Elwyn B. Robinson: An Appreciate Sketch
by Robert P. Wilkins
Elwyn Burns Robinson was born on a farm near Orange, Geauga County, Ohio, not far from the Lake Erie metropolis of Cleveland, on October 13, 1905. When he was nine years old the family moved to Chagrin Falls, outside Cleveland, where the father operated a photographer’s studio. At nearby Oberlin College he majored in English, having had in high school a strong interest in literature, including poetry. The history courses he took were English and European, including some taught by Frederick Artz. But he did not study American history. The appeal of sports was great; he played much tennis and handball and was proficient with the rifle. In his senior year he won his class numerals for football.
Upon graduation in 1928 he served as principal of a five teacher high school at New Lyrne, near Ashtabula, Ohio. In addition to administrative duties and his teaching of English, he coached basketball, track and field, and baseball. One year his New Lyme team won the Ashtabula County Class C baseball tournament. In 1930 he went to the Old Trail School in a suburb of Akron, again to teach English. However, having read Mark Sullivan’s Our Times: The United States, 1900-1925, and putting aside the thought of a degree in the history of fine arts, he decided to do graduate work in history. As the Great Depression deepened he entered Western Reserve University. Having prepared a thesis, “John W. Forney and the Philadelphia Press,” he received his M.A. in 1932. Arthur C. Cole, his thesis director, then working on a volume in the History of American Life, was interested in American journalism and recommended that Robinson continue study of Philadelphia newspapers for the doctorate. With his course work completed and a first draft of his dissertation nearly completed, Orin G. Libby employed him as an instructor in the Department of American History at the University of North Dakota. Within a year he completed his dissertation, “The Public Press of Philadelphia during the Civil War," receiving his Ph.D. in June, 1936.
At the University of North Dakota the teaching load was fifteen hours-three or four sections of the survey course and one or two advanced courses. He and Libby taught the sections of the course titled Economic Development of the United States. On Libby’s suggestion he taught, to senior students preparing for public school teaching, the course known as Survey and Review of American History.
With Libby’s retirement in 1954, Professor Robinson took over the Recent United States course. It was only at this time, after ten years in the state, that he developed an interest in the history of North Dakota. In 1947-48 he prepared forty quarter-hour radio talks on personalities in North Dakota history. Recorded at the University’s station KFJM, the “Heroes of North Dakota series was broadcast in numerous communities across the state. His preparation of a North Dakota history well launched by the work done on the “Heroes” talks, he began teaching a course about the state. The shape of the projected book and its great distinction grew out of the outstanding public lecture “The Themes of North Dakota History” in November, 1957, inaugurating the gala, year-long observance of the 75th Anniversary of the University’s founding. In it he developed six propositions about the state and its people, including the “Too-Much Mistake,” which some persons, viewing it as an attack on the pioneers, resented. By 1964 he completed the manuscript of the first scholarly history of the state. Published in the fall of 1966, History of North Dakota was well received by reviewers, sold handsomely, and provided North Dakotans with the first serious, interpretative treatment of their home. In the intervening years it has been recognized as a model for works of its genre.
Professor Robinson’s contributions were not limited to writing. As an elected member of the University’s Graduate Committee and of the University Senate he was a doughty champion of high academic standards and of innovation in the pursuit of them. Indeed, his cogent argument for both contributed much to the progress made by the University after 1945. His skill in the classroom won recognition; in 1959 he received a Distinguished Teacher Award and in 1967 was designated University Professor of History — a high distinction. During 1963 and 1964 he served as chairman of the department. In 1948 he was appointed to the Mississippi Valley Historical Association’s committee for the preservation of historic sites in the Missouri valley where great dams were being built. His service on the Association’s membership committee culminated in his chairing it during the 1963-64 year. The figure for new members, 1,370, was hundreds greater than in immediately preceding years. The annual meeting resolution thanking the committee — “and in particular Chairman Robinson” — for its work was unusual in singling out the chairman for special praise.
Recognition by the campus community and by national professional organizations, including the Award of Merit of the Association for State and Local History, was a source of satisfaction to Professor Robinson, his colleagues and students. But friends and students alike will as often remember, and relish, his “infectious laughter... high spirits... [and] soft spoken enthusiasm about many facets of life.” The essays in this Festschrift are by a few of his former students upon the occasion of a retirement which we all regret. They are acknowledgment of the debt of scores of graduate students and hundreds of undergraduates, whom he has disciplined toward achievement while cheerfully extending that encouragement without which apprentice scholars sometimes falter.
Source: Essays on Western History in Honor of Elwyn B. Robinson. Grand Forks: UND Press,1970.