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Humble Beginnings

Robertson’s humble beginnings were shared with Ponchatoula native

Kathryn J. Martin of Ponchatoula, La., was a friend of James Robertson Jr., and suffered through some of his humble beginnings. She shared her thoughts after learning of his death.

“I was eagerly awaiting James’ next visit home and could scarcely take it in when instead his cousin called to tell me we’d lost him.

My memories of him go back to when I was a child playing in my yard, seeing him as a little boy standing on the front seat between his parents when they drove past in their log truck.

We grew up and were acquainted when he was a patient at the dental clinic where I worked. Later, he told me I'd been so nice to him that he’d said to himself: ‘Now that’s a real lady. I want to learn to be like her and be around people like that.’

A few years later, we became friends while students together majoring in foreign languages at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La. Each of us worked at any honest job we could get, having six each at one time — anything from tutoring fellow students to janitorial or yard work. He lived in Ponchatoula with an older relative who had major health problems and tended her many needs including hair washing, medical care, laundry and yard work.

We'd ride in my car or catch a ride with a teacher friend to get to college. About the end of 1974, I sold my car to finish SLU and James was driving a 1964 Rambler American, black with an aqua hood and left fender, smoke billowing out the tailpipe. He joked maybe the smoke would hide us — putt-putt-putting up the highway. Laughing about ‘someday’ our turn was coming.

It was time for that semester’s honors convocation, and we’d both made the dean’s list, but were down in the dumps because his car wasn’t running and we had no way of going back to school that night to attend the ceremony.

We stopped to get warm at a cafe in Hammond where I'd made friends with the lady who managed the place. I don’t think we had enough money to buy a cup of coffee, but Miss Virgie said: ‘Don’t y’all worry about it. I’ve got it.’ (Which she often did.)

She came to sit with us and we were telling her we were walking home (6 miles) which we didn’t mind, but we did mind about having to miss the honors convocation.

She said: ‘Why, Kathy, Honey, you two don’t have to miss that. I’ll be working here until 10 o’clock tonight. You and James just take my car on home with you and stop here after the honors. I’ll take you home when I get off.’

And that’s just one example of how people saw our sincerity and came to our rescue.

Another experience we’ve laughed about so often was in the same semester during finals just prior to my graduation. James told me he needed to catch a ride home with Myrna and me as his car had quit.

‘Oh, oh,’ I said. ‘We’re in trouble. Myrna has a teachers meeting until late and I was going to ask to ride with you!’

So after classes, we met and started the six-mile walk home in our thin, worn winter coats. We didn’t have enough money between us to share a lunch, so we’re not only cold, but hungry, too. About a mile into the walk, we were embarrassed walking along Highway 51 seeing faces of people we knew going the opposite way, so opted to go back a few blocks and get on the railroad tracks.

Neither of us had known how uneven railroad ties were, so the walking was very difficult with our not being able to set and maintain an easy gait. We were way out when along came a freight train flying. We’d heard they’ll ‘suck you under’ and learned it’s true. Getting as far back from the tracks as we could, we were in the edge of the woods in briars and soon had our arms around each other to stand upright against the tug of the train. Afterward, we laughed saying the train crew would think ‘that couple sure picked a funny place for a romantic meeting!’

I told James we’d know we were halfway when we got to Ponchatoula Creek and sure enough we saw it ahead, but we hadn’t known there was a trestle with open ties under us. All we could think about was if one of us slipped we’d either land in the water below or get caught hip high and get stuck. We were so frightened that James was actually white he was so pale. But we were half way and so hungry we couldn't have gone back to the highway to start over. So carefully, helping each other, we finally made it across.

We were both sick after we returned home from the exposure to the weather. But after talking about it through the years since, we’ve re-lived it many times. In fact, just last year I included it in my weekly newspaper column and one of his cousins mailed it to him.

James dreamed of being a physician since he was a little boy and studied everything in medicine he could on his own. We even collected doctors’ advertisements and magazines they’d thrown away in the post office trash. When he realized there was no way for him to become a medical doctor, he didn’t give up but applied himself to his fields of study and on the side never quit learning about health and the medical field.

He was one of a kind and I’m so glad he kept the promise we’d made — never forget those who encouraged us and pass it along to others.

I loved him dearly and miss him so.”

By Kathryn J. Martin, CDA, BA, MA, Author, Inspirational Speaker, Humorist; Ponchatoula, LA.