June Robinson, county historian, dies at age 83

For someone who was born, raised and spent much of her life in Seattle and the east coast, June Robinson surely convinced locals that she was a lifelong Clallam County native.

  • Wednesday, March 19, 2014 2:24pm
  • News

For someone who was born, raised and spent much of her life in Seattle and the east coast, June Robinson surely convinced locals that she was a lifelong Clallam County native.

One of the Dungeness Valley’s more prolific historians died May 13 after a struggle with ovarian cancer.

Friends and associates had little but praise for the woman who developed her legacy through a number of local civic groups – the City of Sequim Parks Advisory Board, Sequim Museum and Arts Center, Clallam County Heritage Advisory Board, Clallam County Historical Society and Clallam County Genealogical Society, Sequim School Board and others – and through books she helped write and edit.

Born on June 10, 1925, in Seattle to Truman Ross and Charlotte Kathryn Spath Peterson, Robinson spent most of her professional years in the Seattle area, working as a teacher for 30 years.

But she and husband Ray Robinson always had close ties to the area, and when the two moved to

Sequim for good in 1990 it was a fitting homecoming.

History buff

takes time to teach

June’s mother, one of the valley’s Spath clan, attended the Carlsborg school and though her daughter was born and raised in Seattle, June spent several summers with her mother’s family roaming the hills and hiking trails near Sequim and Port Angeles.

She toured the foothills of the Olympics, often with Margaret Lotzgesell and Laura Spath, Ray Robinson’s aunt. It was those summers that June and Ray, who shared cousins, first met.

June loved the outdoors so much she almost pursued a career in forestry, Ray remembers, but her passion was history, so after graduating high school at age 16 she pursued a history degree at Seattle University.

After that it was a teaching stint in Adna, a small burg south of Tacoma that’s remained small to this day. When she and Ray joined a class reunion in Adna about four years ago, her legacy among long-since graduated students was still alive.

"A couple of students told me June was the best teacher they ever had," Ray said. "From the start, she was a good teacher."

Robinson survived a bout with tuberculosis at a young age – the result of drinking raw milk, Ray says – to teach for years at a Florence Crittendon home, a school for young women who found themselves pregnant, tainted with the taboo of an early pregnancy and still in need of an education.

That’s where students met June and Theobold, a large, furry blond teddy bear the teacher used to comfort students. Years later, the bear is a family heirloom, bespeckled with pins and buttons Robinson collected from teaching conventions and, later, her many travels with Ray.

June later moved on to teaching handicapped students at a Seattle school.

Her work with teaching groups led to several trips to Washington, D.C., where she met up with Ray, who began working for the government in a defense intelligence agency after years with the CIA.

"She’d let me know she was in town and we’d go look at

the museums," Ray says.

Their relationship blossomed and they married in 1980. June began volunteering at the National Archives, mostly helping people with their genealogy studies. When she showed increasing aptitude for the work, archives staffers made her part of the paid staff.

In 1984 Ray retired and they began to travel frequently, something the two loved to share. The two made five cross-country journeys together in all.

But by the end of 1990, June wanted to come home, Ray says. So they did.

A ‘tireless’ worker

Although she was officially "retired," June took to volunteering for a number of county historical groups, including the Clallam County Historical Society in 1992, and, beginning in 1997, the Sequim School Board of directors.

"This stuff wasn’t a hobby for her," says Clallam County Commissioner Mike Doherty, who worked with Robinson on the heritage advisory board and at the historical society for nearly 20 years.

"This was, rather, a profession," he says. "It was a very rare asset to have a citizen to have the interest (about local history) and be very professional about it."

Robinson wrote a local history column each month for the Peninsula Daily News (titled "Back When") and, for a time, detailed bygone Sequim stories at city council meetings once a month. She’s also known for her work on such publications as "Images of Clallam County," "A History of Clallam County," "Washington, Why Do They Call It …," "The Norwegian Memorial," "The Chilean Memorial" and the "Wreck of the Austria."

Professional to the finest point, Robinson earned a reputation among her colleagues for being precise in her research and reporting.

"She was a real stickler for details," recalls Ross Hamilton, the renowned local photographer who worked with Robinson on Al Courtney’s Sequim Pioneer Family Histories books.

"She was very much committed to the accurate portrayal of history," Hamilton says.

That meant revising stories even if she was wrong. Kathy Monds, Clallam County Historical Society executive director, said Robinson started with the society in 1990.

"June liked to do as much research as possible and create as clear a story as she could," Monds remembers. "She just loved when people would write comments (about her newspaper articles). She’d be working in the genealogy area and someone would come in to share photos, to share their stories … to set the record straight. June wanted people to tell their side of the story."

Robinson’s hard work to preserve local history earned her recognition and responsibility. She joined the historical society’s board of directors in 1990, serving as secretary and president in later years. She was awarded the historical society’s Heritage Award in 1994.

County commissioners honored Robinson in August for her outstanding work preserving the area’s history.

Doherty says Robinson also worked hard to record the history of local buildings, including one of her last projects, an inventory on a number of landmarks that were in existence before Washington’s statehood in 1889.

"Long after she’s gone, people should be grateful she took the time to fill out pretty arduous paperwork (to protect those buildings)," Doherty says.

"She was pretty much a tireless worker," Monds adds. "She liked to do research and work on different publications."

As serious as she was, Robinson had a lighter side, Monds says.

"June was a serious woman and took her research seriously," Monds recalls. "But if you could find her funny bone, she’d get a smile and her eyes would twinkle."

Doherty recalls traveling with her to tour the upper northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula several years ago, thinking he’d impress his companion with little-traversed local history.

Instead, she reveled Doherty in an account of the first wave of Scandinavian settlers who reached the peninsula from the ocean side of Lake Ozette. Then she started recounting details of the second wave of Scandinavian settlers.

Later, when the two met up with some local residents talking about the Hoko Valley, she began correcting the natives’ stories about the area.

"Here I though I was going to show her some history – turns out it worked the other way around," Doherty said. "She was teaching what was important to a slow Irish guy."

"We were lucky."

Heart of a teacher

June also had a heart for young students and grassroots education. She was elected to the Sequim School Board more than 11 years ago and only her recent illness kept her from attending meetings.

Sequim school board president Sarah Bedinger says Robinson was a valuable member of the board because of her impeccable preparedness for board meetings, her knack for knowing parliamentary procedure and her passion for getting young students to read.

"She had an uncanny mind, able to synthesize information and give a very comprehensive analysis of it," Bedinger says. "It showed that she really had read the material.

"She had a passion for kids with special needs (and) a passion for reading as a

basis for anything else," recalls Bedinger, a board member with Robinson since 2003. "She was a reading tutor for years and years."

She and Ray were also practically permanent fixtures at Sequim High School basketball games, finding seats on the front row of bleachers in what is now known at Rick Kaps Gymnasium.

Sequim Schools Superintendent Bill Bentley says Robinson will be missed.

"She was such an intelligent person and she really cared about the students in our district," Bentley says.

Robinson revealed that some of the seeds of her passion for history were cultivated back in her fourth-grade year at Beacon Hill Elementary School in Seattle, as she recalled in a letter to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2004.

"Miss Lou Ella Hart, our fourth-grade teacher, brought American history alive," Robinson wrote. "She used what I have since learned were basic teaching techniques. She told us what she was going to teach us, outlined it clearly on the blackboard and encouraged us to copy the outline in our notebooks, told us the story behind the outline and concluded by telling us what she had taught in that lesson.

"In her class, history was not a bunch of dry facts. History was a society crowded with gentlemen of principle, heroes and traitors, hard-working loyal women, other women who chose riches and comfort and the English way of doing things, and a cast of thousands living through the major events of the American Revolution …

"I began my life-long love of history in Miss Hart’s classroom. Later, when I taught history I tried to make the people and events from the past come alive to my students just as she had."

Ray insists that his wife did have some occassional faults – having a problem with zeros when balancing the checkbook, for one – but that June was a woman who was stridently sensible, tough when she had to be without fighting, and one with uncommonly good judgment.

"That’s the way she was," Ray says. "If people liked it, that was all right. If they didn’t, that was all right, too."

Ray says his wife tried as best she could to stay strong through the end, one that came rapidly this spring as the cancer wore her down.

"She was a lady around the clock."

Michael Dashiell can be reached at miked@sequim gazette.com.

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