A decade ago, John Robinson loaded 400 adults and children onto four buses and left Arlington for a Florida adventure that included stops at Disney World and Cape Kennedy.
A few months later, Robinson, a street organizer in one of the county's poorest communities, was arrested for writing nearly $5,000 in bad checks to cover the trip's expenses. At the time, Robinson said he charged the travelers only what they could afford--nothing, in most cases.
"I knew we weren't going to have enough money," he said in an interview last week.
Robinson was sentenced to three years probation for his role in the trip, but the incident hasn't slowed him down. Then and now he was and is a 24-hour-a-day, one-man community action operation bent on meeting the needs of and fighting the battles for Arlington's black and poor. It also earned the 48-year-old founder and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center a reputation as a quixotic eccentric known for sometimes recklessly going after results and worrying about the consequences later.
It's a reputation fondly held, however, by the many Arlington residents who donated or helped raise the money to pay off the trip's debts and keep Robinson out of jail. For if many questioned his methods, few doubted his motivation.
"The man has a heart of gold . . . . He functions without benefit of personal gain," School board member Evelyn Reid Syphax said.
The son of a devout Episcopalian-turned-Seventh Day Adventist mother and a a federal employe father with a passion for playing the horses, the lifelong Arlington resident has dedicated most of his life to his community, a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood in South Arlington's Nauck District known as Green Valley. Robinson, who graduated from the old Hoffman-Boston High School a year after Roberta Flack did, has worked in a variety of community service organizations in Green Valley since 1966.
During that time, according to many who know him, he has touched the lives of scores of residents who credit him with everything from finding employment for jobless fathers to convincing law enforcement officials to give wayward youths a second chance to helping drop-outs apply for job training or helping prisoners apply for parole.
On occasion, he has projected films on drug abuse on the sides of buildings for loitering youths and addicts to view. In his weekly Green Valley Newsletter, delivered by hand to black churches, clubs and residents throughout the county, he chastizes young girls for hanging out on the streets at night and lists the initials of suspected drug dealers or kids he's seen skipping school. He once circulated a petition in the county's black churches asking parents to set 9 p.m. bedtimes for their children.
Serving the Valley, as the area is called, has not been easy. With a $16,000 grant from the United Black Fund, Robinson has been struggling to keep the center open since the Arlington County Board, frustrated with what was considered a haphazard management style and cavalier attitude towards county regulations, withdrew its $35,000 annual grant, including Robinson's $13,000 salary, to the center in 1980.
The board gave the money instead to programs operated by the county's Drew Recreation Center also located in Green Valley, according to Deputy County Manager Anthony Griffin.
"There never was a question of inappropriate expenditure," said Griffin, who, to assure proper accounting, cosigned each of the checks issued by Robinson for the center's expenses.
Since then, the center, a wooden, two-story, white-washed ramshackle of a building wedged between a garage and corner grocery in what some say is one of the county's toughest areas, has been home for Robinson.
He lives, says the never-married bachelor, on "friends and faith," eking out an existence for himself and the center that depends on invitations to Sunday dinners and small donations he says are easier to get around the first of the month.
"I manage because of the good people, black and white, in Arlington. I beg 'em every week. " Robinson estimates that those friends are generous to the tune of about $5,000 a year.
"I'm poor. I have nothing, really I don't," says Robinson, dressed in his summer uniform: short-sleeved cotton print shirt and polyester pants. "But as long as I can see people happy, I'm satisfied."
Robinson is the first to admit he's no saint. When some residents complain about pop bands he organizes as summer entertainment for teens or a proposal to open a halfway house in the area he becomes angry. "I curse 'em out in a minute," he says. "Call 'em damn hypocrites.'
"I'm not the biggest Christian in the world, I stray away every day. But I see the need for getting involved because not many people get involved."
Some of his activities are political. He is quick to brandish the social activism skills learned as a worker in the 1960s for the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the United Planning Organization. He is organizing a July 18 demonstration in front of the Arlington County Courthouse to demand more affirmative action in hiring, and he plans to go to a Richmond meeting later this month to protest Virginia Electric and Power Co.'s request for a rate increase.
Police Officer Thomas Monroe Jr., who patrols the Valley, says Robinson got him his first job. "I was a lazy youth who didn't want to look for a job," said Monroe, 25, who grew up less than six blocks from the center.
"The young guys hang out and hassle him, call him a snitch," Monroe says now. "They don't understand where he's coming from. He's trying to help them."
Monroe says Robinson is still helping him out: "If I'm looking for somebody I'll call John and ask him to talk to the person ." Monroe said Robinson has talked several people in trouble with the police into turning themselves in.
Commonwealth's Attorney Henry E. Hudson, said Robinson has been similarly helpful to his office. "John keeps pretty much abreast of things," said Hudson. "He's an asset to South Arlington. "
Much of the service provided by Robinson, who studied political science at Howard University for two years, is as a link between poor citizens and county officialdom. "People use him to find their way through the system. He's a bridge," says Alice Moss of the county's Department of Human Resources Mental Health Division. Moss says Robinson often accompanies families or individuals who need therapy or food stamps.
Robinson has critics who say he likes to do it all by himself and that his involvement with every plea for help and issue facing Green Valley and other black Arlington residents has limited his effectiveness.
Busy raising money to bury a destitute neighbor, collecting day-old bread and milk from groceries to give out, fighting the school busing of Arlington's black children or asking county officials for more low-income housing, Robinson has a simple explanation for not doing otherwise: "My mother told us: 'If you do for one, you gotta do for all.'"