Brief Encounters: Julian K. Robinson - Picture perfect
He bundles up, drags a folding chair, tripod and camera to the dunes, and sits in isolation and a silence that only nature interrupts. He will wait and watch while the day dissolves, staring at the sky and water for a glimpse of a snowy owl, an osprey, or a hawk that he can stop-action capture on film. He once sat in the chill air for four hours watching a nest of osprey chicks awkwardly flapping their feathers. Suddenly a gust of wind caught one bird under its wings, and the bird was lifted on its first surprised flight. And Julian Robinson got his picture. The thought makes him smile.
Julian Robinson smiles often, a smile frequently accompanied with a deep and satisfied laugh. Not that the poet, photographer, former politician, and former college administrator's life was always charmed, but that he believes it was - and is still.
The spacious spit-and-polish rooms of his contemporary Oak Bluffs home are formal and uncluttered. Only a few of his framed bird photographs are selectively hung on otherwise bare walls, and he recounts the where and how of each picture. His photo of a spread-wing osprey is on the logo for Offshore Ale, the Oak Bluffs brew-pub.
Mimi Robinson, his wife of 53 years, appears from a back room to offer welcome, explaining she's engrossed in a book before retreating. She will reappear only when summoned to verify or fill in a blank or offer refreshment. Her husband is left to reminisce, and Robinson takes a seat in a shaft of sunlight and assures - ask and he will tell.
He grew up in Jersey City, N.J., with loving parents, his mother a nurse's aide, his father a train porter. His first awareness of racial issues occurred as a child when he was participating in a Mayor for the Day program at City Hall. The children were being assigned roles to assume, and Robinson, the only African-American in the program, was made custodian. His mother made some phone calls.
But then there was the scholarship to Dartmouth College, where his uncle went, and where Robert Frost would be his freshman year English teacher. He saved up and bought a suit for each day of the week - even bought a pair of suede shoes.
The 78-year-old laughs at the remembrance. "I thought I was in." He laughs again. "But then I got there, and I didn't know what a blue blazer was, or white bucks. And I went up there thinking Roosevelt had been the greatest thing for this country since sliced bread, and I started hearing these wealthy schoolmates talking about him as if he was the devil."
With funding from Mr. and Mrs. Grebe, a couple from New Jersey to whom he'd been recommended, freshman year was a lofty experience. "I was at Dartmouth with a checking account at the Dartmouth National Bank that I never saw statements from. All I got was checkbooks," he says, remembering the camel hair polo coat he bought and the ski trips he enjoyed. "At the same time," he confesses, "I ran into a couple of guys who were playboys, and I played right along with them."
Robinson was eventually expelled, and advised to seek a vocational education - "separated," he says. He chuckles. "They suggested I leave." Then more seriously, he admits, "That was the worst thing that happened to me."
The event stunned him into resolve. He got into New York University, met Boston-bred Mimi, who was working on her master's degree in education, and shortly after the couple visited the Vineyard, he was drafted and sent to Korea, where he became a corporal, doing clerical work for a major in Pusan.
"And I wrote a letter from there to Dartmouth that would have warmed anyone's heart. Made them think I was winning the war by myself. I told them I was thinking I probably would never come back." Dartmouth made an exception and readmitted him.
Animated and generous, Robinson slides through the Cliff Notes of his history. He married, graduated from Dartmouth, and for eight years worked for the National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students, at the same time earning his master's degree in higher education and counseling from New York University. Then he received his first political appointment, as director of health and welfare for Jersey City.
"After my first political appointment, I said, 'I know you're using me, but you know it works both ways.'" Robinson admits he "was part of the Democratic machine," of Jersey City politics from 1964 to 1969. He names names, and tells of the blatant corruption that existed in New Jersey politics.
Robinson was 39 when the author Peter Maas wrote a New York magazine feature glorifying him - an honest public servant - timed perfectly for what turned out to be an unsuccessful run for mayor of Jersey City. Robinson explains, "I just felt there were things I could do that would save that city millions."
And then he's done, almost done, talking politics. "I try to stay away from talking about politics," he says - "although I'm interested in what Obama does because I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime that it was really possible."
In 1970, Robinson was appointed Dean of Students at Jersey City State College, where he remained for 24 years, from 1978 to 1994, becoming vice president of student services. He also was one of eight non-salaried commissioners of the New Jersey State highway authority which managed the Garden State Parkway and the Garden State Art Center where Robinson met celebrities such as Harry Bellefonte and Johnny Mathis. He brings out photographs of himself posing with them.
Mimi appears with a soda for her husband, and this time, sits down next to him listening attentively, even proudly, as he talks about being a photographer. "One of the things that keeps me young is what I do with the camera," he says. He's not a trained photographer, he explains, but he takes pictures every day using Nikon cameras, and gets the film commercially developed. He's planning to get computerized, and go digital.
But some things won't change.
Robinson rattles off the four things necessary to taking good pictures: "Patience, persistence, superior equipment, and luck," he says, adding that he knows as soon as he takes a picture if it will inspire one of his accompanying poems. Robinson smiles and softly says, "I love sitting and waiting for one of these little birds."