Beyond even his childhood, there is probably nothing which colors the public life of Bob Robbins like what happened to him on April 7, 1982.
Still working afternoons back then, Bob came out of the KSSN studios around 7 p.m. with an armload of albums, heading home for the day. As he approached his truck, two men came up behind him. One said that it looked like he had a flat tire. Bob stooped to look at it, and when he turned one of the men, a hired hitman named Roosevelt Nelson, swung down on his face with a baseball bat. Robbins' nose and cheeks were crushed. His jaw broke away from its attachment points to his skull. The swelling was so bad that he had to have a tracheotomy to breathe, and didn't go down enough for doctors to begin reconstructive surgery of his shattered face for ten days.
On an anonymous tip, police soon arrested Nelson and two accomplices. They soon fingered Little Rock nightclub owner Bob Troutt, a former reporter and news flak for Gov. Orval Faubus. A former DJ at Troutt's nightspot, The Kountry Klub, Robbins had left to start his own place with partners Bill McArthur and James Nelson, founding BJ's Star-Studded Honky Tonk. Soon, with a larger dance floor and acts like Jank Williams, Jr., B.J.'s drew most of the business away from Troutt's club.
When civil lawsuits failed to force BJ's to close, Troutt took more drastic measures. According to testimony at his trial, Troutt paid the three perpetrators $500 and a bottle of whiskey, telling them to either kill Bob Robbins, or make it so he could never talk again. They nearly succeeded on both counts.
"I didn't realize he [Troutt] was such a vicious man," Robbins said. "It shocked me that it didn't take much money or much of a promise to get somebody to do that. Although it shut my eyes for several days, it was a heck of an eye opener."
He was in the hospital for most of three weeks, getting out only to go to the police line-up. Stephanie Mitchell, Bob's daughter, remembers coming into his hospital room soon after. "I just ran out screaming," she said. "I was like, 'That's a monster, that's not my daddy.'
"After that," Susan Robbins said, "She only talked to him by telephone until he came home."
When he finally did get to go home, he spent several additional weeks fitted with an "apparatus." Wires ran up through his jaw and out the top of his head, to a steel bar. With the help of large straws, his wife learned how to put everything he ate through the blender ("The only thing we never mastered was catfish," Robbins said. "We tried it, but the meal and all would clog up the straw."). He lost 70 pounds.
For a man who made his living talking, having his jaw wired shut was frustrating, not to mention a strain on family finances. Not being able to speak, Robbins couldn't work as a DJ, and his medical bills were piling up. Then, Troutt's lawyers offered him $50,000 to drop the charges, money they could have desperately used. He and Susan turned it down.
"There was no way I could take money and turn him loose when there was such a wrong," he said. "No matter how badly we needed money, that just wasn't an option for she or myself. We'd just have to do without."
Troutt was eventually convicted, as was Roosevelt Nelson and two others (After BJ's partner Bill McArthur's wife Alice had her car bombed a few days after Bob went back to work at KSSN, the Pulaski County sheriff's office - not knowing whether the two incidents were connected - put Robbins' family under police protection, leading to the common misconception that Robbins' beating had something to do with the McArthur murder and Mary Lee Orsini, who masterminded the killing.)
When Nelson came up for parole, Robbins spoke on behalf of his attacker, asking the parole board to give the man who almost killed him another chance. "That was the only mistake that boy had ever done," Robbins said, "and it was because they had threatened his grandmother and he was very, very upset about it and felt like he had to do what he did."
Even with the incident over 20 years behind them, Robbins and his family are still haunted by it. His daughter Stephanie can't stand open windows, and has to have the blinds drawn at night. His wife calls that time a nightmare. For Robbins, it goes even deeper. Since that day, he's been a man constantly on guard for the worst. Even though he says he's never been threatened again, he has developed "little tricks" to alert him of danger coming his way: a way of setting his padlocks so he will know if they've been moved, a way he knows if his car has been tampered with, a way he can tell if a door he locked has been opened.
People aren't so easy to decode. "If a person wants to hurt you, they know it in their mind, but you don't know," he said. "That's what I'm talking about: trust. You're conscious of how the person approaches you, especially if you don't know them, how they shake your hand, those are the kind of thing you learn to watch." Still, he refuses to call his habitual wariness an obsession.
"I guess after you go through what we went through," he adds, "it's not an obsession, it's just that you know these things really happen."
The Little Rock native is the first cartoonist to win the National Book Award. His graphic novel 'March,' the memoir of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, may well be the mother text for a new era of nonviolent resistance.
As our legislators return to work this week, they will take up House Bill 1040, preventing athletic trainers from practicing in nonclinical settings and severely restricting what they can do to provide assistance to students.