Prom­i­nent pro­fes­sor kept low pro­file

Kapi-Mana News - - OBITUARY -

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.

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