After almost 50 years, Mesa State professor finds resolution with his degree drama
After the first phone call before Christmas, Bill Robinson thought it was a joke.
After the second call, he requested a letter to verify what he was hearing on the other end of the phone.
“I felt, ‘My God. I can’t believe it,’ ” Robinson said. “I am humbled. I am awed. I have a gamut of feelings. I mean, why me?”
Robinson, 86, received that letter at the beginning of March, verifying the University of Denver will confer an honorary doctorate in theater to the longtime Grand Junction resident and retired Mesa State College theater professor during its June commencement.
For Robinson, the degree will resolve the pursuit of his doctorate he had to abandon in the 1960s because he couldn’t afford to finish it.
Robinson said he suspects an article that ran in The Daily Sentinel in March 2008, which first brought to light the story of Robinson’s doctorate, “got the wheels turning” for his honorary degree.
“I’m blaming the Sentinel for that,” Robinson said.
Robinson had finished his doctoral coursework at the University of Denver before he took his teaching post at then-Mesa Junior College.
His dissertation explored the history of Denver theater from 1911 to 1929, but it went unsubmitted because he couldn’t afford to have it typed, Robinson said.
The appendix of Robinson’s dissertation alone pushed 1,000 pages, and the cost to have it typed was 75 cents a page and then 35 cents a page to copy it.
“The difference in pay between a master’s and a Ph.D. at Mesa at that time was $100 more a year,” Robinson said. “I thought, ‘I’ll never pay the thing off.’ ”
Robinson still has his unpublished dissertation in a box in his basement. The pages are yellowed by almost 50 years of age.
The dissertation is rich with information on early Denver’s theater scene with a list of well- and lesser-known actors and actresses of the day and the dates and places of their performances, including the likes of Fred Astaire, who performed in a vaudeville act at the Orpheum Theater in December 1912.
The Denver Public Library requested the manuscript, said Robinson, who can run his hand down the lists of performers knowing the backstory of every one by heart.
“I ate, drank, slept theater all my life,” he said.
Robinson was chairman of the theater department at Mesa State from 1960 to 1988 and directed more than 150 productions including everything from “Fiddler on the Roof” to “Equus” in the mid-1980s, which caused enough controversy that some outraged citizens demanded Robinson be fired.
He can be credited with the construction of what is now known as the Moss Performing Arts Center on campus after he invited a friend, Academy Award-nominated actress Lilia Skala, to perform as a guest.
“She left an impression on the students and the president of the college, Mr. Medesy,” Robinson said. “He came to me and said, ‘If we’re going to have guests like this, we need a much better place for them to perform.’ ”
Mesa State College named a 600-seat theater The William S. Robinson Theater, in Robinson’s honor after his retirement.
But, said Richard Cowden, chairman of the college’s theater arts department, Robinson’s influence on theater extends well beyond the college.
“In a lot of ways, I picture the lineage as a tree, and Bill is the roots,” Cowden said.
Cowden is a Grand Junction native and Mesa State alumnus who said he had the opportunity to work with Robinson while in high school.
Cowden described Robinson as the “perfect mentor” who instilled a value for hard work and ethics in his students and who students and Cowden himself still turn to for advice.
“Bill is one of these larger-than-life personalities that comes along once in a generation,” Cowden said. “Guys like Bill Robinson can never be retired. Everyone still needs him.”