By Sharon Lakey
“I’ve been kind of a maverick. I feel as if I’ve washed along, fitting in here and there…”
Robin Rothman has always been a bit of an enigma. She is a lone walker on the streets and roads around Danville; she is that small woman standing among the few at the St. Johnsbury post office, holding signs promoting world peace; she is the woman who draws our attention to the details in our surroundings through the thread of a fine-line ink drawing.
Robin lives in the former Congregational Church parsonage, purchased by Emma Lou Rothman, her mother, in 1986. The home is located on the end of Mountain View Drive, just before the curve up toward Brainerd St. It is a small ranch, obviously cared for, with a single car garage. Robin’s eye in landscape is perfect; a sunburst locust tree that does not dwarf the size of the house grows at the entrance to the property. The front door is covered with artistically arranged political messages in which Robin believes; her car, a perennial elderly Saab, is, too.
The living room, where we conducted our interview, features a large picture window overlooking a lush backyard garden; Robin sits framed in the foreground; her shy tuxedo cat flits ghost-like through a darkened hallway. Robin explains that when her mother and she moved in, the yard was a blank slate.
Robin was born in 1936 in Mount Clemens, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. Six years later, her sister Emily came into the world. Her father, Robert Rothman, was born in New York, a son of immigrant parents. In Robert’s college years, he became a student of John Dewey, the educational “progressive.” He first became a high school teacher, teaching journalism, then later, after earning his Master’s and doctorate degree in philosophy, he became a professor at Wayne University during the Great Depression. He married Emma Lou Lamb, who was a high school English teacher. Later, she earned her Master’s in education but remained at the high school level. Robin remembers, “She was so frustrated by the system that she vented by writing little pamphlets featuring ‘Della, the Double-Breasted Dowager,’–a fictional teacher with brisk opinions.”
Emma Lou and Robert’s circle of friends were professors, artists and journalists. As Robin
calls it, “they associated with a sort of Bohemian crowd. “Even though my parents’ close friends were intellectuals, they always got along with and appreciated the working man,” said Robin. During the McCarthy era, her parents had a narrow escape at being blackballed. Emma Lou’s father, Fred S. Lamb, was a circuit court judge in Detroit. The story has it that a clerk from his office, riding in a city bus, sat behind a man who boasted to his seatmate that, “I’m going to get that pinko Rothman, him and his wife, who’s tarred with the same brush.” Upon hearing the story from the clerk, the judge put an end to the plan. “Fortunately,” said Robin, “my grandfather could pull a few strings.”
The Rothman’s were atheists, but Robin says her mother wanted the girls to enjoy and recall the pleasant elements of Christmas. On a family car ride to Cadillac, MI, during the holidays, they drove by a Christmas tree lot. She remembers her father rolling down the window and loudly pronouncing, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” to the bell-ringing Santa. “We always went to the Christmas program in Cadillac with our grandparents and family there.” And both children, Robin and Emily, still treasure the holiday.
Their father didn’t approve of television and would never allow it in the downstairs of the house. “The dining and living room is for conversation,” he would say. Emma Lou’s rich uncle in Cadillac had one before there was even a station in his area. “All he could get was snow!” she exclaims with a laugh. The Rothman’s did finally get a hand-me-down set, but it was relegated to the upstairs. She remembers the whole family going upstairs to watch the show “Twenty Questions.”
Her wealthy uncles subscribed to the music series at the Masonic Temple and Robin’s father wished to take his young teenaged daughter to one such event. He went to the opera house to buy tickets to La Traviata. After purchasing them, he strolled into the empty auditorium to see where they were going to be seated. It was a disappointment. “These are lousy seats,” he complained, “right behind a pole.” He looked around for better ones, and when he went back to the ticket office, he was informed that those seats were not available. Back home, he called the box office, identifying himself as Dr. Rothman (his two brothers were medical Dr. Rothman’s who subscribed to the musical events) and asked for the seats he wanted.
“Yes, Dr. Rothman. The tickets are available.”
“I will send the boy around to pick them up,” he answered.
“Well,” says Robin with a twinkle, he was a doctor!” They enjoyed the opera, she said, “But they didn’t have subtitles in those days. I only got the gist of the story.” Today she enjoys the Catamount presentations of the Metropolitan Opera in St. Johnsbury. “I especially love the Wagner, Ring Cycle!”
Of her own schooling, she relates that elementary was pretty standard. “I’m not sure I could pass school now with all the things kids have to do. I do remember having to stand in the corner when this big, broad Teutonic-type teacher didn’t like an answer I gave.” High school was nearly the same. “The curriculum was much more watered down. Science was bare bones; math was worse. My father had to help me with Algebra. I just couldn’t think in equations.” Geometry, on the other hand, came much easier. “I really appreciated the very strict English teachers I had. We learned how to speak and write correctly. Today educational curricula have become more exacting, what with developments in knowledge and technology. Alas,” she adds, “the ‘mother tongue’ has deteriorated in the process.”
Robin remembers that she drew a lot. “I was always drawing horses, and I remember my gruff uncle telling me I needed to study anatomy. I had a good memory, and I found I was good at line drawing.” Her father’s best friend was Zoltan Sepeshy, who was a well-known artist himself and Director of the Cranbrook Art Academy, located in Bloomfield Hills MI, 26 miles from Detroit. Robin describes the campus as a “feudal estate,” and she loved roaming over it when her father took her on his visits to see his friend. The 319 acre campus is now a National Historic Landmark. According to Wiki it “is renowned for its architecture in the Arts and Crafts and Art Deco Styles.” What a boon it was for this young, artistic woman.
She describes her political leanings as “very left, probably related to my upbringing.” She remembers her first lesson in socialism very well, given to her by her father. “Pup thought I needed a work experience and led me through the process of finding work and being interviewed. I was not exactly what you’d call a go-get em’ kind of kid. When I received my first check, he added it to what might be termed ‘the general family fund,’ explaining against my protests that food, clothes, vacations and eventually college were all derived from the same source. It finally occurred to me that he was right. And, actually, the stock-girl job wasn’t so disagreeable, though I came within millimeters of being openly rude to a few customers and the boss, who insisted upon my using an unstable aluminum 14’ ladder instead of climbing the shelves.”
Though Robin didn’t know the direction she was heading then, it must have been pretty clear to her parents. “They guided me toward the humanities and to Antioch College in Ohio. I became a student there in 1954 where only about 1500 students attended. I knew I wanted to focus in the arts. It was a basic curriculum where I learned the elements of drawing and design. As my art professor said, ‘You need to learn to draw before you can paint,’ and I did.” Antioch was, at the time, the first work-study college offering a diversity of experiences in off-campus living and working. “My choices were to work at museums of natural history,” said Robin.
Her first choice was the Field Museum in Chicago. A large section of Pennsylvanian black shale had been transported to the museum–four layers of quarry floor. Students were instructed to look for and record fossils. Robin remembers they found and recorded extraordinary remnants of sea life hidden in the easily split rock, like bumps from shark skin, fish bones and invertebrates. “And we all came out every night looking like coal miners.” She liked the experience so much that she wanted to go out in the field to do more. “I think this is when I started to become a feminist. I couldn’t go on field trips because I was a woman. And I would have been good at it!” She graduated from Antioch in 1959.
The second museum work experience was at Cranbrook, and she was the first student from Antioch to work there. During her experience she met and learned from expert jewelry designer Luella Schroeder. She and her mother took a lapidary course with her. Later, first Emma Lou, then Robin would follow Luella to Vermont
The third museum work experience was at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg. Again, she ran into the wall of not being able to go out into the field because she was a woman. “They did run a ‘Woman’s Day’,” she said, “but it was nothing, truly dumbed down. I wanted to go out into the field for long periods of time.” At the Carnegie, she worked with an artist and learned to use a special tool–the Leroy lettering set. She gained skills there in letter spacing and still has an old Leroy tucked away in her house. Many local citizens know how she has put her lettering skills to use. While in Pittsburg, she lived in what was called a Settlement House, an institution in an inner-city area providing educational, recreational, and other social services to the community. She remembers sparse rooms, impeccably kept, and the tenants sharing a community kitchen.
On her arrival back home for Thanksgiving in 1960, she was greeted with shocking news. Her father had died of a heart attack at 56 years of age. With Robert gone, her mother no longer felt much of a connection to her work and the area. Suggestions that she move back to her hometown of Cadillac didn’t sit well either. “She considered that a kiss of death,” said Robin. “She was more drawn to the country.”
Moving to Vermont
One night, while Emma-Lou was reading the Saturday Review of Literature, she checked out the real estate section at the end of the magazine and was intrigued by a listing in North Danville, Vermont. “My mother was the adventurer in the family,” said Robin. “She liked to make big, wide trips without accommodations.” The only people she knew in Vermont were Luella Schroeder and Martha Price, who now owned a house in East Montpelier and would later open the Molly’s Pond Craft Shop. By coincidence, John Dewey, Robert’s former teacher, was from Vermont.
She and the girls visited the place. It was the former Shattuck house, the last house in Danville on the McDowell Road before it becomes part of the Town of Wheelock. She bought it from Scudder Parker, four-acres and a pond for $3,000. Local carpenter, Reggie LaMothe, was hired to gut and renovate the old farmhouse. Before he did so, he first built a very small house on the property where Emma Lou could live while the house was being renovated.
Needing a job before her pension kicked in, she landed one, teaching English at Lyndon
Institute. “That was hard for her,” says Robin, “she didn’t fit in, and kids were rude.” In Emma Lou’s diary, Robin shares that her mother wrote of a depression, likening it to “a cloud.” She quit the teaching position and took other jobs that she could find: cashier for Albert May’s auction (paid $5 a week), a clerk job at Hatch’s, the first Natural Food Store in Vermont, located on Pine Street in St. Johnsbury. “Sooner or later, you learn to roll with the punches,” was Emma Lou’s line when people asked how she managed. Later, she became friends with Virginia Bentley, who became famous for her folksy cookbooks. She edited Virginia’s first cookbook while the author worked upstairs in the yellow bedroom at Emma Lou’s house.
Robin’s last job at a museum before moving to Vermont permanently was at the State Museum in Albany, NY. It is a natural history museum and Robin worked on the exhibits –rocks, mastodon and mammoth come to mind when she talks of her work there. Her mother came to visit from Vermont and Emily stayed there while studying library science. Robin joined the Adirondack Club during that time and developed her lifelong love of the outdoors. She had an apartment on Manning Boulevard and made trips to Vermont in her little red Volkswagen beetle named Rufus to visit her mother.
Robin worked at the Albany Museum for 12 years, but when it moved to a factory-like building, she began to feel restless for Vermont. “About 35, I think women tend to run,” she said. She made her move to Vermont in 1971, just on the early cusp of the “hippie” movement into the state. By that time, her mother had moved into the main house, and Robin took up residence in the little one. Without a job, she began walking the back roads of North Danville, sketchbook in hand. This same sketchbook is a treasure trove of drawings from that time period, featuring people, animals and buildings that no longer exist. The curious, artistic woman, with a luxury of time on her hands, saw the area through fresh eyes. She once climbed a tree and sat for an hour drawing sleeping raccoon babies.
Through the years, Robin held a variety of jobs and began sharing her artistic talents wherever it led her. She has done yard work and mowed lawns, worked at Elliot’s Greenhouse, and milked cows. But by far, the largest gift of her time involved working with the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury. Originally she was hired by Fred Mold to “sit the desk” on weekends. It probably didn’t take him long to realize what he had on hand. She worked for that organization, on and off, for 30 years.
One of her first art experiences there was “fixing the beaver group,” where she teamed-up with Bill Christiansen. Robin would come up with an idea–in this case, it was to make snow in the display. She knew that powdered glass would look like snow, but it was up to the ingenious efforts of Christiansen on how to make glass powdered.
Fairbanks Museum hired her for special projects by contract. Howard Reed was the teacher and curator. “One of the first things I did was to repair a styracosaurus skull mount. I repaired the plaster and painted it so it looked like old, shellacked bone. It is still there, on the second floor.” She did the illustrations for a local history curriculum written by Peggy Pearl, who also worked at the Fairbanks, but is now the Director of the St. Johnsbury History and Heritage Center.
She was hired to do backgrounds, such as the wetlands habitat display, and a background for “Visions, Toil and Promise,” with illustrations on Man in the Vermont Forest. Connected with this project were four different panels depicting how the Vermont changed through history. Three of the panels are still on the wall in the Fairbanks classroom. Later she would work through the Vermont Associates program to catalog and sort out the mineral collection and carry on with improving exhibits.
From time to time, she took on other art-related jobs. She illustrated Adele Dawson’s book, entitled Health, Happiness and the Pursuit of Herbs in 1981. Illustrations for the American Society of Dowsers included an aerial view of the pyramids and how to hold dowsing tools. “I’ve drawn birds, jellyfish, plankton, hydras and other pond life, as well as Pleistocene mammals.” She also drew political cartoons for the North Star Monthly.
On her off-time, Robin became involved with her mother in Danville Woman’s Club by planning and carrying out the art needed for floats for the Danville Fair. “In those days, people went all out on floats. During that time I got to meet some old Danville people–Bev Bacon, George Cahoon, the Beatties.” She remembers nearly freezing to death at 5:00 in the morning working on a Historical Society float.
She is well-remembered for her work with the former Danville Summer Singers. Her sets were extraordinary, but she had fun playing bit parts as well. One of her favorites was playing a cop in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. She loved the living room set of You Can’t Take it With You so much that she had a hard time letting it go. “It was so cozy! I thought it should stay up and become an intimate setting for meetings.” The strangest prop she had to create was a dead cat. “I used mostly pipe cleaners, but when it came to the skull, I just couldn’t make it work. I found a dead cat on the road, and well, you can imagine…”
Her Danville bicentennial celebration drawings include beautiful pen and ink of The Morgan Horse, Crossing Joe’s Brook and The Green. At the request of Mary Prior and the Danville Historical Society she has created two historical drawings of the First Meeting House and The Old Stone Gaol. As there were no photographs of either because of their time periods, she had to do this from maps, historical documents and research into building materials of the time. Framed and signed prints of these will soon grace the walls of the Danville Town Hall.
And now, just like that, this amazing woman is turning 80. She has no extended family, only her sister, Emily, and her nephew. “But in Danville,” she reflects, “I have been fortunate to have been employed in areas I’m suited for and enjoy. I’ve never had a driving ambition to make a lot of money. I think that all people need the basics–education, food, shelter, healthcare and a garden, and that governments have the responsibility as collectives of citizens to keep everyone mainstreamed by providing them.”
The public is invited to an Open House celebrating Robin’s 80th birthday on Sunday, October 16, 2016, from 2:00 to 5:00 at the Danville Historical Society. It will be an art show, featuring her work in Vermont. We are looking for work to hang that is out in the community at large. If you are willing to share it in the show, please contact Sharon Lakey at the Danville Historical Society, open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 7:00. Phone: 802 684 2055.