Several years ago, Max Robinson was climbing down a ruin in Alexandria, Egypt. A young man passed on his way up. "He stopped, turned around, and said I felt someone staring, so I turned around." Robinson recalls. "He said, 'you can't be who I think you are.' And I said, 'I have a feeling I am.'"
Last night, Max Robinson ended the career that has made him a Washington fixture - and brought him the kind of fame that spread to the Pyramids. He looked typically relaxed at 6:59 when Gordon Peterson, his co-anchor for the last seven years, looked directly at the camera and announced, "Chicago, get ready."
Then Robinson, who joins ABC as regional anchor in Chicago in July, shook hands with Peterson and said simply, "It's been a real joy." As the news crew walked onto the set, shaking hands and kissing, he said again, "It's been a real joy."
The regional anchor job is a breakthrough, as have been many of the steps in Robinson's career. In 1966 he became the first black reporter for WRC-4 and three years later the city's first black anchor at WTOP-9.
Not that Washington is letting Robinson go quietly.
The City Council proclaimed Max Robinson Day yesterday. After incorporating a feature on Robinson's life in the evening broadcast, WTOP gave a huge farewell party, as did the Foxtrappe disco-club last week and as will the Iranian Embassy tonight. Robinson has even crept into "Doonesbury's" satire on the new razzle-dazzle ABC format.
For many Washingtonians, Max Robinson's quiet delivery and serious visage have been indelibly connected with the big news events of the last nine years. Dressed in conservative dark suits, he has delivered the news in an authoritative stiff manner. His voice is deep, at times rumbling with a lyrical resonance that bears some resemblance to Walter Cronkite's (and that's the next big step mentioned for Robinson - by him and his friends).
He started in broadcasting as a radio personality in Petersburg, Va., near his hometown of Richmond, Va., and joined WTOP in 1965 as a floor manager. Before the year was out, Robinson had switched to WRC and then returned to WTOP in 1969, shortly after the Kerner Commission had criticized the media for lack of black representation in the newsroom.
"I remember when Hal Walker (now a CBS correspondent in Bonn) and I were the only ones," says Robinson, 39, reflecting on the changes in the newsroom, and in his own career, in the last 17 years. "The beginning was very tough. At WRC I would walk down the hall, speak to people, and they would look right through me.
Relaxing, poolside at his spacious Northwest home Robinson recalls the past. His steady brown eyes don't reflect the bitterness of his words, but his angry strike of a match for his Marlboro does. "The detractors said Maryland and Virginia wouldn't accept a black anchor. And we became the No. 1 anchor in a year." Now blacks hold down eight anchor slots, including weekends, in local television.
"I never have felt any great joy at speaking out. But I believe when there are fewer of us, we have to speak out. Malcolm once said, 'When it hurts, don't suffer quietly.' Now I hope this new move is another example of people moving to a point where people are accepted on the basis of their talent and what they have to contribute."
Celebrity status is a trapping of the journalism job that a few television people, like Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters, have learned to live with, sometimes even relish.
Yet Robinson, who is described by his friends as complex, serious, sensitive, unpredictable, humorous, polished and arrogant, isn't quite sure about fame.
"I appreciate fame on one level because that means people are viewing me, that helps provide food for my family. But privately I haven't come to grips with it," says Robinson, whose nervous, cackling laugh underscores the uncertainty.
Robinson has been married twice - "You don't count annulments, do you?" and lives with his wife of five years, Beverly, and their son, Malik, 22 months. He has three children from another marriage.
He knows fame can get in the way of professional performance. When the Hanafi Muslims took over three buildings in downtown Washington in March 1977 one of the first calls Hanafi leader Hamaas Abdul Khaalis made was to Robinson.
Before the tense news situation was over, Robinson was the focus of network camera crews and was being hounded by book publishers and other media, for his story. "It was an agonizing time. At no time, no time, did I ever think this is good for me as a journalist. I never did," says Robinson. "I thought the calls from the publishers were pure exploitation. The calls irritated me, something rubbed me the wrong way. I felt we had been through a human tragedy."
Fame can magnify an incident into a gossipy escapade. At a personal low point, three weeks after her father died in 1973, Robinson shot off a .375 magnum pistol that belonged to his father on the patio of his Van Ness apartment. "I was fined $25 but it was a shot heard around the city," says Robinson. "It was a simple thing but it wasn't treated as such." The next night, he apoligized on the air, saying, "I am the same Max Robinson you have always known except today I'm just a little bit wiser."
Fame can also be a bit grim. When he first came to Washington, death threats were a monthly occurrence. "I was concerned until I talked to John Duncan, one of the appointed D.C. commissioners, and he told me 'don't act like you're scared and let them know you are going to get them.' But more recently someone called the station and said Barbara Jordan and Max Robinson wouldn't be alive after midnight. I have met the congresswoman but I didn't see the connection. That was more puzzling than anything else," says Robinson.
Sometimes the perceptions of fame have to be punctured. At a career day rally at Dunbar High School a couple of years ago, a male student sat in the front row, jitterbugging in his seat, his earphones tuned into some disco. He didn't stop during Robinson's speech but his hand was the first one up with a question. "Man, how much do you make?" he asked. In a very cool, fatherly manner, Robinson told him to worry, first, about the hard work ahead.
Fame can convert the insecure, shy person that Robinson was 14 years ago into a gregarious, social one. Occasionally he has public parties at his home. Once when he gave a surprise party for his wife, Beverley, his rock band drowned out the violins that were playing for a Walter Washington fund-raiser next door. For weeks the Washington campaign folk said Robinson did it on purpose.
And fame can be fun. One of the admiring ladies who crowded the Foxtrappe last week whispered in a reporter's ear, "Don't forget to mention he has fine thighs."
Probably Robinson wears fame as easily as his dark, conservative suits because he grew up watching his father operate as a town hero.
In Richmond, where Robinson got his start as a radio personality, Maxie Cleveland Robinson Sr. was an athletic legend. He had worked as a bellman to put himself through Virginia Union University and then taught history and coached all the teams at Armstrong High School. At his side was Doris Jones Robinson, a gentle woman whose family had put five or six children through college during the Depression.
"They have really been the strongest influences in my life. My mother said you can do anything you want and I started to believe that," says Robinson, one of four children. At one end of the patio is a stone monument he designed and erected for his father.
When he was a teen-ager, Robinson "wanted to be a theologian, lawyer, surgeon and poet. I guess journalism satisfied them all," says Robinson. In high school he was a loner, reading Nietzche, listening to classical music, striking out with the girls, he recalls. When he finished Armstrong, he won $7,000 in scholarships and went to Oberlin College in Ohio.
Through the interest of a local disc jockey, Robinson was introduced to radio in 1955. "Tom Mitchell let me sit in on Sundays. I am sure he paid me more than he made himself. But he let me learn and he encouraged me," says Robinson. His first full-time job, after serving in the Air Force, was in Petersburg, Va., hosting a nighttime music show.
In his first reporting jobs in the Washington market, Robinson reported on High's robberies, suicides and fires until he decided to live for three months in Anacostia and tell that story. The series, and eventual documentary, done for WRC in 1966, won six awards.
When he asked for an anchor slot at WRC, Robinson, who had shaved his mustache to please them, remembers the management saying, "You are qualfifed, you are talented, but the time isn't right."
Meanwhile, at WTOP, they had decided the time was right. In 1969, he started anchoring. WRC was leading the evening news market then. By the time he teamed up with Gordon Peterson in 1971. WTOP had pulled ahead. Since 1974 the Eyewitness News team has dominated the ratings.
His presence became a part of the day's routine. He has a distinctive, serious style, the rumbling heartiness of his voice rings with authority. He' relaxed, though it took several years before he overcame the stiffness of the informal lead-ins between stories. His calmness, says Robinson, is a joke in the newsroom. "That's only surface. There's a raging storm (of tension) underneath," he says.
Highlights of his Washington career are counted not by awards, banquet speeches, not by trees planted in his name, but by his newsman's pride in good performances.
Jim Snyder, WTOP's news director, remembers the same stories that Robinson does - the resignation of Spiro Agnew and the shooting of Alabama Gov. George Wallace in Laurel, Md. "Agnew resigned around 1:45 p.m. and we went on the air. We did nothing but broadcast that story, getting feeds from our people in the Hill and in Baltimore. But mostly Max and Gordon ad-libbed. I have always had great faith in Max's ability to do live interviews and crisis stories. That's one reason he will do well nationally."
He has to learn to live with the anchorman's woe of being considered only a reader of news. "After the Ford-Carter debates, we did some analysis with Carl Rowan, James J. Kilpatrick and George Will. I got the idea that some of those people were surprised I was capable of thinking," says Robinson.
"I tend to forget the people, the times when people said I couldn't make it," says Robinson. He says he has deliberately suppressed much of the pain. "The only time I have thought of packing it all in was when you realize the racist, petty battles are continuous. The day I don't have to speak out, I will be very comfortable."
He has taken on additional responsibilities, from speaking out for the black secretaries who were excluded from the sales meetings under an old management team at WTOP, to going to the office on a Saturday to organize a special on the late Gen. Daniel (Chappie) James.
Throughout his home are Robinson's paintings, a collection of African sculptures, works by black and Caribbean artists, and a small Cezanne. "Other than the creative and relaxing aspects of painting, I like getting dirty, getting paint all over me. And I like starting something new."
Right now, he said earlier yesterday, he was fretful about talking about his new job. "I just want to get started. And I am hopeful. I am not ready to sing the Hallelujah chorus. We still have a lot to do in journalism, we still have a lot to do in America. And I am prepared to carry my own responsibility."