By Joe Rector
How many lives will you touch during your time on earth? Yes, that’s a question without an answer. We all hope that our contact with others will leave positive things, but most of us aren’t really sure of the impact we have. Robin Williams is one of the exceptions. I’ve waited for a while until all the news and television folks poured out their stories and condolences. Now I’ll talk about an individual that was a part of my life for years.
When “Mork and Mindy” came on television, Robin Williams immediately hooked me. Never before had I experienced the rapid-fire comedy that he presented. Most viewers were awed by the way he could take any situation and then ad-lib hilarity into the entire scene. Such an ability was even more impressive when it was pointed out that Williams was at one time a Julliard Shakespearian actor.
Over the years I kept up with Robin Williams. I viewed his early movies, and my good friend Glenn Marquart and I watched “Good Morning Vietnam” over and over. “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Goodwill Hunting” won over millions of fans. “What Dreams May Come” is another one of my favorite movies. It delves into the world of depression and death and resurrection. Many won’t like the road the movie travels, but it might very well be a glimpse into the agony that Robin Williams might have encountered.
One of the things of which I am proudest during my teaching career is having introduced students to “The Dead Poets’ Society.” Robin Williams played an English instructor in an all boys’ private school. He reached those boys with a message that they needed to seek their own interests and life’s callings. He quoted my favorite authors, from Emerson to Thoreau to Whitman, and his performance captivated audiences. I have often wished aloud that in some way I could have had the same kind of impact on my real-life students that this actor did on the movie set.
Williams’ stand-up act was a smorgasbord of topics from politics to child rearing to sex. It was raw, not things for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Still, I watched his recorded concerts, and after the tenth time, I’d mastered the lines from most of his routines. What was lacking was the energy that he infused into every concert and the perfect timing he employed in telling a joke. I shared those recordings with my brothers and others, and everyone laughed until he or she hurt.
In 2001, Robin Williams scheduled a concert date in Nashville. I wanted desperately to see him, but the cost of a ticket was much too high for a teacher with a daughter in college and a son in high school. I’d talked with my brother Dal, who lived in Nashville, about the concert, and a couple of days later, he called me to tell me that he’d bought two tickets and that we were going. I almost cried with excitement.
I traveled to Nashville on Saturday before the Sunday concert to spend time with Dal and his wife Brenda. In the evening, he began to feel ill and complained about begin dizzy. He went to bed that night and slept through most of Sunday. Dal got up with full intentions of going to the concert, but he never felt better. I drove to the Grand Ole Opry House and watched Williams alone. For two-plus hours he performed and kept the audience in agonizing laughter. At the same time, he went through a couple of cases of water as he drank and poured and doused the stage and audience. The only downer was the empty seat where Dal should have been sitting and laughing with me. That was an enormous night in my life. It marked the day I first watched an idol perform live. It also marked the first day of a short, brutal, and deadly battle with cancer that my big brother went through.
Now Robin Williams is gone. He spent a career making others laugh and feel happy, all the while battling depression and other problems that eventually consumed him so much that death was preferable to living. I’m going to miss him for a long time. It’s just another blow in this year, which has been less than special. I hope that Robin Williams finds some peace from the torment that broke him. He will be missed by many of us. I also hope he will tell a couple of jokes to Dal.
Many will understand it when I wish him eternal rest, peace, and happiness, “O Captain, my Captain.”