Come to Al’s Sunday and Tell a John Robbecke Story

If you’ve ever stopped by Al’s Grocery in Olalla, you’d know there’s no more fitting location for the memorial to be held for John Robbecke, at noon Sunday.

Ever since he took the business over from his dad — the guy who put the “Al” in Al’s —John was the life and breath of the store. He learned the butcher trade from his uncle and opened a meat counter where you could get choice cuts of steak, chops and freshly ground burger.

John carried on his parents’ tradition of having Santa in a tractor visit his Olalla neighbors at Christmas time. And he also carried on the Robbecke tradition of generosity and caring, extending short-term credit on sundries from the store to families and individuals in need.

I called John’s widow, Wendy, on Thursday to check on the details of the memorial. I thought perhaps it would be a potluck, but, no, Wendy has it covered.
“I don’t think anybody needs to bring anything,” she said. “Just come and bring a John story.”

I’m going to be out of town Sunday, so I guess I’ll have to tell my John story now. As long as I’ve lived in South Kitsap — since 1979 — I had never met John Robbecke. I was sent to Olalla to check out a report we’d heard that the store was for sale. I called the real estate agent listed on the flyer at the front of the store, and she told me the business was fine; John was not. He was ill and not expected to live much longer.

The agent put me in touch with John, who hesitated then agreed to give an interview. It was important to him, he said, that this not be a big boo-hoo story. I told him I didn’t see it that way, but people would want to know his plans for the store, an Olalla institution, and wrap their heads around why it was for sale.

For well over an hour, John told me about the history of the store and his family. About the “North Pole” mailbox his parents put up, so they could help local kids hook up with Santa. Some of their stories were heart-rending, John said. Good families rough times.

“We started looking at these letters, and they were children’s desires and needs, so we answered them,” Robbecke said. “You could read, there’s a kid out there with a special desire and their mom and dad couldn’t afford it. Some of those kids we bought them their present. It was a very heart-fulfilling venture on both sides of the coin.”

Then there was the now legendary start of the Olalla Polar Bear Plunge, in which John and friends participated. During the interview he had a great description of how just cold the water was, but it was not something I could write in a family newspaper … so I put it on the blog.

His exact quote was, “New Year’s Day is kind of amateur drunk day on the couch. If you’re not drinking, what do you do? And if you don’t like sports, you’re pretty out of it. So we said, ‘OK guys, if you have enough testicles, come on down and join us, and we’ll do something different. We thought, at high noon, we’d jump off the bridge.”

Here’s an aerial view of Al’s, the bridge and the lagoon.

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John and Wendy have two beautiful, talkative cats. The female had recently had kittens, and I took notes with one of the crawling around my lap, as Mama gave me the beady eye. After I relinquished the kitten and she had it safely back with its siblings, she kept watching me suspiciously, which John chuckled about.

John may have been terminally ill, but there was nothing wrong with his sense of humor. At one point, I heard a scratching noise and turned around to see the male cat relieving himself in the litter box. John said, “Now, aren’t you glad you looked?”

John had some emotional moments, for sure, as he recalled the past and thought about the future. But there was nothing pitiful or diminished about him. Despite his illness, I could see his personality shine through, and what a great guy. I’m sorry it was under the circumstances, but I’m glad I had a chance to meet him, hear all his stories and share a laugh or two.

As reporters we get to — sometimes have to — step in and out of people’s lives at the most intimate moments. It is a mixed blessing. I definitely feel blessed that I got a chance to chat with John that afternoon.

I’m hoping people who knew him better will jump on here and share their own John stories.

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