Tex Robertson, a Texas Swimming Legend (and Masters Great) Is Honored -- February 9, 2003
By John Maher
AUSTIN, Tex. A high school swim meet in Burnet turned into a surprise party Tuesday as the pool at the Galloway Hammond Recreation Center was named in honor of one of swimming and camping's most colorful pioneers.
It was Burnet's way of saying a big, hearty Attawaytogo! to 93-year-old Julian "Tex" Robertson.
"He was teary-eyed and choked up and was glad to see everybody, and he was genuinely surprised," said son Bill Robertson.
Tex Robertson put the now-dominant University of Texas swim program on the map in the 1930s and 1940s by recruiting and barnstorming with famous Yankees like Olympic backstroke gold medalist Adolph Kiefer and colorful Texans such as the Swimming Cowboy, Hondo Crouch.
Robertson will be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida in May, and he can
trace the popularization of the now standard flip turn to an outrageous stunt he once staged at Gregory Gym.
Since 1939 Robertson's Camp Longhorn near Burnet has been a summer haven for 80,000 kids and spawned its own Texas traditions, although the too-scary campfire story of Hugo the escaped gorilla did not remain one of them. Robertson has called out his trademark cheer -- "Attawaytogo!" -- to generations of campers, including President George Bush and later his twin
daughters, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and young swimmers from every walk of life.
A broken leg that now has enough metal in it to be an anchor has slowed Robertson's assault on age group swimming records, but he was spry enough to travel to Houston this past weekend for one of the winter carnivals for prospective campers.
"The camp is what keeps us young. You have to be right with it," said Pat Robertson, Tex's wife of 63 years and the mother of five.
There have been two camps since 1975, when a second one opened in nearby Indian Springs. The original camp is just off Texas 29, about a dozen miles west of Burnet and down a winding road lined with unapologetically corny signs, like the one announcing that George Bush is just ahead. And just ahead, there's a nondescript bush with a placard that says "George."
Robertson arrives at the office, where the filing system in his room is strictly pre-computer age: clippings and notes stuck in various cut-off
"This is Neil," Robertson says, introducing his walker and waiting to see if the visitor gets the inside joke. Neil Walker is a former star for the UT swim program, which Robertson has loyally supported since he left for the camp after being named NCAA Coach of the Year in 1950.
"It's always great to have someone who's so enthusiastic. He puts a smile on everyone's face when he's on the deck," Walker said.
"He is the most determined man and the most persistent man when it comes to fighting for University of Texas swimming or swimming anywhere, for that matter," said UT men's swim coach Eddie Reese.
Robertson grew up in Sweetwater, the youngest of four sons born to Frank and Nancy Robertson. Brother Frank was a high jumper, Laclair was a pole vault champion and Jack was a baseball player.
"I was looking for a sport but I wasn't very good on land," Robertson said. "I was a big kid, but afraid of the water. But when I was 13, I would play in the creek with a dog and I could push off and go across the creek. When it dried up, there was a doctor who had a horse trough and I would practice there."
Robertson entered some local events and an ocean swim in Galveston, but his real break came when he moved from Sweetwater in 1925 out to California where his brothers lived.
At the beach, there were swimmers like Clarence
"Buster" Crabbe to compete against and some colleges where he could practice his sport.
"I hated school, but I went wherever they had swimming," said Robertson, who joked that he took Astronomy 101 at three different schools.
Not long after the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, where he was an alternate for the U.S. water polo team, he pinned $85 to his underwear and began hitchhiking and riding the rails with hobos to Michigan, where he thought coach Matt Mann had a scholarship waiting for him. Mann didn't, but was able to help him land some jobs and Robertson stuck around long enough to become
an All-American on Michigan's NCAA championship teams of 1934 and 1935. He also broke the 440-yard freestyle record of Johnny Weismuller, who by that time was playing Tarzan.
While at Michigan, Robertson occasionally made trips to Chicago where Kiefer, a friend and protege, trained.
"Adolph didn't know it, but I also had a hot girlfriend in Chicago," Robertson confided.
Kiefer was a prodigy and became perhaps the best backstroker of all time. He held world records at a variety of distances, and took the gold medal in the
100 meters, the only backstroke event in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Robertson wasn't at those Games, but by then had talked his way into a coaching position with the UT swim team. Robertson convinced Kiefer to come to Texas, along with Ralph "Alligator Boy" Flanagan from Miami and breaststroker Mike Sojka, the "flying fish."
Kiefer, who has a swimming and athletics supply company based in Illinois, recalled, "We helped him put on swimming exhibitions. About seven of us got
together and bought a car and painted it the school's colors with a big longhorn on it. We each got to use the car one night a week."
Robertson ran the swimming program on a $300 budget and one way he raised funds was by staging an Aqua Carnival at Gregory Gym, like the one in 1937. The crowd there was told a UT swimmer was going to attempt to break the world record in the 200-yard freestyle.
"There were officials from the AAU up in the stands with their clipboards and watches," Robertson chuckled.
The pool had a bulkhead, one that Robertson used to conceal other swimmers. When the first swimmer neared the bulkhead he dove down and out popped a fresh swimmer, wearing a similar white cap.
"We beat the record by four seconds," Robertson said.
It was a stunt to pump up the crowd, but Robertson was teaching that kind of
dive with a turn while other swim teams were hitting the wall and merely turning around. Two years later at a national meet other teams saw the flip turn and began copying it.
When he was a swimmer at Michigan, Robertson had visited a summer camp run by Mann and dreamed of starting one in Texas. The Lower Colorado River
Authority was trying to promote recreation on the lakes and cut him a great deal on a 10-year lease for 38 acres.
The camp opened with grand plans, but only one camper that year. After he returned from World War II, where he helped train frogmen, Robertson used army surplus equipment, ingenuity and sweat to gradually build his camp and its traditions.
According to "The Complete Book of Frisbee," Longhorn campers were throwing ice cream container lids in a game called Sa-Lo long before the Frisbee was invented.
In the mid-1960s an Army surplus, rubberized 40 foot-long gasoline storage tank used in Vietnam was inflated and turned into "The Blob," a giant toy
for jumping on.
"It's ridiculous, but it's our most popular activity," Robertson said.
One campsite diversion denied the campers, many of whom return for as many as nine summers, is ghost stories, which were stopped after one night in 1942.
"We told the campers that Hugo, the gorilla from the San Antonio Zoo, had escaped and he'd been seen in Marble Falls. We told them be sure and lock your cabins. We had a kid who was in on it and we put some ketchup on him," Robertson said.
When the "bloodied" camper was discovered the others ran shrieking to their cabins. Concerned, Robertson checked out the quarters of some younger campers.
"One of the older brothers was in there standing behind the door with a broom and he hit me on the head and knocked me down to the floor," Robertson recalled. "We got about five or six cars together and turned on the lights and said, come on out, the gorilla is dead. We got him. Nobody came out. And
six or seven campers didn't come back the next year."
That hasn't been a problem since. As the sign on the camp's road says, "Camp Longhorn goes on forever. Just look at us."
From The Austin Statesman, January 15, 2003