Agnes Robinson, universally known as "Aggie" during a lifetime dedicated to progressive activism, died early Tuesday, Sept. 27, at her residence at Palo Alto Commons. She would have been 93 Oct. 2.
Robinson served 10 years on the Palo Alto Board of Education during the tumultuous decade of 1963 to 1973, including two terms as board president.
But her activism took her far beyond Palo Alto issues, and her interests ranged from physics to painting and from education of minorities and the "middle child" -- the non-super student -- to liberal-to-radical political action for women, peace and social justice.
Following her school board service she was named to the California Postsecondary Education Commission, the Board of Governors for California Community Colleges and, in the mid-1990s, the Accreditation Commission for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
Prior to her Palo Alto school board years, Robinson served on numerous nonprofit boards, including the Palo Alto Mental Health Society, the Palo Alto Community Drug Abuse Board, Senior Day Health, the Community College Foundation and the former Leadership Palo Alto. She also served on the city's Human Relations Commission, and was a member of national organizations such as the NAACP, the Federation of American Scientists and the Sierra Club. She supported peace movements and in her last term on the school board proposed that it adopt a "Statement of Conscience" opposing the Vietnam War.
Robinson was born in 1918 in Morristown, N.J., into the family that founded the H.B. Claflin Co., the model of what became the "department store." She attended Brearley School in New York City and Radcliffe and Barnard colleges, graduating from Radcliffe with a degree in English. In 1943, she worked at the Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, while a modest inheritance allowed her to dedicate much of her life to civic service.
Throughout her life of activism and service she was known for a personal graciousness and willingness to listen to others even when her personal opinions differed sharply.
As a girl, she lost her brother John to polio, which also crippled her mother, Agnes, for life, and she helped her younger sister, Theo, through the hard times. Her father, Crittenden, died in 1943. She was a "Bundles for Britain" volunteer, and went into a brief marriage with a physicist, which sparked her interest in physics to the point of getting a master's degree.
She met her second husband, Albert "Robbie" Robinson, at Bell Labs, and they settled with their family in Short Hills, N.J. They hired a young African-American couple and they became lifelong friends, and they followed the Robinsons to Palo Alto in 1953. The wife, Ethel Clarida, predeceased Aggie by nine days.
"Life isn't fair," Robinson summed up in 1997. "You get some good breaks in life and some bad breaks and what you have to do is plow through the bad breaks and ride on the wave of the good breaks. I think our role, those of us with the good breaks, is to keep working for the good of other people and of the community and then of the nation. And if you have money, you share it."
And being a radical takes courage and discipline, especially when your only cheering section is yourself, she added.
Her efforts were recognized by several community-based awards, including the prestigious "Tall Tree Award" of the Chamber of Commerce in 1989 and the Mid Peninsula YWCA Helen Tao award for decades of nurturing local civic organizations. She was a founding investor in the Palo Alto Weekly in 1979 and served on the Weekly's board of directors from 1985-1987.
She loved nature, art and travel, and welcomed foreign students into her homes along with members of a growing "extended family."
Robinson is survived by her sister, Theodora Heathcote, of Pennsylvania, and five sons and their families, with seven grandchildren and nine great grandchildren: Nicholas and Shelley Robinson in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.; John and Mallow Robinson in Fox Island, Wash.; Hugh Robinson in Belmont, Mass.; James and Mary ("Appleseed") Robinson, in Sharon, Mass.; and Lewis Robinson and Nancy Struber Robinson, in Sacramento.
Memorial services are scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 12, at 11 a.m. at the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. A private internment of her ashes will be at the Village Hill Cemetery in Williamsburg, Mass. In lieu of flowers, the family prefers gifts in Robinson's memory be sent to Palo Alto Partners in Education either online or at P.O. Box 1557, Palo Alto, California 94302.