Most of my memories from college are fading away in uncontrollable atrophy. Us students were a rambunctious lot but we were also incredibly malleable as we looked for people to respect and emulate. And now, nearly five years out, there have only been a few people whose actions, words, and very voice are truly unforgettable and respectable. One of those people is my former university president, Bill Robinson.
Perhaps one thing that set him apart from the assortment of leaders and teachers I knew up to that point was his unbelievable memory for the names and faces of students. Bill knew every student’s name. Literally. It was urban legend that he would actually study the student directory. As president, of course everyone knew who he was. What was truly amazing was he knew who we were, too.
He had a way with us students. It felt natural when he approached our table in the cafeteria with tray in hand, sporting a Whitworth sweatshirt and hat. He rode a bike around campus, too, giving him a consistent and tangible presence on campus. You wouldn’t find him parading around at just a few token university events with a salesman smile or a beauty pageant wave. He wasn’t the Wizard of Oz president. He was ordinary and real, and for a university president, that made him extraordinary.
I remember one weekend night around 11:00 PM a group of us wanted to play basketball but the gym was locked up. Bill had given some of us his cell phone number so we called him up with our situation. Perhaps making a call like that reflected the brash and brazen nature of our age but he was more than happy to call security and open up the gym for us. He was no legalist.
Speaking of basketball, Bill loved basketball and was good at it, too. One evening the student body president called me up because Bill wanted to play three-on-three. As a Resident Assistant in the dorms, I grabbed a freshman from my hall and the three of us went to the gym. We met up with Bill, his older friend, and his soon-to-be son in law. To my dismay, then and now, us strapping college kids lost two games to one to the team with two guys over 60. Damn did we respect him.
It wasn’t just that my group of friends or I was special (Bill did make us feel that way, though.) He knew everybody, and he went above and beyond for everybody. I would hear countless stories of him having students over to his cabin, hosting visiting parents in his house, and walking over his family’s leftovers to a house of students nearby. Every holiday season, too, he would invite the students over to his house for cookies and cider. We would pack out his first floor.
B-Rob, as we called him, was incredibly thoughtful. My sophomore year I broke my collarbone playing ultimate frisbee in the loop and needed surgery. I had to withdraw from classes. Dazed and drugged in my dorm room – Jersey was a long way from Spokane – my academic advisor took me into his house to rehabilitate. I wish I could say I was shocked when I saw B-Rob come visit one day. “Hey Oz. How do you feel?”
But it wasn’t all smiles and laughter. One year, a well-known student died tragically in a car accident. I guess there’s not much anyone can do in situations like that, not even a university president. But Bill was right there with us all, crying with us. Being with us was all Bill ever was. And that was always enough. It was more than enough.
Now, after nearly five years of post-Whitworth life, having worked at two different universities in America and abroad, and completing my masters, I am increasingly thankful for the role model and leadership of Bill Robinson. I probably learned more from Bill than from all my classes combined. I learned to put people before rules, what it means to be authentic, hardworking, and compassionate. I learned how to be human.
Admittedly, I am no authority on higher education administration. I’m sure being a university president is a complicated and multifaceted position. But I’m pretty sure through Bill’s example I know what it means to be a great president: to know and be known.