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UCSB Graduate Robert Green’s Sunny Disposition Now Shines in Florida

The former Santa Barbara resident continues to share his trademark enthusiasm and kindness with everyone he meets and greets

Robert Green Jr. has more than 12,000 friends in Fort Myers, Fla., alone — and he doesn’t even have a Facebook page. He is not a reality television star, an overnight YouTube sensation or a Twitter-aholic pro athlete. Green makes his friends the old-fashioned way — with a smile, a wave and a few kind words for everyone who crosses his path. And he’s adding to his friends list every day.

The 55-year-old UCSB graduate is the senior parking clerk at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he mans the small visitor information booth at the main entrance.

Since last March, visitors, students and faculty alike have been greeted by Green, always in a pressed and starched uniform, and always ready with a salute or a wave for every car that passes. He also has become well-known for telling each person he encounters, “You know you’re my friend” — regardless of whether the person is an acquaintance or a stranger.

For Green, the sentiment is much more than a signature catch-phrase or job-required hyperbole. It’s a genuine declaration of his spiritual approach to the world around him, with roots in his childhood.

As Green explains, when he was a young man living in Louisiana, and two of his friends were interested in the same young lady, tempers would run a little hot. To maintain his friendships with both boys while de-escalating the situation, Green would tell one of the young men, “You know you’re my friend.” He would then pull the other young man aside, and repeat the phrase to him.

This is just one small example of how Green has attempted to conduct his life: with fairness, positivity and, above all, a big Southern helping of love.

“I’m from Louisiana, man! You know we’ve got to spread the good times!” Green said. “You’ve got to let the good times roll, you know what I mean?”

But life wasn’t always full of good times for the resilient Green. Growing up in the segregated South during the civil rights movement posed some tremendous challenges, challenges that Green faced head-on. While attending J.S. Clark Middle School in Shreveport, La., the school faced possible closure because of the widely held belief that students of color were incapable of learning.

So Green took the Louisiana state math exam and netted the test’s highest possible score, essentially saving the school, he said. It is still open today.

His father died when he was only 15, and since he was the eldest of four children, the death made Green the active head of the household. But taking care of his three younger siblings didn’t keep him from becoming the first person in his family to go to college, at Los Angeles Southwest College. While attending classes there, Green caught the eye of a recruiter from UCSB, who recognized his work ethic and academic record. At first, Green was skeptical about the opportunity.

“When the recruiter came down and asked me if I wanted to come to Santa Barbara, I said, ‘I don’t have money to go there … that’s on the water!’” Green said.

With the help of scholarships and a work-study position in the registrar’s office, he made the transition, and in 1978, Green emerged from UCSB with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies.

He said one of his most influential professors was a new assistant professor by the name of Dr. Richard Hecht, who still teaches religious studies at UCSB, and though more than three decades have passed, he said he still remembers the charismatic Green.

“I have been teaching for 35 years here at UCSB, and I would imagine that I have worked with more than 20,000 students, and among those, Robert is one among three or five whom I recall with great clarity,” Hecht told Noozhawk. “He had the most wonderful smile and laugh. The best thing that a teacher can have is a student like Robert, that rare brilliant mind without any pretentiousness, whose spirit touches all around him.”

After leaving Santa Barbara in 1981, Green took a position at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. He held the same post at the Air Force Academy that he holds at Florida Gulf Coast University, and in 1983, the local Gazette newspaper ran a story about his boundless love for his job. During his time there, Green said he received dozens of letters from people from all over the country, thanking him and praising the trademark enthusiasm with which he handled every visitor.

He went on to receive his master’s degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena in 1988. It was supposed to be a three-year program; Green completed it in two.

Life seemed to be going along just fine for Green, but after returning home to Louisiana after seminary, he began experiencing strange bouts of dizziness and intense headaches. Doctors assured him that he simply had been on the West Coast for too long, and that his body needed to get reaccustomed to Southern cooking. So they gave him a prescription for the headaches and sent him on his way.

As it turned out, an MRI revealed a large tumor pressing on the stem of his brain. Of course, Green handled the news of the life-threatening tumor with his usual aplomb.

“I just said, ‘Take it out, cuz I’ve got things to do,’” Green said. “All the doctors just laughed. They said, ‘Mr. Green, do you realize how serious this is?’ I said, ‘Hey, I don’t care. I’m right with the Man upstairs, so let’s do it and get it over with, cuz I gotta go!’”

After 15 hours of surgery, Green was in a coma, and it was unclear when he would wake up, or in what condition he would be once he did. But Green defied the odds once again, stunning his physicians by going from a coma to a wheelchair to a walker to a cane and then on his own feet inside of five months. He said that to this day, the equilibrium on the entire left side of his body is out of whack, although one wouldn’t know it by looking at the athletically built man.

Green said he refuses to see himself as a victim of his surgery.

“I grew up in a tough part of Louisiana,” he said. “I’ve seen people without arms, without legs, but they were happy, man. So life is good, you know? You’re gonna have some bumps and bruises and scars, but you gotta always be thankful for what you have.”

Since age 7, Green has been a deeply spiritual person, genuflecting each morning on the floor of his bedroom to pray and give thanks. He said he has never had much use for material things, or for the trappings of success, noting that he is “in the world, but not of it.” According to Green, that is one of the reasons he is able to approach his job with such joy and verve. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Florida Gulf Coast University President Wilson Bradshaw said Green is an indispensable asset to the university, which has swelled to more than 12,000 students from about 1,000 during its first year, in 1997.

“It is just great for me and others to be greeted each day by someone with Mr. Green’s positivity,” said Bradshaw, who took over as university president in 2007. “I get e-mails literally almost daily from visitors telling me how grateful they are for the job that he does for us.”

Despite his ebullient personality, Green remains unfailingly humble when speaking about his role.

“Look, if you’ve got problems out there in the world, when you see me here at the entrance, leave the problems right here,” he said. “Go in there, take care of business and come out a star — on top!”

When asked if he has any ambition to assume a position that might be more befitting a man of his educational background, he replied simply, “I am where I want to be.”

Then he flashed that ear-to-ear smile, pointed an index finger toward the sky and said, “I’m where He wants me to be.”

— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.

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