Sunday, February 11, 2007

Cheers to the Chief

Telegram Staff Writer

At least seven generations of the chief's clan came to celebrate his 90th birthday.
The festivities on Feb. 4 at Heights Baptist Church in Temple were neither a day late nor a day early. Woodrow Wilson Robbins, the man of the hour, was born Feb. 4, 1917.
Woodrow is a name full of character, summoning thoughts of Woodrow Wilson, 28th U.S. President, or Woodrow McCall, Gus McCrae's pal in Larry McMurtry's 'The Lonesome Dove.'
Family members say the Robbins man of that same name is full of bravery, wit and warmth, 'just like the famous Woodrows.'
They call W.W. Robbins the chief because he was Chief Petty Officer Robbins of the U.S. Navy for the majority of his adult life. In 1950, he implemented the Navy's first recruiting station in Temple. 'Anytime anyone had a question, they always said, 'Just ask the chief,'' said nephew Senior Chief Howell Woodrow Robbins, a military pilot. Howell was one of four family members who attended the chief's party dressed in full uniform.
Other family members who attended in uniform were J.M. Hicks, a submariner; Robert Milton Robbins, a carrier sailor; and Ryan Jones, a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Sam Houston State University.
When added, the years of U.S. Military service within the Robbins clan total more than 200.
'Coming in uniform was our salute to the chief,' Hicks said.
The birthday celebration started with an hour of mingling. Almost 150 people of the chief's closest friends and family came. 'Just Because' of Temple catered the affair, serving a buffet of fruit, mini-sandwiches and birthday cake.
Pastor Tom Henderson of Heights Baptist Church in Temple welcomed the clan with a prayer and blessing. Henderson also said a special prayer for the chief, thanking for him for his long life's service to the United States.
The chief is a lifelong member of Heights Baptist Church.
'I'm proud of this church,' the chief said early in the party. 'It was just a little shack when I became a member.'
As an adult, the chief served as a deacon and Sunday school teacher at Heights Baptist Church.
Towards the second hour of the program, various members of the family took turns at the microphone, sharing favorite memories.
'So, so many people are here. Cousins I haven't seen in years,' said the chief's oldest child, Rozeann Conner, at the beginning of the family's tribute to the chief. 'I'm so glad you all came for us to tell you about Daddy.'
While Mrs. Conner spoke, friend Doug Fisher played his cello, and a slide show of family photographs flashed in the background. Cohen Robbins, the chief's grinning great-grandson, not even a year old, danced on his daddy's lap as his aunts and uncles congratulated his great-grandpa. Cohen is the grandson of Rondel Robbins, the chief's second-oldest child.
'Most people talk about medals. They brag. But not the chief,' Hicks said to the group. 'You'd never know about the Purple Heart he earned. He doesn't talk about it himself.'
In World War II, the chief earned a Purple Heart medal for heroism.
'There was an attack on his ship,' Hicks said. 'Everybody was evacuated, but the chief went back by himself to keep the rest of it from blowing up.'
The medal was nice, but the chief says the 30 days of leave he earned because of it were nicer.
'He wanted those days to be with his family,' Hicks said. 'You'd be hard pressed to find a man more loved.'
Or one who works harder, Hicks said.
'For everything he's done in his life, he put everything he had into it. That includes everything - his family, the Navy, the U.S. Post Office and his self-started business.'
The chief was a U.S. postman in Temple for 17 years. He also built the Robbins Mobile Home Park on Midway Drive in Temple. The mobile home business still exists, but it is no longer family owned.
'Dad took pride in making it beautiful,' said son Rondel Robbins about the business.
'I'm proud of my family, too,' the chief interjected. 'And everything they've done for me.'  

Surprise, chief!
The chief got two surprises on his 90th birthday.
One was the proclamation Temple Mayor Bill Jones III issued in the chief's honor. The mayor said, 'I hereby declare Feb. 4, 2007, as Chief W.W. Robbins Day in Temple, Texas.'
The mayor, coincidentally, is the uncle of Ryan Jones, the 22-year-old grandnephew of the chief and the grandson of J.M. Hicks. Mayor Bill Jones is married to the daughter of J.M. Hicks.
'Man, you never know where you're going to find family,' the Temple mayor said.
The second surprise was the chief's honorary promotion to Master Chief Petty Officer.
Not existing in 1956 when the chief retired, the higher paygrade developed in 1959.
Howell Robbins said the chief's job performance full deserves the higher paygrade. He contacted Navy Capt. James A. Barns, retired, to approve the honorary promotion.
The chief smiled as his grandniece, Cheryl Robbins, presented him with the U.S. Navy documentation. His wife, Myrtle, was patting his back, and his uniformed relative saluted him.
The chief returned that salute.
The daughter of Howell W. Robbins, Cheryl Robbins, is the only female of the family to have become a commissioned officer of the military.
'I am proud I come from a tradition of distinguished men in service,' said Cheryl Robbins. 'I am glad to have presented the chief with the promotion.'  

Nifty doings
Set 'em up and knock 'em down. The chief's going bowling.
Since 2004, he has been a member of the Temple Bowling Association's Hall of Fame at Action Bowl.
He's also a member of the Primetimers Bowling League and a frequent bowler at the Scott and White Texas Senoir Games.
Also worth noting, the chief was named Temple Citizen of the Year in 1981. This annual award recognizes a worthy community service volunteer.
One of the best stories about the chief is the one about the day he married his first wife, Mabel, the mother of his three children - Rozeann Conner, Rondel Robbins and Dave Robbins.
Mabel and the chief were in San Francisco, Calif., en route to Reno, Nev., with the intention of getting married. The two were in their early 20s.
'But the chief only had enough money for one bus ticket. He told Mabel to take the bus. He wanted to hitchhike,' Hicks said. 'But Mabel wouldn't have that.'
The family story says, 'the chief gave in to his sweetheart' and went to his shipmates.
'He told them boys, 'I want to get married. Do you have any spare change?' The chief managed to collect enough coins to buy another bus ticket.'
The next day the chief was shipped back to the West Pacific and was gone for 6 months.
'But they had that first night, said Hicks. 'It was, oh, so important to them.'
The chief and his Mabel were married until her death - a long 52 years later.
Myrtle is the chief's second ladylove. They've been married for 12 years.
At the end of the birthday party, Myrtle looked at her husband and said she was tired.
'It's been a long day. It's been a long life for you, chief,' Myrtle said, petting the kind man's shoulder. 'I think you've done almost everything you want to do.'
It didn't take long for the chief to respond.
'Yes, Myrtle, I think I have.'

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