Prominent professor kept low profile
Tawa recently lost a notable identity with the death of Emeritus Professor Jim Robb, aged 91.
Professor Robb moved to Tawa from Brooklyn in 1983 before he retired as the foundation professor of New Zealand’s first university sociology department which he had established in 1963.
Born in Gisborne in 1920, he mostly grew up on his parents’ dairy farm near Manutuke, so most of his schooling was through the Correspondence School. He trained as a primary teacher while completing a BA at Victoria University College in history and psychology before heading overseas to become a navigator in the RAF Bomber Command.
Returning to Victoria after the war, he completed his MA with first class honours and went to the University of London to complete a PhD in social psychology.
After working in the new field which became known as marriage guidance, he returned to New Zealand in 1954 to a lectureship at Victoria in the School of Social Science. There he first taught an introductory course in sociology in 1957 and became Victoria’s first professor of sociology in 1966.
Many of the tributes from former students and colleagues mentioned Professor Robb’s mentoring and scholarship skills.
One, Professor Kevin Clements, has worked in many parts of the world after being awarded the first ever New Zealand PhD in sociology.
Dr Clements said Professor Robb ‘‘always found the time to give advice, encouragement and intellectual and emotional support’’.
One of Victoria’s first sociology graduates, Dr John McKinlay, has had a distinguished career in the United States and in 2009 was given the American Sociology Association’s most distinguished award for lifetime contributions. He said his career was ‘‘all started by Jim. Along with many others I owe him so much’’.
Jim Robb preferred to work in the background to the highest standards of scholarship and fairness rather than seeking a public profile.
He was not always successful in being anonymous, especially in a contentious campaign like homosexual law reform. In the 1970s he was misquoted in a headline across the entire page of a metropolitan daily newspaper which claimed he had said there were four homosexuals in Parliament.
In the end it was accepted that he had been misquoted but the newspaper had to appear before Parliament’s powerful Privileges Committee.
Outside the university, he devoted considerable effort to renovating the family house and section with the onerous help of a hand-cranked concrete mixer he used for many years.
He was active in the Presbyterian Church in which he was an elder, and in numerous community organisations involved with social issues.
His highest profile involvement was over 20 years with the Homosexual Law Reform Society of which he was the foundation and long-term chairman. As a former Director General of Health, Dr George Salmond, noted at his funeral, this was a courageous commitment to make in the mid 1960s.
Professor Robb also took part in or organised several community surveys including a major one of Porirua City in 1965, published in 1969.
His developing interest in medical sociology led him to begin studying Italian at the university as interesting work by Italian sociologists was not widely translated. After completing third year papers, he spent four months’ of study leave in Padua in Italy where he improved his conversational skills, as did his wife Margaret, a natural linguist.
In retirement, Jim taught Italian with Margaret through the Tawa U3A ( the international, campus-free University of the Third Age for seniors) and at the Circolo d’Italiano in Wellington. Just last year, he gave his final course, a series on Dante’s Divine Comedy.
In his seventies he bought and learned to use a computer on which he wrote a book on the evol- ution of social thought from Old Testament times to the 1950s, The Emergence of Social Theory. He also became a keen emailer and web-surfer. Another retirement interest he took up was Italian cooking.
His funeral at the Tawa Union Church attracted a large attendance by a remarkable variety of people and was very much a celebration of a full life with many achievements. Jim was recalled as a family man, an academic colleague, a committed advocate for social change, and a churchman.
Professor Robb is survived by Margaret, his wife of 65 years, four children, 12 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.
- Provided by the Robb family
Social scientist: Professor Jim Robb celebrated his 90th birthday last year with great grandson Jay Cleland.