The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Bill Robbins Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Mike Dicianna.

June 27, 2017


William Grover Robbins was born in 1935 in Torrington, Connecticut, where he also grew up. His early formative years centered around work on his family's dairy farm and garden, and the schools that he attended emphasized technical and vocational skills, such as wood shop. This educational emphasis set him on a trajectory to enter the Navy in 1953, for purposes of learning a trade. Having enlisted and scored well on the Navy's General Classification Test, Robbins became a communications electrician, focusing on the technological aspects of naval communications devices, such as intercoms and movies. He spent the next two years sailing in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas.

Disinclined towards a career in the military, Robbins turned down an invitation to apply to the Navy Prep School, and instead spent the final two years of his enlistment taking correspondence courses. Discharged in Spring 1957, Robbins was denied enrollment by the University of Connecticut, and began working a series of seasonal jobs. In early 1958, Robbins was hired by Great Mountain Forest in Northwest Connecticut, a forest products concern that employed university forestry students and also functioned as a summer school through Yale University. Robbins' hire served as a point of connection that renewed his ambitions to attain a higher education. Later that year, Robbins began studies at Danbury State College (now Western Connecticut State University), which he attended from 1958 to 1962, earning a degree in Social Studies Education.

While at Danbury State, a senior seminar on Modern European History instilled in Robbins a new passion to become a historian. He was subsequently accepted by Syracuse University to begin graduate studies in History. At the time, Robbins was married and raising two children. In his second semester at Syracuse, Robbins quit graduate school and returned to work for Great Mountain Forest. In 1963, he and his family moved across the country to Oregon in pursuit of work opportunities in the timber industry.

Once arrived in the Northwest, Robbins found work setting chokers in a forest near the Oregon Caves National Monument. Later that year, he accepted a different job teaching sixth grade in Creswell, at which point he and his family moved to Eugene. While teaching, Robbins took evening graduate courses at the University of Oregon, an environment in which he thrived. In 1964, he returned to university studies with the support of a half-time assistantship. After earning his MA at Oregon, Robbins and his family moved back across the country to Maine, where he took graduate courses starting in the Spring of 1966. At the same time, he worked as a teacher at a local junior high school.

As his studies in Maine progressed, Robbins wrote a dissertation proposal to apply for an assistantship. When he was not offered an assistantship, Robbins wrote to a former professor at the University of Oregon, and was subsequently offered admission to the U of O's Ph.D. program, along with a full assistantship. Once returned to Eugene, Robbins' research and writing fell in line with recent trends in historical scholarship that sought to give a voice to the voiceless and to do history from "the bottom up." However, Robbins' particular area of focus was unique to him in his use of quantitative history, wherein he analyzed tax and censorship records to gain insight into issues of class and social movement. Accordingly, Robbins was able to reach into new areas of historical study and to expand the interests of his scholarly community at the University of Oregon. He defended his dissertation in October 1969 and, shortly thereafter, received his doctorate in Ancient History.

Robbins earned his Ph.D. at a time when academic jobs were scarce. From 1969-1971, he taught at Oregon College of Education, which is now Western Oregon University. During the last weeks of his employment with Oregon College of Education, he received the offer of a one-year contract from Oregon State University as a visiting professor. It wasn't until Robbins was in his fourth year at Oregon State that he received a tenure-track faculty position.

During his years at OSU, Robbins established himself as a leading environmental historian and historian of the American West. The author of numerous books, Robbins is perhaps best known for his two-volume history of Oregon, Landscapes of Promise: The Oregon Story, 1800-1940 and Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000, and his study of socioeconomic change on the central Oregon coast, Hard Times in Paradise: Coos Bay, Oregon. He has also authored a biography of Oregon politician Monroe Sweetland as well as a history of Oregon State University, titled The People's School.

Robbins retired from the OSU History department in 1999. Two years prior, he was named an OSU Distinguished Professor, the highest honor bestowed by the university upon a member of its faculty.