The heartbreaking suicide of Robin Williams produced a worldwide outpouring of grief as the actor/improvisational wizard/humanitarian touched so many people.
Like many people, I was first exposed to the comedic genius of Williams on the television show “Mork and Mindy,” a spin-off of “Happy Days.”
The show was a runaway hit and was nominated for two Emmy awards after its first season. There was even an awful cartoon series based on it and at the very end of hard rock band AC/DC’s 1979 album “Highway to Hell,” lead singer Bon Scott uttered the Mork-isms “Shazbot! Nanu Nanu.”
What then could prompt a celebrity of that stature to visit lil’ ol’ Fairfield on April Fools’ Day, 1979?
The answer is Williams’ well-known humanitarianism. The March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization that raised money to prevent premature birth, birth defects and infant mortality, had popular annual fundraising walk-a-thons called Superwalks all over the country.
Locals would get people to pledge so much money per mile they walked. The Fairfield/Vacaville Superwalk was 32 kilometers (that’s 20 miles) and walkers started out at Fairfield High School, then walked to Vacaville High (via the frontage road) and back again. There was a “poop-out bus” that picked up folks who couldn’t make it the whole way.
To boost participation in the events, the March of Dimes used celebrities. In 1977, brother and sister variety show stars Donny and Marie Osmond made an appearance. The next year, it was Andy Gibb, the youngest brother of the superstar singing trio the Bee Gees and a rising star in his own right.
Superwalk ’79 featured an appearance by Robin Williams, who landed in a helicopter at Fairfield High School. He was wearing the orange-and-blue shirt with trademarked rainbow suspenders he’d made famous on his TV show. Williams entertained the crowd with a bullhorn, then landed in Vacaville as well.
Many of the 2,600 local residents who participated in the event (it raised $78,000 for the March of Dimes) never forgot it.
Gayle Knowles-Hale: My dad was on the committee for that walk-a-thon and I got to meet Mr. Williams. He shook my father’s hand, hugged my mother, and when my dad introduced me, he hugged me, turned to my dad and said, “You have a beautiful daughter.” I laughed at the time because I had just completed the walk and was a sweaty mess, but I will hold that moment in my heart forever. He turned to my mom and said, “This is fantastic! So many people caring about others! I feel honored to be here!” He went to all the different spots to encourage people. It was one of the best moments of my life.
Sheila Shimek Christman: Me and a few friends decided to run the walk-a-thon instead of walking. We were 11. It was so neat to see him there. Of course we all still saw him as Mork. It made our summer to see him.
Frances Bond: We stole his Mork hat for a minute when he was talking to us through a cyclone fence. My friend did it, we ran, (we were 13), then he got on the microphone and made jokes and we ran it back to him. He could have been mad at us, but he turned it into a series of jokes. It was the highlight of my summer in 1979.
Kelvin Wade: I missed him. Walked 20 friggin’ miles, got blisters all over my feet and I didn’t even get to see him. When Andy Gibb came, at least I got to see his arm waving out of a helicopter. But then again, that could’ve been anyone’s arm!
Carl Lamera: We had just got to Vacaville High School on the walk-a-thon when his helicopter landed. We were pretty tired, but in a forward flash of “Good Morning Vietnam,” his wit re-energized the crowd to finish out the second half of the 32K walk. There were a lot of teenybopper girls asking to touch him, and he would reply how furry he was and how he hated being petted. His talent was awesome, and I am saddened at yet another passing of one of my childhood idols. RIP Robin.
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at firstname.lastname@example.org.