You can take the man out of Wofford College, but even after 25 years you can’t take the Wofford out of the man.
Ron Robinson, now the Perkins-Prothro chaplain and professor of religion, graduated from Wofford in 1978, anxious to see the world.
That journey continued at Duke University in Durham, N.C., where he earned two Masters degrees, then worked as a campus minister. He moved to England for a time, and followed that with work in local churches, mostly with young people, then accepted a position with Myers Park United Methodist in Charlotte, where he held three different jobs in 15 years. He also did doctoral work at SMU during that time.
When Wofford came calling in 2003, though, he found himself drawn back to Spartanburg.
“I always thought that I’d love to come back to a college campus, particularly Wofford,” he says. “When the chaplain they had for 17 years retired, they offered the position to me.”
He gladly accepted. His goal was to emulate some of the qualities he saw in Don Welch, who was the chaplain while he was at Wofford.
“He was very bright, extremely humorous, and a social activist,” says Robinson of Welch. “I’d like to think I can bring some of those qualities to this job.”
Robinson brings all three and more. One of the things he is most known for around campus is helping students identify their strengths.
“The student and I will sit down and talk, and although a portion of my counseling involves dealing with problems, most of what I do is help students sort out who they are and what they want to do with their lives,” says Robinson. “Sometimes it’s something deep inside that they haven’t articulated to themselves. I try to help them discover that, then find places where they can experience that in positive, practical ways — be it an internship, a travel experience or what have you.”
If anyone can help them find places, it’s Robinson.
“I’m one of the fortunate few who has visited every US state and every continent, including Antarctica.” I think my desire to travel began at Wofford. But it’s not just travel — I have spent an extended time in a variety of places. The travel I do isn’t usually tourist travel. It tends to be travel where I can engage the people and the local culture. I generally don’t consider that I have visited a place unless I know someone’s name and their story. I’ve traveled to many places where people are extremely poor. I think it is important to hear the voices of those easily ignored or marginalized.
“Because of the travel I’ve done and the diverse opportunities I’ve had, I have connections in lots of places. We’ve been able to use those connections to help a number of students find internship, service and study opportunities. I’ve been able use them to help the Presidential International Scholars as they travel through South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Mostly, I try to find meaningful experiences where students can, as one of my favorite theologians says, ‘Connect their greatest gifts with the world’s greatest needs.’”
Robinson enjoys helping students find their strengths and building on them, which is fitting because that’s one of the qualities he likes most about Wofford.
“Wofford has figured out that it can do a few things really well,” he says. “I like being in an environment where there is focus along with a desire for excellence and achievement.
“Wofford has always seemed to be a ‘can do’ place. If you come up with a good idea, you can carry out that idea here. You don’t have a lot of bureaucracy to go through. You can try it and I really like that. I can sit down with a group of students and faculty or staff, and we can come up with something we want to do and we can proceed with it. That’s the kind of environment I want to be in. I’m a creative person and I like trying new things.”
That trait follows him home from his job. Ask Robinson about his passions and you get a long, eclectic list of hobbies, many of which he has tied in to his job somehow.
The first one is fly fishing. It may be the most obvious, as he keeps extra equipment in his office for others to borrow. He teaches an Interim course on the subject and he works with the college’s Fly Fishing Club. Why does he like walking out waist deep into a river?
“I love nature,” he explains. “You can work out a lot of cobwebs when you’re out casting a line in the river. It’s renewing. It’s exciting. And there’s more to it than that. I have a competitive element in me. I like outsmarting the fish. I release most of what I catch, and I even crimp the barb on my hook so I don’t hurt the fish.”
Robinson’s fly-fishing fancy has taken him to Alaska, Montana, Utah, Idaho, South Dakota, the Bahamas, and even right up the road in North Carolina and Tennessee. He has gone with students, staff, other professors, and Wofford football coach Mike Ayers.
“We don’t have to talk about work or anything,” says Robinson. “We just get out there and enjoy being a part of nature. I see a connection between what I do at work as a chaplain and what I see out there. I’m really interested in our environmental studies program. I’m doing a lot with eco-theology and justice issues related to the environment.” Robinson is the founder of an interfaith environmental organization, South Carolina Interfaith Power & Light. SCIPL is one of 40 IPL groups around the nation. He also teaches a occasional course in the environmental studies department and a religion course entitled, “Religion, Literature and the Environment,” and he co-teaches the senior seminar for environmental studies majors.
“Being out there makes me appreciate preservation and conservation. Environmental science and economics are incomplete without an aesthetic appreciation of the planet. And it is important to keep asking ourselves, ‘Are we humans a life-sustaining species?’”
Robinson is also known for being on the cutting edge of technology, and he often helps students sort out ways to use the resources available to them. When faculty and students learn of a new technological tool, they usually stop by the chaplain’s office to find ‘Rev. Ron,’ as he is known on campus, already using it.
Other passions include basketball (he once was part of the team at Wofford, though he says he spent his time keeping stats on the bench rather than dribbling or shooting), reading either Southern literature (he teaches a course entitled “Religion in the American South”) or books about religion and the environment, popular film, oil painting, kayaking, stargazing, storytelling and Native American research. The last two come together when Robinson teaches the folkways of southern Appalachia.
“That’s where I grew up,” he says. “At the time I didn’t fully realize the rich cultural heritage around me. While I was in grad school at Duke I simultaneously took a folklore course at the University of North Carolina. It was there that I found out I had grown up in a place steeped in folk traditions. I listened to a lot of Cherokee stories and mountain stories as a child. I enjoy sharing those folkways with others.”
Just a few years ago Robinson and his wife, Heidi, spent Sundays driving from Spartanburg to lead worship at the Cherokee Mission on the Qualla Boundary (reservation) in North Carolina. The mission is a historic church that pre-dates the Trail of Tears. Parts of the worship there were done in the Cherokee language.
His interest in cross-cultural work includes a strong commitment to interfaith work. He has been recognized as a national leader in fostering interfaith engagement on campus, and recently addressed conferences at Yale, Washington, DC and as far away as Australia on the research he and Wofford colleagues are doing in this area. Within the past year he became the college’s Director of Interfaith Programs.
Robinson enjoys sharing lots of things, which is why he is so successful at what he does. It’s second nature for him, as is keeping busy and keeping the calendar full of things to do and places to see.
“The compelling aspect of my job is that I’m a part of the faculty, part of the staff, part of the administration, and I’m the chaplain,” he says. “So I get to do a lot of different things. That’s perfect for me. I’d go nuts if I had to do one thing all the time. I like having my hand in all those pies, and this is an ideal place to do that.”