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About Utah: Autistic librarian's mission for the books

Published: Sunday, April 29 2012 11:57 p.m. MDT

No one re-shelves books like Eric Robinson, who has worked at the Family History Library since 1989.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Every workday, Monday through Friday, he's on the job, ready to go. Late? He's never late. He doesn't make personal calls at work, doesn't text, doesn't find a quiet place to take a nap, doesn't horse around with co-workers, and he NEVER makes a mistake.

Best there ever was and best there ever will be at what he does?

You could sure make a case.

Meet Eric Robinson, librarian extraordinaire. He re-shelves books at the Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake City, where millions of genealogical reference materials are located. Day-in, day-out for the past 23 years Eric's been at it, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., as regular as the clock, and the next book he mis-shelves will be the first one.

"He knows the Dewey Decimal System very well," proclaims one of his supervisors, Pat Welch, in what could only be translated as a vast understatement.

That's because Eric is autistic.

And his specialty is numbers.

Tell him a number and he will not forget it. He knows the number of every bus route in the UTA system. He memorizes entire phone directories. If you tell him your birthday once, he'll remember it for life.

I know this firsthand. Years ago, when Eric's father, John, and I became friends on the Deseret News sports staff, I first met Eric.

"Tell him your birth date," John said.

I said, "Aug. 25, 1948."

Every single time I've met Eric over the years, the first thing he'll say to me, and usually the only thing, is "Aug. 25, 1948. Wednesday."

The Wednesday is his contribution. The first time I learned the day of the week I was born was when Eric told me.

We met again, in the usual way, last week at the Family History Library. John, who retired from the paper five years ago, accompanied Eric on his customary ride on the 455 bus from Bountiful to downtown Salt Lake City.

And when we say customary, we mean unwaveringly customary.

"The ultimate man of structure," his dad says of Eric.

He rises every day at home at 4:25 a.m. without an alarm. He's in front of the TV watching Tom & Jerry at 4:30, he eats breakfast at 6, takes a bath at 7:30, and on workdays gets to the bus stop at 8:55 to catch the 9:10 bus. He arrives at the library at 9:50 and leaves at 11:27, to the minute.

"He's a tremendous asset, absolutely dependable," says Dennis Welch, who, with his wife, Pat, supervises the Access Services Department of the Family History Library. "I don't know what we'd do without him."

High praise for a man and his unique talent.

When Eric was born in Ventura, Calif., on Feb. 11, 1970 (a Wednesday, I looked it up) autism was not nearly as prevalent, or understood, as it is today. For years, John and his wife, Candy, knew something was wrong, but didn't know what. It wasn't until after they had two more children, Dan and Christina, that Eric was definitely diagnosed by the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA. He was 6 by then.

"It was tough finding out, but it was also a relief," remembers John. "At least you knew what you were dealing with."

For John and Candy, it's meant a lifetime of nearly uninterrupted hands-on parenting. Rarely has Eric been out of their sight for more than a few hours in all of his 42 years.

"We don't look at it as a burden," says John. "It's a blessing that he was entrusted to us."

Then he adds, "It's going to be neat to get to the other side and see who he really is."

Here on this side, Eric is the world's finest book-shelver, and has been ever since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called him to a service mission in the Family History Library when he was 19 years old on June 5, 1989.

On the start date, at the assigned time, there he was, accompanied by some very special education teachers from Viewmont High School, caring instructors who had taught Eric in high school and now made sure he learned the ropes at the library. They stayed with him for three months, until they were confident he could stand on his own.

Every couple of years since, the church's missionary department has sent Eric a letter thanking him for his service and informing him of his coming release.

And every couple of years since, like clockwork, Eric has applied for an extension.

He's been re-upping now for nearly 23 years.

It's a good thing for all concerned. He really is irreplaceable.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com

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