Retired to Rear: Roberson trades in life-long aspirations to steer the lives of his three grandchildren

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 11, 2004

The big purple Honda Gold Wing motorcycle sitting in Alex Roberson’s driveway is the sixth such touring bike he’s owned.

“I believe the scientific name for it is magenta,” Roberson says of the startlingly bright paint job. “But I call it ‘plum purple.'”

Roberson estimates he’s logged more than 300,000 miles in 32 states in the 20 or so years he’s been riding the big bikes, and in all that time he’s had only one accident.

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A car pulled out in front of him, just nicking the front of his bike. Roberson flipped over the handlebars, over the hood of the car and — incredibly — landed on his feet. “Only thing happened to me is I bit my lip when I landed,” he recalls.

The bike, however, was another matter. Roberson’s insurance company wrote it off as a total loss. Another person might have forgotten about motorcycle riding after that. Done the smart thing and just walked away.

Not Roberson. “I went down, bought me another one and got right back on,” he says. “I love to ride too much to give it up.”

It should come as no surprise then that when Roberson returned to visit his native Demopolis last year and discovered that three of his grandchildren had been staying in a shelter because their mother was no longer able to care for them, he couldn’t just walk away. That would have been the easy thing to do.

Instead, he traded his lifelong dream of climbing aboard that plum purple machine and visiting all the places he’s never been for the responsibilities and the worries and the quiet joys of being a father with three young children.

When he retired last year after 35 years with the Chicago branch office of Xerox, Roberson wanted nothing more than to feel the wind in his face and the sense of freedom that always steals over him whenever he takes to the road.

Today, the bike sits parked in the driveway. Roberson, 65, is a dad once again.

Sitting in the kitchen of the modest home he shares with Hawkquon Taylor, 15, Lavaughn Terry, 11, and Ronald Terry, 9, Roberson chuckles softly. “This definitely isn’t what I had planned when I retired,” he admits. “I had pretty much planned a carefree life for myself — get up whenever I want to, lock the door, and get on the bike and go.

“But someone had to do what I’m doing.”

Roberson has had temporary custody of the three boys since July. Last week, he was awarded full custody. The situation has required a number of adjustments on everybody’s part.

Roberson does the cooking and the washing and makes sure everybody gets to school on time. “I told them, ‘I want school to be your No. 1 priority,'” he says.

He also does the grocery shopping.

As the oldest, Hawkquon helps care for his two brothers. “He’s kind of like my helping hand with the other two,” Roberson explains.

Discipline was a problem in the beginning, Roberson says, but they’ve pretty much come to an understanding. “I try to use constructive discipline,” he says. “I tell them, ‘You enjoy certain privileges now. If you want to keep those privileges you have to behave in an acceptable manner.'”

Being 65 gives Roberson a great deal of experience to draw upon about what does and does not motivate young boys. For example, if his charges’ grades start to slip he doesn’t resort to anything as lame and ineffective as a grandfatherly lecture. “I tell them if the grades don’t come up then I’m going to be the one to pick out their next pair of gym shoes,” he confides with a wink.

Predictably, the boys have responded to all the attention. Hawkquon participates in ROTC and is a member of the track team. He’s also learning to hunt and, like his grandfather, shows signs of becoming an avid motorcycle enthusiast.

“I think it was a relief for them when I started taking care of them,” Roberson says. “Kids worry, too, about who’s going to be their provider, who’s going to take care of them.”

He describes his relationship with the children’s mother as rocky at best.

“My baby daughter got with the wrong group and the kids were being neglected,” Roberson says. “When I came down to visit last year I discovered that her life was not something that was a good role model for the kids.”

Roberson returned to Chicago but he could not stop worrying about what would become of his three grandchildren. “I would wake up at night and think about their condition and what could be done,” he sighs.

He thought about the plans he had made, and about all those places he had dreamed of visiting. And he thought about the faces of those three young boys, too. After several sleepless nights, Roberson knew what he had to do, knew he had no choice. “As long as I had health and strength I decided no kin of mine should have to go to a shelter,” he says. “I decided we’ll give it a shot.”

Roberson says his relationship with his daughter is beginning to warm since he returned to Demopolis and took custody of the boys. “I think she’s come around a little bit,” he says. “I took the kids to see her for Valentine’s Day. We have our differences, but she’s my daughter and I still love her.”

He is grateful, too, for the assistance he has received from social workers at the Department of Human Resources.

“They didn’t believe anything I told them when I first came down from Chicago,” he says. “They didn’t believe I was for real. They were watching me like a hawk until I proved myself.”

After running exhaustive background checks on both Roberson and the references he provided, DHR provided counseling for the boys and helped him adjust to his new role as parent.

As for the future, Roberson shrugs, his eyes drifting out to that plum purple motorcycle sitting in the driveway.

“I’m 65,” he says. “My youngest grandchild is in third grade. I look down the road and I just hope and pray the good Lord to give me the strength to see it through.”