I met Robin Williams at a black tie affair in New York City celebrating the birthday of Time Inc. chairman and philanthropist Andrew Heiskell.
Williams had performed one of his classic non-stop talkathon comedy acts. The two of us were standing together in the back of a group of tables seating dozens of rich and famous people brought together that special evening.
On stage that moment was none other than Linda Ronstadt. She seemed to be directing her rendition of “My Funny Valentine” to Heiskell seated at the front table. Wiliams turned to me, eyes aglow, grinning ear to ear as if the song were directed to him. When Ronstadt finished, Williams asked my name and where I was from.
Such a familiar guy, so easy to talk to. I felt I had known him a long time.
I recall we chatted briefly about the event and then he left, probably unnoticed in the dimly lighted ballroom. Just then, a staff member of The People for the American Way, sponsor of the event, invited me to dance as Peter Duchin played familiar standards.
This was in 1985, in February. At the hotel breakfast the next morning, former Congressman John Buchanan, chairman of People For The American Way, which Heiskell supported financially, gave journalists awards and a check for writing and broadcasts that promoted civil liberties. My check award for one editorial was $1,000. People For didn’t offer to pay for my tux rental.
Williams missed the awards breakfast. But I always remembered those few personal moments when we chatted. Every time I saw one of his movies or saw him on TV, I felt lucky to have met this incredibly talented man. I had been a fan since my family regularly watched “Mork and Mindy,” his first big break.
Williams’ death by suicide opens yet another door of memories for me, my longtime advocacy for suicide prevention with editorials in The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. I wish I could claim that groups I helped launch had prevented these tragedies in our community. But number of suicides remain about the same, year to year. The best I can do is to hope we’ve raised awareness.
Toward that end, I enlisted Mike Wallace of “Sixty Minutes” to speak to a suicide prevention conference at Indiana Purdue University in Fort Wayne. Wallace spoke movingly of his own struggle with suicidal thoughts after he and CBS News were the target of a lawsuit.
Once at Carroll High School in our county, I joined a group of health students to hear a motivational speaker talk about suicide. His main point was how selfish it is to take your own life, hurting parents and friends beyond measure. I was pretty sure the guy didn’t understand suicide.
I imagine some fans will call Robin Williams’ suicide a selfish act. I don’t think so. Yes, he enjoyed success beyond measure. He had fame and a family that loved him dearly. Yet I imagine that his depression, which he must have been using alcohol and drugs to treat, had become unbearable. His life was such a gift to all of us. Likewise, his death was a tragic loss for all of us.