The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Oscar Robinson: 'Jack-knife' of all trades, adventurous


April 1, 2018

Editor's note: Anytime we ask readers what they want to read, they always say the same thing: "Human-interest stories." This year, we're deploying two of our best correspondents — Wendel Sloan and Betty Williamson — and asking them to spend time with some of our region's most interesting humans. The resulting feature is scheduled to publish the first Sunday of each month. Enjoy.

PORTALES — If you didn't know Oscar Robinson had first come to Portales in 1985 only months before his 45th birthday, you'd swear he was a native son.

He's packed a lot into the 32 years since he arrived: 22 years as the director of personnel at Eastern New Mexico University, 18 years as a Portales City Councilor (with a new four-year term under way), 11 years of driving buses for the Portales Municipal Schools, a decade of running his own lawn-care business.

In his spare time, he chairs the New Mexico Martin Luther King Commission, serves as vice chair of the Eastern Plains Council of Governments, and he's coached city league youth basketball teams since 1986.

Every Saturday and Sunday, "if the weather permits, you know where I will be at 12:30," he says. "At the golf course. I just love to go."

Karey Hogan, his step-daughter, says the man many call "Big O" has lived a life "bigger, more adventurous, and fuller of civil service than anyone I have ever met or ever shall in my lifetime."

But, in spite of all that, Robinson laughs and says he'll probably be best remembered as part of "the Famous Ten" — a group of local citizens arrested and charged with a petty misdemeanor after they were caught playing Texas Hold 'Em (a variation of poker) at the Portales Country Club in 2010.

"When I die, that's what I'll be remembered for," he says. "Being busted playing poker."

After an outcry from the community, including a humorous editorial in the Portales News-Tribune, the charges were deferred for Robinson and all of his card-playing pals in exchange for participation in a pre-prosecution diversion program.

Robinson suspects the only crime that happened that night was that several players were left with good hands they never got to play.

Growing up at the right time

Oscar Henry Robinson Jr., was born on Sept. 5, 1940, in Dallas, identified at birth only as "Baby Boy Wells," since he was an out-of-wedlock child.

He spent much of his youth in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, raised by his grandmother who had already reared her own 10 kids, before taking in Robinson and one of his cousins.

"Never once did I hear her complain," he said.

"I grew up in a mixed community, everything from ebony to white," Robinson said. Curious about his family's African and Native-American ancestry, he remembers asking his grandmother, "What are we?"

"She said, 'You're a person, Oscar ... that's what you are."

Robinson mentions frequently his good fortune at being born in 1940.

"I grew up at the right time of this country's change," he says. "I went from Jim Crow's South to an integrated America."

He remembers sitting in the shade of a tree in 1947 and listening to the radio broadcast as Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball coming up to bat for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"I was born at the change of a lot of things," Robinson said. "World War II happened, then the war was over and the country began to change: Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Billy Eckstein, Duke Ellington, Count Basie ... it was the renaissance of the Afro-American."

He calls himself an Eisenhower baby in reference to the president who was in the White House from 1953 to 1961.

"We liked Ike because he was a Texan," Robinson said. "It was easy for us to claim him. He said no more of his kids would ever have to fight another war. President Eisenhower made sure we didn't get drafted. If he'd another four years, we would never have had Vietnam."

A 'hot dog' learns lesson

A vivid high school basketball experience helped shape his life.

Robinson was a sophomore standout and his team was clobbering its opponents in an era ahead of the mercy rule.

"I did a dipsy doodle shot ... a jack-knife shot," Robinson said. "The coach said, 'What was that?' I said, 'It was a jack-knife.' He said, 'Sit down, jack-knife.' "

At the next game, Robinson said he never got to even leave the bench — his coach told him he could sit and practice his jack-knife.

At the game after that one, "I was benched again, we were getting beat, and the cheerleaders started chanting, 'We want Oscar! We want Oscar!' Coach said, 'Oscar, the cheerleaders want you. Why don't you go join them?' "

"I learned not to be a hot dog," Robinson said. "I had to beg the coach to allow me to play again. That will stay with me until I die. He helped me make up my mind about being a man."

The Peace Corps and beyond

In 1961, Robinson was studying agriculture at Oklahoma's Langston University when President John F. Kennedy called on the nation's youth to consider serving their country in a program that would soon be called the Peace Corps.

He filed the thought away as a post-graduation possibility, "if there was no job and no draft," because "it was an opportunity to prove that I could professionally do something."

Selected for the Peace Corps in 1963, Robinson took his agriculture degree to Pakistan and spent the next 26 months helping grow wheat, alfalfa and cotton in the irrigated farm country of the Lahore region, plowing the ground with a one-furrow plow pulled by a bullock.

His reputation as a college sprinter surfaced and soon he was running races all over Pakistan. Robinson said that in the states he was a "mediocre runner," but in Pakistan he qualified for the 1964 Olympics as a 400-meter sprinter. It was, alas, an honor he couldn't accept: As a United States citizen competing in Pakistan, he was ineligible.

Big changes were happening back home while Robinson was abroad. He puts it like this: "I left in 1963 as a Negro and came back as an African-American."

His first job upon his return was with the United States Department of Agriculture's Farmers Home Administration in North Dakota. He was a loan officer, helping farmers manage their accounts. At a meeting one day, a superior clarified there would be no loans available for "brown-eyed persons."

"I resigned," Robinson said. "I loved the job. I did not like the attitude."

From there he spent time in southern California working in the aluminum industry for Alcoa before being hired by California State College at Long Beach. His 18 1/2-year career with Cal State started in the biology department managing greenhouses, but was mostly spent working in the personnel office.

An intriguing ad

Oscar Robinson still remembers the advertisement that brought him to Portales from Long Beach in 1985.

It was a notice in the Chronicle of Higher Education for a position at Eastern New Mexico University, and Robinson said it read, "Personnel director, medium sized campus, rural ag setting, average 72 degree temperature."

He laughs about the 72-degree average, but said, "The ad intrigued me."

Chester and Marline Haughawaut and Dallan Sanders met him when he came for his interview, and he stayed at the Portales Inn.

A few days after his return to California, Eastern's President Robert Matheny called to offer the job.

"I wasn't sure," Robinson said, "but I was so tired of 28 miles daily on freeways. It was a cut in pay, but I could walk to work, the quality of life was better, the food was cheaper, and I had some good bosses."

It was a job he held for the next 22 years.

A step-father and a hero

"The best part of my life was moving from California to Portales and meeting Sandra," Robinson said. "That's been a good thing."

The two met at the Captain's Table in 1990 while Sandra was working there. They later connected at a dance at the Veterans of Foreign War Post in Portales, and married "the first time" on New Year's Eve of 2008. Last summer they had a wedding at St. Helen's Catholic Church to make their union official in the eyes of the parish where both are active.

Sandra had six kids; Oscar had three. Together they share 22 grandchildren and "11 or 12 great-grandkids," Oscar Robinson said.

Sandra's daughter Karey Hogan said she was only 15 when she first met Robinson.

"I've known Oscar for almost 30 years," she said. "He's my step-father, and grandfather to my children. He is my hero, and we are so blessed to have him as the head of our family."

Hogan describes Robinson as "a fighter for equality for all people," and said that he devotes his life to being "present and mindful so that children will grow up and be better than the last generation."

Living in historic walls

The Robinsons' home on Amazon Street once belonged to John Sidney Pearce, better known as Doc Pearce — the first physician in Portales who set up practice around 1900.

"This was the first permanent structure in Portales," Robinson said. He said Doc Pearce had a carriage house out back and tied his horse to a nearby mulberry tree.

"I didn't want to buy this house," Robinson said, pulling a warm throw closer around his shoulders. "This house is cold."

"But I fell in love with it," Sandra chimed in.

The ignorance of racism

Sandra grew up in Portales, "couldn't wait to leave," she said, but then came back and defends her hometown fiercely.

"I don't like to hear anyone say anything bad about my hometown," she said. "That's crossing the line."

As the Anglo half of a bi-racial couple, Sandra said, "I have never understood racism in my life. Never."

"It doesn't bother me what people think," her husband added. "If it did, I wouldn't have married. Some people have a problem with black and white, brown and white, black and brown - that's their problem."

Robinson recalls a professor of comparative literature from his days at Langston.

"He said '-isms' are dangerous, Robinson said. "Democracy is not an '-ism.' Christianity is not an '-ism.' Anything that ends with '-ism' is dangerous. Racism is based on ignorance because you don't have the whole picture."

A name that needed changing

When Robinson arrived in eastern New Mexico more than three decades ago, he was dismayed to discover that a historical location in the south part of Roosevelt County was called "Nigger Hill" by locals.

He set out to change that. "I said it can be erased and I want it erased."

Robinson believes that "arguments can be won by knowing the facts," so he armed himself with information, delving into the history of the African American Buffalo Soldiers who spent a miserable night on that hill during an ill-fated expedition referred to as "The Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877," which ultimately claimed four lives.

Along the way, he founded the Llano Estacado Buffalo Soldiers Association and the American West Black Heritage Organization, and even brought a 20th century face to the issue by wearing a re-enactment uniform for local living history presentations.

Phil Shelley, dean of ENMU's graduate school at the time, joined him in the time-consuming effort. In October of 2005, the New Mexico Geographic Names Committee officially named the gentle rise on the prairie "Buffalo Soldier Hill."

"The people who still want to say the word are going to say it anyway," Robinson said. "But for the new kids coming to town ... the sign is there. People like me are dying, but the kids going by now will not know it by its first name."

Tolerance and compassion

Longtime Portales City Clerk Joan Martinez-Terry said she met Robinson in January of 1994 when he filed to run for City Council.

"I had heard of him through the city grapevine, mostly about him in his capacity at ENMU," she said.

"Oscar is a gregarious, positive, kind and caring person," Martinez-Terry said. "He was instrumental in getting the City Council to establish the City of Portales Cultural Affairs Committee in his second term as councilor."

She said she admires Robinson for his "tolerance and compassion."

"Oscar truly cares about the citizens of the city, with emphasis on the people who live in his ward," Martinez-Terry said. "He represents them to the best of his ability. His constituents can talk to him about their issues."

"There are issues that are unique to Ward B," Robinson said, "but Portales has many issues in common: Bad roads, old pipes, a drainage problem. We have to learn to work together. Anybody saying we are not trying to improve the quality of life here doesn't know what they are talking about."

Making MLK a day 'on'

Karey Hogan said Portales' annual Martin Luther King Jr., celebration is her favorite of her step-father's many projects.

"He puts his whole heart into it," she said. "He always makes sure to include as much of the community as he can, young and old. He works hard to have a good turnout, even in the most frigid of temperatures."

Patrice Caldwell, a colleague of Robinson's from Eastern, said his passion for promoting community and civic engagement made him a key figure in establishing the event, and ensuring that the late civil rights leader is remembered with "a day on, not a day off."

"When the issue arose of how to commemorate MLK Day, there was some division over the matter on campus and in the community," Caldwell recalled. "Oscar made the case to then-President Everett Frost, who was tremendously supportive of a campus recognition of Dr. King. But it was up to Oscar to serve as the liaison with the city and the campus to arrange the various events. The legacy of this commemoration continues today, with events, contests, and reflections about Martin Luther King Jr., the values of a diverse community, and the benefits it confers on its citizens."

Robinson said he tries to add something new each year to the celebration. This year, the first scholarship was presented in honor of the late Dolores Penrod.

"Next year at MLK Day, I want to have an oratorical contest," he said. "The skill of speaking is a lost art. Our high school instructors taught us to debate, to speak, synthesize, and win an argument. I'm still working out logistics, but I want to hold a county-wide contest."

Come the end of the day

In 2016, Robinson's work was recognized with the "Cry From the Wilderness Award," presented by the Eastern Plains Council of Governments for his "advocacy of regional issues, dedicated service and leadership."

A year later, the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs presented Robinson its "28 Days a Hero" award, "for outstanding vision, dedication, and commitment to excellence in the New Mexico African American community."

"This is the best part of my life, Robinson says. "I've had a lot of good things happen to me because of being here. I've had some negative things, too, but because of the kind of person I am, it doesn't offend me. Come the end of the day, problems don't bother me because I live in Portales."


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