The tale of B.W. Robinson is so common it’s nearly invisible. The story lives on the fourth floor of the Missouri Capitol, in a long, narrow corridor, at a spot beneath a skylight, as if the building itself is drawing your attention to the man with the well-worn face.
Robinson is a Senate doorkeeper, which, for people who aren’t in tune with the inner workings of the statehouse, means little. He is just one of many anonymous Capitol employees whose jobs are vital but whose names are rarely recognized.
There are seven Senate doorkeepers, and seven more in the House. They have a simple job: to prevent anyone who is not an elected member of the General Assembly from getting onto the floor of their respective chambers. In particular, Robinson’s job is to maintain order among the hundred-odd seats from which visitors to the Senate can observe state government in action.
But of those he greets and seats, few know the story of B.W. Robinson — how the son of a widowed mother in rural Hannibal transcended his impoverished upbringing to attend college, become a teacher and, later, help revolutionize Missouri’s education policy.
Then again, few people seem to care nowadays. Below, in the Senate chambers, they talk about annihilating the old things. They talk about life sciences and frontiers. They suggest, with a certain smugness, that Missouri must be part of the biotechnology boom that is somewhere just over the not-too-distant horizon. We must be on the cutting edge, they say. We must.
Robinson is 87 years old, and he and his ideas aren’t on that edge anymore. On most days, the biggest issue he confronts is how many people he’ll have to seat. He’ll shuffle groups around, keeping people happy. Lobbyists, he says, are usually kind enough to leave and come back later if there are too many guests in the gallery at once.
Robinson greets everyone the same way, with a smile and a handshake. He calls them “friend.”
“I like to acknowledge people, like I see you,” he says. “There’s a desire in all of us to be part of the total institution. If we all greet each other, it makes us a part of it.”
While his co-workers adorn their burgundy coats with patriotic pins, Robinson’s jacket is decorated by the three eyedroppers he carries in his right coat pocket. He had surgery on his cataracts just a few weeks ago. But he’s never missed a Lions Club meeting in 24 years; why should he miss a day of work?
“Three times a day,” he says, pulling on his lower eyelid to demonstrate how he puts the drops in to heal his surgically repaired eyes.
He wears thick glasses now, and his hands tremble from familial palsy, an incurable disease that has robbed him of his ability to write. But despite the signs of aging, Robinson represents something important, says his boss,
Glenn Pounds, the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms: continuity in a world of constant change
“B.W. comes from a different era,” says Pound, who is 67. “B.W. comes from stability. People now don’t have those roots, you could say.”
Robinson was a youngster when his father, Edward, died of cancer in 1920. His mother, Mary, took odd jobs — sewing, washing clothes — to provide for the family; jobs that she knew would let her stay at home. It didn’t always help make life easier, but after awhile she was able to pay off the mortgage Edward left her with.
“Although I had to wear overalls that were patched and stuff, they were clean,” he says.
Mary’s resourcefulness instilled a sense of responsibility in her son at an early age. From the beginning, it seemed, Robinson was a teacher and a leader. He couldn’t avoid it, even if he sometimes wanted to.
In church, where the older members of the community held sway, Robinson was on an advisory council that helped organize tasks for the adults. He visited the sick and those in need, and he presided over the Communion table. He taught Sunday school and, eventually, became one of the youngest elders in the church.
In Hannibal, he had everything a boy could want or need. And at home he had nothing but the respect he could muster from inside himself, nurtured by his mother and reinforced by his eight siblings.
Robinson didn’t plan, or even want, to attend college. His family could never afford it, he thought. Although his mother did what she could, the family could certainly have used the extra wage-earning power that Robinson’s health and youthful energy could provide. That, after all, is what had kept his older brothers and sisters from even graduating from high school.
But though he had reservations himself, it seemed like everyone else wanted Robinsonto get an education. His family and friends pushed him hard, and the Hannibal Women’s Club sealed the deal by awarding him a scholarship to Hannibal-LaGrange Junior College.
Entering college, Robinson had no idea what he’d come out with or even how long he’d stay. He got an associate’s degree, then a bachelor of science degree. Then he got job in a one-room schoolhouse in northwest Missouri, and lo and behold, the young man was certified to teach.
From teaching, he became a principal. Then, after following a fairly typical career path through the administrative maze of Missouri’s public schools, Robinson became a pioneer.
It was 1963. The national economy was continuing to grow. Employers were clamoring for people with training. The U.S. Congress passed the Vocational Act, a federal program to fund professional education. Never before had anyone given a thought to career education. Robinson’s job, as vocational education specialist, was now to make people think about it.
In fact, he had to create a system from scratch. Robinson’s classroom background as a teacher and his administrative background as both a principal and superintendent would come into play. Still, it was a time of trial and error and great pride.
They tried everything to raise awareness and popularity of the programs. They tried splitting days, where students would attend traditional classes in the morning and work in a shop or factory in the afternoon. In Springfield, they tried a program for training students in television work.
By the time Robinson retired from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 1980, he had overseen the creation of 55 educational programs, including Columbia’s Career Center.
“I was terribly motivated in my own personal life to be more, to expect to do more,” Robinson says. “But I don’t think I could have become B.W. Robinson without my mother’s influence, the home and the environment that she created.”
But, even in his most satisfying dreams, Robinson would never have expected to be immortalized. The word came not long after his retirement, when he received a telephone call about a school the state was building for handicapped children in Rolla.
Robinson knew about the project, of course. What he didn’t know was that the state education department wanted to name it after him. And so it was.
“I remember thinking, does that mean I’m venerable? I was always familiar with schools being named for deceased people — it sort of seemed odd that I was still alive,” he says. “I was honored, but I felt a little bit unworthy of having it named after me.”
Although, most people might consider having a building named after them the culmination of a career, Robinson wasn’t finished forging paths. In the early 1980s, it occurred to someone that lobbyists are an unruly, jostling bunch. They scurry about, with priorities that need tending to. They sometimes have bad attitudes.
Imagine a gaggle of these power-lunching folk crowding around the entrances and exits to Missouri’s Senate, and you’d get a clear picture of why, in 1983, Robinson was brought out of retirement to control them: “They needed some order,” he said, smiling wryly.
More than a decade later, Pound says he is still amazed by Robinson’s tireless energy. He always speaks at doorkeepers get-togethers, Pound says, and he always makes them laugh.
More importantly, in an era when everything is high-speed, when the new is more valuable than the old, Robinson is steady, constant.
“B.W. threatens to quit every year,” says Pound. “He says he’s too old. But he always comes back.”