Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Recently, I received an inquiry about faculty member Robbie Robinson as the result of a gift received by Western Reserve Academy.

Irving L."Robbie" Robinson was on the WRA faculty as a master of French from 1953 to 1967, and left the same year that Headmaster John W. Hallowell retired to New England. Robbie went on to Groton School in MA and taught there for four years, resigning in 1971 and going off to France where he turned up dead on a beach in Corsica. He was 44 at the time of his death, and was much mourned on this campus where he was a very popular teacher and dorm master.

George Birnbaum '66 wrote a fine article about Robinson that was published in the Alumni Record along with five photos of this "forever young" teacher. Former Headmaster John W. Hallowell, who would die in a mysterious car accident in 1980, led the mourners in a service at WRA Chapel on October 30, 1971. A memorial grove of trees near the intersection of Oviatt Street and Aurora Street was to be his permanent memorial on campus. According to the article in WRA's Alumni Magazine, there were 178 donors to the fund (all are listed), an outpouring of admiration for a former faculty member that is almost unprecedented.

Born in 1927, Irving L. Robinson grew up in Olympia, Washington, where he went to high school, followed by college at Yale University. He graduated in 1947 at the age of 20. He would later enter Laval University at Quebec City in 1955 and spend the next several years working summers toward a master's degree (maybe some doctoral work as well). According to records in WRA Archives he was awarded a master's at Laval in 1966 just a year before he left WRA. It is interesting to note that Headmaster John W. Hallowell had identified Robinson as a likely faculty candidate while Robbie was still a resident at Jonathan Edwards College at Yale. Robbie came out to Hudson in April, 1947 to meet some faculty and to look at the campus, but ultimately he accepted a position at the Menlo School (independent school) in Menlo Park, California.

But Hallowell kept pursuing Robinson who finally agreed to join the faculty in 1953 and where he became quite a legendary character both as a teacher of French and as master at North Hall. I found the connection with John W. Hallowell an unusual one, and in 2009 contacted Groton School in MA regarding Hallowell's teaching years there before World War II in preparation for an article I wrote for the Alumni Magazine. I happened to speak with Doug Brown, Archivist for Groton, who had started there as a teacher in the 1970-71 year and had known Irving Robinson. He brought up the subject because he knew that Robbie had come to Groton from WRA. Brown reported that Robbie had resigned from Groton in the spring of 1971 and had "sold all his worldly goods" before departing for France where he died a few days after his arrival on a beach in Corsica.

Doug Brown of Groton posed the question about whether it was suicide or perhaps a drug deal gone wrong. In any case Robbie was known to be a strong swimmer, yet he died of drowning. The U.S. State Department ordered his remains be cremated without any positive identification by a family member or friend. Doug Brown stated that Robinson's case is still a mystery. He told me that someone with a WRA connection had inquired about Robbie, probably in 2008. My contact with Groton was in October 2009.

There used to be a marker inside the lobby of Wilson Hall before it was renovated in 2001. This marker (I have two photos of it in the Archives) is headed The Irving Lind Robinson Grove, and notes that a grove of trees was planted in his memory "to the east of this building" in the spring of 1972. The marker is now attached to a boulder and sitting under one of the trees in the Irving Lind Robinson Grove. You can see the marker just a few feet from where you turn into the parking lot off Oviatt Street to go behind Wilson Hall. I checked it out on my lunch hour and will add this information to the Robinson file.

I also took note that during his residency on the WRA campus, Robinson planted ivy outside the Chapel door and the plantings around North Hall where he lived. They have since been replaced, but the grove of trees looks healthy and strong.

In any case there are plenty of alumni who still have fond memories of Irving L. "Robbie" Robinson. A Plain Dealer article and a similar one in the Akron Beacon Journal, both dated July 8, 1971, note that Robinson's death in Corsica was being investigated. The Beacon reported his family as his mother, Mrs. John S. Robinson of Seattle, widow of a Washington Supreme Court justice; brothers Sam W. of Mercer Island, WA and John S. Jr. of Olympia.