It was over 30 years ago; Tom Dalton remembers it like it was yesterday.
He was out on a training run with Bill Robinson on Hackett Boulevard in Albany, and another running partner, Rob Picotte, was injured, so he was leading them on his bike.
A driver lost control, and, “In a moment’s notice, bam … Bill’s life changed forever,” Dalton said.
The car plowed into all of them, but Robinson, a national-caliber distance runner in the 40-and-over masters division, suffered by far the worst of it. The injury to his spinal cord left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, as Robinson was paralyzed from the chest down.
A proud athlete at the peak of his powers, Robinson didn’t wallow in bitterness. On the contrary, he continued to stay as active as he could in the running community and was a warm, gracious presence whenever he got together with his friends.
That’s how they remembered him, after Robinson died over the weekend.
“He’s probably the most heroic person I’ve ever met, in living the way he lived,” Tom Bulger said. “It’s a sad moment, but I have to say may he rest in peace now.”
“I said this to his wife, Mary Ellen, I don’t know of a more fierce competitor, and yet an absolutely nice man, a genuinely nice human being,” Pat Glover said. “I thought the world of Bill. Obviously, after his accident years ago, it was just so sad. I always wondered how he handled it so well.
“I’ve had several conversations over the years, especially with Tom Bulger about how Bill was a quad, and yet he handled it so well. I don’t know how he did it, quite frankly.”
“He was just an amazing, quality individual,” Dalton said on Sunday. “I was texting with Dan Cantwell earlier today, and we said he handled it probably better than anybody, the cards he was given. It could’ve been anybody. Unfortunately, he was the guy who had it the worst that day when the car hit us.”
Robinson, who worked for the New York State Division for Youth as a labor relations specialist, was a life-long Cohoes resident who did much of his best work as a runner after having turned 40.
That included several sub-4:30 times in the mile, and Robinson was usually the top runner on an Adirondack Association team that won masters national championships on the roads in the late 1980s.
“He was by far, hands down, the best masters runner, other than Barry Brown,” Dalton said. “He was THE guy around here, and won an incredible number of races on the state and national level.”
“Forty-two years old, he ran a 4:24 mile. I mean, that’s unreal,” Bulger said.
Glover recalled having a shot to beat his teammate Robinson for a change at the 1988 10k masters national championship in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Robinson had been sick and had missed some training, so he was just there to see what he could contribute to the team, Glover said.
“So it’s a 10k race, he goes out like a shot at the beginning,” Glover said. “I’m kind of biding my time. At about the 5 1/2-mile mark, I see Bill up ahead of me, and I’m closing on him. I figured I could get him. I snuck up behind him, and just as I got to him, a friend of mine on the side of the road, Jim Burnes, said, ‘Go get ‘im, Pat!
“And as soon as Bill heard that he woke up and took off like a shot. Totally dusted me. And I’ve never forgiven Jim for that,” Glover said with a laugh.
The accident occurred the day before St. Patrick’s Day in 1990, and Dalton had just completed a CPR course with his wife Debbie the night before, after which there was a pizza party. The CPR course participants all agreed that it was valuable knowledge that they hoped they’d never have to use.
“And the next day, I’m on top of Bill assessing whether he needs CPR,” Dalton said.
The car hit Robinson and flung his body into Dalton, then continued on and hit Picotte, running over his bike and flipping Picotte onto the windshield.
Robinson spent months in the hospital and faced the prospect of revamping his whole house to accommodate his physical needs.
His brilliant running career was over.
The Capital Region running community, and beyond, rallied forces to raise money to help the Robinsons, who had two daughters.
The Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club renamed its masters 10k championship, which Robinson won in 1987 and 1989, after him. Instead of becoming a recluse, Robinson remained connected with the local running world, often presiding over that race as an awards presenter.
In recent years, a group of the old friends and rivals started regularly meeting at the Albany Pump Station, planning the dinners around the schedule of bartender Teri Williams, who kept the beers flowing while the runners kept the stories flowing.
Glover had gone through his own crisis, when he lost his right leg above the knee in 2017 from a mysterious, life-threatening illness.
“The first time I talked to Bill after that, I reiterated the fact that I was so impressed with how he handled the situation, and I kind of hope I can do the same,” Glover said. “Although, frankly, I’m a hell of a lot better off than he was.”
Through it all, nobody can remember Robinson ever complaining about his plight, and if he felt sorry for himself, he didn’t show it to them.
“He was deteriorating in the chair, and he knew it, but he had the courage to go on,” Bulger said. “And his family loved him, and he was easy to love. In all the years I knew him, I never heard him complain about the situation. It is really amazing, because it was such a bad situation.”
“Part of it certainly was the family support he had,” Glover said. “Mary Ellen has been a saint all these years. His outlook on having gone through this and doing the best he can and living his life the best way possible since it happened has always been amazing to me.”
“He was an unbelievable person, first,” Dalton said. “Even after the accident, he wasn’t bitter. His philosophy was this is the hand he was dealt, and he was going to live his life.”
More from The Daily Gazette: