Fearless in Blue

Fearless in Blue

Staring down a lion, falling down a waterfall and barrel rolling in a plane are all in a day’s work for three intrepid alumni

Bennett Smith ’19 can admit it now. He used to be a little afraid of water. “I was always scaring my parents by jumping off tall stuff or doing backflips on the ground, but I was never daring in water,” he says. These days, though, the water can’t be too deep or too tall for the championship kayaker who loves to go over waterfalls.

Smith is the living embodiment of “a spirit that is not afraid,” and he’s far from the only one. Whether it’s on land, in water or high in the air, Auburn grads are filled with adventure.

We caught up with Smith, hiker Jessica “Dixie” Mills ’12 and acrobatic pilot Mac Cook ’20 to talk about their thrilling

BENNET SMITH

Extreme Paddling

Jessica “Dixie” Mills

Walking Tall

Mac Cook

Out of the box

BENNETT SMITH: Extreme paddling

Its official name is a “Blunt to McNasty,” but this is really what you need to know about Bennett Smith’s signature move. “You do a cartwheel in a kayak and a front flip right after it,” he says.

Oh, and one more thing: “I don’t think anyone had ever done it off waterfall, and I nailed it last year.” Smith began kayaking around age 13, intrigued by a friend,
Davis Moers, who was doing tricks in the canoe-like paddle boat. “I thought it looked cool to go off waterfalls,” Smith says. They started posting videos of themselves doing flips in their kayaks on YouTube. Smith was also taking lessons that would eventually lead him to the U.S. freestyle kayaking team.
He has competed in three world championships, including one with a dislocated shoulder.

At the same time, he spends his weekends conquering big rapids and going down tall waterfalls.

“That’s really what went viral—the videos of me doing that,” Smith says. “I’m combining freestyle kayaking with river-running, and that seems to be what’s caught the public’s attention. It’s what I have the most fun doing.” That includes a video of him doing flips and rolls off Little River Falls in northeast Alabama that landed on Fox News in late December 2020.

It’s safer than it looks, Smith says. “A lot of people think it’s crazy, that you could land on a rock or something, but everything is very calculated,” he says.
“Before I go down, I’ve been there in the summer to swim to the bottom to make sure it’s deep enough and safe enough. People are also stationed at the bottom with ropes and safety equipment.”

Smith chose Auburn in large part because of kayaking. “I’ve been an Auburn fan my whole life—both my parents went there—but it’s also very close to some world-class whitewater,” he says. “I could go after class to Columbus, Ga., or to Lake Martin to the Tallapoosa River.”

At 24, Smith says he’s “just getting started” when it comes to kayaking. He has a coach and continues to train for the U.S. freestyle kayak team and tackle waterfalls yet to be conquered. “I’ve been compiling a list of ones that have never been done before and ticking them off,” Smith says. “I find one on Google Earth, walk miles to find it, scout it out, go back with a crew and do it.”

That’s particularly easy to do from Chattanooga, Tenn., where Smith moved after graduating in 2019 and now lives with his wife, Kathleen. He’s a sales rep for a logistics company, but he’s never far from his kayak.

“That’s really one of the main reasons I moved up here,” Smith says of Chattanooga’s proximity to kayaking waters. “It’s a pretty cool city, but I can also sneak away before lunch or after for a quick kayak session.”

‘DIXIE’ MILLS: Walking tall

And then there was the time Jessica Mills tried to fight off a mountain lion with a harmonica.

“For a minute and a half, this mountain lion and I were staring at each other,” says Mills, a 2012 graduate in biosystems engineering. “I thought, what if I can make a noise to let it know I’m not its food. I had this harmonica, so I pulled it out and blew into it. Then I thought, what if this sounds like a dying
bird or something? So, I stopped and stood there a minute, and it went away.”

Such is a day in the life of Mills, who quit her job in 2014 to hit the trail—literally. She started working on her website full time and now gives advice to hikers around the world, all the while chronicling her own hikes with blog posts, photos and videos. Mills, who grew up in and still lives in Opelika, dreamed from about age 5 of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. (Thruhiking means finishing the trail in a 12-month period; section hikers might do it over several years).

“We’d go to North Carolina on a vacation, and I remember seeing a sign saying ‘Appalachian Trail,’” Mills recalls. “I asked my mom about it, and she explained that it was what crazy people walked from Georgia to Maine. I said, ‘Wow, let’s go do that.’ She said, ‘Someday, when you grow up.’”

That day came in 2015, when Mills—given the trail name “Dixie” by those in the hiking community—hiked the 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail from March through October. “I didn’t know if I’d do another one, but within two months, the trails were calling again,” she said.

Since then, Mills has completed hiking’s “triple crown” by thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (2,650 miles in 2017) and the Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles in 2018).

But there are other hikes to walk, and Mills chronicles all her exploits, from the Camino de Santiago in Europe to the Florida Trail she started in February.

“There is something about walking somewhere that you can’t drive, knowing that the only way you can enjoy something is by walking there,” she says. “Those long hikes take me about six months. I do go slow and smell the roses. If you’re watching my videos, I want you to feel what it’s like on the trail.”

The 34-year-old walks alone and in groups. Aside from an encounter with a black bear and the aforementioned mountain lion, plus some snakes and alligators along the way, she’s remained safe. But it’s still difficult sometimes for Mills to convince people of the allure of hiking.

“A lot of people think you’ve lost your mind,” Mills says. “It’s not that people don’t want to see you chase your dreams— they’re concerned for your safety. So many people have a lot of fear about anything outside of their comfort zone, and they kind of put that on other people.

“But I’m very happy and fulfilled now,” she adds. “You can’t listen to the naysayers.”

MAC COOK: Out of the box

Twenty to 30 degrees nose up or down. Sixty degrees of roll or pitch.

That’s “the box” Mac Cook says private pilots are contained in, unless they take it upon themselves to learn more. “When you’re getting your license and learning how to fly, those are your constraints,” he says. “Anything outside of that is considered aerobatics. They don’t teach you that. It’s not a
required learning experience, but when you do, you begin to see what the plane can do.”

Cook has known for a while what an airplane can do. He grew up in Waverly, outside of Auburn, flying with his father, who is an acrobatic pilot. The younger Cook earned his pilot’s license in high school and graduated with a degree in professional flight management from Auburn last year. He’s now a flight instructor at the Auburn airport, and he likes to get a bit more adventurous on the weekends—doing rolls and other acrobatic moves.

“I’ve always liked doing things that are a little bit more adventurous or a little bit far off for some people, I guess,” says Cook, 22. “I’ve always had that speed and thrill bug inside of me.” That’s what led him to break out of the box of being a pilot and take it a step further to do acrobatics.

“The best way I can explain it is expanding the envelope of what an airplane can do and seeing what I can do,” he says. Cook also teaches others to do just that. On a recent weekend, he took a fellow pilot out to give him “upset recover and prevention training.” “We went through a set list of maneuvers and put him in all sorts of positions he probably had never been in,” Cook says. “He had to figure out how to get out of those situations.”

When he’s flying acrobatically—usually in a Russian trainer plane owned by his father—Cook says he “doesn’t do anything too crazy.”

“It’s big, slow maneuvers, not crazy stuff you see in air shows,” he says. “We do barrel rolls and loops—things that keep the airplane flying instead of it running out of energy. I kind of know my limitations, and people I fly with know their limitations, and we tend to stick to that. We stay pretty safe.” Cook has a younger brother who is following in his and his father’s footsteps, but his older sister is “completely disinterested,” as is his mother.

“My mom doesn’t like it at all,” he says. “She doesn’t try to discourage us, but she won’t partake in the activities…not everyone has the stomach for it. That’s what makes it unique, I guess.”

The War Eagle Has Landed

The War Eagle Has Landed

For more than 50 years, Auburn grads have helped turn America’s wanderlust for space travel into a reality. With a new mission to return to the moon and explore Mars, hundreds of Auburn Tigers find themselves the architects of humankind’s next adventure in the Big Blue.

When the United States landed on the moon in 1969, Auburn University was a part of it. Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin were manning Apollo 11, but two engineers who helped make that happen were Auburn graduates.

“That was the very beginning of the space program,” says Mike Ogles, Auburn’s director of NASA programs. “I mean, that’s when we landed on the moon. That was the start of it.”

It didn’t end there. From astronauts (including Ken Mattingly ’58 and Hank Hartsfield ’54, alumni who flew an all-Auburn shuttle mission together in 1982) to engineers and researchers and others, people from the Loveliest Village have been instrumental in exploring the cosmos.

And now, with President Donald Trump calling for a return to the moon by 2024, Auburn is again on the frontlines of space exploration, helping to lead a resurgence of space interest. Auburn alumni working in the space industry say we’re close to putting men and women back on the moon — and after that, we have our sights set on Mars.

AUBURN AND NASA

Doug Loverro ’89, who earned a master’s in political science at Auburn, is NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operation Missions Directorate. It’s a mouthful of a title, but he has a pretty straightforward mission: he’s in charge of getting humans back to the moon.

“The president has asked us to go back to the moon in the next four and a half years, and we’re charged with how we’re going to do that,” says Loverro, who took the job at the end of 2019 after a distinguished Department of Defense career that included five years as assistant secretary of defense for space policy. “It’s an incredible opportunity.”

Todd May ’90, whose 25-year NASA career included working on the International Space Station project and running the Space Launch System, says NASA’s focus is back to what it was in the Apollo years.

There’s no doubt that Auburn University has an untold number of graduates involved in the space program. We talked to just a few of them for this story:
  • DOUG LOVERRO (master’s in political science, 1989), NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operation Missions Directorate
  • TODD MAY (materials engineering, 1990), former director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, now vice president of space strategy for KBR in Huntsville
  • JIM VOSS (aerospace engineering, 1972), a former astronaut now teaching at the University of Colorado
  • MIKE OGLES (mechanical engineering, 1989), Auburn’s director of NASA programs, who oversees millions of dollars in research contracts that Auburn has with NASA
  • SUZAN VOSS (mathematics, 1971), a 35-year NASA veteran who has worked with the space shuttle and space station programs
  • AMY JAGER (aerospace engineering, 2005), project manager with the Aerospace Corporation, a NASA contractor
  • TIM MONK (aerospace engineering, 2005), a senior manager with Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company
  • JONATHAN MITCHELL (international business, 2013), policy advisor in the New Zealand Space Agency Not an exhaustive list, by any means, but let’s keep this conversation going. Know others involved in space exploration? Let us know at aubmag@auburn.edu

 

“Before I even got out of high school, we had kind of halted deep-space exploration,” says May, who was director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and now works for a private company in Huntsville. “We dipped our toe into deep space with the Apollo program, and then we stopped. We decided to build the shuttle instead and establish a permanent presence in space in low-Earth orbit. For the last 30 years or so, that’s been a major focus.”

Two other Auburn NASA connections are Suzan Voss ’71, who is wrapping up a 35-year career with the agency, and Amy Jager ’05, who has been a contract employee for the past seven years.

“It’s exciting to be involved in these programs where you’re launching crew, science and cargo to space, and, of course, safely returning them to Earth,” says Voss, a mathematics major and a member of Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics Leadership Council.

“I really loved the shuttle, but I like the space station even more. It’s great to work with international partners, and the station has gotten to a point where their focus is on science, technology and discoveries in low-Earth orbit.”

We’re basically looking to establish a lunar orbiting outpost around the moon

Now, a focus at NASA is on the lunar Gateway, which will be a small spaceship — including living quarters, labs and more —that will orbit around the moon and provide access to the moon’s surface.

Jager is working on that project as a contractor with Aerospace Corporation.

“We’re basically looking to establish a lunar orbiting outpost around the moon,” says Jager, who works at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the logistics module of the Gateway. “Pieces of it will be launched and it will be assembled there.”

Astronauts Ken Mattingly (front) and Hank Hartsfield on their way to Launch Pad 39A on May 29, 1982 for a rehearsal of their liftoff.

BLUE ORIGIN AND OTHERS

Auburn’s involvement is not limited to NASA. In 2006, the agency’s COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems) program opened up avenues for commercial companies to fly supplies (and, eventually, people) to the space station, helping to bring companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to prominence.

“That’s when NASA first decided to do something in a different way,” says Jim Voss ’72, who spent 202 days in space on both shuttle missions and on the International Space Station. “They said, ‘Build us a cargo vehicle, meet these requirements and do it safely, and when you’re done, if it works, we’ll buy your services.’”

Some of these companies have already launched satellites into space, while others have bigger plans, such as developing vehicles that can carry humans into space.

Loverro says these groups are partners with NASA, not competitors.

“When I was growing up, we viewed companies like Lockheed and Martin Marietta and Northrop as these big industrial giants that the government turned to do things, and we forget that their roots were exactly the same as the Blue Origins and the SpaceXes,” he says. “If Elon Musk is not an exact facsimile of Howard Hughes, just 60 or 70 years removed, I don’t know who is.”

Another major player is Bezos, founder of Amazon. His Blue Origin, like Musk’s SpaceX, is working on prototypes for new spacecraft.

Tim Monk ’05, who graduated from Auburn with Jager, is a senior manager at Blue Origin working on the company’s New Glenn project, which the company calls a “heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of carrying people and payloads routinely to Earth orbit and beyond.”

“In a nutshell, what Jeff has given Blue Origin to accomplish is to get humanity to the point where millions of people are living and working in space,” Monk says.

The goal is to fly the New Glenn by the end of next year, but first comes Blue Origin’s New Shepherd, which plans to fly astronauts this year, Monk says.

All of it is good for the space industry, Loverro says.

“Every time that Elon Musk excites the American public about space, we get more applications at NASA. Every time Jeff Bezos excites the American public about space, we get more people who want to join us on that journey.”

One Auburn grad is trying to excite people on the other side of the world. Jonathan Mitchell ’13, a New Zealand native, has returned to his home country to work for the New Zealand Space Agency, part of the country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

“The NZSA is heavily focused on the commercial aspects of space and in promoting, enabling and growing our domestic sector,” he says. “What I’ve particularly enjoyed is seeing just how much space activity is happening in New Zealand and getting to interact with and hear from some really smart, driven people who are collectively building a cutting-edge industry with real-world impacts for New Zealand.”

All of this points to what May refers to as a “sea change” in the space industry.

“It’s very clear that space isn’t just for NASA and the American government,” he says. “It has become much more democratized. I think there are over 100 companies now either developing or flying rockets around the world. The next Americans to launch from American soil will launch from a commercially driven development. The government is still involved, but it’s a completely different way of doing it.

“What we see going forward is that NASA wants to explore, and we want to go back into deep space, but we don’t want to do it alone,” he adds. “We want countries and companies to come with us. We want a viable commercial industry to develop, and we want America to lead. NASA’s role has become one of enabling that market to grow.”

In my personal world, I would want us to get on with it and go on to Mars, but I’m not the one who has to make the decisions that might involve risk to life, either.

TO THE MOON AND BEYOND

After a number of decades, NASA has set its sights on deepspace travel again, and Auburn’s space contingent is all for it.

“By abandoning the Apollo program, we lost the ability to get humans into deep space, and by abandoning the shuttle, we lost the ability to put humans in space at all,” May says. “Now I’d say we have started back, and our goal in deep-space exploration is to go and stay.”

Loverro says further space exploration is directly linked to getting men and women back on the moon.

“After that, what are we going to do?” he asks. “We get to envision how we are going to sustain our presence on the moon and then, more importantly, how we’re going to extend human existence to Mars.”

Voss, who teaches at the University of Colorado, says the 2024 goal is “physically impossible,” but it might happen “relatively soon after that.”

“We’ll eventually get back to the moon, and even farther out,” Voss says. “I really do believe we’ll get to Mars. NASA has to take the conservative approach, which is going back to the moon and learning some things we need to learn for deep-space exploration. We have a better chance of solving problems if they’re closer. In my personal world, I would want us to get on with it and go on to Mars, but I’m not the one who has to make the decisions that might involve risk to life, either; I think I’ll see us land on the moon again, but Mars is probably 30 to 40 years away.”

May agrees that 2024 is probably not realistic for getting back to the moon, and he says what we need to do goes far beyond just landing there. He discussed that very point with one of a dozen people to know about landing there firsthand.

Jim Voss ’72, Expedition Two flight engineer, prepares to exercise on the cycle ergometer in the Zvezda Service Module on March 23, 2001. “I had breakfast with Buzz Aldrin in Naples, Italy, one morning and I was able to ask him if it was a moral victory if we go back to the moon,” May says. “He said, and this is one of 12 guys who can say it, ‘I’ve been there, and planting a flag is all fine, but what do you do after that?’ His point was that you don’t go to just plant a flag or just for the glory. You go to settle. At the end of the day, altruistic reasons are not the only reasons to go. In order for it to be sustainable, it needs to have some sort of business there.”

For Loverro, his job at NASA couldn’t be more exciting as the space agency and other companies, many of them with Auburn graduates working there, set their sights on the stars.

“It’s all unplowed ground,” Loverro says. “There’s nothing we have today that will get us there. Everything will be something my team conceives of, test out, do the research on or build. We get to do the most fun thing in the universe, which is to explore it.”

The Coco Chanel of Crime

The Coco Chanel of Crime

Take a look at Carol Robinson’s Facebook feed at certain times, and you might just be fooled into thinking she leads a somewhat normal life. Photos of her daughter, pictures of beachside reunions with high school and college friends, memes featuring cute kids and cute animals – you’ll find them all from the 1986 Auburn graduate.

But for every family photo or touching video shared, there are five, six, maybe 10 headlines from AL.com, ranging from sad and sorrowful stories to those that are just downright brutal and vicious. These are stories filled with murder and armed robbery and missing people, blood and guts, terrible car wrecks and domestic violence, all written by a petite blonde who shatters any stereotype of the grizzled newspaper veteran that might still exist

Pulitzer Prize-winner John Archibald (pictured left with Carol), a longtime friend and co-worker, calls Robinson “the Coco Chanel of Crime,” a nod to her wardrobe, stylish even in the midst of mayhem. Jefferson County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Randy Christian says she’s “the best in the business, and there isn’t even a close second.” Robinson says she’s just doing her job, but she’s being modest. She is to crime reporting what James Spann is to the weather. People in Birmingham and around Alabama turn to Robinson first for what is often bad news, and millions read her stories every month. She is, quite simply, Alabama’s queen of crime.

That crown wasn’t just handed to her. Growing up in Vestavia Hills, the youngest child of a prominent UAB doctor and a nurse, neither Robinson nor anyone around her would have guessed she was destined for an award-winning career in newspaper crime-writing.

“I definitely did not do any writing in high school, other than what was required of me,” she says. “But, for as long as I can remember, I was reading all of the time. My parents literally had to take books away from me when we had company over. I also used to hide a book behind my textbooks in high school in class. I’m not saying I was reading anything of literary excellence – basically romance novels. But still, I think reading had a lot to do with me ending up writing for a living.”

That, and Auburn University, where she followed a high-school boyfriend. “We broke up within a week of me coming to Auburn,” Robinson says. “But I absolutely was in love with Auburn.”

Robinson was involved in her sorority, Phi Mu, and initially planned to major in social work before she decided she did not want to go to graduate school. She changed her major to public relations and, after doing a lot of writing during an internship with UAB public relations, took a number of writing classes her senior year and worked at both the Opelika-Auburn News and The Auburn Plainsman. After graduating with her public relations degree, she interviewed with a number of companies, eventually taking a job with The Birmingham News.

“I had no idea what I was doing, basically, but God certainly did,” she said.

Robinson began her Birmingham News career as the Auburn correspondent before being brought into the Birmingham newsroom for a brief stint with the features section, returning to  “hard news” again covering Fairfield, Midfield and Hueytown just outside of Birmingham. “It was there I started leaning toward crime reporting,” she said. “Sadly, I can’t remember too many details, but one of my first crime stories there was the death of a hat store owner killed in her business.”

INTREPID AND COMPASSIONATE

If the details escape Robinson, they don’t escape those she worked for and worked with.

Tom Arenberg was one of her first editors at The News and remembers her being “intrepid” from the start.

“Everyone knows her now for being a legend in crime reporting, but I remember when she was one of the best news/feature takeout writers I’d ever read. I’d read her stories based on the byline alone. She’d write an enterprise story that filled two entire pages of a newspaper, and we’d give her a hard time about how long the story was. But once you started reading it, it was impossible to stop.”

Archibald, who started at The News the same year as Robinson, said it was clear early on that Robinson was at home covering crime as opposed to sitting in governmental meetings. “She thrived on adrenaline and deadline and pain and sorrow and all those things that make people human,” he said.

“She had an innate ability to get people to talk about their most private thoughts, in their most delicate moments. She gave them the opportunity, the permission somehow, to say the things they needed to say when they hurt the most. A lot of people think of that as an intrusion, but it can be a gift to those who need to know their loved one is remembered.”

That “gift” is often what has separated Robinson from the rest of the pack since she became lead crime reporter at The News in 1996. Many can rip the headlines from police reports and sources, but few delve as deeply into the lives of victims and perpetrators as Robinson does.

“A few years ago, there was the awful story of the mother who accidentally and fatally left her baby in a hot car,” Arenberg recalls. “Well, Carol not only finds the mother but gets her to open up and talk about it for publication. I mean, who else can do that?”

Robinson has done it again and again. She’s covered some of the biggest crimes in Alabama history — the Birmingham abortion-clinic bombing and the search for Eric Robert Rudolph, the ambush killing of three Birmingham policemen at an Ensley drug house, stories about the anniversary of Natalee Holloway’s disappearance – but her best work has often come with the lesser-known crimes, where she has gotten people to open up in surprising ways.

Exhibit A: Robinson’s story about Tiffany Pressley, whose brother, at the time of the story, was the youngest inmate on Death Row. Robinson wrote about Pressley’s high school basketball career and her tough upbringing. Rosie O’Donnell saw the story, invited Pressley on her talk show and gave her a four-year scholarship anywhere she chose. Her choice? Auburn.

“She walked on and ended up with a basketball scholarship,” Robinson says. “She was the first in her family to go to college. Not only did she graduate, but she went on to graduate school in juvenile criminal justice and is working in Georgia. We’ve stayed in touch all these years.”

STAY ON HER GOOD SIDE

Christian, who in January retired from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office after 37 years and worked with the media for the past 16 years, says he knew early on he wanted to be on Robinson’s good side.

“I figured out pretty quickly that she had a job to do, and she was going to do it well with or without me, and it would benefit the sheriff’s office more if I tried to help rather than deter her,” he said. “I mean, she is a fireball, and you definitely want to be on her good side. The other side ain’t pretty. I feel sorry for the ones that find that out the hard way. I knew sincerely that when she needed to write something unflattering about us that she would be truthful and fair. You can’t ask for more than that.”

Robinson is legendary among her peers and her competitors for how she works her sources. That means people on the scene of Birmingham’s most horrific crimes and, perhaps even more
importantly, law enforcement and other sources will call her when she’s not on the scene.

At AL.com’s downtown office, she is plugged into her police scanners all day. She does not have scanners at home, but that does not mean she is not on duty. She writes anywhere from three to 12 stories a day (her record so far is 18 in one day).

“I do work pretty much 24-7 since the news cycle now never stops,” said Robinson, whose three decade journalism career has all been at The Birmingham News and now its digital arm, AL.com. “I am so, so fortunate that while I was raising my daughter as a single mom, there was not much internet or social media. I was able to focus on her at the time, and she was definitely my priority. I think it would be tough to do my job the way I do it now had I been raising her in this day and age.”

Things have changed considerably in the journalism world and it’s changed the way Robinson does her job.

“When I was in journalism class at Auburn, I used to try to get to class early so I could get one of the typewriters instead of the handful of new-fangled computers,” she said. “Now, I take my own photos and videos with my cell phone and even post many stories from my car at a crime scene. If anyone had told me that even 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed them.”

‘SHE’S A ROCKSTAR’

Robinson has been married and divorced twice and her first marriage, to an undercover drug agent, brought her Maci Warren, her 25-year-old daughter who graduated from the University of Alabama and is now a first-grade teacher. The two still live together, and Warren – once a cheerleader for the Crimson Tide – is now one of her mother’s biggest cheerleaders.

“When I was younger, I never really understood exactly what went into her job other than the fact that she got to carry around police scanners and my friends always thought that was cool,” Warren says.

“Once I got older, I really started to respect her job a lot more and I realize how much other people in the community do, too. She’s a rock star.”

Theirs is a typical mother-daughter relationship, or as typical as it can be, Warren said.

“We sit on the couch after a long day of work and online shop, watch HGTV, go shopping or out to dinner, and do other things that normal moms and daughters, or roommates, would do,” she said. “But it’s also totally normal for her to get a phone call about a murder, or even a FaceTime call from a family member or friend of the murder victim. I do have to get on to her a lot about always being on her phone or computer, but I know she has to always have them on hand in case a big story pops up. Sometimes she will start telling me about a story that happened that day, and I’ll stop her and say, ‘Stop! I don’t want to hear anything sad.’ But then I start telling her a story about my day at work as a first-grade teacher, and she responds the exact same way. I guess once you are exposed to it every day, it really is what’s normal.”

Still, Warren regularly wakes up to the garage door opening and her mother (in her Lexus convertible with the license tag “Byline”) heading out in the middle of the night to a crime scene somewhere in the Birmingham metro area.

“Sometimes, it makes me a little nervous, but she knows what she’s doing,” Warren said. “I’ll even walk downstairs to leave for work early and she’ll be typing away, writing the story from the crime scene that she’s been at all night and hasn’t slept since. I truly don’t know how she does it.”

Arenberg, now a journalism professor at the University of Alabama, doesn’t know how she does it, either. “The transformation from print to digital in the news business threw a lot of veterans for a loop, but Carol has embraced it and thrived,” he said. “Nobody brings more online readership to AL.com than Carol. It’s not just that she realizes crime is a popular topic; it’s also the volume and quality of the crime stories she does. I’m pretty sure she never sleeps.”

FEARLESS REPORTING

In her 32 years and thousands of stories (since 2009, when they began being counted, she has written just over 17,000), Robinson has rarely feared for her safety.

“There have been only a few dicey moments, and even those weren’t really threatening,” she said. “Once, a man chased me down the street with a chainsaw. However, it was electric, and he had no plug, and I was in a car, and he was on foot, so not much danger there. I get surprised when new reporters freak out and think it’s a big story if they’re out on a story and hear gunshots in the distance.”
Robinson is fearless and Archibald has seen that at work first-hand.

“I covered cops before she did, and I remember one time we were on the scene of a crime and there were a bunch of obvious gang members standing on the corner of a particularly dangerous southwest Birmingham street,” he recalled. “She walked up to one of them, a guy in a bulky coat, reached out and pulled his coat open. She said, ‘What you packin’?’ He just shook his head and laughed. And told her.”

Robinson points to her Auburn journalism professors Jack Simms, Jerry Brown and Gillis Morgan and early editors Arenberg, Randy Henderson and Paul Foreman as mentors. Her inspiration? Legendary South Florida crime writer Edna Buchanan.

Archibald says Robinson herself  “is a celebrity among the criminal element.”

“Her reputation precedes her now,” he says. “I used to say she was the Edna Buchanan of Alabama, but nobody knows who that is anymore. I have to tell them that Edna Buchanan was the Carol Robinson of Miami.”

Robinson has been covering crime full-time for more than 30 years, and she doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

“Sometimes, I do get tired of getting up in the middle of the night to cover a story, but I’d rather be there than not be there,” she said. “There is no better way to cover a story than to be on the scene. I can’t stand not being there, so it is what it is. I would say I still thrive on it. Included in my prayers before I go to bed every night is, ‘Lord, please don’t let there be any crime tonight. But if there is, please don’t let me miss it.’”