Alumni of GW’s journalism program and of this newspaper lost their friend and mentor Phil Robbins last week.
Robbins, professor emeritus and former chairman of the journalism department, died Oct. 13 at his home in Elkton, Md., of pancreatic cancer.
Robbins joined the journalism faculty in 1971 and became chairman in 1973 until his retirement in 1995. Over those 24 years, he touched the lives of countless budding young journalists, myself included. He taught generations of reporters the good habits that would build promising careers: be skeptical; ask tough questions; get the facts right; and always be objective. Most importantly, he taught us to take our jobs seriously but not to take ourselves too seriously.
There are legions of GW graduates who remember Robbins fondly. How could you not? Wavy salt-and-pepper hair with a beard to match, usually decked out in a pastel plaid sport-coat – out of style by at least a decade even back when I had his class in the early ’90s.
And of course there was The Voice. If ever a voice could be called stentorian, this was it. Robbins had a way with that booming voice and his unique twang, a combination of his Kentucky and Virginia roots, which could really get your attention.
He liked to spring The Voice on you in class, when he knew you were looking out the window thinking about anything but journalism. “Isn’t that right, Paul?!” he’d bellow. The Voice could also be friendly, and sometimes downright hysterical. For instance, he would sometimes scat while running down the attendance list or reading through his notes. “Doobie, doobie, doo” is not something you hear in the halls of higher learning very often, but it made us love him even more.
At times, Robbins could seem more like a cartoon figure than a professor. I think that’s why he was so good at teaching. Inside this larger-than-life character was a deeply committed professional. He knew better than anyone else how to use a hands-on approach to train reporters for a successful career, and insisted on real-world experience along with what he taught us in the classroom.
If you took his basic news-writing class, you had to learn to get your facts right. Though he sometimes would tolerate things such as sloppy grammar, he had no qualms about failing a student if they spelled someone’s name wrong in a story. That built the foundation for getting other facts right, he told us. Looking back, it was a simple yet genius way to get us into the habit of making sure we had the correct information in our work, and it’s those kind of basic values that GW graduates have taken with them to every major news outlet in the world. The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, CNN, Associated Press, Reuters. You name the media, and odds are they employ a reporter or editor who learned the basics of their trade from Phil Robbins.
Outside the classroom, Robbins was a friend and mentor to many of his students and many editors of this very newspaper you’re reading right now. He welcomed students into his office for career counseling or even just general advice about life. On more than one occasion, I sought his wisdom about problems in the Hatchet newsroom and how to deal with the paper’s move toward independence from the University. I knew his door was always open to others who wanted his advice, or even just an ear to listen to their troubles.
His relationship with GW continued even after he retired. He worked hard to establish GW’s journalism department, and the program went high profile when the School of Media and Public Affairs was created. Without his groundwork as journalism chairman, it is unlikely GW’s program would have the prestige it enjoys today. And without his caring and wisdom, GW’s journalism grads might never have become as successful as they are today. His legacy will continue in the careers of his former students and in the journalism program at GW.
When Robbins retired in 1995, many of his former students came back to the Marvin Center for a party in his honor. They presented him with a classic blue sport coat to replace his stalwart old pastel plaids, and he took the ribbing with his usual good nature.
After he died, his daughter said the family came across a thick file he kept with mementos of his former students. It has correspondence from his pupils, with notes about their professional and personal accomplishments, and clippings of their work as their careers progressed. It’s like a proud papa’s scrapbook of his extended family, she said. As much as the GW community will miss Professor Robbins, I think maybe he will miss us too.
-The writer was The Hatchet’s editor in chief
from 1993 to 1994
Donations in memory of Phil Robbins can be made to the Philip Robbins Memorial Fund, International Center for Journalists, attention Nancy Frye, 1616 H St. N.W., Washington, D.C., 20006. Robbins was closely involved with the group, which promotes free press around the world.