27 August 2013

Robin Weaver Clark

My first mentor, Robin Weaver Clark, died 18 years ago this month. 
I met Robin when I was a senior in high school. He was a reporter at The Raleigh Times, my hometown’s evening paper (remember when cities had both a morning and nightly paper?) For Cat Talk, Millbrook High School’s student paper, I decided to shadow him for the day and find out what real reporters did. 
I don’t even remember how Robin drew the short straw. I know I didn’t call him directly, but through a great act of serendipity, I ended up with him. He wasn’t that much older than I was: He was 24 and I was 17, but that’s a huge gap when you’re 17. He was slight, with light brown hair and the brightest, twinkliest blue eyes I’d ever seen. I’d describe him as impish, but he was too sexy and too charismatic for that. He had a low voice and a southern drawl and a slow smile that suggested he knew something you didn't. We covered a funeral of a beloved music teacher who had been murdered in a 7-11 store hold up. He’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. 
Robin was skittish as we zig-zagged through the graveyard at the burial, telling me later that his father had committed suicide when he 15 and he’d hated cemeteries ever since. He had an irrational fear of falling into an open grave.
Robin treated me like an adult, which isn’t something a lot of people do when you’re in high school. He answered all my questions and asked me a lot about myself. He took me seriously as a reporter. From the start, he acted like I was a colleague.I got home and I sat in my room quietly for a very long time, listening to music. Covering the funeral was intense and Robin masterfully handled the line between respect and getting what he needed for his story and it was a lot for me to take in.
We stayed in touch and sometimes I’d hang out at the drinking hole he and the other reporters went to after deadline, but that came to a pretty quick stop. I’m sure some of them weren’t so thrilled about having an underage girl around while they were guzzling beers and swapping stories. But Robin never seemed to mind. He always made me feel welcome.
My article on Robin won the North Carolina Scholastic Press Association’s feature story of the year. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to make a phone call as I was to call Robin and tell him.  I wanted him to know his investment in me hadn’t been wasted. 
I went away to college and we didn’t see each other much for the next four years. He moved to Charlotte to write for the Charlotte Observer. My mom and I ran into him when I was home for Christmas one year because he’d written a series about the Hell’s Angels and they'd beaten him up and were still after him, so he came back to Raleigh for a cooling-off period. The series was nominated for a Pulitzer.
Right after college graduation, I worked for a magazine called Amusement Business, Billboard’s sister publication, in Nashville. AB covered all forms of live entertainment, including fairs, carnivals, theme parks, sporting events, and concerts. I was an editorial assistant, but was thrown into writing and traveling to cover events right away. My first byline was on a story about Victor the Wrestling Bear. Victor and his owner traveled from fair to fair and he wrestled men (it was always men), who were stupid enough to get into a ring with a bear. As you can imagine, Victor's record was all wins and no losses. After a victory, Victor's reward was a Coca-Cola (he was very specific about the brand). I sent Robin the article and asked him to critique it. He wrote back a serious, thoughtful letter, telling me which parts were good and which parts weren’t. And he gave me some of the best advice I ever got: Great writing isn’t what you leave in, it’s what you leave out. Even more important than the words was Robin's Invaluable support. It was unconditional. He believed in me and that made me believe in myself. 
A few years passed and I eventually landed at Billboard in New York. Around 1992, I called Robin to check in. By then he’d moved to Philadelphia for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He called back later that day from Laramie, Wyoming. The paper was going through an economic downturn and had offered a number of staffers the chance to take a year off. They wouldn’t get paid, but they’d keep all their benefits and have their jobs waiting for them. Robin had been going through a tough time: his first marriage had ended, one of his siblings had died of cancer, and another one was fighting it. He’d bought an old VW van and was driving across country for the year, stopping wherever he wanted. He had a guitar, his address book, some notepads— in case he came across a story he couldn’t resist—and that was all he needed. 
That phone call changed everything. It was the first time he’d talked that much about his life and, while he’d always treated me like an equal even when I clearly was not, for the first time I felt worthy of acting like one (not that I will ever construct a sentence as beautifully as he could; I still read his writing for inspiration). 
After his year off, the Inquirer transferred him to Los Angeles. After not seeing each other for six years, we went out to eat when I was in town on business in 1992. We went to Barney’s Beanery and drank way too much and ate way too much and we talked about writing. How magical it is. How lucky we felt that people let us into their lives. What a privilege it is to get to tell stories for a living.  We traded tale after tale. We also talked about life. My family was going through a very difficult and painful time and I told him everything as he listened quietly. And just like he did with my writing, he gave me advice that I still put into practice every day. And we laughed. A lot.
For the next few years, I’d try to see him when I came to Los Angeles. He lived in Manhattan Beach and on one visit, I spent the night there. We walked to his favorite Mexican restaurant for guacamole and lots of tequila.  He was catnip to women (something I clearly didn’t realize until I got older) and it was hilarious to hear his stories. I’d never met anyone before—or anyone since—who enjoyed himself so much and yet treated everyone with such respect and kindness. He could pick up a woman just from looking at her in his rearview mirror (true story) and yet he was the furthest thing from a cad.  We went back to his apartment, which was right on the beach, and played music. He adored Marcia Ball and Chris Smithers and he loved that I worked at Billboard and could turn him on to stuff that he might not already know about. 
In 1995, Robin was covering the O. J. Simpson trial. He hated it. He enjoyed the other reporters and had made close bonds with many of them, but he couldn’t stand being confined and not being able to find his own stories while the case dragged on. Plus, there were so many journalists and only a few could sit in the actual courtroom, so the rest had to camp out in a trailer and watch a closed circuit feed. He was looking so forward to when the trial was over. 
Then one day in August, 1995, my mother called me and told me she had horrible news. In the local Raleigh paper, she read that Robin had been killed the day before. His cousin and a friend were visiting and during his lunch break from the trial, he’d taken them up Pacific Coast Highway. A Mercedes hit his car. He still had the old VW bus, which had no seat belts, and he’d been thrown clear of the van and died instantly, as had the two women with him. 
Judge Lance Ito paid tribute to Robin. So did Dominick Dunne, who was covering the trial for Vanity Fair. In a loving salute, even though chairs were at a premium, one seat inside the reporters’ box in the courtroom was kept empty for the rest of the trial for Robin.
Even as I write this 18 years later, the loss still feels fresh, incalculable and insurmountable. He started as my mentor, but he became my dear friend. I don’t know if I have learned as much from any other person about what it meant to be a writer, and, more importantly, a human being, as I did from Robin. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1998, I thought, as I frequently do, about what fun it would have been to live in the same city as Robin again. Though I imagine his wanderlust would have carted him off to somewhere else by then in search of another story.
For years, UNC’s School of Journalism offered a scholarship in Robin’s name, but when I looked for it today, I couldn’t find it. Instead, I’m giving to a newly started journalism scholarship, this one at the University of Texas in Austin in honor of another great journalist, Chet Flippo (and started by artist manager Nancy Russell). Chet was my colleague at Billboard and a funny, graceful writer. He died earlier this year. Robin and Chet would have dug each other. 

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  1. It's so wonderful and so hard to read this, Melinda. You are simply awesome.