In this day and age of unrest, I often think back to the time I met two men who unknowingly became role models for racial harmony.
On a spring morning in 2008, Rob Robinson, a white firefighter from Mississippi, knocked on the door of an old farmhouse in northwest Kansas to ask for permission to hunt.
He was greeted by Gil Alexander, a black man who farmed 1,400 acres near Nicodemus, Kan., a community that was settled by African-Americans following the Civil War.
Robinson traveled almost 1,000 miles to hunt the Rio Grande turkeys that roamed western Kansas. And he knew that Alexander’s land was in a prime location.
Alexander sized up his visitor and said, “As long as you respect my land, you can hunt.”
Robinson was directed to a patch of land that was special, and he enjoyed a hunt for the ages.
“Within 15 minutes, I had my turkey,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”
So began a special relationship—between a southern white man and an African-American living on the plains of Kansas.
The two communicated regularly and got together whenever possible. But that friendship was never stronger than in 2012 when Robinson learned that Alexander would need a kidney transplant to survive.
Robinson immediately volunteered to be tested and found that he was a perfect match. He didn’t hesitate in donating one of his kidneys to Alexander.
“It was just the right thing to do,” Robinson said. “Gil was always there for me.”
I met Robinson and Alexander in a hospital room in the University of Kansas hospital shortly after the operation. I was immediately impressed by both men, and the power of a friendship forged by a hunter and a landowner.
“Rob is my hero,” Alexander told me. “He’s my living angel.
“I never asked him to do this. He heard about the troubles I was having and he just stepped up.
“I’m calling my kidney Mississippi in honor of him.”
I did a story on that special friendship, and it hit the national wires. Robinson and Alexander later reported that they heard from admirers from coast to coast and that my article spawned other magazine and newspaper articles.
What happened thereafter was almost as newsworthy. Robinson and Alexander got together and hunted and fished at least several times a year. Robinson formed Forever Outdoors, a non-profit organization dedicated to organ donors and recipients and the healing power of the outdoors.
That’s why I was saddened when I learned that Alexander passed away at the age of 60 on Sept. 8. But I couldn’t help but think that Robinson’s kidney had given him an extra five years.
Robinson also reflected on his friendship with Alexander. Four years ago, he and others had their first Forever Outdoors hunt on Alexander’s land in Nicodemus, Kan. It was an experience that Robinson will never forget.
“Here we were, all of us white guys, and we’re in Gil’s all-black church,” Robinson said. “But I don’t think anybody thought anything of it. We were all just people.
“We didn’t look at color. We just got along.”
Robinson traveled back to Nicodemus to take part in Alexander’s memorial service. He helped arrange for a helicopter to hover over Alexander’s land and scatter his ashes over the fields that were so dear to him.
“Gil is in a better place now .No more suffering for him,“ he said. “I’ll miss him. When he died, I lost a part of me. But a part of me is in heaven right now, too.”