News from the Tennessee Valley News

Ronnie Thomas

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Marine for the long haul
Decatur man pushes through hurdles in the game of life

Darvin Robinson of Decatur stood out that day in San Diego.

At 6-foot-1, a razor-thin 136 pounds, he was a Hollywood Marine easy to spot at boot camp. His drill instructor noticed him for another reason.

"He says, 'Hey, you! Black boy! Fall out!' He stared at me and said, 'I'm gonna like you. I got 12 others gonna like you even better,' " Robinson recalled. "He shouts, 'Anybody here from Texas?' Nine or 10 hands go up. The DI picks out six. Then he goes, 'Anybody here from Oklahoma?' Several more hands shoot up. He picks six again. He looks at them, points to me and says, 'Meet your new squad leader.' "

It was a definitive moment for Robinson, only 18.

Saturday marks the 53rd anniversary of the day the DI put him in charge of a dozen white men. That didn't happen to blacks much in America in 1954.

He almost wanted to run, as he had done so well at Froebel High School in Gary, Ind. But forget sprinting. He was a distance man in the mile and two-mile races. He was now in life's game for the endurance.

"I had already looked around," he said. "There was only a dozen or so blacks in a battalion of 1,300. I was like, 'Damn! Ain't too many of us involved. What did I just do to myself?' "

On base, as squad leader, he was in charge. Off base, segregation was in effect. He envisioned "hell in my hands" until he made a decision to push past the flames of hatred.

"I'm gonna stick it out," he recalled thinking. "Ain't got nothing to do with black or white, but what's in your heart."

Three years later, Robinson, who had left Decatur for Gary at age 8, enrolled at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., on a track scholarship. He was the Marines' Far East champ but a foot injury sidelined him. He turned to the GI Bill, academic scholarships and a campus job.

And while on his way to making a mark for himself in the business world, two friends gave inspiration. One was a neighbor and high school classmate who graduated a year ahead of him. Fred "The Hammer" Williamson became an All-Pro cornerback with the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, playing in the first Super Bowl in 1967, and a movie star.

During his sophomore year at Southern, he roomed with Lou Brock, the former Chicago Cub and St. Louis Cardinal great elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.

Firm in his Marine pledge to forge ahead, Robinson and a fraternity brother were the first students at Southern to earn mechanical engineering degrees. He was gratified but not surprised when he got 19 job offers. He had an excellent academic record. And companies sought minorities.

"They wanted a black face sitting at the front door, and I was their man," he said.

He first worked for Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. in Sunnyvale, Calif. But for the last 24 years of his career, he was a space and ground environment engineer, retiring in 1995 from the Satellite Control Facility in Sunnyvale to devote full time to his passion for golf.

"My Mom was ill, and I returned home to take care of her," he said. "She left me 40 acres. I'm mad at her that she didn't leave me a mule."

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Ronnie Thomas Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer

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