SEATTLE – It was an encounter that would never be forgotten by those who heard it, one broadcasting titan interviewing another, immersed in mutual respect and awash in tenderness.
The year was 2014, the occasion was the dedication of Keith M. Jackson Hall at Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.
Bob Robertson, the immortal (and eternal) Bob-Rob, voice of WSU for decades, was interviewing Jackson, who honed and nurtured his legendary announcing career as an undergraduate in Pullman. They were a mere four months apart in age – 86 at that time – and to Robertson, it felt in some ways like a valedictory.
“It was an interview from the heart,” Robertson said.
Of course, the poignancy was enhanced last week when Jackson, a 1954 Washington State graduate, died at 89, an age Robertson will reach in March. But even back then, at halftime of the Cougars’ game with Portland State, sitting in a broadcast booth in the press box, the emotion sizzled over the airwaves.
It ended with a tearful Robertson pointing out the players were coming back on the field, and the band was beginning to play. And a few moments later, he was practically sobbing as he signed off.
“I don’t know about you,” Robertson said to Jackson, “but every time I hear the band at a football game, I get all choked up.”
“Me, too,” Jackson replied. “I cry like a baby when they play the anthem.”
Looking back now, Robertson realizes there was more going on than just that. Bud Nameck, the Cougars’ play-by-play announcer at the time, noticed Robertson had begun to get misty when Jackson mentioned his wife, Turi Ann, whom he said he met in Pullman, “under the willow trees of the old golf course … we’ve had 63 wonderful years together. We’re good for another four or five years, I’m pretty sure. We felt this (event) was the punctuation mark to a life that was well-lived and thoroughly enjoyed.”
Robertson’s wife of 59 1/2 years, Joanne, had died a couple of years earlier, “and Bob to this day misses her immensely,” Nameck said. “Back then, of course, it was even fresher. And I kind of got the feeling Bob thought that might be the last time he talked to Keith, and that was emotional as well.”
“I think it was the whole situation,” Robertson reflected. “We were getting on in years. I had lost my wife prior to that. I think it was a mutual respect for what we had done. It’s hard to say. It was a very touching interview. Not just, ‘Where did you work in 1965?’ ”
What fascinates me is the commonality of their careers, and the vast divergence. They overlapped once, in the late 1950s, when Jackson was the radio voice of the Seattle Rainiers at the same time Robertson was doing their television games. They sat in side-by-side booths at Sicks’ Stadium.
Robertson would never leave the Northwest, while Jackson, after his 10-year stint at KOMO television, would of course move on to become the legendary voice of college football for ABC, along with visible roles in the Olympics, NBA, MLB and even as the original play-by-play man of “Monday Night Football.”
“Our careers in a sense were parallel, although he got to the very top of the business,” Robertson said. “But we were the same type of person. If it was there, we’d broadcast it – hydro races and all the crazy things we tended to do in those days. We had a similarity there. And he was a fine human being.
“Not a great number of times, but a few, Keith would be doing the television of a game I was broadcasting on the radio for the Cougars. Our wives would commandeer an empty booth and visit during the game, and then we’d go our separate ways. There was a sameness, but a kind of regal difference to what he did.”
Robertson had chances over the years for a higher-profile job with a major league basketball or baseball team, but the timing was never right. And the tug of the Cougs was always too great. If there’s any wistfulness over Jackson’s national prominence, Robertson has hidden it well. And there should be none – BobRob might be the most beloved Cougar of them all.
What Robertson and Jackson also share is a reverence for the Palouse and the university that wound up shaping both of them. In that interview, Jackson marvels at how much the campus has changed, but while soaking in the halftime pageantry and the view on the horizon, he concludes, “Who wouldn’t want to go to a school like that?”
Robertson, meanwhile, keeps churning along. He still has a role on the Cougar broadcasts, as he has since 1964, absent a three-year stretch from 1969-71 as, yes, the Husky announcer. A University Place resident, Robertson continues to call Sunday home games of the Tacoma Rainiers with Mike Curto, as well as about 35 games of the short-season Class A Spokane Indians with Mike Boyle. And once again this year, Robertson plans to work a few high school games from the basketball state tournament for Spokane radio.
Quit? It barely crosses his mind, even as his 90th birthday pulls into view.
“I suppose I could,” Robertson mused. “I don’t know if I’d be very happy if I quit. Every year at the end of the football season, it runs through my mind. The trips are getting harder. It used to be a thrill in the old days getting on an airplane. I’d put on a suit and tie. Now I hate going to an airport. I never want to see another airport if I can help it.
“I don’t want to quit. On the other hand, I don’t want to go on until everyone feels sorry for me struggling to perform. I’d hate to have that happen. If Joanne were here, she’d be able to tell me if it’s time or not. She’s not here, so I have to sense it for myself, or maybe my friends will tell me.”
I’m here to say: It’s not time. Jackson tried to quit once, but eventually was lured back for several more years, finally hanging up the mike for good in 2006.
Let’s flash back to that interview in 2014, when Jackson and Robertson reflected on how good the “good old days” had been.
“We set a foundation and we set a level for young people, hopefully, to follow it and have values, and remember the playing field belongs to the players and the coaches, not some round-bottomed announcer trying to make a name for himself,” Jackson said.
Jackson added that the luncheon for the new broadcasting building in his name was fun, “but it’s more fun to see you, Bob.”
“I’m here,” Robertson replied. “I’m still here.”
Subscribe to the Cougs newsletter
Get the latest Cougs headlines delivered to your inbox as they happen.