His rooms are arranged like the storage areas of a museum. Raymond Robinson, the retired history professor of Northeastern, has been living in this suburban house since 1962.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” says Robinson, having instantly put his hands on his old high school yearbook to find the photograph of his favorite teacher, Jane Mervine. “She told me, ‘You are going to graduate school, and get a PhD, and become a college professor of history.”
Jane Mervine turned out to be right. Raymond Robinson would teach at Northeastern for 57 years.
He is 92 now, and his home is an extension of everything he knows and yearns to understand. A lifelong pursuit of informed perspective has transformed his life. The legendary professor of American history is history personified.
Books, thousands of them, fill shelves along the walls, keepsakes of his intellectual ambition. Occupying the spaces between those bookshelves are pieces of George Washington memorabilia—because it was not enough for the professor to reconstruct the life and influence of the father of our country. Robinson has an inexplicable need for ownership in Washington, like an investor who recognizes neverending potential in legacy stocks.
He was 8 years old when he was drawn to a portrait of Washington on the cover of Liberty magazine, which his father happened to be reading in February 1936.
“He was a somewhat gruff man,” Robinson says. “I said, ‘I would like to have the cover.’ He said, ‘You can have it when I am finished reading it.’ And I said, ‘I would like to have it now.’ To get rid of me, he ripped the cover off, and that became the first item in my collection.”
All of it will be donated to the Washington museum in Mt. Vernon, Virginia, at that time when Robinson no longer has any use for it.
Upstairs, somewhere, he has kept the academic results of every student he ever taught.
“Why?” he says of his record-keeping, and failing to hold back a grin. “Because I’m crazy?”
Robinson never married. And yet his shelves and walls are filled with family photos. Some are from the family of Ted Doherty, who had been commuting to Northeastern from Cape Cod when he was invited to move into one of Robinson’s spare rooms. He and his wife, Lisa Doherty, a cooperative education coordinator at Northeastern, have three sons—including two who have gone to Northeastern—and Robinson is godfather to all of them.
Other family photos are related to Peter Chamberlin, who at the request of his mother came to live with Robinson for one summer. He ended up living in Robinson’s home for eight years.
“Peter is going to be 69 in September,” Robinson says. “He’s married, he has two children, and those four kids in the middle there (Robinson points to a framed photo) are his grandchildren.”
His connection to the span of American history that has so informed Robinson’s own way of life goes back to his grandfather, who was born during the Civil War in 1863, two years before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Robinson came along in 1927, two years after the publication of The Great Gatsby, when F. Scott Fitzgerald was carousing in Paris with Ernest Hemingway.
After earning his first two degrees in history at Penn State, Robinson moved onto Harvard, where he studied under the famed historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr.
“Teddy Kennedy was one of the students, though the name didn’t ring a bell at the time,” Robinson says. “He came in to go over his paper. I don’t know what he got on the paper.”
“During the course of our conversation, I said, ‘Do you know, one day, your brother Jack is going to be president of the United States?’” Robinson says. “‘And second of all, your brother Bobby is going to succeed him and be president of the United States? And third of all, you are going to be president of the United States down the road a piece?’ And he looked at me as if I was crazy, because [the election of John F. Kennedy] hadn’t happened.
“But he and I became friends. And every place I saw him, as time passed, we would comment on that.”
Robinson was hired to teach history and government at Northeastern in 1952. After three years at Northwestern, he returned to Boston in 1961 as chair of Northeastern’s history department. He remained at the university until his retirement in 2012, at age 84.
In between, he became a close friend with Northeastern President Asa Knowles, and he developed a strong relationship with current President Joseph E. Aoun. He served as the university’s chief marshal, launching convocations, graduations, and other ceremonies in his full regalia. Robinson, the recipient of an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2006, estimated that he taught more than 25,000 students at Northeastern—a number for which he can thoroughly account, upstairs.
“I actually had two careers,” he says. And, if pressed, he will sit down to the piano in his bedroom, and play the same music that he used to perform as a church organist for a majority of his harmonious, productive life. He also played the organ at Northeastern graduations.
Northeastern changed fundamentally over the course of his lifetime. Robinson influenced its development. He is not one for grand pronouncements, apart from an offhanded comment at the end of a wondrous afternoon in his company.
“I never paid any attention to what they said,” he says, without defining who “they” may be. “And I never gave a good damn about what most people said. I just did what I did want to do.”
So does history come to life.