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Eddie Robinson, arguably the city’s most famous former athlete, stood before an assembly of Paris High School students and alumni during Homecoming festivities on Friday and told them how much being presented the “Distinguished Graduate Award” means to him.
“This is a real honor to me. To me, this is like being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This honor is huge, and I want you to know that,” said Robinson, who graduated from Paris High School 75 years ago.
He left Paris the summer after graduating from high school in 1938 to play pro baseball. He went on to a 13-year career in the major leagues, helping the Cleveland Indians win the 1948 World Series and making the American League all-star team four times.
Robinson was added to the school’s wall of honor along with Bob Biard, 82, an inventor and scientist from the class of 1948, and Blake Neely, 44, an award-winning composer from the class of 1987.
The three are the second class to receive the Distinguished Graduates honor. They join last year’s inaugural class — Raymond Berry, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Deon Minor, Gene Stallings and Admiral James O. Richardson.
Before coming to the high school Friday afternoon for the ceremonies, the 92-year-old Robinson played 18 holes of golf at Paris Golf and Country Club.
Somebody asked him if he can shoot his age.
“Consistently. But you know my age, and being that old makes it easier to do that,” he said.
James Robert “Bob” Biard holds 70 U.S. and six foreign patents, including the infrared LED (light-emitting diode), which was first used with IBM computers to replace tungsten bulbs that controlled punch card readers. Today they continue to be used as transmitters in fiber optic data communication systems.
“I got a good education here. It’s served me well, and anything I can do to further image of Paris, Texas, I’m all for it. I’m very pleased to receive the award,” Biard said.
Blake Neely received Emmy nominations in 2003 for Outstanding Main Title Theme “Everwood”; in 2010 for Outstanding Music Composition for a Miniseries “The Pacific”; in 2011 for GoldSpirit Award: Best Theme “The Pacific”; and in 2012 for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series “Pan Am”. He received the BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) Award for Top Television Series “Arrow,” “The Mentalist,” “Golden Boy” and “Brothers & Sisters,” and Top Film “Life As We Know It.”
Blake was busy on a project in Hollywood and could not attend. His parents, Bill and Bonnie Neely, accepted the award for him.
“Blake is really sorry he couldn’t be here, but he wanted me to thank you all so much for everything that Paris has done for him, the support that he had,” his father told the assembly.
Looking out at PHS students, the elder Neely said his son asked him to pass along “the idea that, if you have an opportunity, to get after it, to take that opportunity and do the most you can with it, to go the extra mile.”
He added: “He would tell any of you it is not just talent that will get you someplace, it’s that you work hard when you get the opportunity to use that talent, and that it really made a difference in his life. Thank you so much on his behalf.”
Biard grew up and attended school in Paris, where his father Jimmy Biard, was a farmer and route salesman for the Dr Pepper bottling company and his mother, Mary Ruth Biard, was a retail salesperson at the Collegiate Shop in downtown Paris.
Biard is first cousins with John Biard and Webb Biard.
Patsy Davis was among a group who gathered in the PHS Library before the assembly for an informal greeting of the honorees.
“We graduated together in 1948,” she said, nodding at Biard. “We were both only 2 years old when we graduated, I think,” she added, with a wink. “I still have my class ring,” she said, holding out a finger with the ring on it.
“Bob is an entertainer,” she added, and another onlooker, Derald Bulls, told a reporter, “Ask him about the violin case in his car.”
“Oh, you play the violin?” the reporter asked.
“No, but I’ve got a violin case with a musical saw and two dozen harmonicas,” he said with a grin.
He has performed at banquets, schools, churches, hospitals, retirement homes and performance halls, and after the ceremony, when prompted, he pulled a harmonica out of his pocket and played a tune.
Someone asked why he carries around two dozen harmonicas.
“Well, they’re different keys,” Biard said. “When I play with other people, they like to play in different keys. They all play the same, but their in different keys. This one is in the key of A.”
With Biard was his wife, Amelia, whom he met at Texas A&M, where he received bachelor’s, master’s and doctor’s degrees in electrical engineering after receiving an associate degree from Paris Junior College..
“I got my PhD on a Friday night and went to work for TI on Monday. We moved over the weekend. That was in 1957,” he said.
A reporter asked him how many millions of dollars he made off his many inventions.
“I never received any royalties out of any of my patents. They were all things that I was in the right place at the right time, and the technology was there, and I couldn’t have done any of them at home in my garage,” he said.
“It was all because I was in the company. For the LED patent, I got one dollar and ‘other consideration.’ The other considerations was to keep my job so I could get more patents,” he said, smiling.
“I’m a sentimentalist, and Paris has always meant a lot to me,” Robinson said.
“I keep up with the football field, and when there’s a big game, Skipper (Steely) and I go to the game, and we follow them around, and I’ve been back here numerous times. I love to drive around town and see things. I was born in a house here in Paris, and Dave Philley (another former baseball great) lived right down the street from where I was born,” he added.
“I used to visit Dave all the time. So Paris is dear to my heart, and to receive this honor is special.”
Robinson was accompanied Friday by his wife, Bette, whom he pointed to from the podium and asked to stand.
He told the assembly — to cheers from students — that he played football, basketball and baseball for the Wildcats. He asked how many of them play football for Paris High School, and hands rose from across the room.
“None of you probably know where Wise Field is,” Robinson said, referring to a park in southwest Paris. “That’s where I played football.”
When he was a freshman in high school, he said, the Wildcat football team went to Greenville for a game.
“Greenville had a bang-up team, and they beat us 84 to nothing. We could do nothing but get better after that. And we did. We had a pretty good team my senior year,” he said.
So take heart if times are sometimes hard, he said.
He said his real athletic ability was in baseball.
“The only reason I’m standing here today is because I could hit a fast ball,” Robinson added.
But his baseball career almost ended in his first season at Valdosta, Ga., in a Class D league that he called the absolute bottom rung of competition.
He was batting only about .200, and he was barely hanging on to a roster spot, not because of his hitting but because of his fielding.
Minor league infielders “throw wild balls, and as a first baseman you’ve got to be able to catch them. Well, as long as they were in the air, I could catch them, but I had trouble when they hit the dirt before they got to me,” he said.
“I don’t think you’re going to make it,” his manager told him. “You’re going to have to learn how to catch those,”
So he and his roommate got a batting cage, put it behind first base so they wouldn’t have to chase the balls too far, and Robinson spent long hours working to catch the thousands of balls deliberately thrown several feet in front and to either side of him.
“And so I got good at that,” he said. The next game, they played him in the outfield, and the next game he was back at first base.
“They let me stay there and I became the regular first baseman,” he said.
By his third season in the minor league, he was batting over .300, driving in 100 runs, and hitting his share of home runs.
Robinson talked of the thrill of playing alongside many legendary players. He played with seven different clubs over his 13-year major league career. His best playing time, he said, was with the Chicago White Sox when the club was managed by Paul Richards, who became his best friend and mentor.
His three seasons with the New York Yankees (1954, 1955 and 1956) also were memorable, he said, with manager Casey Stengel, radio announcers Mel Allen and Red Barber, and players like Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Moose Skowron, Enos “Country” Slaughter, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, Billy Martin and Don Larsen.
By Charles Richards, eParisExtra