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Broadcaster, ex-spy led WSUN newscasts in '30s

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Before Maj. George Digby Robinson embraced fame as a broadcaster, he risked his life as a spy.

In the 1930s, he captivated locals as the voice of WSUN's Maj. Robinson and the News. Many "recall listening to his (WSUN) nightly newscasts for almost two decades ... few people know of his unusual military career," journalist Dick Bothwell wrote.

As an author, archaeologist, ornithologist and later WSUN station manager, Robinson often gave public speeches. "He could spin fascinating stories," the St. Petersburg Times wrote.

In 1895, as Robinson's mother separated two brawling dogs on a London street, she went into labor. The major was born that day, said his son, Jim Robinson, 74.

Robinson spent his boyhood in London and received military training in high school. He subsequently attended the University of Oxford.

"I had just gotten my B.S. degree at Oxford when the war broke out," Robinson said. "I was one of the original 60,000 British Expeditionary Force that went to France on Aug. 4, 1914."

Robinson said he learned "a smattering of Arab" while recovering from a wound in Egypt. He later joined British intelligence, "took a dark tan and was able to pass as a horse trader," Jim Robinson said.

In Mesopotamia (Iraq), the major saw "men killed for food ... women harnessed with animals to draw carts -- even evidences of cannibalism."

Robinson was captured. "He thought his guide turned him in," his son said. A Turkish regiment's garbage pile was the major's food for weeks. Water was filthy. Typhus was rampant.

Robinson escaped and ate berries and sucked pebbles for moisture until his rescue five days later. "No white man has ever walked out of there," he said.

About 65 pounds lighter, Robinson was released from active duty. He had served in 11 countries, won the French Legion of Honor medal and befriended T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.

"Had (Robinson) had as good a press agent as T.E. Lawrence in Lowell Thomas, he too might have emerged as one of World War I's romantic and mysterious figures," Bothwell wrote.

In Britain's austere economy, Robinson said, "There's no job for an unemployed major."

After coming to Fort Myers about 1921, Robinson visited St. Petersburg while selling real estate and decided to "put down roots here," the Times wrote. Robinson married Florence Opal Purnell about 1924 and later had a home at 1699 Park St. N. He pumped gas, his son said, and briefly helped operate Central Avenue's Kaniss and Robinson Jewelry.

"He was a colorful man, an extrovert," said Charles Kaniss, 83, whose father shared the business with Robinson. In the 1930s, Robinson met Lowell Thomas while working near Philadelphia. Inspired by Thomas' broadcasting, Robinson returned here about 1938 and was granted a show on WSUN.

Maj. Robinson and the News aired from 6 to 6:15 p.m. five days a week. Bothwell wrote that the major's "crisp, upper-class English accent (spoke) knowingly of world events."

"Robinson was WSUN then," the Evening Independent reported. "He'd buy a New York Times ... composing his newscast, which he did for free for a year."

"He never had a writer," said former WSUN radio and television general manager Earle Welde, 76.

Under Robinson's direction as station manager from 1948 to 1954, WSUN radio increased broadcast power with its Gandy Bridge towers, and WSUN-TV emerged.

"(Robinson) was instrumental in getting television when some thought it wasn't a viable prospect for the city," said Harry Smith, 79, former WSUN radio and TV broadcaster.

In 1954, Robinson retired at age 58 when station officials refused to discuss WSUN's sale with employees. "There were 60 families involved," his son said. The major had delivered more than 5,000 radio and TV broadcasts.

Robinson, who wrote several ornithological books, later presided over the city's chapter of the Florida Anthropological Society.

In 1973, Robinson organized and was president of the local Archaeological Society.

And until the end, the major continued his public speaking. "I would say he spoke at every civic club in the city," his son said.

On Sept. 3, 1980, Robinson died at his son's Park Street home.

"He was 84," Jim Robinson said. "He just wore out."

- Contact Scott Taylor Hartzell at hartzel@gate.net.

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