Commencement Speech, Lewis J. Robinson, Jr.
2012 Commencement Speaker
Lewis J. Robinson, Jr.
Today I ask for your indulgence as I share a personal story that I hope will help make my message more meaningful. It’s the example of my grandfather, W.B. Dean. Now, in New England we’d call him Ber-nard, but in Virginia, where he lived his entire life, he was called Ber-nerd, or Mr. Dean. He was born at the end of the 19th century in the part of the Shenandoah Valley that straddled the Virginia-West Virginia line, a region that was strictly segregated. Because of the restrictions of that time and place, he was nearly illiterate, and yet he was a highly respected man of great intelligence, integrity and kindness.
Let me tell you a few details about my granddad’s long life. He probably had no more than a second grade education, but as a teenager he learned two useful trades: that of a blacksmith and as an skilled farrier who was known for miles around as an expert in handling and shoeing horses. He was drafted into the Army during World War One, where he was stationed in Long Island to shoe the cavalry’s mounts, but before he was inducted he had his eye and heart fixed on a beautiful young woman named Ethel. She wanted to marry before he left for duty, but no, Granddad wouldn’t commit until he had mustered out, bought a cozy house and had a steady income to support her and the family they hoped to have. As you can see, he was a planner.
When my mother was born in the 1920s he was convinced that education was her ticket to a successful life, so he and Mama made sure she finished high school and attended that era’s version of a community college for a year before she met and married a charming – and persistent – South Carolinian named Lewis Robinson. So, you can probably understand why I love community colleges. Granddad valued education, a legacy he passed along to my mother, who passed it to me – the first in my family to graduate from college – so I could pass it down to my two sons. My presence here as chairman of the Board of Regents is testimony to how much I value learning.
W.B. Dean never owned a car, never bought on credit, and never earned more than a few thousand dollars a year, yet he was rich in family and friends. He worked hard, every day, to achieve his goal of supporting his loved ones. Besides shoeing horses and bending iron, he worked in a leather tannery – a hot, dirty job – and he did so because he was responsible.
Despite the limitations of his meager education and of racism, “Mister Dean” was highly regarded in the small mountain town of Pearisburg, and was the first person of color to sit on a jury in Giles County, Virginia. Most of you who are older than 50 probably will grasp the symbolism of the fact that the lawyers called him “Mister Dean” and selected him for the jury. And if you don’t understand why that’s important, I urge you to talk with someone older than you to discover why. The lawyers and court administrators knew that he was a man of integrity.
I never heard him speak harshly to – or of – another person. About the most critical thing he’d say is “that’s fool’s doing” when someone didn’t act sensibly. And as difficult as it may be to believe in our time of vulgar obscenities, W.B. Dean never cussed or took the Lord’s name in vain. He was kind and respectful to everyone.
Any of you who have had a close relationship with grandparents can probably imagine my excitement every summer when my mom, brother, sisters and I boarded the train in Springfield, Massachusetts (with our shoeboxes of sandwiches and cookies tucked under our arms!) and took that lo-o-o-ng trip to “Mama’s House”. As you can gather from our family’s description of our destination, my grandma – Mama – was a very important person too! They were a rock-solid team.
Once we arrived, I stuck close to Granddad, following him everywhere, hanging out by his forge, watching him smoke hams, traveling the back roads of the state when he was called to shoe thoroughbreds and huge work horses, sleeping by his side at night,. He seemed so big and powerful to me, full of wisdom and humor and affection. I was his shadow and he was my role model.
I doubt if he considered himself a role model. He was just being himself, a strong, kind, respectful, responsible man who worked hard, loved his family and did his duty.
Now, maybe you graduates don’t consider yourselves role models today. But as I look out upon the rows of happy graduates in your caps and gowns, I know that people are looking to you to succeed. I know that many – perhaps most – of you have worked hard, holding down jobs, taking care of families, attending classes, burning the midnight oil so that you could sit here today. Like my granddad, you had a plan and you stuck with it.
I know that you value education or you wouldn’t have come to MCC, and I hope that you will be always be learning. Some of you will go on to receive bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Others will start businesses, work in corporations or serve your communities in non-profit organizations. You will start families (if you haven’t already done so), buy homes, get better jobs and – yes, inevitably – pay taxes. Like Mr. Dean, you will continue to be responsible.
I hope you will always treat others with kindness and respect. And if you can help it, please don’t use too many four-letter words!
Planning, working hard, being responsible, kind and respectful, valuing education: all of these attributes are essential for success, but perhaps the most important one is integrity. Wherever your future path takes you, I hope that you will remember to have integrity in everything you do. Perhaps you’ve learned that lesson from your families, and I hope you’ve seen it “up close and personal” in your classes here at MCC from your professors, the staff and fellow students. Regardless of where you’ve learned it, I trust that you will make it a life-long lesson.
I’d like to leave you with one more story about Granddad. In the 1950s the local bank hired a security company to install an alarm system. However, this system kept malfunctioning, and even bringing in a expert from Ohio didn’t do the trick. Finally, the frustrated bank manager declared, “I know who can fix it: call in Mr. Dean.” So Granddad trudged up to the town square (remember, he didn’t own a car), looked at the schematics and solved the problem. This from a man who could barely read and knew nothing about electronics. So if he could do that, think of what you can accomplish with your brand-new degree. Imagine of the wonderful possibilities for applying your education!
Perhaps my two most prized possessions are the American flag that draped my grandfather’s coffin, and the citation for his service in World War One from President Jimmy Carter. They hang on my study wall as an inspiration and a reminder of the wonderful model he was for me and my siblings. I hope that you will display the diploma you receive today on your wall to inspire yourself and others in your life.
In closing, please remember that you are a role model to the people who come after you. Maybe one day a grandchild will talk about you the way I described my beloved grandfather, and proudly list all your positive qualities. But for today, celebrate your success and thank all the people who helped make it possible, just as I thank you for your kind attention.
Lewis J. Robinson, Jr. Biography
Lewis J. Robinson, Jr. is a seasoned attorney with a comprehensive background in business, law and government affairs, as well as charitable organizations.
Since his retirement as General Counsel of Travelers Property Casualty, Personal Lines, he has served in a volunteer leadership capacity with a variety of non-profit organizations. Most recently, he was appointed by Governor Malloy to serve as Chairman of the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education. He was also Chairman of the Board of Directors for The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and recently was a board member of the Capital Community College Foundation. He is also a volunteer consultant for the National Executive Service Corps. In the past he has served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the United Way of the Capital Area and as a board member of the YMCA of Greater Hartford Region and the Legal Aid Society of Hartford County, Chamber Music Plus (Chairman of the Development Committee) and the New Britain Museum of American Art (Trustee and Chair of the Planning Committee).
During his 26 years at Travelers he held a variety of increasingly responsible positions involving complex issues of law with company-wide impact. He is a nationally recognized authority on antitrust law and legislative issues. For example, he chaired the American Bar Association’s Institute on Antitrust Issues, as well as the Association’s Insurance Industry Committee, and served on the Antitrust Section Council. He represented the company on the nation’s largest trade associations for life, health and property casualty insurance where he negotiated with key corporate and legislative leaders to advocate public policy and legal reform. He was also spokesperson on antitrust issues, solvency regulations and Superfund law reform before Congress, federal agencies and departments, and has extensive knowledge of federal legislative processes.
He has published articles in professional journals and is a member of the Bars of Connecticut, New York and United States Supreme Court.
He is the recipient of the Dr. James C. Hogan, Jr. Award for his dedication to supporting the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through community service, the Board of Trustees Merit Award, which is the highest honor bestowed upon citizens by the Board of Trustees of Connecticut Community Colleges, and the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Achievement Award.
Before joining Travelers Mr. Robinson was law clerk to Justice Louis Shapiro of the Supreme Court of Connecticut. He also served as an officer in the United States Army, directing the provision of medical services to various headquarters and field units in France and Germany, where he also studied at the Alliance Française in Paris and the Göethe Institut in Luneburg.
Mr. Robinson graduated from Rutgers Law School, where he was designated “Most Outstanding Graduate” of his class, and Howard University with a B.A. in Economics.
He lives with his wife, Amy, in Hartford, and is father to two grown sons.
News Item Posted On: May 31, 2012
For Additional Information Contact: R. Dianne McHutchison
For Additional Information Contact: R. Dianne McHutchison