San Francisco and Selma: Chronicle days

Scan 7 Seeing the byline of longtime San Francisco Chronicle science editor David Perlman on SFGate.com tonight – “NASA photo on strange light on Mars has UFO buffs talking” — sent me on my own voyage into deep personal space.

I recalled this photo of some of the Chronicle gang in 1963, when my father, for one of the paper’s famous gag stories, walked 50 miles around San Francisco in 20 hours, taking up President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the Marine Corps.

He did it fueled by martinis and oranges, so the tale goes, suffering severely blistered feet. I know he had done a fast 25-mile hike as a young Marine in boot camp 16-or-so years earlier, but this was double the distance and on pavement and he wore tennis shoes. He was 35. He might not have made it without my stepmother, Pat, supplying fresh socks and icing the gin.

At any rate, that’s my late father, Bob Robertson, on the far left — then of the Chronicle, later of the Peace Corps –  in sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers. I think that’s Donovan Bess sitting on the rail, second from left. That’s Bill Giles pointing on the far right. I think I recognize several of the others, but I don’t want to risk guesses in print. I think the scene of Dad nearing the finish line, with Chronicle colleagues looking on, is on Market Street. Gordon Peters, who I remember well and fondly, printed the photo on February 8, 1963. It turned up crumpled in a box after my father’s death in 1995.

Another walk: There was another old black-and-white print in the box, a UPI photo taken in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965, during one of the civil rights marches to Montgomery.

Dad is in the background in a raincoat, turning his head to see police and marchers outside the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma. He was there covering the march for the Chronicle. Some friend at the paper, probably Peters, circled Dad in grease pencil. The photo is not very grand, but it’s one of my most treasured possessions.

Scan 8
Dad in Selma, 1965. Bare-headed guy in tan raincoat upper left. I erased the grease pencil.

I look back at the headlines from his March 1965 stories: “A Singing Heard in Selma’s Mud,” “Two Voices — Both White,” “The Badges of Courage in Selma,” “A Day of Change in Selma,” “Selma Near the Boiling Point,” “54-Mile Walk for Freedom,” “The Road to Equality,” “14 Miles More Along the Freedom Road,” “Through the Mud to Montgomery,” “Marchers in Sight of  Goal,”  “The Shock of Alabama,” “King Calls for Alabama Boycott.” And my eyes well up, again, when I read “25,000 Cry ‘Freedom.” Scan 9 Meanwhile, congratulations to David Perlman for still reporting from a paper that, at least once upon a time, you couldn’t wait to read. I wish the journalism world knew more about the days of Ron Fimrite, George Draper and others among my Chronicle heroes. The paper wasn’t only Herb Caen.

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