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Is There a Blue and Gold Gene? Record-Setting Fifth Generation Robinson to Graduate Cal

December 17, 2015
by Martin Snapp

When Emily Herrick Robinson receives her bachelor’s degree cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from UC Berkeley on Sunday, she will be carrying on the tradition of some illustrious ancestors who went to Cal, too.

On her grandmother’s side, she can trace four generations of alums, as well as a few famous people who didn’t go to Cal, including her great-great-great-grandfather Leroy Herrick, who came to California on the heels of the Gold Rush, before the university was founded. “He settled in You Bet, California,” says Emily’s dad, Glenn Robinson. “He didn’t find gold, but he did become a doctor and founded the hospital in Berkeley that now bears his name.”

But on her grandfather’s side, Emily’s Cal family tree goes back even further—five generations, starting with her great-great-grandfather Edward Constant Robinson, who graduated in 1873.

So is five generations a Cal record?

“We were at the Arizona State game this year and checked out the bricks on the wall at Memorial Stadium,” says Glenn, “and we found several four-generation families, but no five generations.”

The Cal Alumni Association’s membership office couldn’t answer the question, nor could Cal’s offices of development, university relations, or external relations, or the chancellor’s office. Says university registrar Walter Wong: “To tell the truth, the university doesn’t keep records of that kind of thing.”

Photo of Edward Robinson
Edward Robinson (1855-1940)

Suffice it to say that nobody seems to record a clan with a longer Cal lineage than the Robinsons.

The family’s progenitor, Edward Constant Robinson, worked as a foreman and yard manager in the mining business after graduating from Berkeley, then switched to the law and was admitted to the bar in 1882. He served as the city of Berkeley’s town attorney and as a superior court judge in Alameda County, then spent the rest of his career in private practice, where he hired a pair of hotshot young lawyers: His own son Bestor Robinson, and another young fellow named Earl Warren. The two became close friends and law partners, so much so that Bestor would eventually name his youngest son Warren, after the man who would go on to become Chief Justice of the United States.

Bestor had received his bachelor’s from Cal in 1918 and studied law at Boalt and Harvard. He married Florence Breed, daughter of the powerful Republican State Senator and acting Lieutenant Governor Arthur Hastings Breed, a descendant of the Breed family of Massachusetts who gave their name to Breed’s Hill, the site of the famous Revolutionary War battle that was misnamed the Battle of Bunker Hill. “According to family lore, the governorship of California was Arthur’s for the asking,” says Glenn. “But his wife said, ‘Over my dead body.'”

Florence enrolled at Wellesley College, but her father worried that she’d meet a young man there and settle down on the east coast. So after two years he gave her an ultimatum: “If you want to continue there, you can. But you’ll have to pay for it yourself.” So she returned to California and spent her last two years of college at Cal.

Bestor was an expert mountaineer, environmentalist, attorney and inventor, who once received a patent for his design of an ingenious lightweight folding stove for the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.

On August 13, 1931, he was a member of the team that completed the first ascent of the last unclimbed 14,000 feet-plus peak in California, which was unnamed due to its remote location above the Palisade Glaciers. After a challenging ascent to the summit, the climbers were caught in an intense lightning storm that nearly killed one of the climbers when, as he put it, “a thunderbolt whizzed right by my ear.” The mountain was named Thunderbolt Peak to commemorate that close call.

Photo of Bestor Robinson
Bestor Robinson (1898-1987)

Three years later, Bestor participated in the first successful climb of Higher Cathedral Spire in Yosemite Valley, and five years after that, he and legendary environmentalist David Brower were part of the team that made the first ascent of the nearly vertical walls of Shiprock, the eroded remnant of the throat of a volcano with nearly vertical walls on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, the first ascent in the United States to use expansion bolts for protection.

It was the beginning of a close friendship with Brower that lasted 30 years, during which Bestor would serve as president of the Sierra Club from 1946 to 1948, and a member of its board for decades. But in 1969, Bestor and the other members of the Sierra Club’s board of directors fired Brower as executive director for running a controversial ad in the New York Times without clearing it with them first.

“They didn’t speak for many years after that,” says Glenn. “But when my grandfather died in 1987, Brower came and spoke at the memorial service and buried the hatchet. It was a very special moment that I’ll never forget.”

Bestor’s son Ned used to recall as a little boy being dragged along to his father’s Sierra Club board meetings—and how a kindly old man with a long, white beard, seeing that he was getting antsy, would say, “Come on, Ned, let’s go for a walk,” and they would go outside and look at the stars. That kindly old man was photographer Ansel Adams.

Ned grew up and earned both his bachelor’s degree and his law degree from Berkeley. He then helped found the city of Lafayette and served 14 years on the city council and two terms as mayor before being named the town’s citizen of the year in 1982

Photo of Ned Robinson
Ned Robinson (1927-2009)

One day, he was sitting with his brother Merritt, also a Cal grad, looking at the homes sprouting up on the Marin County ridgelines and spoiling the view of the ridges from public areas. Outraged by the desecration, he went home and wrote an ordinance that prohibited such construction on the top of ridges in Lafayette. The ordinance survived a court challenge and became a model for other cities seeking to preserve their hillside vistas.

Ned inherited his father’s love of the outdoors, leading burro trips for the Sierra Club and and 50 miler summer trips with his sons’ Boy Scout troops.

“He was never happier than when on the trail,” says his daughter-in-law Elizabeth Keeler Robinson, Glenn’s wife. “When he started at Boalt, he was leading burro trips for the Sierra Club up until the first day of classes. He showed up looking really scruffy with a full beard and a flannel shirt. He looked at the other students and said, ‘OK, time to get rid of my summer clothes.’ So he shaved and put on a coat and tie like everyone else. Later in the semester a classmate said to him, ‘Remember that scruffy-looking guy the first day of class? He obviously washed out. I wonder what happened to him?'”

“One of the people on one of his burro trips was Joel Hildebrand, the celebrated chemistry professor,” Glenn adds. “It was all very casual, on a first name basis. When they came back, Dad walked into Hildebrand’s office and said, ‘Hi, Joel. How are you doing?’ And Hildbrand gave him a frosty look and said ‘At Berkeley it’s Professor Hildebrand.'”

Ned went on to marry Marjorie “Mardy” Pletcher, known to classmates at Cal as Marvelous Mardy. Mardy and Ned met on a blind date at the 1949 Rose Bowl, which they were both attending with other dates. As family lore has it, they took one look at each other and ditched their dates, and they were married three years later.

Mardy’s parents also went to Cal—Ralph Pletcher and Ruth Henderson were in the Class of 1927, the class that donated the bells to the Campanile. As for Mardy, she was an editor of the Blue & Gold yearbook and would serve as secretary of the Class of 1952 from the day she graduated until her death last November. “She stayed in touch with people she met so tangentially,” says Elizabeth. “I said to her, ‘You know, Mom, some people collect salt and pepper shakers or stamps; you collect people.’ And she gave me a classic Mardy reply: ‘Oh, I’m not in touch with nearly as many as I should be.'”

“Mom and Dad had season tickets to Cal football in a section in the northwest corner of the stadium, near the 20 yard line,” says Glenn. “They were invited to move closer to the 50-yard line when they renewed their tickets, but they declined because they were having so much fun with all the other people in the section; they created a little social club in that section. For many years, the victory cannon on Tightwad Hill was stored at their home in Lafayette.”

Glenn, the fourth generation to go to Cal, earned three degrees including a Ph.D. and became an expert in the Middle East. He was a senior political analyst with the RAND Corporation, a Fulbright Scholar and a Johns Hopkins Fellow in Jordan, a research fellow with the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the author of Building A Palestinian State – The Incomplete Revolution. Today he’s an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

“Emily celebrated her second birthday in the Gaza Strip while was working with USAID there,” he says. “I thought I was going to have a nice, quiet professional career, but that’s not the way it turned out.”

Glenn indoctrinated Emily and her sisters Julia and Abby in all things Cal, taking them to football games and teaching them fight songs. “I had even more Cal gear when I was a little girl than I do now,” Emily says. “In freshman year I lived in Stern Hall, and the men from Bowles Hall came by and sang the Cal Drinking Song. I knew the words better than they did!”

“I used to serenade her to sleep with the Cal Drinking Song when she was a baby,” Glenn explains.

Photo of Glenn Robinson
Glenn Robinson

Despite everything, she resisted the idea of attending Cal.

“Imagine what it was like for me as a 10 year old, walking up to the stadium though hordes of middle-aged alumni,” she says. “Some of them were drunk. My dad would tell them, ‘Guys, clean up your language. There are children here!”

But he insisted she apply anyway. “If you get in, you don’t have to go; but you have to apply. It’s a family tradition.”

So she applied, and she got in. Just for the heck of it, she decided to take a tour of the campus on a non-game day.

“Near the end of the tour we were standing on the steps of Doe Library looking at Memorial Glade, and I said to myself, ‘Oh my. It’s very different here when it’s not game day.’ And I sent in my statement of intent to register. But to this day I try to avoid campus on a game day, unless I’m going to the game.”

In addition to her academic accomplishments as a political economy major, Emily participated on the mock trial team, ran the Cal In Local Government internship program, and became the graphic design editor at the Daily Cal—she was the creator of the photo montage above this story.

After the first of the year she’ll start work at BerlinRosen, a consulting firm in New York City whose clients have included the Elton John AIDS Foundation and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“We have a tradition of strong women in our family, including my two great-grandmothers who were at Cal in the 1920s, which was not necessarily a great time for women,” says Emily. “And Emily continues that tradition,” her father adds.

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