Originally published in the Detroit Free Press on February 2, 2015 By Bill Laitner. Photos by Ryan Garza
A story about a Detroit man who commutes about 21 miles a day on foot to and from work has spurred reaction from across the nation, including social media fundraisers that have netted more than $80,000 in donations as of 6:30 p.m. Monday.
Because buses don’t cover the full distance between James Robertson’s home in Detroit and his job in Rochester Hills, he walks about eight miles headed to work and about 13 miles home, five days a week. His story — told by Bill Laitner in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press — has inspired hundreds to offer money to buy him a car, pay his insurance and to provide professional help in managing the donations.
Robertson said Sunday he was flattered by the attention he’d gotten for his arduous commutes after the Free Press published a front-page story about him — and amazed that complete strangers would respond so generously, some by offering to buy him a new car and others offering to give him one.
“Are you serious?” he said to a reporter after hearing of one crowd-funding effort alone that, by early Sunday night, had raised $30,000 — $25,000 more than the goal of the originator, a Wayne State University student.
Evan Leedy, 19, of Macomb Township, a WSU student studying computer science, said he was struck by the article and by the sudden torrent of people commenting online, many of them asking how they could help Robertson. Leedy said he decided to act.
“I just used my phone. I created the go-funding site and within an hour we had $2,000,” he said.
“I set the goal at the beginning of $5,000. Right now my page has more than $30,000” as of 6 p.m. Sunday, Leedy said.
Two other people created GoFundMe sites, “so I contacted them so we could coordinate this, and they’ve raised $3,000,” he added.
Leedy said he wanted to take steps that would ensure that the money goes directly to Robertson and that publicity about it doesn’t put him at risk of being pressured to share it.
“And I think some of it should be set aside for his insurance and gas and maintenance,” Leedy said.
A Downriver car dealership offered to give him a 2014 Chevrolet Cruz or Sonic. “He gets to choose,” said Angela Osborne, customer service specialist at Rodgers Chevrolet in Woodhaven.
“We were just impressed with his determination,” Osborne said.
Sales manager Darwin Filey said he read about Robertson after a fellow Facebook friend shared the story with him.
“When I saw the story I said ‘wow.’ Some people said you guys have got to do something. Then I called my owner and she read the story and said put something together,” Filey said.
He said Robertson would have to pay the tax on the car, which would be about $900.
“We’ve never done anything like this at all,” Filey said. “We’ve given to various causes but nothing at this magnitude,” said Filey, who has been with the dealership for 2 1/2 years.
More than a hundred others offered cash for a car, or their own cars, as well as bus tickets, bicycles and even daily chauffeur service for Robertson.
“Monday is gonna be some bad weather and I don’t want him making that trek,” said Stuart Sutherland, a student at Oakland University who offered to donate cash in an email.
Joe Coppola, a technical recruiter for Optomi, wrote: “I want to give him my 2004 Chevy Cavalier. It runs well and is certainly better than not having a car.”
Honda North America, and David Fischer – owner of the Suburban Collection – offered “to keep Mr. Robertson in the Honda family by donating a vehicle to him.”
A man in Evanston, Ill., said he wanted to pay for a car and several years’ worth of insurance. A self-employed man in Madison Heights said he would drive Robertson to work and home, each day, for free.
Meanwhile, the modest Detroiter who walks an amazing 21 miles on his daily commutes to work in suburban Detroit said not even Sunday’s snowstorm would keep him from getting to his job Monday. Eyeing the snow piling up around his white-frame house in Detroit, Robertson sounded not a bit worried.
“I’ve had worse. This is reminiscent of those snowstorms last year, and I made it then,” said the man with a perfect attendance record in more than a dozen years at Schain Mold & Engineering in Rochester Hills.
Robertson said he likes walking and being outdoors, and prizes his job and coworkers, but he knows he can’t keep up his arduous commuting forever.
Robertson’s aging Honda Accord quit on him in 2005, and after repeated cutbacks in bus service the walking segments of his daily commutes grew years ago to take more time than he spends in his eight-hour factory shifts molding parts.
As for the possibility that a new federal program, available from Detroit’s bus system, might provide a small-bus service that would pick Robertson up at home and deliver him directly to his job temporarily, he said: “I’d rather they spent that money on a 24-hour bus system, not on some little bus for me. This city needs buses going 24/7. You can tell the city council and mayor I said that.”
Like hundreds of other Detroiters, the cost of car insurance is a factor Robertson knows he will have to deal with in acquiring his own transportation. A nationwide survey conducted last week found car insurance in Detroit to be the costliest in the nation, at an average of about $5,000 a year.
Darwin said it’s not uncommon for Detroit motorists to have insurance premiums higher than car payments.
“I’m not an insurance agent, if I’m guessing it’s going to be about $2,200 for six months.” He added insurance companies often provide discounts for a year’s payment upfront.
“I can work that insurance thing out,” Robertson said. “It might be tough, but my dad used to say, tough times don’t last — tough people do.”
UBS banker Blake Pollock, who befriended Robertson while stopped in Oakland County and has given him dozens of rides this winter, said he was thrilled but wary about the outpouring of donations.
During his own commutes to his office in Troy, Pollock last year began noting Robertson’s foot-slogging commutes, day after day, and finally offered him a ride. Now, they’re fast friends.
On Sunday, Pollock said he planned to set up a board “of several professionals” to oversee the donations rolling in for Robertson.
“Putting a car in his driveway and just handing James the keys or filling his pockets with cash is not the answer. But with these resources now, we should be able to do something very positive for the guy,” said Pollock, a vice president at UBS.
“I think the hundreds of donors want this to go to James and not have this go out of his hands. So, if we can set up this little board to manage his money, I think that can happen.
“When I’m with him tomorrow, I’m going to talk to him about that” — during the Monday-morning ride that Pollock planned to give Robertson after a bus gets him from Detroit to Troy.
Contact Bill Laitner: email@example.com or 313-223-4485.