The darnedest thing happened to Ty Robinson last Wednesday.
The Missoula Rotary Club met downtown and wished him a happy 100th birthday. Robinson took part from the recliner in his living room on East Central.
“The fellow came in here with – what do you call them? – a tablet or iPod or something like that,” Robinson said a couple of days later from the same chair, his voice filled with wonder.
“Set it up right there, and picture perfect what’s going on in the meeting. People talking to me, ‘Hi, Ty, how are you?’ ‘I’m fine, Bob. What’s going on?’ They had a birthday cake that they ate and put a piece up toward me.”
The boy born on Jan. 25, 1916, in Columbia Falls is Missoula’s gentle man (two words or one).
There are not many still around who can describe from memory what life in Montana was like in the 1920s.
The inner workings of the Flathead County jail or the Montana Grizzly basketball team under a legendary coach in the 1930s?
Stories from the Missoula Mercantile Co. and its vast holdings in mid-century? From one of Missoula’s most influential law firms? The behind-closed-doors workings of Montana’s political power base in Helena in the 1950s, '60s and ‘70s?
But the idea of sitting in his easy chair at home, exchanging greetings and jokes with friends and listening to the week’s featured speaker, former Mayor Mike Kadas, in the Governor’s Room of the Florence Hotel – “I can’t wrap my head around this,” Robinson said.
Then, in characteristic style, he added, “It was very special.”
Mind you, it’s not that Robert Henry "Ty" Robinson, at 100 years of age, is homebound. He just had other things to attend to.
“He’s still a pretty good driver. He’s got more energy than most people,” his longtime friend Tomme Lu Worden said.
These days Robinson prefers to ride along, with Worden or any number of friends and family.
“I’ve had so many good offers from people to pick me up, I take them up on it,” he said.
“He’s just a plain nice guy,” said Bill Jones, a fellow retired attorney from Garlington, Lohn and Robinson. “I’ve never seen him argue with anyone, never heard him say anything bad about anyone, but he probably knew more secrets than anyone in the state.”
It was Jones who compiled a timeline of Robinson’s life for a full-page ad in the Missoulian that ran last week. It was a general invitation to help Robinson mark his 100th birthday at halftime during Saturday night’s Grizzly-Eastern Washington basketball game.
The timeline described a life that includes memories of visits to the family home in Columbia Falls from cowboy artist Charles M. Russell.
“He and my father became friends,” Robinson said. “I was only a very young kid, 4 or 5 years old, but I remember him. And I remember my mother didn’t want Charlie to come to the house because he always wanted to bring a drink over to my dad.”
Russell died in 1926 and Cal Robinson's eight-year stint as sheriff of Flathead County came after that. He was in the hardware business when Ty and his brother, Cal Jr., were young boys.
Always searching for better opportunities, Cal and Zella Robinson moved the family around Montana before returning to western Montana, where Ty graduated from Flathead High in Kalispell in 1933.
If in later years Robinson, as lobbyist for Montana railroads, came to know the state's movers and shakers, “I had an advantage,” he said.
He went to school in Whitefish, Lewistown and Havre before graduating from grade school in Highwood and moving to Great Falls.
“In all those places we had the opportunity to get to know people,” he said. “Someone goes to the Legislature and here are my old schoolmates from all over the state.
“I learned to recognize how important people are, whether or not you’re from eastern Montana and you don’t particularly care for Missoula, the liberal arts, that wild place. But they all readily accepted me.”
The Robinsons lived in Highwood, tucked at the foot of the mountain range of the same name east of Great Falls, as the 1920s wound down.
“Little town,” Robinson recalled. “I don’t think we had 200 people. No running water, no sewer. Each Friday we would get a barrel of water and that would have to carry us for the week. But we had a fine school in those days, and we had fine teachers.”
He had, he said, "a good start."
"My mother and father were very careful to see that I behaved myself, and that I grew up properly. In those days, during the Depression, there was no option other than you went to school and you came home and did the things your parents wanted you to do, which, in effect, was teaching you the work ethic.”
The Robinsons always had food on the table.
“During the time I was in grade school, it was venison probably most of the time,” Robinson said. “And a good part of it came from your garden. Everybody had a garden in those days. They had to have in order to survive.”
He transferred to what’s now the University of Montana after a year at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
Here Robinson played basketball from 1936 to 1939 with the likes of Bill Lazetich, Chawkey Miller, Paul Chumrau and Robert Thompson. They came from Anaconda, as had their coach, Jiggs Dahlberg, for whom the arena at Adams Center is named.
Robinson remembers Dahlberg lining up his players “military style” before a long road trip one December. One of you got married over Christmas, the coach said, directing the culprit to step forward.
When Robinson’s friend Don Holmquist of Whitefish did so, Dahlberg told him to clean out his locker and leave.
“Jiggs wouldn’t let us have a girlfriend,” Robinson said. “Chawky had a girlfriend. Paul had a girlfriend that he married, and I had a girlfriend that I married, but we couldn’t be seen with them.”
Dahlberg made it a habit to check out the student store on campus, where the players went to hang out after games.
“Chawky and Paul and I would be in one corner booth, and way across the way would be the three girls,” he said. “The minute Jiggs left, we sat down to visit with them.”
Robinson and Jean Fritz of Ronan married in 1939. Their sons, John and Laird, are in their 70s now, retired from successful careers with the airlines and the U.S. Forest Service, respectively.
After graduating from UM in 1940, Ty Robinson spent the early years of World War II working his way up the ranks of the U.S. Department of Immigration. He tried to get into the Navy three times but was told by the Department of Defense it wouldn’t look good to have it on his record that he left his post in a time of war. Robinson finally resigned in 1944 and joined the Navy as an ensign, the lowest level of commissioned officers.
Back in Missoula after the war, he received his law degree from UM in 1948. Two weeks later Robinson became the in-house counsel at the Missoula Mercantile and its widespread enterprises. He stayed at the Merc until 1954.
Robinson attempted to correct a longstanding myth about the Missoula Mercantile. It's said that one day, probably in the early 1950s, actor John Wayne, wishing to be unseen, crept through a steampipe tunnel under Higgins Avenue from the Florence Hotel to buy a pair of socks at the Merc.
Didn’t happen, Robinson said. It was Gary Cooper.
“Gary Cooper was a friend of Walter McLeod,” Robinson said. “They met every spring down in the Redwoods – industry people, movie stars.”
Robinson didn’t witness Cooper’s creep, but says he was told about the episode by Merc comptroller Kenneth Egan. An undated photo in Minie Smith's "The Missoula Mercantile: The Store that Ran an Empire," shows McLeod and Cooper walking through the store "discussing fishing equipment."
Jones was a young lawyer at Garlington, Lohn and Robinson in 1959, when Robinson invited him to Helena on a lobbying excursion.
“I didn’t really like lobbying so much,” Jones said. “So many people were duplicitous. They’d promise one thing and do another.”
But Robinson had a “master stroke, knowing who to believe and when to believe them, who he could confide in and who he couldn’t.”
With a handful of others, including John and Robert Corette from Butte, Robinson “represented people who really ran the state at that time – the Anaconda Company, Montana Power and the railroads,” said Jones.
“When they’d meet on the fifth floor of the Placer Hotel and decide what to do for the state to be viable for the next two years, it was all based on personal relationships and trust in each other.”
Robinson worked eight legislative sessions, until well into the 1970s.
“We had a group of mostly all lawyers, graduates from the university, and they were lobbying just as I was lobbying,” he recalled. “That group would meet every Monday morning for breakfast.”
The breakfasts often included representatives from the university system, sometimes even the bosses.
“In those days the presidents of the flagships came to the Legislature hats in hand, and they did their own lobbying,” Robinson said. “We’d visit with them and then we’d try to help them, because we wanted to help the universities.”
When he received the Neil S. Bucklew Presidential Service Award from UM in 2010, he spoke about the 11 UM presidents he has known and befriended.
The university and Rotary Club. A founder and long-time board member of Community Medical Center. The Missoula Chamber of Commerce and the YMCA ... Robinson’s contributions to Missoula in ways he never got paid for are legion.
After his first century, he admits he tires easily. He’s had some heart, knee and shoulder problems. Robinson said he last water skied at the family cabin on Placid Lake a couple of years ago, and he gets around mostly with a walker.
His knees are worn out from his basketball and running days, he guesses, and he was forced to put down his golf clubs in recent years when he tore the rotary cuff muscle of his right shoulder while swinging one. His doctor told him surgery was not an option – the anesthetic is too big a risk at his age.
He was 6-foot-2 when he played basketball for the Grizzlies 80 years ago. He’s 6-1½ now.
“Mentally I should be shaking or have Alzheimer's, but I haven’t shown any indication of that yet,” he said.
Robinson wishes his balance was better. He gets around mostly with a walker to keep from falling.
Ask him what’s best and worst about turning 100 and he saves the worst for last.
“There comes a time when your body has pretty well served you well and it starts to wear out, and you have the usual health problems," he said. "That would be the worst thing for me, because I’ve had a very good, healthful life.”
“It would be that you had the opportunity to live a life and do what you wanted to do in the way of service during that life,” Robinson said. “You had the opportunity to carry on your vocation and join with your friends in doing the things that you wanted to do that we call enjoyment.”