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Remembering Robbie

Above

The oil portrait of A.J. Robertson is part of a series painted for the University by Centurion BILL HARDIN ’50.

The new bronze statue of A.J. Robertson on Bradley’s campus brought back memories of the iconic athletic director and coach.

Charles “Ozzie” Orsborn ’39 MS ’51

Basketball player, retired coach and athletic director

A.J. was my coach. He was a very direct, honest person. If he didn’t approve of what you were doing when you were playing, he would tell you emphatically.

I first met him when I enrolled as a freshman in September of 1936. I knew something about his reputation as a baseball coach. That is one reason why I elected to attend Bradley because they did have a good baseball program, and I had dreams of being a professional player which I ended up doing but not going nearly as far toward the major leagues as I had hoped.

His relationship with players was a normal association. Players did what Coach told them to do. He encouraged us to take our books with us on our traveling, so we could keep up on our studies. Obviously, he wouldn’t have players if they weren’t academically able to participate.

I always respected him and did manage to follow in some of his footsteps later as a basketball coach at Bradley from 1956 to 1965.

Pete Vonachen ’49

Former owner of the Peoria Chiefs

I was a freshman in 1946. Coach was not someone you would just walk up to and talk to when he was on campus. He was so revered. You would never say, “Hi, Robbie.” But one day, I actually was close enough to him on campus to look at him and say, “Hi, Coach.” That was a special memory because Coach Robertson was bigger than life. 

The statue brings back memories of a great gentleman who really was so involved in building this institution. This institution wouldn’t be what it is today if we didn’t have men like Robbie back then. I never heard one of the athletes ever say a bad word about Coach Robertson. He was a very big presence on this campus and one of the reasons this University is a success today.

Joe Stowell ’50 MA ’56

Basketball player, retired coach and radio analyst

I first knew Robbie when I played on a fast-pitch softball team in about the mid ’30s. I rode my bicycle down to Glen Oak Park where I was on a team with a lot of the guys from Spalding. We generally won the championship at Glen Oak, and the winner always played the champions at Bradley Park. Robbie coached the softball team at Bradley Park for the 12-year-olds and younger, so that was when I first met him.

He was a man who didn’t demand but commanded respect by the way you watched him. We had some good games with him. 

One big thing I will never forget was at the start of my sophomore year he called me in and said, “I want you to know you played pretty well last year on our freshman team, so I’m going to move you up to the varsity.” If you were on the varsity, you got two tickets for your parents to go to the games, so my parents, who were just hard-working people, were able to go to all of the games. I think I floated out of there on a cloud. 

He was such a good, tough guy, but he was very fair. At that time, I think there were two coaches you might compare. The other was Tony Hinkle at Butler. He and Robbie both coached football, basketball, and baseball. There’s no break in between, and I think they had the respect of everyone in the country, actually. 

I think the statue is great. It looks like one of my first remembrances of Robbie — the same features. He is just about 10 or 12 years younger than when he passed away. I thought they did a remarkable job. The fact that they got the football and basketball all right there is about as good a job as anyone could have done. He certainly was deserving. I know of nothing they could have added or left out… it’s just very good.

Paul King ’50

Retired Peoria Journal Star sports editor

In the ’37-’38 basketball season, the “Famous Five” were all juniors. A.J. was able to persuade teams from all over the country to come to the Peoria Armory to play over the next two years. It was a tremendous achievement to go from playing Knox and Illinois Wesleyan to playing teams like Utah, Nebraska, and Indiana. He was able to do that, I guess, because of the contacts he had made over the years.

In the ’41–’42 season, there was great doubt that Bradley could use the Peoria Armory because of the world situation. Bradley was supposed to open on a Saturday in ’41, and Robertson still didn’t know where they were going to play this game. According to all the news stories in the paper, he went to Springfield on Wednesday and came back later that day with information that the armory was out. In two days, they had to switch all the seats around to play at Woodruff High School to deal with the season ticket holders. To me that was a great achievement, being able to switch the entire program like that.

William “Corky” Robertson ’53 MA ’64

Robbie’s son and former ticket office manager

The first thing I would want my grandchildren to know about A.J.’s life at Bradley would be the continued remembrance of my father by the men who played for him and who he had guided in his 28 years as coach and athletic director. The next thing is his total dedication. I know for a fact, as I learned from my older sister, that he turned down a coaching offer from a Big Ten school to stay at Bradley because he had his professorship (I imagine it is like tenure) and said if he didn’t win, he would be out of a job and we would be looking for somewhere to go. The third thing is that the young people in our summer program who learned to swim under my father’s program and my mother’s program — female and male — to this day still talk about his insight in dealing with their basic problems.

He was forever a gentleman with class. For example, walking downtown in Peoria as a little kid with my father, which didn’t happen very often, he would tip his hat to the ladies and he would be sure that I walked on the inside of him instead of the outside as a sign of protection. 

He was a masterful organizer and had a keen eye for athletes. He said there are three things that you look for in an athlete: speed, size, and agility. If you have all three of these, you have a real jewel. If you possess any two out of the three, you have a good athlete. He based his recruiting of athletes on those three premises. He always looked for athletes who were two- or three-sport athletes because of budget restrictions of the University.

Like anything else, everyone at the start, from the funeral on for maybe a month, was pretty attentive. My oldest sister, Lois (C. LOIS ROBERTSON WEIDNER ’44), was in Hawaii with her husband, who was in the Navy. My other sister, Marjorie (MARJORIE ROBERTSON PETERSEN ’46), was living in Hampshire, Ill., with her husband.  They would come down and then have to leave with their kids. My brother (JIM ROBERTSON ’57) was playing professional baseball with the Yankees, so he was gone during the season. After Dad died, my brother, who had been in construction, remodeled the house to create a type of apartment. My mother (CLARISSA COYTE ROBERTSON ’36) would rent that out to basketball players for Caterpillar, the Caterpillar Diesels. 

My mother was a teacher. After Dad died, she got into teaching. She was teaching for one of Dad’s former athletes JACK WILLIAMS ’50 MA ’58 at Pleasant Hill School, along with Dutch Meinen’s wife who taught there also.

A.J. was a very, very smart man. He played the violin. When I was a kid, I used to beg him to play and he’d always play Turkey in the Straw on the violin. He loved music. Back in those days, they had parties at the coaches’ houses, which they did when I was coaching, and he would invite a quartet from Rock Island. I, of course, would have to be upstairs, but I remember they came down more than once.

Online

To share your “Robbie” memories with Bradley Hilltopics, send a letter to the editor to 1501 W. Bradley Ave., Peoria, IL 61625; email us at hilltopics@bradley.edu; or visit bradley.edu/hilltopics.

Playing sports when your father was A.J. Robertson, first of all, it is in your mind that everything you do, all the success you have, is dependent upon your father. You got the break your father gave you. The only reason you’re playing is because your father is an AD or coach. It’s always in the back of your mind … it’s all internal. But, the coaches, I felt, did not bend over backwards for me. I felt like I had to earn it, and I think I did.

The Field House naming was humbling. Our family was still in a daze from losing him, but we were really honored. The University has been good to the Robertson family.

Because I was only 17 when he died, I never played for him except softball and baseball in the summer — junior league baseball. He was a guy you knew cared; he cared for you and what you became. He demanded as close as a human can do to excellence in your sport. His ability to know and guide human nature was phenomenal. 

But, as they say, “behind every great man, is a great woman,” and my mother was a great woman!

– Clara Miles, MA ’05