COLUMBIA FALLS – After intensive cancer radiation treatment on his neck and chest, Mike Robison’s voice dropped low and threatened to disappear. But no matter how hard his voice tried to hide, Robison always found it. And these days, his voice has found its own distinct rhythm – the raspy melody of an auctioneer who is happy to be heard.
Robison was diagnosed with stage 2B Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 21 after developing a softball-sized lump in his neck where his lymph nodes had swollen. He quickly entered chemotherapy and radiation treatment, focused on the area of his body “from my chin to the top of my heart.”
When the Columbia Falls native emerged from treatment a year later, his voice was raspy. To others, speaking sounded like a struggle for the young man. Nearly 15 years later, at the age of 35, Robison’s voice still carries the same gruff hoarseness, as if on the verge of giving out at any moment.
So when Robison walked into the Western College of Auctioneering in Billings last year, the instructors were understandably hesitant. They didn’t know if his voice could hold up through the course’s rigorous vocal exercises. Classes went from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. for two straight weeks.
“At the end of the school,” Robison recalled, “I was the only one who still had my voice.”
As the owner of All About Sports, a consignment sporting goods store in Columbia Falls, Robison has found himself at numerous auctions over the years and has long been captivated by the rhythmic chants of auctioneers at the top of their craft. Given this fascination, along with the nature of his consignment business, he eventually decided it made sense for him to open up his own auction business.
So last year he went to auctioneering school, cleared out one side of his store and started throwing auctions there. Today he holds two Saturday auctions every month at the store and gets around 130 people on average. The auctions usually sell between 75 and 100 items per hour, with Robison auctioneering nonstop for about five hours.
“I don’t like taking breaks,” he said.
In addition to the auctions at his store, which require about 10 helpers to keep the busy events operating smoothly, Robison donates his time to auctioneer at benefits. Last weekend, he had his “biggest challenge” to date. Robison put in a full day of auctioneering on March 31 at the 46th annual Creston Auction and Country Fair, a large gathering that tested his vocal stamina and other auctioneering skills.
To train and maintain his voice, Robison practices along with vocal-exercise CDs on his 40-minute commute to and from work. He practices at home too, which is greeted with mixed emotions by his family.
“It’s a good way to drive your family crazy,” he said. “I try to sell stuff at the dinner table. They don’t always like that.”
Doug Good, a longtime family friend of the Robisons, isn’t surprised to see Robison excelling at a newfound interest. Good watched Robison endure both cancer and the death of his older brother, who was killed in a climbing accident. He witnessed the young man’s perseverance and persistent optimism, qualities that guide Robison’s life to this day.
“That guy, he perseveres,” Good said. “He’s really hard-working. He takes chances, and he usually makes them turn out.”
Gayle Ellis, who owns Western College of Auctioneering with her husband Jerry, remembers Robison among the many students who pass through her school. Recalling that he was “very energetic,” Ellis said she developed a bond with Robison because of her own experience with cancer.
“Cancer changes people’s lives in the way you look at others,” Ellis said. “You become an unselfish and caring person. Mike is one of those people.”
Al Paine, a disabled World War II veteran, knows about Robison’s unselfishness. Last fall, Robison and a partner took the 86-year-old Paine out elk hunting. They guided him to a 7-by-8 bull and then hauled the animal out for him. It was the second straight year Robison had gotten Paine an elk and he’s already looking forward to doing it again in the fall.
“He’ll do anything for you,” Good said of Robison. “He’s the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. He’s an all-around good guy.”
Robison isn’t sure exactly what part of the treatment altered his voice. All he knows is people started telling him he sounded different. He says it doesn’t hurt to speak, even though it sounds that way. It’s as if his voice has taken on the same qualities as Robison himself: gritty, tough and unwilling to give up. Not to mention, endlessly optimistic.
“That’s how my whole life has been – things have just kind of worked out all right,” he said.
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