It all started in the spring of 2008 with a knock on the door of an old farmhouse in northwest Kansas.
Rob Robinson, a firefighter from Starkville, Miss., had traveled almost 1,000 miles to hunt turkeys in Kansas. Not just any turkeys — the Rio Grande turkeys that roamed western Kansas.
Robinson was on a mission to complete turkey hunting’s Grand Slam, shooting each of the country’s four sub-species of wild gobblers. And the birds in western Kansas were on his checklist.
So he held his breath when Gillan Alexander, who farms 1,400 acres near Nicodemus, a town settled by African-Americans following the Civil War, came to the door. A portion of Alexander’s farmland has been in his family for four generations.
Alexander, 55, listened as Robinson politely asked for permission to hunt.
“As long as you respect my land,” Alexander said, “you can go out there.”
Robinson was directed to a patch of land owned by one of Alexander’s friends, and the results were memorable.
“Within 15 minutes, I had my bird,” Robinson said. “It was unbelievable.”
And so began a special friendship.
Fast forward to late November. Robinson and Alexander were sitting in a hospital room at the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Robinson dressed in his camouflage pajamas. They are recovering from an operation Monday in which Robinson gave Alexander the ultimate gift — one of his kidneys.
“Rob is my hero,” Alexander said, getting choked up. “He’s my living angel.
“I never asked him to do this. He heard about the troubles I was having and he just did it on his own, getting tested to make sure his kidney was compatible and everything.
“I’m calling my new kidney Mississippi in honor of him.”
Robinson laughed and then got serious.
“I didn’t even hesitate in getting tested when I heard what bad shape he was in,” said Robinson, 43. “We had become real good friends. We would text each other every day.
“When the doctors told him that he needed a kidney transplant, all I could think about was helping him.”
Alexander had been diagnosed with a kidney disease almost 20 years ago. His condition had deteriorated to the point that he needed dialysis six days a week.
“He had reached the point where a transplant was about the only option,” said Timothy Schmitt, the surgeon who operated on Alexander. “And the sooner, the better.
“In this area, you can wait 2 1/2 years to get a kidney once you go on the list. But things worked out for the best in this case.
“He (Alexander) got a living kidney, which always works better and lasts longer. Things look good at this point.”
Robinson downplayed his gift, saying he didn’t think twice.
“Gillan has been so good to me,” he said. “One year I was staying in a tent and it was cold. He invited me to stay in his house.
“I’ve taken him out hunting and we’ve always had a great time. He’s one of the most down-to-earth guys I know.”
Before he met Alexander, Robinson had developed an affection for Kansas. He had hunted pheasants there several times over the years, then turned to deer hunting.
When he was bird hunting, he noticed the abundance of wild turkeys roaming the fields and wooded areas, and he decided to try his luck at that sport. In 2007, he shot a huge Eastern species turkey that turned out to be a Kansas record.
That started a passion that led Robinson to several states in pursuit of sub-species of wild turkeys. He shot birds at various locations and had his sights set on a Rio Grande bird.
When he saw Alexander’s land, he knew it was prime turkey-hunting property.
“Out there, there aren’t a lot of trees,” he said. “When you see a patch of woods, you know there’s a good chance it’s going to hold birds.”
But showing gratitude for gaining permission to hunt had little to do with his decision to give Alexander one of his kidneys, Robinson said.
“I did this out of friendship,” he said.
Sean Kumer, who operated on Robinson, was impressed with the story of how the two men ended up at the University of Kansas Hospital.
“It’s always heartwarming when you hear stories about how unusual circumstances bring two people together like this,” he said. “To think, a friendship that developed through hunting turned out to have a big effect on someone’s life. That’s impressive.”
Alexander summed it up by uttering a few short words from a Bible verse.
“Hebrews 13:2,” he said. “ Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”