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Tribute to Dr. Robin King

Jan 4, 2011
by Staff

Ginger Riggs is a writer, editor, and graphic designer. Riggs studied creative writing under the tutelage of Page Edwards Jr., Richard Yates, Virgil Suarez, Elizabeth Stuckey-French and Robert Olen Butler. Riggs’ short fiction has appeared in the “Tampa Review.” Riggs spent nearly a decade as a journalist, writing and designing for papers all around Florida. In addition to many features and columns, Riggs has done profiles of musicians Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings and filmmaker Mohammad Bakri. Riggs is working on a biography of Waylon Jennings. By Ginger Riggs, ’90 Village Gram Editor

“There’s Dr. King,” my friend Jen whispered at lunch one day. She had the same kind of breathy excitement people reserve for movie stars and other celebrities.

We all turned our heads and followed her gaze to the man she was staring at. He certainly didn’t have the glamour of Hollywood about him. He wore the standard-issue professorly brown coat with suede elbow patches, a white shirt, and of all things – a bow tie. He had a round boyish face with spectacles that magnified his brown eyes and his hair was thinning a bit on top. As he carried his tray across the dining hall, he looked more than a little lost in thought. I worried he might trip.

“He’s brilliant,” she said. We all shrugged with an “if you say so” attitude and turned back to the watery cafeteria spaghetti in front of us.

Over the course of the semester we’d have to listen to her rave about Dr. King’s lectures. She came back from class bubbling over with new ideas and connections she’d made. When he gave the class a paper where they had to take on the guise of either Plato or Aristotle and coach a football team, I started to get interested. Who gave assignments like that? It smacked of creativity and fun, not the drudgery I had come to expect from years in one stale classroom after another.

The next semester I had to take a liberal arts credit course and signed up for Philosophy 101. The first day of class, Dr. King came in with a stack of books and a boom-box. He glanced around at us and then plugged in the boom-box and hit play. Max Weinberg’s thundering drums came out of the speakers followed by Bruce Springsteen’s vocals on the song “No Surrender.” Dr. King watched us and when The Boss came to the line, “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school,” he broke into a knowing grin. Then he launched into a lecture about the Socratic Method, showing us by example how not every answer can be found in a book. By using music and movies about contemporary subjects, Dr. King helped us find the relevance of the Ancients. He used clips from films and snippets of songs that seemed to sum up some of the major ideas of the Greco-Roman philosophers and make them more understandable and relevant to twentieth century American kids.

In his teaching, I found a much more realistic hero than Keith Richards or Bob Dylan. I had already been starting to face the fact that my chances of being a rock star were slim at best, and even more of a sliver since I couldn’t play an instrument or carry a tune in a bucket. People had encouraged me to be a teacher before but I thought it would be boring, dreadful work to stand in front of a class nattering on about things kids don’t care about. Dr. King completely changed that image with his energy and creativity in the classroom. By the end of the semester, I was singing Jen’s chorus of “I want to be Dr. King when I grow up.”

At the end of the semester, Dr. King needed a house sitter while he was doing research. I needed cash, so he hired me and told me I could listen to his records and borrow any books that looked interesting — and then he went on to mention ten or so books he thought I should take a gander at.

He had a little cottage type house on Bridge Street in St. Augustine at the time. The first day of house-sitting duty, I crossed the courtyard with its uneven flagstones and opened the door. I put the mail on the kitchen table and read his note. Along with listing which of his cats got what food and the litter box routine, he again encouraged me to help myself to books and records. He signed the note “Robin,” and from then on expected me to call him that rather than Dr. King. I took care of the cats and then started looking at his books and records. As far as the records were concerned – we were of a similar mind. Robin was more on the jazz and pop side of things – he had Charles Mingus and Miles Davis and lots of Motown. I listened to more blues, classic rock, and country, but our tastes overlapped enough that we had regular record swaps the rest of my undergraduate career. We each delighted in introducing the other to a new artist. For his Leonard Cohen, I gave him Tom Waits. For my Link Wray, he gave me Lyle Lovett.

He had a whole wall of books on every subject imaginable. The philosophers were all there, but there were also lots of books about the Viet Nam war. He had served in the Army in Viet Nam and he had collected memoirs of fellow soldiers, essays and commentary by war correspondents, historical overviews, etc. He would eventually bring his experience and those books to a course about War and Human Nature that is still part of Flagler College’s curriculum. He even helped bring Tim O’Brien to Flagler to read from his work on Viet Nam and to answer questions about creative writing. Through his class and the visit by Tim O’Brien, many of the students became more aware of the problems veterans from all wars faced as they returned home and some started donating time in service at hospitals and shelters that worked with veterans. This was one of his biggest gifts – taking the real world and fitting it into academia. He introduced us to ideas and theory, yes, but he wanted the students to take those ideas and turn them into practical solutions to problems they saw around them.

Over the next couple of years, I became close to Robin and his wife, Darien, who taught writing and literature courses for the English Department. In some way each was a mentor to me in my own teaching later on. From Darien, I learned the value of commenting thoroughly on student writing in an encouraging way. I learned how to be calm in the midst of chaos from her as well. From Robin, I learned how to bring interdisciplinarity to the classroom. Why give just a lecture when you can use examples from popular culture to draw them in? Why ramble on when you can get a discussion going and give students power over their own learning by letting them ask the questions they find important?

Robin was dynamic in the classroom. As students hit on ideas, he would break out in a grin and gesture with his hands, pulling the thoughts out of them exclaiming, “Yes!” when they made a good point. He paced in front of the class when he lectured. He bounced his legs and tapped his fingers on the podium, crackling with the electricity of the ideas running through his mind.

Shortly after I graduated, a different kind of surge went through Robin’s brain and he collapsed in front of a class he was teaching. Robin continued to have seizures over the next few months. The diagnosis turned out to be brain cancer. At the time, the doctors predicted he might have seven more years, but Robin turned out to be one heck of a fighter.

He embodied optimism. Most of his hair fell out from treatment, but Robin grew a full beard and waited patiently for the fuzz on top of his head to catch up. Anti-seizure medications messed with his balance. Before the cancer, he’d been very active. He ran every day, played tennis, went canoeing. Now he had to content himself with walks and exploring the towns between St. Augustine and Gainesville where he underwent radiation treatments at Shands Health Care at The University of Florida. But he found little treasures on each trip to bring back and share, even if it was simply an out of the way cafe he and Darien had discovered.

Even though he had to retire from teaching, Robin continued to be a vibrant member of the Flagler community. He welcomed former students into his home, encouraged the current faculty in their endeavors, and could always be found as a cheerleader at performances, presentations, and shows put on by students and faculty alike. When Jen produced an evening with Shakespeare with her high school students, she said she looked out from the stage and saw Robin beaming up her from his wheel-chair and that one moment was better than all the applause she heard that evening.

Robin and Darien collected the artwork of their colleague, Enzo Torcoletti and his students. Whenever Enzo was doing something new, whether it was a one-man show, working on one of his commissioned pieces, or opening up his own studios, they spread the news.

He was generous and supportive to colleagues and students alike; in turn they brought back stories of their travels and new insights they had gained on their journeys.

His quest for knowledge and understanding of the world’s workings never waned. I could count on him introducing me to a new book whenever I visited.

Robin never stopped being a mentor. When I had finished my master’s degree, I was debating whether to stay in the English Department or move to the Humanities program for my Ph.D. I called him up to ask his opinion.

“I did my Ph.D. in Humanities at FSU,” he said. “It worked out all right for me.”

After leaving the classroom, Robin took up new hobbies like raising lovebirds in a little building he and Darien put in the back yard. Robin would bring the birds into the house and let them sit on his shoulder and groom his beard and nip at his lips with affection.

He loved to cook and spent hours in the kitchen experimenting with flavor and texture. One of my favorite memories is of him teaching me how to marinate and grill mushrooms.

Robin taught me far more than the basics of cooking and philosophy. He taught me how to savor life and to fight with every ounce of my being for the things that are important. I wasn’t the only one who felt the impact of his teaching and example. Another former student, Tom Robinson, said he became a teacher because of Robin, and in 2005, a scholarship in his honor was established by his former students. The annual scholarship goes to a student who demonstrates academic achievement and exceptional community service.

A few nights ago, I got the news that Robin had died from the brain cancer he’d lived with for nearly 17 years. He fought as long as he could, surviving more years than the doctors had predicted just by sheer force of his will and complete joy of living and learning.

Since I got the news, I’ve been beating myself up a bit that I haven’t done more with my life faster. Robin wouldn’t have procrastinated when he hit a rough spot in his work. Robin would have taken a jog or walk around the block to clear his mind and come back to the problem fresh. Then he would have jumped right in and finished the job. As I make the final push toward finishing my dissertation, I’ll be writing with his wife Darien’s words in the back of my mind, “Robin would have been so proud of you.”

I’m thankful he was my teacher, grateful he was my mentor, and honored he was my friend.

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