Remembering Raymond Robinson, Northeastern’s legendary history professor

Ray Robinson portrait
Raymond Robinson, a collector of George Washington memorabilia as well as an organist at university graduation ceremonies, taught history at Northeastern for 57 years while making a bit of it himself. He died peacefully Sunday at age 92. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Raymond Robinson, the legendary Northeastern professor who taught history for 57 years while making a bit of it himself, died peacefully in his sleep on Sunday. He was 92.

He was surrounded by the comforting keepsakes of a life well lived.

His suburban Boston home since 1962 was brimming with thousands of books on all subjects, in addition to scores of memorabilia centered around George Washington, which he had arranged to be donated to the Washington museum in Mt. Vernon, Virginia. Robinson’s fascination with the first president began at age 8, when he came upon his father reading a magazine with Washington on the cover. After a bit of hounding, his father tore off the cover and handed it over, and so the collection began.

Robinson’s grandfather was born during the Civil War in 1863, two years before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. American history seemed to propel him.

Robinson came to Northeastern in 1952 to teach history and government. After a departure of three years to Northwestern, he returned in 1961 as chair of Northeastern’s history department. 

Robinson’s presence would be hard to miss over the next 51 years, until his retirement in 2012 at age 84. He served as the university’s chief marshal, launching convocations, graduation ceremonies, and other public events with affluent sincerity. 

“I will particularly treasure the memory of him in full academic regalia, mace in hand as he marshaled our community’s most momentous celebrations,” wrote Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, in a letter to Robinson’s longtime friends, Ted and Lisa Doherty and their family. “In those ceremonies he was the face of Northeastern, but he was always its heart, as well.”

Robinson’s friends at Northeastern included Aoun  and Asa S. Knowles, who was president of Northeastern from 1959-75.

To call Ray a Northeastern legend would be a disservice—legends are often veiled by exaggeration,” Aoun wrote. “Rather, Ray was a living giant, outsized in his impact on the many colleagues he mentored, the generations of students he inspired, and all of us who knew and admired him. With his departure, we mourn an irreplaceable teacher and a beloved friend.”

Robinson, the recipient of an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2006, figured that he had taught more than 25,000 students at Northeastern. 

“He was absolutely stunning as a teacher,” said Gene Reppucci, the former senior vice president for development at Northeastern who took a freshman course from Robinson in 1955. “He was highly respected, and a very distinguished, down-to-earth, likeable person.”

Robinson kept the academic results of every student he ever taught, he claimed.

“Because I’m crazy?” Robinson asked rhetorically of his interviewer, with a sly grin.

His initial two degrees in history at Penn State led Robinson to Harvard, where he was mentored by the famed historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. Among Robinson’s students there was Ted Kennedy, who benefited from a prediction offered by Robinson while they were reviewing one of his class papers, the record of which would come to rest somewhere within Robinson’s groaning homebound archive.

“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 said. “‘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.”

Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy was a U.S. senator from 1962 until his death in 2009. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1980. 

“He and I became friends,” Robinson said. “And every place I saw him, as time passed, we would comment on that.”

Robinson did not marry, though a visitor would never guess this. All around his home, forming lines of personal memory in between the trinkets and statuettes and prints of Washington, were photographs in frames, albums, and yearbooks of the many people who meant the world to him. 

Some featured the family of Ted Doherty, a student who had lived in one of Robinson’s rooms, which spared him an oppressive commute from Cape Cod to Northeastern. Robinson was godfather to all three sons (two went to Northeastern) of Ted and Lisa Doherty, a cooperative education coordinator at the university.

Other photos were related to the family of Peter Chamberlin, who had been a house guest for eight years. Robinson had helped raise him.

“He’s married, he has two children,” Robinson said last year while pointing to a photo. “And those four kids in the middle there are his grandchildren.”

In the back of the house, in a remodeled ground-floor bedroom that provided him with easy access as walking became increasingly difficult, Robinson kept a piano. His talent for music was as sharp as the recitation of his memories well into the final year of his life. He played the organ at a local church (in much the same role as his grandfather, a farmer in Pennsylvania, had played the piano in the 1800s) as well as for Northeastern graduations.

“I actually had two careers,” Robinson said.

There were those two careers, his teaching and his music, and then there was much more than that. Raymond Robinson endures.

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