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In Memory of Walter Robinson: Leader, Role Model, Change Agent at UC Davis and beyond

Walter Robinson, who was the head of Undergraduate Admissions and the office of Enrollment Management at UC Davis, and an instrumental leader in building a more diverse student body, died Sunday (June 9) of heart failure at his home in Vallejo. He was 66.

Robinson had retired last September after 7 years at UC Davis where he served as Associate Vice Chancellor on Enrollment, and nearly 40 years in admissions and student services in higher education. He was a staunch advocate of diversity and inclusion, and the university partner that championed the founding of SMASH UC Davis.

I wanted to share some thoughts and memories about Walter, who became not only a colleague through the SMASH UC Davis partnership, but a dear friend and mentor.

I found out Walter Robinson died on Sunday. It was sudden and unexpected. Walter had recently begun his well-earned retirement. UC Davis and his team dearly wanted him to stay, but he was ready for the next phase of his life. He was already traveling, and was planning on exploring more of the earth and deepening his connection to his grandchildren.

I got to know Walter through our work on SMASH UC Davis, which quickly led us to many rounds on the golf course. Walter was 20 years my senior; we connected over growing up in the same neighborhood and our mutual interest in sports. Initially, we laughed and made small talk about politics and whatnot. I was honored when he took an interest in me, spending hours together discussing some of my personal challenges.

Upon losing him, I realize how much he was like the men who helped raise me as a kid — Black men who understood community in a way that is all too rare. Men whose success was always more than their own, who took the children of their community as their responsibility, and who knew how to laugh and love and keep people in line — all at the same time.

I was raised on this little miracle of a block on Berkeley’s Edwards Street, and men like Walter, were one of its pillars. Kids were outside a lot. Cars that never moved were worked on and toothpicks were in mouths, or sometimes, in the last stretch of afro before reaching the forehead. Little boys got their haircut in backyards, and watched their dads shave and splash on aftershave from containers shaped like cars. They would throw you footballs, give you your first sip of beer, sit you on their lap and let you drive a little bit when you were 9.

They also provided countless lessons that helped you grow up and know where the lines were. Simple rules: don’t hit your sisterrespect your elders.

And complicated, important ones that became part of your character: how to pick your friends; how to use your smile, eyes and handshake to communicate; and most profoundly, the importance of children and community.

They fixed things at houses they didn’t own, gave rides to people who couldn’t return the favor, lent tools to people that had none, worked the grill at every barbecue. They made us feel safe.

I could feel the love and wisdom of these men through my friendship with Walter, and this connection is part of why I enjoyed spending time with him so much. I learned about his life: stints in the Black Panthers and Black Muslims, his time playing soccer at Fresno State, and what my neighborhood was like before I was born. I talked to him a lot about the challenges in my personal life and at work; he gave advice, told me I when I was full of it, and always smiled at the end to let me know everything would be alright.

When Walter retired from UC Davis, hundreds of people from decades of his life and career were there. People from literally hundreds of miles around. There were songs created, drums played, and jokes made — but most of all, there was deep gratitude for the tremendous impact he had on so many lives.

There aren’t many like Walter. I hadn’t met anyone in years with the wisdom and caring nature that defined him. I will miss him dearly and work everyday to build community the way he did.