As the funeral and final musical tributes to Aretha Franklin played out in Detroit just before Labor Day, I felt saddened, realizing how much I will miss our city’s reigning Queen of Soul.
Aretha was only 14 when her first album hit the airwaves – I grew up with her music and will miss looking forward to powerful new performances. It was fascinating to learn how her version of “Respect” transformed a song by Otis Redding into a powerful anthem for women
I also realized as I listened to the coverage that Aretha flourished in an environment that was similar to my late husband Tim Robinson’s upbringing. Aretha’s love of music was nourished at her father’s Baptist church in downtown Detroit – although the family had moved north from Tennessee when she was two years old. Tim’s father was a Baptist preacher in a small Alabama town and Tim grew up playing piano at the services from a young age.
What made Aretha so great? She was a perfectionist and tightly controlled her performances. But in the interviews it was emphasized again and again that she sang from her heart. She loved her audiences and also shared her father’s devotion to furthering civil rights. Although her marriages failed, she had four sons and fiercely protected her family’s privacy.
As tributes poured in following her death, recording artists from soul, gospel and rock and roll all over the world affirmed Aretha’s right to the title internationally of Queen of Soul.
Last week I attended a very special event at the Irvin D. Reid Honors College at Wayne State University — the 2018 Pillar Awards. I was eager to congratulate the presenter — outgoing Honors Dean, Jerry Herron (who was now listed as Founding Dean) — and to meet his successor, Dean John Corvino. The Pillar Awards was created “to celebrate the four pillars of Honors and recognize the distinguished contributions of four exemplary individuals.” https://events.wayne.edu/2018/06/19/honors-college-pillar-awards-76864/
While the Honors College will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, it also includes graduates of the experimental Monteith College, that started in 1959 and was discontinued in 1978. As a Monteith graduate, I was delighted to meet other alums at the campus event, as well as some instructors from my era. Retired Professor Paule Verdet was seated at my table and enjoyed recalling being one of the original instructors hired to create the curriculum of the new Monteith.
I had worked on a special project with Dean Herron a few years ago that involved creating an online platform to showcase student projects — and I enjoyed seeing how Honors in its own way created the same hyper-creative environment for talented students from across the country that I found in Monteith.
This year’s Pillar honorees included four WSU graduates, including two from Monteth: Sheila Cockrel was the winner of the Service Award and a Monteith alumna; and Hon. Sharon Finch, winner of the Career Award was the other Monteith graduate. Cockrel is a former Detroit councilwoman while Finch is a retired judge – both remain active in the community. David E. Smith was the winner of the Community Award, and James Linwood Smith was named posthumously as the winner of the Research award.
There were also recent Honors graduates at the event, who were inspired by the Pillar Awards honorees. As the Detroit area continues to reinvent itself, it is exciting to see this new generation helping to ensure a bright future.
For more information: https://honors.wayne.edu/experience
After years of visiting with my late husband Timothy Robinson’s family in Birmingham, Alabama each
March as we attended the annual Robinson Forum together at Samford University,
I was unable to book a flight this year because of complications in locking in a speaker far enough in advance. So I
watched a live feed instead here in Michigan at https://www.facebook.com/SamfordJMC/. While I plan on flying
south later this spring or summer to visit the Robinson family, I will miss being able to talk to the guest speaker,
always a formidably talented journalist – this year, Roy S. Johnson, columnist and director of content development
at AL.com/The Birmingham News.
Johnson, one of the early pioneers among black journalists to work at mainstream national publications
– in his case starting in the 70s as a sports writer at Sports Illustrated and Fortune Magazine, both
published by Time Inc. — he is currently enjoying shaping news coverage at a Birmingham, Al
newspaper. He challenged Samford journalism students to constantly challenge the breath of their
talents – for instance, not staying only focused on one area, like sports. His journalism resume not only
includes stints as assistant managing editor at Sports Illustrated, but vice president and edit-in-chief of
Men’s Fitness magazine, editor-in-chief of History Channel magazine and staff writer at the New York
Times. He also has experience producing national TV and radio content for Sport Illustrated and he has
co-authored biographies with Avery Johnson, Charles Barkley and Earvin (Magic) Johnson.
It reminded me that when I knew Tim, he was a pioneer in legal journalism, with a degree from Yale Law
School – after developing his talent as an investigative reporter for UPI covering the civil rights
movement in his home state of Alabama, then as an editor and investigative reporter at the
Washington Post. He ended his career by jumping into the dotcom boom, developing editorial
content for news websites Exite, Alta Vista and AOL. Tim also pushed me to take the leap into becoming
communications director for new online media sites covering the Asian American community. After his
death, I even found the courage to take on the task of being development director of a sports non-
profit. I hope the Samford students this year heed that call to constantly test their talents – it’s a
challenging and exciting way to keep growing.
I’ve been listening to Tom Petty tributes this week coming after his sudden death from cardiac arrest just after the conclusion of his 40th Anniversary tour.* His song “Runnin’ Down a Dream” never fails to trigger days in California spent doing just that in the ’90s, when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers seemed always at the top of the charts. Petty’s songs are often called the “soundtrack for our lives” by many generations, including mine. It really took leaps of faith to keep up with the twists and turns in my career. I ultimately called those California years “living life ahead of the curve,” since that’s how much you had to leap to keep up with the changes in Silicon Valley then.
Fast-forward: Last year I got involved in a series of BNI (Business Networking International) chapters in Michigan with inspiring entrepreneurs, currently the Business Referrals Chapter in Clinton Township — and we are constantly asked to share our business goals. Mine is to continue those leaps of faith in my life to find the new career paths in both communications and meditation that will keep me energized and productive.
We now live in a time of political division when many newsmakers charge that America’s innovation is losing out to China and other rising countries in the East. Yet I’ve been meeting a new generation of inspiring students both in the South as part of the Scholarship program for my late husband Tim Robinson at Samford University’s journalism department in Birmingham, Al – and in Detroit as an alumna of Wayne State University, with the opportunity to spend time with young Honors College students. I’m also proud of the soaring ambitions of the most recent high school graduate in my family, my great niece Julia Graham, who will be pursuing photography as a major at the College for Creative Studies on the Wayne State University Campus. Yes, I believe both in America’s current entrepreneurs and in the next generation. Dream on and maybe try listening to Tom Petty.
Back in the mid-90s (on the 30th anniversary of the Summer of Love), my late husband, legal journalist Tim Robinson and I moved to San Francisco where we rented an apartment in an elegant townhouse adjoining Golden Gate Park until the end of 2002. Our landlords were Professor H. Maurice Tseng and his wife Gloria, a manager at Bank of America. Sadly, I got news recently that Gloria had passed away and I wanted to share why her loss weighed so heavily on me, as I remembered her talent for transcending cultures and spreading love.
Gloria was from Guayaquil, Ecuador in South America and had met and married the son of a Chinese diplomat in New York City, where she worked as a Spanish translator and editor for Merck. The couple moved to San Francisco in 1962 with two small boys – David and Steven – who from birth were immersed in both cultures. Their father taught Chinese language and literature at a local university, while Gloria graduated from college with a BA in business administration, starting a 30 year career in management at Bank of America — often focused on her bank’s community outreach programs targeting Chinese, Hispanic, and other immigrants.
I was a communications consultant and eagerly invited Gloria — who knew so much about the city and its immigrant communities — to join my networking organization, Women in Business. It gave us both further opportunities to bond with other business leaders from many backgrounds, as well as create new strategies for advancing women in area businesses. We often got to laugh together, especially important after the death of her husband about a year after we moved in.
During the years in SF, we shared recipes and cookouts with the Tsengs and their neighbors, as well as gospel music that Tim played on his old Story and Clark upright piano, inspired by Baptist missionaries living next door (I still am in touch with Linda and Eric Bergquist). I was often back in San Francisco over the years and Gloria insisted that I stay at her home and cooked delicious ethnic dishes for me. I will always miss this extraordinary business and community leader, her family and that elegant townhouse that felt like a second home.
For the first time since 2006, I didn’t make it to Birmingham, Alabama in the spring for the Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum at Samford University in honor of my late husband, a pioneering legal journalist. There were delays this time in scheduling the busy speaker, Brian Lyman, a political reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. He was tentatively scheduled to appear in March, but local political events kept interfering – and even the April 10th appearance was cancelled that morning when the Alabama Governor suddenly resigned in a major scandal.
In the end, I was grateful that Samford’s Journalism and Mass Communications department was able to set up a live electronic feed when the Forum was finally rescheduled to May 1st and I got to be a faraway participant.* Lyman had a positive message for Samford’s journalism students – arguing that despite the struggles, local newspapers like the Montgomery Advertiser were evolving in exciting times. He explained that the declining newspaper revenue that resulted in fewer editors monitoring a reporter’s copy also could have a positive result: a new freedom to pursue the kind of human stories first crafted by heavyweights like Jimmy Breslin back in the 60s. He concluded that today’s reporters must be story tellers – “we must show how facts are experiences.” Lyman further said that political journalism focuses on power – and stories about the use and abuse of power are important and need to be covered, summing it up with the challenge that “Reporters must be the bridge between the council chamber and the living room.”
In a time of change and increasing public distrust of the media, it was refreshing to hear a reporter champion the challenges today, and glorify the local beat . My late husband started on local beats in Alabama during a time of great change in the 60s and was always just as proud of those years as his later part in pioneering legal journalism on a national scale. I was thankful for this affirmation of the power of local news. And this fall I plan to visit Tim’s amazing family in Birmingham – and also look forward to meeting the latest students to benefit from the Robinson Forum , as well as from the scholarship program and an internship at the Washington Post. Go Samford!
*My thanks to Bernie Ankney, Chair, Journalism and Mass Communications Dept. and Jackie Long, Recruitment and Alumni Affairs Officer for coordinating the electronic feed – and to my brother in law Michael Robinson and his wife Carolyn, who kept me informed on all the changes and represented the family in person this year.