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Towson woman walking in footsteps of father's Olympic gold

Towson resident Charlotte Smith and her family are traveling to London this week to return to the scene of her father's Olympic basketball triumph.

"I've heard about the Olympics from my dad all my life," said Smith, the middle school dean at St. Paul School for Girls in Brooklandville.

"When (the International Olympic Committee) decided to go to London several years ago for the 2012 Olympics, I had a little light bulb in the back of my brain."

Smith thought it would be "amazing if the two of us could go over there, and he can go back and see the places he played, kind of relive it."

Her father, Jack Robinson, was a member of the 1948 gold-medal winning basketball team in London. Robinson had been an All-American player, 1946-48, while at Baylor University, and was chosen to play for the U.S. Olympic squad. The U.S. team went undefeated for the gold.

Robinson later became a Baptist minister, is now retired and lives with his wife Charlotte, in Georgia.

Smith said that when she was growing up, her father's gold medal was simply a piece of family history.

"I knew the medal was in his office, and it was just something that was a part of my life," she said. "I didn't realize how fantastic that was, that he had a gold medal. As I got older, I began to pick up on that it was really special. … It was a very large part of our family history, listening to these stories."

Certain portions of his story are well documented. Robinson and a female swimmer were selected to go to Buckingham Palace to meet King George IV, and in an interview with the BBC from 1948, Robinson recounts a long, pleasant conversation with the king that he didn't know how to get out of.

Smith remembers her father telling her as a child that they were warned about the king's speech impediment, but Robinson said he didn't notice it at all.

Smith said her father also roomed with the first African American basketball player in the Olympics, teammate Don Barksdale.

"The team really made their minds up that if there was any opposition in any way to this man playing, that it was a team sport," she said. "If he didn't play, they did not play."

Just as important as meeting royalty or making history, Smith said Robinson was also fond of telling folks that the team was seen off by Grace Kelly, whose brother was an Olympic rower that year.

Knowing how much the Olympics meant to her family, Smith and her sister, Frances, urged him to consider a return trip to England for the upcoming Games. But Robinson, 85, pushed back, saying he'd be too old for such a trip at that point.

So his daughter took matters into her own hands.

Last fall, Smith decided to take advantage of the Flory Prize, a grant named for former Head of School Evelyn A. Flory and offered to St. Paul's School for Girls staff that, according to a school release, "asks teachers to let their imaginations soar and to undertake a summer experience that goes beyond the routine and ordinary."

Applicants are challenged to propose a project that fulfills a lifelong dream or special ambition.

Janet Wolfe, associate head for academics at St. Paul's School for Girls, said past winners of the award have retraced the steps of Don Quixote in Spain, studied mosaics in Greece and Italy, studied cooking in Italy, and followed a grandfather's footsteps through Morocco.

"They're really amazing, creative adventures that faculty have been able to take," Wolfe said.

Smith wrote an essay detailing her desire to travel with her father to the scene of his Olympic triumph, and at a faculty luncheon in December, Smith was announced as this year's winner.

"They had a big presentation, and gave me a gold medal and trophy," she said. One teacher ran in wearing her father's jersey number, and they showed a big presentation with photos and the BBC interview.

"I was just overwhelmed," she said. "I had no idea they had gone to so much trouble."

That afternoon, it was time to deliver the news to her dad.

"I didn't tell him that I was applying for this because I didn't want to get his hopes up, but I called him a couple times right before the essay was due to ask him some specific questions," Smith said.

Robinson knew she was up to something, and was "very overcome" when he received the news.

As part of the Flory program, Smith said she plans to bring her father to St. Paul this fall when she presents a report on her trip to London.

But even as the Games approach, Smith isn't sure exactly what they'll have to report back.

Last week, Smith said she would be flying into London with her mother, father, sister and other family members on July 27 for the opening ceremony — but the flight was all they had tickets for.

They'll try to find tickets to fill the rest of their week in London, but even if the week is mostly sight-seeing and soaking in the Olympic experience, Smith said the experience will still be a dream come true — walking in the footsteps of her father's Olympic experience.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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