COLUMBIA – Rod Robison was an insecure seventh-grader.
Growing up, he had to live with a conspicuous scar that cut across his left rib cage around to his back. It wasn’t a big deal until he got to junior high and started taking gym class and dressing in the locker room.
PERSONAL: Age 54. Married to Susan Robison. They have two children, Luke Robison and Jill Villasana, and one grandchild.
OCCUPATION: Water systems manager at Riback Supply Co.
EDUCATION: Graduated from Hickman High School in 1973.
CAMPAIGN WEB SITE: rodsixthward.com
BACKGROUND: Teleserve volunteer for eight years at Columbia Police Department. Leader and Troop Committee Chairman for 13 years for Boy Scout Troop 701. Official, MU Track and Field Officials Association.
TOP FOUR ISSUES
Economy: Wants to ease planning and zoning process for developers and to increase the number of "shovel-ready" sites in Columbia.
Public Safety: Wants to maintain Columbia Police Department's budget and will emphasize youth-targeted crime-prevention programs.
Energy: Supports second Callaway County nuclear plant.
Tax Incentives for Developments: Will move slowly with use of tax incentives but believes they can be useful.
“I had heart surgery as a child,” he said. “Like most kids, you know, kids are very self-conscious. Image was pretty important.”
Feeling self-conscious, Robison thought he needed a far-fetched tale to explain to classmates how he got the scar. But the story he came up with was far more awkward than the truth.
“I told them my mom came home drunk and cut me with a broken beer bottle,” Robison said, struggling to hold back a laugh. In hindsight, he can't imagine how he justified spreading such a terrible falsehood about his mother.
“Mom never drank," he said. "So that made it kind of worse.”
Now a candidate for the Sixth Ward seat on the Columbia City Council, Robison doesn’t shy away from admitting that public speaking still tests his confidence and that he is working to improve. At his first public speaking event as a candidate — a Columbia Muleskinners forum — Robison was stumped by a question about bus routes and accessibility and came up with nothing meaningful to say. Since then, he’s had to make sure to study issues before speaking in public.
But Robison’s trouble with speaking seems to fade quickly when he’s telling stories about his past.
Raised in the small town of De Soto, just south of St. Louis, Robison, now 54, spent his early years as a member of the Boy Scouts and the Little League Baseball team. Eventually the Robison family moved to Fenton, where Robison attended Fox Senior High School.
But there was something different about the bigger city. Although both De Soto and Fenton are predominantly white, he said, it was in Fenton that he first encountered racist attitudes.
“I never even thought about race relations until I got to Fox High School,” he said.
After a short stint at Fox, the Robison family moved yet again; this time to Columbia. Attending Hickman High School, Robison said he was comfortable in a more racially diverse and accepting environment.
“I was definitely like a lot of kids,” he said. “I wasn't a little philosophical kid that sat around thinking about these things, but it was weird, and I could tell that (racism) was wrong.”
After graduating from Hickman, Robison began a career in the plumbing business and courted his future wife, Susie.
“I like to tell everybody that I met her in a bar ... which she takes offense to,” Robison said.
The two met at the Village Inn Pizza Parlor, which was popular late-night restaurant in the 1970s on Sundays. Susie was the disc jockey there.
“I spent more time there than I should have. It was me and my buddy Ron Briscoe,” Robison said. “We bet on something, and the winner would take Susie out on a date. She sat there and rolled her eyes at us ... She never agreed to go out with either of us.”
Despite losing the bet, a courageous Robison asked Susie for a date anyway, and she accepted. “We dated there for a while, and it really wasn’t that long until we got engaged, got married.”
At the same time, Robison worked his way up the ranks of his father's water and sewer supply business before starting from the bottom again at Riback Supply Co., where he has worked up to his current position of water systems manager.
At Riback, Robison’s day typically starts at 7:50 a.m., when he runs through messages and checks reports. And “all hell breaks loose from there.” He spends most of his day solving customers’ technical problems and troubleshooting over the phone.
He likes it most when he can travel to different branches of Riback Supply Co. around the state and when he meets customers to help solve problems such as broken water softener tanks.
“That's one thing I like about my job,” Robison said. “You go from meeting with some of these national sales managers, then the next day I have my blue jeans on, getting soaked in water.”
Although Robison climbed the ranks of the water supply business, it wasn’t always his plan.
“I did try to enlist in the Marine Corps. That was my plan for when I got out of high school. At the time, I wanted to be a police officer, and at that time a lot of people made the transition from the military to police,” he said.
Although he scored high enough on the recruiting exam to enter any division of the corps, red flags went up during his physical. The same scar that made Robison self-conscious as a child prevented him from serving.
As Robison was ascending the ranks of the water-supply business, Susie gave birth to their two children: Luke, now 25; and Jill Villasana, now 28. This marked the start of Robison's other full-time job.
“I really don't have a lot of respect for people who say their family doesn’t play a large role in their life. I don't know how you can do that,” he said.
As his children were growing up and going to school, Robison tried to be involved in every facet of their lives. He regretted never going to college, so he tried to instill that yearning for education in his children.
“We never missed any of that stuff (school functions). ... I was a room mom one year. There weren’t a lot of dads that were room moms. ... You instill how important that stuff (education) is by your actions.”
Without a college education, Robison's resume relied on a record of hard work and experience, ideals that he has tried to impress upon his children.
“If you want to get ahead, have a decent life, you have to work for it,” Robison would tell them. He’s proud that both his children and his son-in-law have degrees and now teach in Columbia Public Schools.
It’s his appreciation for hard work that pushed Robison to challenge incumbent Barbara Hoppe for the Sixth Ward seat. He understands he faces an uphill battle but thinks his work ethic will make him an effective councilman.
His son-in-law, Matt Villasana, who created Robison’s campaign Web site, agreed.
“He’s meticulous,” Villasana said.
Robison said one trigger-point issue that prompted his campaign was the rejection of a proposed Hinkson Creek trail that would have connected his neighborhood to MU. The City Council voted it down, calling it too expensive. Robison said he thinks the Sixth Ward is not being fully represented.
“I'm trying to bring more balance to the council," he said. "I think there is a large part of the Sixth Ward that isn’t well represented right now, and I think I can fill that void.”
Robison can often be seen with his family and a few helpers in the neighborhoods of the Sixth Ward on weekends going door-to-door, talking with residents and spreading his campaign messages.
It is through campaigning, Robison says, that he has found many Sixth Ward residents worry about what have become his two leading issues: public safety and the economy.
If elected, Robison hopes to bring “balance” — his one-word campaign slogan — to the council. He built his platform around the idea that if the council can solve economic problems within Columbia, its public safety issues will solve themselves.