A Tribute to a Giant: Remembering Richard “Dick” Robinson - NCTE
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A Tribute to a Giant: Remembering Richard “Dick” Robinson

From Kylene Beers, NCTE President, 2008–2009

The books are award-winning and iconic: Front Desk (Kelly Yang); Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963 (Sharon Robinson); the Harry Potter series (J. K. Rowling); the Baby-Sitters Club series (Anne M. Martin); the Captain Underpants series (Dav Pilkey); the Goosebumps series (R. L. Stine); Martin Rising: Requiem for a King (Andrea Davis Pinkney & Brian Pinkney); Esperanza Rising (Pam Muñoz Ryan); My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World (Malcolm Mitchell); The Life I’m In (Sharon G. Flake); the Hunger Games series (Suzanne Collins) and on and on and on. While each in its own way connected children to the power and joy of reading, they all connected us to one of the world’s best-known publishing houses: Scholastic. And that connected us to its president and CEO, Richard (Dick) Robinson.

Most readers—child or teen or adult—don’t know the president of publishing houses, but those of us who attended the NCTE Annual Convention had a chance to meet Dick, visit with him, thank him for his commitment to publishing. Perhaps you visited with him in the Scholastic booth with Clifford, the Big Red Dog, or saw him standing near a Magic School Bus mural. Or perhaps you saw him at the annual Scholastic Dinner. No matter the place, so many teachers shared memories with him about attending Scholastic book fairs as children and now teachers; we told him our own stories about looking forward to our favorite Scholastic magazine, about our students who have entered the Scholastic writing or art contests, about children who became readers through any of the many series books published by Scholastic. No matter the place we visited with him, he loved each story, shook every hand, and leaned in to listen intently to each person.

It was, therefore, with great sadness that many members of NCTE along with the world of publishing mourned the sudden death of Dick Robinson on June 5, 2021. It’s a loss that has touched the book world, classrooms around the world, and our world of NCTE. The 2010–2011 NCTE President Yvonne Siu-Runyan wrote, “Grace, humility, compassion, and passion, plus intelligence and presence are the words that come to mind when I think about Richard (Dick) Robinson. Mr. Robinson and his vision made readers, writers, and thinkers.” He did. He not only wanted children to become lifetime readers, but he wanted them to be lifetime thinkers. Yvonne continued: “I will miss Mr. Robinson’s heartfelt delivery of the speech from the ‘unknown sponsor’ at the annual dinner at NCTE’s Convention. I always wept tears of appreciation and joy at this event. Mr. Robinson, you are missed and will be missed by many. Thank you, Dick Robinson, for all your years of devotion to literacy and learning.”

Carol Jago, 2009–2010 NCTE President, shared her personal thoughts about him that express the thoughts of so many: “The first time I met Dick Robinson was at Scholastic’s New York offices. I told him how important the TAB book club and books were to me as a young reader and that I still remember reading Shakleton’s Valiant Voyage by Alfred Lansing. I recalled that the book had cost only 20 cents. In subsequent years when we met again and again at NCTE Thanksgiving banquets, Dick always remembered that story. The field has lost a hero. One might call it ‘Robinson’s Valiant Voyage.’”

Carol said it perfectly. It was a valiant voyage, one that has helped countless children set sail on their own voyages as lifetime readers.

In the following section, Sheridan Blau, 1997–1998 NCTE President, explores that valiant voyage Dick Robinson made with and for our National Council of Teachers of English.

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Memorializing Our History: Dick Robinson, NCTE, and Me

Dick Robinson was a lifelong champion of books for children and a consequential contributor to literacy education in America, honored throughout his career for his generous and courageous efforts to promote reading for children of all social classes and to foster a thoughtful and critical literacy for all Americans. Scholastic, under his leadership, was widely admired for publishing books that dealt honestly with issues like civil rights, global warming, and racial injustice, and Dick was justifiably proud of the number of Scholastic books that were banned in schools and communities across the country. He was also a legendary publisher who turned his father’s small publishing company, notable for its children’s magazine, into what became arguably the most successful and influential independent publishing company in America.

To the leaders and members of NCTE, Dick Robinson was also a friend and benefactor, the pater familias and host of the annual Scholastic dinner at the NCTE Convention, where anyone at the Convention could pick up a ticket at the Scholastic booth and attend the pre-dinner wine reception and the turkey dinner, with a traditional menu that commemorated a long history, starting in 1932, across which the Scholastic dinner party was an actual Thanksgiving dinner held on Thanksgiving Day. That surprising tradition reflects the equally surprising fact that from the first NCTE Convention in Chicago in 1912 through the 1979 Convention in San Francisco, NCTE Annual Conventions were held during the long Thanksgiving weekend. And in 1932, at the NCTE Convention in Memphis, Dick’s father, “Robbie” Robinson, founder of Scholastic publishing, having noticed Convention attendees forlornly eating their ordinary dinners singly and in pairs in hotel restaurants on Thanksgiving Day, decided to host a Thanksgiving dinner for anybody interested in attending.

As the story goes, the dinner featured a single turkey, which provided adequate meat and stuffing for the small number of attending guests, most of whom were publishers and book salesmen like Robbie himself. But they enjoyed themselves and agreed to meet for a similar dinner the next year at the NCTE Convention in Detroit, where Robbie would host an even larger party that began to include a number of teachers, more and more of whom attended at each subsequent Convention, requiring larger and larger dining rooms year by year, until dining rooms gave way to double dining rooms, and then ballrooms and double ballrooms.

Dick Robinson attended many of these dinners as a Scholastic employee before he himself became the host after his father retired in 1975, carrying on his father’s tradition faithfully by treating the guests as Thanksgiving dinner guests, which meant not submitting them to the speeches that characterize Convention banquets. There was only one short speech given by the host to welcome the guests, and Dick honored that tradition and his father by giving word-for-word the same speech his father gave. And when NCTE changed the date of its Annual Conventions to the week before Thanksgiving and the dinner became a Saturday night event attended largely by classroom teachers, many of whom were not regular Conventiongoers and were unlikely to know other attendees with whom to share dinner Saturday night, Dick continued to maintain the tradition of hosting lonely teachers for a complete Thanksgiving dinner, the weekend before Thanksgiving, and continued to give his father’s speech.

At all the dinners I have attended faithfully (as do all past presidents of NCTE), every year for the past quarter century (except last year when there was no dinner), Dick would circulate the room while everybody was eating, greeting the teachers/dinner guests typically sat at tables with strangers who quickly became part of the huge NCTE family. Then, he would take to the stage to welcome this extended family on behalf of what he called “our nameless sponsor,” and he would give the same speech his father gave during the years when Robinson, Senior, was the president of Scholastic and the host of the dinner.

It is difficult to explain how this speech that many of us had heard 25 times or more moved us as it also moved those who were hearing it for the first time. In fact, as one heard it more often, its power grew, perhaps with our growing sense of participating in a historic tradition of honoring all of us as English teachers and as members of an extended family of English teachers, collectively joining with Dick in the noble enterprise of celebrating literature and promoting a humane literacy for a humane future. For me, the dinner was also intensely like a family gathering, because for the past fifteen (or more) years, my former doctoral students from California and New York would make the Scholastic dinner a site for our reunion. Designated individuals would rush into the dining room when the doors opened and grab and reserve seats at two tables for the dozen or so of my former doctoral students, now professors (plus a few current students) who would renew their connection with each other and with me in this space of remembering and celebrating connections and shared commitments. Dick would always come over to our tables, where I would introduce my students to him, and he would generously acknowledge the significance and tradition of our special reunion.

Of course, Dick’s actual family and his army of admirers and friends will miss him terribly. But so will those of us who saw him once a year as our host, our Convention friend, our literacy hero. My own connection to Dick may not have been unique, but it was built around our shared commitments and our shared cultural experience as agemates. He was only two years older than I, and we had much in common in our values and historical experiences. For the past dozen years, at least, the few minutes of private talk that we would capture after the dinner each year turned to friendly inquiries we would make of each other about how we were handling the problems of aging and when and why we might retire. Neither of us felt at all inclined to retire, though as we approached becoming octogenarians, we admitted feeling that the time was not far away.

I write this the day after Dick died while he was engaged in exercise, walking with his son near their summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. Apparently in excellent health and showing no signs of slowing down in his life or his pace, he died suddenly from what has been assumed to be a stroke or a heart attack. A tragedy, of course, for Dick’s family. But from the perspective of old men like Dick and me, it’s an ideal ending to a hero’s journey. What could be better than to pass from this world, after a long and successful and satisfying and extraordinarily magnanimous life, than by passing away while still enjoying it—to be fully alive and savoring life until the last second.

Sheridan Blau

NCTE President, 1997–1998

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So many NCTE officers shared their fond memories of Dick Robinson! Here are a few:

Dick Robinson was an incredibly generous, caring, and compassionate individual. Being with him at NCTE was always a highlight of the Convention. At the annual M.R. Robinson dinners on Saturday evenings, Dick greeted every guest—longtime attendees and first-time attendees—with genuine warmth. Many of us celebrated these annual Scholastic dinners—with hundreds of guests—as welcoming, inclusive celebrations of colleagues, friends, and family. In the 1990s, I introduced Dick to my family at one of his dinners, and every year thereafter, he kindly remembered them and sent them his personal greetings. Dick’s dedication to high standards and passionate commitment to literacy, language, and literature transformed education and the publishing world. Students, educators, authors, parents, and stakeholders have all benefited from his vision, creativity, and work ethic. We are forever blessed to have known Dick Robinson. I shall miss him greatly.

Beverly Ann Chin

NCTE President, 1995–1996

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I couldn’t imagine an NCTE meeting without our genial Mr. Robinson. The generous Scholastic dinner was a “must” for me: I enjoyed meeting new people and I looked forward to Dick’s famous comments from the “unmentioned host.” We will truly miss him.

Ruth K. J. Cline

NCTE President, 1989–1990

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To those who loved Dick Robinson:

My graduate school mentor Steve Dunning introduced me to Dick Robinson long before I knew who Dick really was. But I quickly learned that Dick was the generous person who continued his father’s gracious hospitality to English teachers who were away from home on Thanksgiving. (Yes, I remember attending NCTE’s Annual Convention when it still met on the holiday instead of the week before, as it now does.) In my early years as a professor, I was sometimes able to snag an invitation by going to the booth in the book display area. Eventually I managed to get on “the list” and watched my mailbox in the fall for that envelope. As I became more and more active in NCTE, I became increasingly aware of the important relationship between my professional organization and the publishing company Dick headed and I shared my gratitude with many others.

I will miss Dick, “the speech” he always gave, and the many ways he supported NCTE, but I will treasure the memory of a business leader who prioritized people, benevolence, and books.

Anne Ruggles Gere

NCTE President, 2000–2001

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Richard Robinson, a teacher of secondary English, becoming aware of the power of authentic literacy experiences in the hands of readers, dedicated his life to discovering and providing rich, never-ending opportunities for readers of English and Spanish, worldwide.

Yetta Goodman

NCTE President, 1979–1980

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I’d attended the Scholastic Dinner/Robinson party several years before I ever spoke directly with Dick. After the 2013 Boston dinner, I shared my story of a particular purchase from the Scholastic Book Club when I was in sixth or seventh grade. It was The Two Towers, the second book of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Only I hadn’t realized it was the second book. I only knew it was the hardest, craziest thing I’d ever read. But since my allowance money was involved, I was determined to finish it. I was actually relieved when I learned The Fellowship of the Ring came first; maybe I wasn’t stupid after all. Dick laughed and appreciated the story.

After his fine and familiar virtual remarks after the 2020 Convention, I wrote to him with appreciation that it was perhaps the 30th time I’d heard the speech from “our anonymous sponsor,” and I reminded him of our year’s past chat. Dick replied within the hour, on a Sunday morning, noting that he remembered my Lord of the Rings story, and shared some thoughts about how much he was admiring teachers during the pandemic.

I replied that I was the Local Arrangements co-chair for the Denver Convention, so the absence of 8,000 friends from the Front Range was particularly disappointing and said, “I hope someone captured the chat that paralleled your comments last night. You’d see the Robinson party as an emotional experience for so many who participated, even through pixels. So much is in flux through our lives and careers. Being in touch with something constant since 1932—constant even in its language and pattern—is reassuring. For those of us at a certain age, it’s also twinged with nostalgia of our younger selves among strangers in ballrooms, when we were sure we would fix the world. That’s not a bad reminder.”

Dick replied that he enjoyed that sentiment of our younger selves, in a lengthy reply that included the observation that, “Actually, we did fix the world. It is just that others were equally adept at unfixing it!” He concluded in part, “I keep my optimism. We have done some great work; there is just so much more that needs to be done and will be done.” 

Doug Hesse

NCTE President, 2015–2016

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What powerfully rich contributions in the areas of literacy, teaching, and leadership left to us by Dick Robinson! His commitment to children’s literacies and literature, to digital media and accessibility, as well as to diversity, inclusivity, and joyful learning will always have a lasting impact on children, young adults, and English language arts and literacy educators, researchers, and leaders. I am forever indebted to his graciousness and dedication to ensuring that stories of hope, love, and courage are shared, heard, and embraced. Thank you, forever, Dick Robinson.

Valerie Kinloch

NCTE President-Elect, 2020–2021

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We opened our June Executive Committee meeting with a moment of silence to mourn Dick Robinson and to honor his life. His passing was a loss of one who championed literacy in America, of one who celebrated teachers of English with wit, wisdom, and Scholastic legacy annually at our Convention. We will miss him dearly.

Alfredo Celedón Luján

NCTE President, 2020-2021

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Dick was a friend of literacy teachers and a tireless advocate for books, reading, and children. I have no idea how he could remember so many names, but he always seemed to have time for the professionals that meant so much to him. He could have retired and done so many other things, but he stayed for so long and worked so hard because he loved us. He loved the company that his father built and that he led to international recognition. But he loved even more the people who devoted themselves to the social and academic development of our children. He was our champion and we will never forget him. He was truly a great man, and he had a real impact on me as a professional and a person.

Ernest Morrell

NCTE President, 2013–2014

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Living His Legacy (Kylene Beers)

Sheridan offers that leaving this life while still enjoying it is an ideal end to a hero’s journey, to what Carol called a valiant journey. I would add that we make the lessons he taught us all lasting lessons by keeping his words close. Dick understood the power of a literate life; he recognize that reading is more than an enjoyable experience. Reading is power. Reading empowers. He understood that our democracy is delicate and that words can tip thinking this way or that. A part of the Scholastic mission is to “help build a society free of prejudice and hate, and dedicated to the highest quality of life in community and nation.” In accepting the 2017 Literarian Award at the National Book Awards program, Dick said, “ . . . books and reading are not just the gateway to academic success, but [reading] is a great way to learn more about yourself and who you want to be.” He went on to say that “Equal education [for all children] is not only the law of the land, but the only solution to maintaining a democratic society.”

Let us continue to build that society free of prejudice and hate, a society in which reading for all is the mission. Let our students enter our classrooms with a promise that we will teach them all to read and to read well so that they leave with a purpose-driven life, a literate life, one that Dick Robinson would say gives them a voice in helping them shape themselves, their community, and the world in which they live.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.