Thursday, January 18, 2018
News Roundup

Charlie Robins reached thousands of Tampa Bay readers with humor columns

TAMPA — In the mid 1970s, Charlie Robins and two buddies from the Tampa Times hit the Everglades in search of the Florida skunk ape.

Mr. Robins, a longtime humor columnist for that now-defunct afternoon paper and several others, maintained that grainy photographs clearly showed the possible existence of this tropical yeti — and that, besides, the state deserved its own monster.

The trip netted the group a significant number of beers consumed and stories that endured, but no 7-foot-tall ape. Mr. Robins, who led the expedition, was not disappointed.

"There just wasn't enough room for four in the boat," he wrote for the Ledger years later, "and after my colleagues and I had spent two nights in that swamp, I doubt that the skunk ape could have stood the smell anyway."

Mr. Robins entertained readers with thousands of similar columns over the years, including 18 at the Tampa Times. In recent years he continued his whimsical takes on politics, technology and society for a blog by and for retired news writers. Mr. Robins, a master of disarming first-person writing, died Tuesday, of lung cancer. He was 79.

"Charlie was very laid back. He was what you saw," said Tampa Tribune columnist Steve Otto, a former Tampa Times sportswriter who accompanied Mr. Robins on the skunk ape trip. "He could make his point, but he didn't yell or scream at you. I copied his style as much as I could, but not nearly as well."

Five days a week from 1964 to 1982, Mr. Robins ruminated on just about whatever he chose from the front page of the Tampa Times.

"He was particularly eloquent in puncturing politicians during Vietnam, and with some of the bureaucratic bungling that went on," said Duane Bradford, a former colleague at the Tribune, where Mr. Robins first tried his hand at newspaper columns.

Though a city knew his name, Mr. Robins was not outgoing.

"People who met him really didn't know how to take him, because he was a quiet person," said Carol Robins, his wife. "A lot of his humor came out in his writing."

Mr. Robins was born in Tampa and spent part of his childhood in St. Petersburg. He later served in the Army during the Korean War. Though the Army stationed him in Germany doing communications work, the nearness of war — and its costs — stayed on his mind the rest of his life.

His columns at the Tribune and the Tampa Times reached readers because "he was Everyman," Otto said. "He wrote about things that affected all of us dealing with technology and cellphones and frustrations in life, and he did it in a way people could relate to."

The Tampa Times folded in 1982, and Mr. Robins contributed two columns a week to the Ledger. At times he mentioned his personal life, as when his son in Wisconsin purchased a Powerball ticket worth $111 million. A 1993 column for the Ledger focused not so much on Les Robins' then-record win, but on the fact that Connie Chung had been calling Mr. Robins' house trying to reach his son.

Her celebrity did not impress him, Mr. Robins told readers. He had often rubbed elbows with famous people.

"Well, maybe not often," he added, "but in 1958 I did do a brief telephone interview with Roy Rogers, and in 1961 I actually did lunch with Deborah Walley, the star of the never-to-be-forgotten film classic Gidget Goes Hawaiian."

He spent spare time traveling, taking nature photographs or in his woodworking shop, making toys on a wood lathe over classic country music.

In recent years he contributed to Reporters' Notebook, a blog started by Bradford. A 2009 entry marvels over the proliferation of specialty license plates, and suggests plates for teachers or firefighters or other regular Joes.

He had no problem with a tag honoring the Florida panther, but said it was kind of ironic given that cars end up being the cause of many panther deaths. "I fear it's just a matter of time before some poor panther gets flattened while trying to cross Alligator Alley," he wrote, "and the last thing it sees is its own likeness on a license plate."

Typical Robins stuff.

"That's how he made his point," Otto said. "He used humor to kind of suck you into his column, and once you're in there it's too late — you have to hear his message."

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