BRADENTON -- When Bradenton native Brent Robinson first started dating his future wife, Julia, something changed in him. She was laid-back, with a contagious smile. He was smart and competitive, with a fierce desire to win, recalls family friend Mike LaValliere.
"When he met Julia, Brent took on another dimension," LaValliere said. "They were beautiful together. We had them over to the house often. I've known Brent since he was a red-headed, fresh-faced kid, but the most fond memories I have are when Brent met Julia."
Brent's father, Don Robinson, who pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates when they won the World Series in 1979, says the two were inseparable.
"They never went anywhere without each other," Don Robinson said Wednesday. "Brent wouldn't do anything without Julia."
News of the couple's deaths came, for most, on Christmas Day, and left the community reeling.
Brent and Julia Robinson, a Manatee County Schools speech therapist, died alongside Julia Robinson's parents when another vehicle struck their car head-on around 5 p.m. Monday in Knox County, Ky. The Bradenton couple had flown into Lexington, Ky., to visit Julia Robinson's sick uncle before Gary and Patricia Caldwell picked them up to bring them to their home for a Christmas celebration.
On Wednesday, family and friends spoke about the impact the active Bradenton couple had on their lives and the shock of the accident that occurred Christmas Eve.
David Vanderpool, 31, was driving north on U.S. 25E when he swiftly crossed the median, his passenger side striking the front of the 2010 Toyota Camry driven by Gary Caldwell, 61. Vanderpool's 2004 Ford Taurus rolled over the top of the Caldwell vehicle. Vanderpool was also killed in the crash.
Kentucky State Police Det. Michael Cornett, an accident reconstructionist, told the Bradenton Herald that no one was alive when he and others from the Kentucky State Police and the Knox County Sheriff's Office arrived 13 minutes after they received a call at 5:20 p.m. Alcohol was found at the scene, Cornett said, but he wouldn't elaborate until police determine if alcohol played a role in the collision. Blood tests will be sent to crime labs, he said, and results could take weeks.
But at the time of the wreck, Knox County deputies had been looking for Vanderpool's car because of a report of an impaired driver, Cornett told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald Leader.
Terry Caldwell, brother of Gary Caldwell, said police told his cousin that Vanderpool's car was "running from 80 to 90 miles per hour," according to the Herald Leader.
Though the Caldwells were wearing seatbelts, the Robinsons and Vanderpool were not.
"We're a very rural community," Cornett told the Bradenton Herald on Wednesday. "To get five fatalities is an exception to the norm."
Brent Robinson graduated from Manatee High School in 2001, before graduating from the University of South Florida with a computer science degree in 2006. He worked for Emerson Electric Company.
Former Manatee High School baseball coach Al Melnick thinks the first time he met Brent Robinson might have been in Little League camps, but he knows his first real impression of Brent was when he began playing baseball for Manatee High as freshman, before moving on to varsity his junior and senior years.
"He was a fun-loving kid who loved to be on the baseball field," Melnick told the Bradenton Herald. "Always had a smile on his face. And the family was awesome..."
Don and Rhonda Robinson were always at games, he said, and involved with fundraising for the team. Both Brent and his older brother, Brad, played baseball at Manatee High School. But Melnick remembers Brent's humor.
"He loved to crack jokes. Especially when you were trying to have a serious conversation about something," Melnick said. "You couldn't help but like his enthusiasm. I'm sure he approached his adult life like that, too."
Pool. Shuffleboard. Tennis. Golf. Fantasy sports. You name the sport, and Brent Robinson wanted to win, said LaValliere, who runs the Big League Experience baseball facility with Don Robinson, a close friend.
Julie and Brent were both active, but they liked different sports, LaValliere said.
"Brent was more of a ball-chaser, like me," LaValliere said. "We don't like to run unless we are chasing after a ball."
Julia ran recreationally, competing in local 5Ks.
Once, when Brent wanted to get Julia involved in softball, and took her to a co-ed church league game. He threw a ball that hit her right in the eye.
"From that point forward, they kept their sports separate," LaValliere said. "And it always gave the family a chuckle."
The families also competed in fantasy sports leagues.
"Don and I would play against Brent, Brad and his buddies in fantasy leagues." LaValliere said. "They'd get a kick out of trying to beat up the old guys."
Don Robinson said his son always came to his home for Sunday dinner, unless a fantasy league had just ended. Then he stayed away to avoid a scuffle with his also-competitive father.
"He was trying to be the first one to win football and baseball in the same year," Don Robinson said. "He'd won baseball three times in the past eight years."
Though Brent Robinson loved sports, he chose to pursue academics at USF, his father said. He received an academic scholarship and studied computer programming, often helping family and friends with their computer problems.
"He had a solution to any problem you could have." Don Robinson said. "He was a hard worker."
Julia Robinson was a beloved member of the R.H. Prine Elementary School community, Principal Guy Grimes said Wednesday.
"She was wonderful with her students and teachers alike," Grimes said. "She lit the room. She just enjoyed teaching."
Grimes said Julia Robinson worked with various students from kindergarten through third grade who needed help with speech, and students loved the role plays and games she'd use to make exercises fun.
"She used to have this phrase," Grimes said. "I can't quite remember it. But it was something like 'If I lost all gifts, save one, I would keep the gift of communication'... . She was a great communicator."
Lena Thoresen and Kathy White, owners of Children's Therapy Solutions in Bradenton where Julia Robinson also worked, said Wednesday that Julia Robinson had a passion for what she did and the parents and children she worked with.
"She had a thirst for knowledge. She wanted to get her Ph.D.," Thoresen said. "She was a natural leader and motivator."
Julia Robinson moved from Kentucky and began working with her organization in 2007, Thoresen said. She met Brent Robinson around this time and they were married on the beach in October 2009.
It was the same year she convinced her co-workers to run the Keys100 ultra-marathon, a 100-mile relay marathon from Key Largo to Key West, to raise $1,500 for Manatee Hope Inc., a nonprofit organization for the medically underinsured.
"She was the one who said 'Let's do this' and then said 'Yes, you can' when we weren't sure we could," Thoresen said. "We weren't professional runners, but she motivated us to do it."
Don Robinson and his family traveled to Kentucky on Wednesday morning for Gary and Patricia Caldwell's burial on Friday. Gary Caldwell was the finance director for the Letcher County school system, and Patty Caldwell was an assistant principal at James A. Cawood Elementary School in Harlan County. Gary and Patricia Caldwell are survived by an adult son, Scott Caldwell.
Brent and Julia Robinson had come over for a Christmas meal on Sunday night, before departing for Kentucky the next morning.
"It meant the world to us," Don Robinson said. "We loved them, and we're going to miss them."
Don Robinson said a service will tentatively be held in Bradenton for Brent and Julia on Wednesday, but arrangements are still being made.
The couple will be buried side-by-side in northwest Bradenton.
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.