niggers” who had arrived to participate in the event. In BX we got word that the victim was in an ambulance headed to BX’s Methodist Hospital (correct despite some “official” reports have him being taken to a different hospital).

Almost simultaneously we got a report that a passenger train had derailed near BX. And that’s all we knew. So not knowing the seriousness of either the Selma attack or the train wreck I decided to go to the train wreck, leaving behind my stalwart sidekick Al Benn to handle the ambulance arrival with P-H Asst. State Editor Tim Robinson ready to help out.

The train wreck turned out to be virtually nothing. The train jumped the track at a slow rate of speed and noone was even shaken up, let alone injured. By the time I got back to BX there was pandemonium. The Selma victim turned out to be a Unitarian minister from Boston by the name of James Reeb. He was unconscious and the prognosis was negative and he would die.

The always-thinking Tim had rushed to the hospital with a CAMERA and snapped Reeb being wheeled into the emergency room. That was the only still photograph of Reeb. AP was stuck with having to use a fuzzy TV frame from WAPI-TV. Reeb’s murder prompted then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to make a televised national address to Congress to urge passage of the Voting Rights Act, which changed the face of our nation.

We didn’t have TV in our office, which was just off the P-H’s newsroom. But we had a radio and we listened, Tim, Al and me and maybe Joe. Tim was reading Johnson’s text on the B-wire as Johnson was delivering his address and suddently Tim blurted out, “Ooo, hoo, hoo, wait’ll you hear this.”

Moments later LBJ would use the phrase “We shall overcome.” The segs in the P-H newsroom were not happy.

Tim was first and foremost a newshound. For example, four BX public high schools were about to be desegregated in Sept. 1965 and that put us in a bind. Eye knew we could rely on ex-Unipresser and then-BX broadcast news director Elvin Stanton to cover one school and Al to cover another. But what about the other two schools?

Well, then Southern Division News Editor in Atlanta HLS volunteered to send over race reporter Al Kuettner, an offer I leaped at.

But what about the fourth school? Should eye un-man the bureau and go myself? But Tim came to our rescue by volunteering to cut his classes that day and cover the fourth school. A godsend to UPI.

I should like to mention here that George Cook, Tim’s boss, was 100 percent cooperative when it came to springing Tim loose to cover a racial story for UPI. It would’ve been nice to have had George at the UPI/Alabama reunion in MG in April of last year. But George died some years ago. And the reunion was the last time I saw Tim; he looked completely fit. So you never know.

Did Tim ever cause me some grief? In a way, yes, but not really. In 1964 or ’65 Tim’s alma mater, Walker County High School, called him to find someone of some “prominence” to help judge the upcoming Miss Walker County High School beauty pageant. Tim asked me.

I did not consider myself prominent. But as a favor to him I agreed to do it. I figured I’d just be a passive judge. But one of the other judges, a BX disc jockey, had no clue about what was going on. The other judge was Miss Howard College who was totally deferential to those of us of the male persuasion. So after a couple of false starts I just took over the judging and in the end suggested the winner and the other two judges went right along.

Next time I saw Tim he informed me that our selection was unpopular. As I recall, we picked a 16 y.o. girl who was only a junior and we shudda picked a senior. Groan. So, whatever you were involved in with TIM, there was always substance.

Some of us have commented on Tim’s using as his professional moniker T. Sumner Robinson. I recall Tim telling me somewhere along the way that when he married Jan it was understood she would keep her own name. So, Tim said, since she wouldn’t change her name he’d change his from Timothy S. Robinson. Jan may want to correct me here. But it makes a nice southern story.

Tony Heffernan AJ BX MI MG Etc.