OMAHA, Neb. — The Robbins brothers knew their mother came first.
They cooked breakfast for her every morning and dinner for her every night. Charles, 11, and Melvin, 9, could hardly remember a time when their mother wasn’t suffering from the paralytic illness that left her almost completely bedridden.
But before one February night in 1928, few could have imagined how much the boys were willing to sacrifice for their mother. And few would have wanted to.
In the decades since that night, many Omahans have heard the Robbins’ names without perhaps knowing their story. South Omaha’s Ashland Park-Robbins Elementary School is the only school in the Omaha Public Schools district named in memory of children.
A plaque in the school briefly explains why: On Feb. 21, 1928, a fire broke out in the Robbins home. With their father at work, the brothers ran through the flames to their mother’s bedroom, broke a window and pushed her through. Both would suffer severe burns. One would die.
The other would be killed less than a year later in another tragic accident.
There is no happy ending to the Robbins’ story. Still, said Jan Martin, principal at Ashland Park-Robbins, third graders studying Omaha history learn about the brothers. Their heroism, she said, is a point of community pride.
“It’s meaningful for the kids,” Martin said. Once they learn the story, they can share it.
“It’s almost empowering to kids that they have a knowledge that most people don’t have,” she said.
But in the weeks and months following the fire, most all of Omaha celebrated the Robbins brothers as heroes. Their names appear in headline after headline, chronicling the fire and its aftermath.
The Omaha World-Herald reports that the fire broke out while the boys were asleep. Early that morning their father, Floral Robbins, left the home for his job as a streetcar conductor. Fire investigators at the time believed that a half hour after Floral left, about 5 a.m., an oil stove in the kitchen exploded, igniting the blaze.
The brothers woke and rushed to the kitchen, attempting to put out the fire, The World-Herald reported the following day. When that didn’t work, they ran through the blaze to their mother’s bedroom. Their clothes — long underwear they had worn to bed — caught fire.
Still, the brothers managed to break their mother’s bedroom window, push her through and drag her to the home of a neighbor, who called the Fire Department. But each boy had been burned badly above the waist.
The boys were taken to Nicholas Senn Hospital in “dangerous condition,” the newspaper reported. Their mother, Matilda, was unharmed.
Melvin, the younger of the two, died the following day.
Charles, whose eyes had been severely burned, lay in the hospital blindfolded and bandaged. When he was conscious, he asked about his brother. And though the newspaper and the rest of the city knew, his father and his doctors chose not to tell him about Melvin until he recovered.
In two days, more than 400 people jammed the hospital switchboards, calling about Charles. Doctors were sure that, if he survived, the boy would be blind. Charles himself didn’t think he would recover.
“Kiss me goodbye, daddy,” he whispered to his father, according to one newspaper account. “I’m going to die. I hurt all over.”
But Charles would heal and his sight would return. Fire departments from around the region sent money, calling the brothers heroes and “real firemen.”
Readers also sent money to The World-Herald to be given to the family. Schoolchildren collected pennies to erect a memorial. Community donations would eventually be used to rebuild the Robbins home.
Less than two weeks after the fire, on March 5, 1928, Omaha school administrators declared that South Franklin School, where the brothers had been students, would be renamed Robbins School. And every day, as he walked to his fifth-grade class, Charles passed a plaque commemorating his and his brother’s courage.
It must have been a whirlwind for the young boy, still recovering from his wounds. When Western star Tom Mix visited Omaha, he spent time with Charles, saying, “I reckon I’d rather meet you than any man that I can name.” Charles, hands still bandaged, had the privilege of trying on Mix’s hat.
After he recovered, the boy was called to say a few words to the Omaha Elks Lodge in honor of Mother’s Day. Here, he briefly explained why he and his brother chose to rush through the fire to their mother’s room.
“Any boy ought to save his own mother,” he said.
As the year drew to a close, the Robbins family hoped Charles, now his parents’ only child, would have a nice Christmas. His grandmother sent him a gift that the boy had left unopened when, on Dec. 21, 1928, he and a friend, 12-year-old John Burghardt, grabbed a wagon and went to collect wood.
When the wagon was full, the boys jumped in to coast down a hill. A car driving south couldn’t stop in time. Charles died two days later.
“This is almost too much,” Floral Robbins told The World-Herald shortly after the accident. “This is awful for my wife. If our boy dies, I’m afraid for her too.”
The following year, reporters would write that Matilda Robbins, wracked by grief, was in hysterics as Omaha officials dedicated a monument at what is now Westlawn-Hillcrest Memorial Park to the sons who had saved her life.
No, there is no happy ending to the Robbins’ story.
But the monument is still there in the cemetery. And another is still there on the wall of Ashland Park-Robbins, where students still speak the brothers’ names.
“I would say the Robbins’ are alive in many homes in South Omaha,” Martin said. “Hopefully they will stay alive for many generations to come.”
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Omaha World-Herald.