April 10, 2005: Headlines: COS - Kenya: Country Directors - Kenya: Tampa Tribune: Kenya Country Director William B. Robertson teaches American History at Sligh Middle School

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kenya: The Peace Corps in Kenya: April 10, 2005: Headlines: COS - Kenya: Country Directors - Kenya: Tampa Tribune: Kenya Country Director William B. Robertson teaches American History at Sligh Middle School

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-151-196-181-108.balt.east.verizon.net - on Wednesday, April 13, 2005 - 7:58 pm: Edit Post

Kenya Country Director William B. Robertson teaches American History at Sligh Middle School

Kenya Country Director William B. Robertson teaches American History at Sligh Middle School

Kenya Country Director William B. Robertson teaches American History at Sligh Middle School

Giving Back A Lifetime

By MARILYN BROWN mbrown@tampatrib.com
Published: Apr 11, 2005

Caption: William B. Robertson teaches American History at Sligh Middle School. Photo: CLIFF McBRIDE

TAMPA - He stands regally in the doorway of classroom 155, silk handkerchief precisely placed in his sport coat pocket, complementing a perfectly knotted tie.

Students with pants belted nearly at their thighs rush past with untied tennis shoes. Some greet the teacher as they hurry by; others silently duck into the classroom of the man old enough to be their great- grandfather.

``Come on now, come on,'' William B. Robertson urges as he gathers his gum-chewing, fast-talking teenagers before he closes the door on the congested hallway.

Robertson has been up since 4 a.m., preparing his lessons, reading the newspaper and handwriting a script for the students' morning news show on closed-circuit TV. He arrives at Sligh Middle School in an old Tampa working-class neighborhood nearly an hour before classes start at 7:05 a.m.

It's his third year back in the classroom. At 72, he is coming full circle, tying things up, returning to his first loves.

After teaching for more than a decade, Robertson traveled the globe serving a governor and then five presidents, helped raise a family and founded a camp to serve the mentally retarded.

His life is now teaching mostly poor, black students - some who barely read - about American history. He hasn't lost the touch: In February, he was a finalist for teacher of the year in the Hillsborough County school district.

He plans to teach until he's 80 or 85. ``You've done all these things, you've traveled all these places, why not share it?'' he says.

It's more than that, however. A lot more.

William B. Robertson carries the hope of generations of black Americans in his soul.

``You owe so many so much,'' he says. ``You've got to succeed. You can't falter. You've got to repay, you've got to give back. I want them to know: This is what life is all about.''

That is why Robertson can look beyond the sleepy, blank faces and a T-shirt saying, ``I'm Busy Now - Can I Ignore You Later?''

It's also why he can dismiss the poverty and the grim home lives that he knows burden many of his students. He refuses to lower his expectations.

Yet, as he thoughtfully strides across the room, arms and hands emphasizing the same points over and over, Robertson is teaching more than American history. He's passing on his passion for learning.

Blue Collar Son

William R. Robertson was born in 1933 in segregated Roanoke, Va., the second of eight children.

Although both his parents attended college, his mother took cleaning jobs and his father handled mail for the Norfolk Railroad for more than 35 years.

The children read Mark Twain's ``The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'' and ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' fairy tales, Marvel comic books, daily newspapers and the weekly black newspaper, which the family delivered for extra money.

When it was time for college, Robertson couldn't afford law school, so he majored in education. The budding teacher also championed causes, remembers Joseph Lewis, a fraternity brother at Bluefield State, a teachers college in West Virginia, where Robertson earned bachelor's degrees in elementary and secondary education.

``We were doing sit-ins my second year in college, sitting at the Kresge's store and having a sandwich,'' Lewis says.

Soon, however, Robertson started changing things another way - with diplomacy.

``He has that nonthreatening, low-key kind of manner,'' says Lewis. ``Basically, you sit down and talk about the issues.

``It was the intellect that was the aggressive part.''

Robertson married in college. After graduation, he got a job teaching 15 black students, all related, in a one-room schoolhouse in Laurel Branch, W.Va. It closed a few months later so the children could attend integrated schools.

In 1956, he started teaching high school English and social studies in Roanoke, eventually becoming an administrator. Along the way, he earned a master's degree in administration and guidance from Virginia's Radford University.

Robertson had the teacher's gift, says Gloria Manns, a student in his fifth-grade class at Gilmer Elementary in Roanoke in 1959.

``He was the teacher who would listen,'' says Manns, now 57, a Roanoke clinical social worker and school board member.

Even today, Manns keeps in touch with Robertson, who last year asked her to write to one of his struggling students in Tampa, a correspondence that continues.

``That's just so Mr. Robertson,'' Manns says. ``He never stops.''

Politics And Apple Jelly

Robertson joined the Roanoke Jaycees in 1966 and was presented a list of potential service projects. He picked the one no one else wanted: mental retardation. He studied the subject and decided to raise money to start a recreational camp.

The young man donned white pants, coat and tails, tall hat and a red bow tie. He had ``apple'' embroidered on one lapel and ``jelly'' on the other and started a campaign to sell apple jelly across Virginia. He persuaded 140 Jaycees chapters to sell 15-cent jars of jelly door-to-door one Sunday in March 1969 and netted $68,000.

That odd endeavor caught the eye of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Linwood Holton. He persuaded Robertson - then preparing to run for the Virginia House of Representatives - to switch to the Republican Party. Robertson lost, but Holton won and hired Robertson as the first black American assistant to the governor in that state.

In charge of minority and consumer affairs, Robertson ``created a salt and pepper situation in Virginia's financial institutions, banks and insurance companies,'' Holton says.

He helped integrate state workers, including toll takers and state police, and quell potentially explosive racial situations, Holton says.

Robertson negotiated in his quiet, persuasive way and won, Holton says. It was a skill he would call upon constantly as he moved on to his next political stop, Washington.

On To Washington

When Holton's term was up in 1974, Robertson worked briefly at Virginia Polytech Institute and State University while he continued raising money for his camp.

While working in Virginia, Robertson got a taste of Washington, serving on President Nixon's committee on mental retardation.

Those were fast-paced, heady days, with last-minute calls to appear at the White House, flights to the little White House in San Clemente, Calif., hundreds of speeches in countless cities and travel to more than 50 nations.

``You know that you are representing the president, you are speaking for him,'' Robertson says. ``There is no greater honor than to represent your country on foreign soil.''

In 1976, President Ford named Robertson to head the Peace Corps in Kenya and the Seychelles.

``I fell in love with Kenya, and Kenya fell in love with me,'' Robertson says, his voice gliding over the memories. In his work supervising more than 300 Peace Corps volunteers, he traveled to outer villages, using simple words he learned in Swahili.

The Virginian had never eaten goat before, but he couldn't turn down the invitations.

``They would kill the goat right in front of you and you'd eat it,'' he says. ``They would dance and you would dance. I just did what they did.''

After that three-year assignment, he eventually returned to work for President Reagan in the Defense Department and later as deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

He made lifelong friends, brought Africans to America for training and helped get a school for those with retardation in Kenya. His wife and children benefited from living in Africa, he says, but with his schedule, he still missed a lot of family events.

``What you say to yourself is maybe what I'm doing is important enough that they understand,'' he says.

A Love Story

By 1992, Robertson was an international consultant, his children were grown and he was separated from his wife of more than 40 years.

That summer, he returned to Roanoke for his high school reunion and danced with the woman who had been his childhood friend and high school sweetheart. They had posed on prom night in 1950, hands entwined, for a portrait.

Ruth Price, divorced for years with two grown daughters, had returned from working overseas as an Internal Revenue Service auditor.

``She had gone halfway round the world, and I'd gone halfway round the world, and all of a sudden here was my sweetheart from high school,'' Robertson says.

Eight years later, in February 2000, the couple married.

Robertson's son, Allen, 46, is a musician and songwriter in Virginia, having been ``raised on a steady diet of Nat King Cole and Ray Charles.''

Growing up with his father was ``a bit intimidating,'' he says. The worst punishment ``was the fact that you let him down. ... I'm sure his students feel the same way.''

But he understands his dad, who he says has ``usable genius,'' and his life work of service: ``I'm sure he could be a multimillionaire, but that was never his goal.''

Returning To Class

After Robertson retired in 1998, raising money for the Virginia camp was just not enough to fill his time.

The couple had settled in Tampa, where Ruth was living before they married. He would get up early, dress in a coat and tie and head to Barnes & Noble to read and study.

``I was driving my wife crazy,'' he says. ``I need to get up in the morning and go to work.''

Robertson attended a teacher job fair with no luck, but he kept pushing Sligh's Principal Juanita Underwood for a job and she hired him to teach language arts. An opening in American history last year paired him with his love.

Robertson still must pass the math portion of the state teacher's test to earn state certification. He has until the end of this school year, his third on a temporary certificate.

``This is math I haven't seen before,'' Robertson says. ``It's not the same math I took in 1950.''

When he's not studying for the test, he volunteers for school activities, including mentoring other teachers.

Tywanna Henderson, 28, an English teacher in the classroom next door, says ``he holds our team together.''

``I've never heard him say anything negative, even when the kids are `very animated,' as he says,'' Henderson notes. ``He says if you harp on the negative, that's the way you're going to feel. His outlook is just inspiring.''

Robertson's room is purposefully sparse, with the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and cameos of the presidents on the walls. The computer for students is rarely used.

``I'm not in the entertainment business,'' he says.

Shortly after entering the classroom, students repeat in unison the thought for the day, recently Thomas Paine, ``Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must ... undergo the fatigue of supporting it'' and classroom rules, ``Be respectful! Be responsible! Be safe! Be a learner!''

Then Robertson asks, ``What is it we are here to do today?'' and they answer, ``Prepare to become president.''

Students say their teacher explains history in a way they can understand and makes them feel optimistic.

``He's more concerned about our learning than any other teacher,'' Ashley Crawford, 14, says.

When the years and the accolades are added up, however, Bill Robertson's heart and what he hopes is his legacy rests in the forest at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Bedford County, Virginia.

Camp Virginia Jaycee, with its 90 acres of fields, streams and forests, has been a retreat for more than 34,000 mentally retarded citizens since it opened in 1971. It's where Robertson sends his speaking honorariums, boosting his fundraising help to more than $1 million.

``He means everything to the camp,'' says Everett Werness, camp president for the past 30 years. ``Even when he was directing the Peace Corps, he kept working with the Jaycees in Kenya and started a camp in Nairobi.''

Robertson plans to take some of his middle school students to the camp in future summers to work and learn about public service.

``I feel very, very strongly that it's the greatest thing I've done,'' Robertson says. ``I consider it holy ground. When I walk those 90 acres, I feel a sense of peace, of serenity. It makes me feel my life is worthwhile.''

Reporter Marilyn Brown can be reached at (813) 259-8069.

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Story Source: Tampa Tribune

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kenya; Country Directors - Kenya



By Nydjah Kenyetta Istatia (226-227.207-68.tampabay.res.rr.com - on Friday, January 12, 2007 - 5:20 am: Edit Post

at sligh, mr.robertson is more than a teacher! i always respected him tords the end of my years there. he always had our backs, always taught us we can be something...

By shantichauhan ( on Sunday, March 24, 2013 - 5:06 pm: Edit Post

In 1978 as National Chairman of Kenya Jaycees I worked with Bill Robertson - Peace Corp Director in Kenya. He was instrumental and supportive of Jaycees drive to set up schools for mentally retarded. Also the first special olympics was orgabised by me for the mentally retarded children from Nairobi, Karatina, Nakuru, Mombasa abd Kisumu.
I am trying to get in touch with Bill Robertson.

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