Family faces facts of the Bradley arena's fortunes
Corky Robertson knew the day would come, when the Bradley University fieldhouse named for his late father would be demolished.
'Everything has its time, and everything has its place,' Robertson says.
But he didn't expect this place would come down in his time.
Dedicated to the memory of A.J. Robertson on Dec. 17, 1949, Robertson Memorial Field House was home to 500 Bradley Braves men's basketball games for 33 seasons and has continued to the present day as host to untold hundreds of other public events — sports, concerts, commencements, parties, political rallies and more.
Until the University of Illinois Assembly Hall opened in 1963, Robertson was the largest indoor arena in Illinois, outside of Chicago. It remains arguably the most recognizable, and famous, structure in the Tri-County area, and it is hard to imagine a walk or drive along West Main Street in Peoria without seeing the arc roofline of the twin airplane hangars.
This is especially true for the Robertson family, three generations of which gathered at the fieldhouse Sunday to take pictures, to shoot some baskets, to climb in the bleachers, to gaze about them and to soak in the place's aura together once more, before the building is razed this spring to make way for the new BU athletics facility.
'I grew up with this,' says Amy Ziegler, the eldest of Corky and Dee Robertson's three children. She came to the family reunion with her husband, Doug, children Doug and Katie Bielenberg and Paige and Laine Ziegler, and granddaughter Ellie Ziegler.
'It's very sad,' says Holly Williams, the middle sibling. She was accompanied by her son and daughter, Brooke and Brent, and grandchildren, Cameron and Austin Williams.
'We grew up right down the street,' says Bill Robertson, youngest of the three, 'and we walked by it every day.' He brought wife Sally, daughter Lizzy and sons David and James, the latter a Richwoods High School senior who has logged some nice minutes for the Knights on the famed raised basketball court in the fieldhouse.
James says he was maybe in first grade when he first became aware that the building was named for his great-grandfather. It was cool then. It's a bigger deal now.
'It means more and more and more, every time I come here,' James says.
In the fieldhouse foyer, under a painting of the family patriarch in his Bradley jacket and ball cap, is a plaque with these words:
'This Field House is dedicated to the memory of Alfred James Robertson, who for 28 years as athletic director and coach devoted untiring efforts to the cause of good sportsmanship and brought fame and honor to Bradley University.'
'Robbie,' as A.J. was known, came to Bradley in 1920. He not only ran the athletic department, he coached the football, basketball and baseball teams. He posted winning records in all three (704-407-16 cumulative), but it was the success of his basketball teams that thrust tiny Bradley into the spotlight during the 1930s, earning appearances in the first two National Invitation Tournaments at Madison Square Garden.
He also spearheaded the move to build a fieldhouse, so the team could move out of the Armory just north of downtown and onto the Bradley campus.
'He had this idea about two hangars,' Corky Robertson recalls.
Robbie died Oct. 30, 1948 and never saw his dream come to fruition. But 14 months later, led by players he had recruited, the Braves opened Robertson Memorial Field House, tipping off a season that would end with a No. 1 national ranking for the regular season and runner-up finishes in both the NIT and NCAA tournaments.
'It's hard to see something come down that my grandfather worked so hard for,' Holly says.
'Everything my father built this family on,' Amy says, 'he learned from his father and everything he stood for.'
'This is a landmark,' Bill says. 'It would be nice if it had been registered as a historic landmark so this wouldn't happen. But I can go to my grave knowing my grandfather gave 30 years of his life to the university, and he did all the right things, with sportsmanship, integrity and building character.
'That's why they name buildings after guys like that.'
At least, they used to. It's not considered likely the Robertson name will adorn the front of the new building — unless whoever purchases the naming rights is above ego and self-promotion.
Still, Corky is nothing but complimentary toward the university and its dealings with his family. The clan has been assured by Bradley officials that A.J. Robertson's name and legacy will hold a prominent place in the new facility.
That doesn't mean this will be an easy transition for the first family of Bradley athletics. All of them will tell you they understand the university's need to expand and modernize the facilities. 'To step up,' is the way Bill puts it.
But every day brings the family closer to the moment when Robertson Memorial Field House becomes rubble. Every day, Corky says, dealing with that reality gets a little more difficult than he had imagined.
He was a teenager when he watched the fieldhouse go up.
Now, he says, 'I'm not going to watch it come down.'
KIRK WESSLER is executive sports editor/columnist with the Journal Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (309) 686-3216.