Giving the gift of hope

G. Scott Robinson uses his musical talents to help sick and disabled children

G. Scott Robinson, you might say, owes his livelihood to Roy Rogers and his music to Mel Bay. The perseverance is all his own.

Robinson was born with the rare genetic condition “osteogenesis imperfecta,” known as “brittle bone disorder.” As a child, he suffered fractures from playing on the floor, falling out of bed, even jumping when startled. All told, he’s endured more than 200 such incidents.

Scott Robinson plays a custom-built Martin guitar.
Scott Robinson plays a custom-built Martin guitar. “My story is not a sad story at all,” Robinson says. “It’s a happy story because I’m still alive, because I survived osteogenesis imperfecta. Many people didn’t.”

Yet in 36 years at the University, Robinson, a systems programmer in the Division of Computing & Communications, has nevertheless carved out a unique and frequently colorful career while also emerging as an accomplished guitarist.

“My story is not a sad story at all,” Robinson says. “It’s a happy story because I’m still alive, because I survived osteogenesis imperfecta. Many people didn’t.”

Longtime friend and fellow musician Steven J. Givens, assistant to the chancellor, recently produced Robinson’s debut CD, Plenty Indeed for My Two Hands to Do, proceeds from which will benefit St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

“Scott is a strong and physical guitar player with an intricate style that keeps his hands moving and busy,” Givens says. “But Scott’s hands also move him through life — they push his wheelchair, drive his car, take care of his cats and keep watch over the University computer system.

“Now he wants to give something back to the world of pediatric medicine that once cared for him.”

Primary Children’s

Robinson was born in 1946 at Brooklyn Naval Hospital. He had two broken legs.

His parents consulted doctors in New York and Salt Lake City (including one physician then caring for Babe Ruth), and at the age of 6 months he entered Salt Lake City’s Primary Children’s Hospital. Except for a pair of short, unsuccessful attempts to live at home, Robinson remained there for the next 13 years.

Proceeds from Robinson's CD, *Plenty Indeed for My Two Hands to Do*, will benefit St. Louis Children's Hospital.
Proceeds from Robinson’s CD, *Plenty Indeed for My Two Hands to Do*, will benefit St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Still, Robinson recalls his childhood with warmth and humor and describes Primary Children’s as a place filled with music and activity. He learned songs in Sunday school; he met the Three Stooges and other celebrities; he played drums, ukulele and — after visits by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers — a plastic, four-string Roy Rogers guitar.

Ironically, Rogers’ visits also inspired a fascination with electronics: The young Robinson marveled as the familiar television icon came to full-color life before his eyes.

“As I got older, I learned that there was this thing called science and that television was just waves coming through the air translated into a cathode ray tube,” Robinson recalls.

Visits by repairmen became eagerly awaited events. He built a transistor radio kit. “Eventually I got to the point where I was able to fix things on my own,” he says.

Through it all, hospital staff emphasized the same message: You are expected to move on. You are expected to contribute.

A little farther

Robinson rejoined his family, now living in Kirkwood, Mo., in September 1960.

His condition had stabilized. His arms had grown sturdy. With leg braces, he could even get up and down stairs. He entered seventh grade at the Special School District of St. Louis County.

Robinson’s father — J. George Robinson, a professor of marketing and business administration and later associate dean of business at Washington University — nurtured that growing independence. For Christmas, he gave Scott a new wheelchair and encouraged him to explore the neighborhood.

“It was shiny with no rust and the spokes were tight and the rubber was brand new,” Robinson recalls. “It even smelled great.

“My father said, ‘Now, I want you to go outside and give it a try,’ so I put on my coat and rolled up and down the street. When I came back he said, ‘Great, great; now go a little farther.'”

Ten blocks later, Robinson happened upon a small shop crammed with guitars. Intrigued, he returned the next day and, amidst the clamor of post-holiday shopping, introduced himself to the store’s owner, Mel Bay.

A legendary music teacher, Bay had once worked with disabled servicemen (his best-selling Modern Guitar Method books were developed for returning World War II GIs). Upon meeting Robinson, Bay pulled down a six-string and started playing.

Robinson was immediately entranced.

“Boy, that’s for me!” he remembers thinking. “That’s what I want to do. That’s how I want to play.”

It was the start of a lifelong friendship. Robinson spent hour after hour in Bay’s store, soaking up encouragement, guidance and lots of impromptu tutoring (not to mention a generous line of credit and a trio of Bay’s personal guitars).

Almost by osmosis, Robinson began to master Bay’s intricate method for strumming melody and rhythm simultaneously.

“I never had formal lessons, just hands-on instruction,” Robinson remembers. “‘Put your fingers here, this is what you do.'”

Before long, Robinson was playing for customers.

Computers & guitars

After high school, Robinson set about finding a job. It wasn’t easy.

He and his father researched companies that hired disabled students. There weren’t many.

An opportunity arose at Washington University, one of about 20 institutions nationwide then building prototype laboratory instrument computers (LINCs). Generally considered the world’s first personal computer, LINC was designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1960s by Wesley A. Clark and Charles E. Molnar, both of whom subsequently joined the faculty here.

Still, someone was needed to actually construct and maintain the system. In 1967, Robinson got the job.

“I basically used the same tools — solder, transistors, diodes and things of that nature — I used as a kid to fix TVs,” explains Robinson, who rigged power supplies, printed, drilled and assembled circuit boards and repaired parts as needed.

Subsequent projects have ranged widely, including everything from macro-modular graphics, a kind of early molecular modeling system, to his current duties overseeing the SMF stream, a massive, daily log of University business.

“If something needs to be done, I figure it out or find the right person to help me figure it out,” he says.

In the early 1970s, that can-do ethos combined with Robinson’s technical and musical gifts in a new pursuit: building guitars.

Today, the largely self-taught luthier happily spends months carefully designing, crafting and fine-tuning each instrument. His Dellwood, Mo., home boasts a climate-controlled workshop and an inventory of perhaps 250 soundboards and 500 necks.

“I make guitars for people I like and if they want to pay me for them, fine,” Robinson quips. “It’s like painting a portrait: You have to know the person, what kind of sound they’re looking for.”

For example, an instrument crafted for Givens, with whom Robinson frequently plays jazz and folk, has “a mellow sound, bright highs and low basses” tailored to their intimate, coffeehouse-style gigs.

Plenty Indeed

Yet Robinson has never forgotten his roots. In the mid-1970s, he taught guitar to disabled children through the Easter Seals Society and later did the same through the Kirkwood Civic Center.

Last October, Robinson and Givens — who had previously recorded together as part of Seed & Sower (1999), a benefit for a Honduran orphanage — began conceptualizing Plenty Indeed. The pair visited St. Louis Children’s Hospital and met with doctors and patients.

Robinson was deeply moved, but he was also struck by a lack of music.

“I looked at Steve and said, ‘That’s it!'” Robinson recalls. “‘We’re going to donate the funds for instruments and training and get a music program going for the kids.'”

After months of rehearsal, Robinson, bassist Gerry Kasper, percussionist Pat Dillender and vocalist Georgy Rock were ready for the studio. In a lightning-fast 28 hours, they recorded originals such as “Russian Blue,” inspired by one of Robinson’s cats — who had crawled inside a de-stringed guitar — and standards like “Moonlight in Vermont,” for which Givens contributes vocals.

They also recorded several songs — “On A Slow Boat to China,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “Tangerine” — that Robinson first encountered as a teenager in Bay’s guitar shop.

The collection’s title comes from its final track, “I Have Two Little Hands,” which Robinson remembered from Sunday school at Primary Children’s.

(Plenty Indeed is available at the Campus Store; by calling 869-9301; or by e-mailing Robinson at Cost is $15.)

Most recently, Robinson joined a mentoring program in order to more directly work with disabled kids.

“I’ve beaten the odds and been able to live my life independently, but I still feel a sense of responsibility to others who feel their problems may be insurmountable,” Robinson concludes. “Some of these kids … they can’t walk, they can’t talk, they’re in pain. I want to give them what was given to me.