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A Life: Shirley Robinson, 1932 — 2013; ‘She Was a Natural Teacher’

Monday, June 17, 2013
Hartland Four Corners — She studied in Spain and was curious about the world far beyond her home in the Upper Valley, but what most intrigued Shirley Robinson often happened to be whatever she was discussing with a child.

“She was very warm and patient with children,” said Robinson’s niece, Lisa Geberth. “She was a natural teacher. She was always encouraging people of any age to be curious about things and to learn about what they’re interested in.”

Teaching is the profession to which Robinson committed herself for more than a half-century in Hartland and Windsor. She taught students of all ages, from elementary all the way through high school and adult education classes.

Her encouragement was more than mere kind words to assuage a student’s fears. She genuinely believed a person could overcome any obstacle with enough support, friends and family say. Robinson, who died in March at the age of 80, was an intellectually curious person who was endlessly fascinated by the world and people in it.

“She was always interested in anything and everything that you wanted to do,” said Coralyn Bushor, who was a student in Robinson’s physical education class in the late-1950s. “She was always positive and always upbeat about people. I don’t think I heard her say anything discouraging.”

Born Shirley Gersumky in Newton, Mass., Robinson grew up riding horses and in love with learning. She went on to study Spanish at Smith College, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in the 1950s. In her sophomore year, she met her future husband, Leonard Robinson, a young man working in Smith’s horse stables. She married Robinson in 1955 and moved with him several years later to his native Vermont, where together they would raise a family and spend the rest of their lives.

But before she graduated college, Shirley Robinson would have the chance to travel abroad. She spent a year studying in Spain, an experience she would never forget and to which she would refer often in conversations with friends and students.

The stories about her adventures abroad were not meant to show off, friends and former students say. They instead were opportunities she used to engage others in becoming aware about the greater world beyond their hometown.

“We all knew she’d been to Spain,” said Jane Eastman, who was on a softball team that Robinson coached. “We all knew she spoke Spanish. Occasionally, she’d try to speak Spanish to us.”

Geberth was among those who indulged in stories of Robinson’s travels. When she was in high school, Geberth was eager to go overseas — and found Robinson willing to help.

“She was definitely, ‘how can I help make this happen?” Geberth said.

Geberth realized her dream in her junior year of high school when she traveled to Germany. When Geberth returned and related her experience, Robinson listened patiently, the teacher inside never far from the surface.

Most questions Geberth was asked by friends and family were prosaic, Geberth recalled: Did she have a nice time? Did she see any castles?

Robinson wanted to know what Geberth had learned.

“It was always digging a little deeper,” Geberth recalled. “How is this going to affect your life and world view?”

But a person didn’t have to be a world traveler to win Robinson’s attention and respect. Geberth’s younger brother, Peter, was a hyperactive child who had trouble sitting still, Geberth said. Then, one summer when Peter was about 10 years old, Shirley Robinson took him to a little stream across from her home in Hartland Four Corners where he could fish.

Fishing provided an opportunity for Peter to sit still and learn patience. But Robinson also took advantage of the opportunity to engage Peter’s curiosity, asking what kinds of fish he saw and any details he noticed. Out of that experience, her brother developed a lifelong love of fishing while sitting on the banks of that stream, Geberth said.

“To this day, he speaks of her with great fondness because she nurtured that in him,” she said.

Educators have different philosophies on how to motivate students. Shirley Robinson’s approach was by persuading children that their interests were worthwhile and goals achievable, friends and family say. She did not merely offer hollow praise, however, but rather engaged and tried to understand the individual.

“She liked knowing how people tick,” said her daughter, Janet Loven. “What makes people do what they do.”

As a young child, Loven came under her mother’s pointed questioning many times. One of those occasions was when she snipped the whiskers off the family’s cat.

When Robinson discovered what had happened, she went over to her daughter to ask why she did it. But her line of inquiry wasn’t so much punitive as it was an honest attempt to understand what her daughter was thinking.

“Rather than ask, ‘Did you do that,’ ” Loven said, “She said, ‘Why did you only do one side?’ ”

Loven answered: “Because she wouldn’t stay still.”

And that is simply how Robinson talked with others, both young and old, friends and family say. Cindy Magoon saw it in the way she related to Magoon’s own children.

“She would not stand above them,” said Magoon, a longtime friend of Loven’s. “She would go to their level. If they were sitting on the ground, she’d get on the ground.

“She would greet you and spend the day with you and it was always ‘Thank you for visiting me.’ She made me feel good.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or

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