The journeys to the local library that Brandon A. Robinson ’05 MA ’10 recalls taking with his family literally set him on his life’s path. Brandon, barely past toddler age, walked beside his mother as she carried her other son in her arms, making the 2-mile roundtrip on foot from their home in Mocksville to the Davie County Public Library. It was the only way to get there. The family didn’t have a car. Inside the library, the young Brandon cultivated his newfound passion for books. He could read before he began kindergarten.
Now 34 and practicing law in Durham, Robinson says he remembers reading a children’s book about Martin Luther King Jr. in first grade. “My elementary school teachers routinely required us to select a book from the school media center, but I never thought of that as a chore,” he said. “My elective reading started about then, and has been a life staple ever since.” The first books Robinson read for pleasure as a teenager in middle school were about American presidents and founding fathers. He later visited WCU as a 16-year-old participating in a summer leadership program, and then attended an Open House. Robinson said he knew he wanted to go to college in Cullowhee before his high school graduation.
When he matriculated to WCU in August 2000, Robinson brought with him about 50 books. That October, he embarked on a self-directed endeavor that included reading more than 300 classics of Western literature by the time he received his bachelor’s degree in European history. “Almost every major Western philosopher was included in that project, and many great playwrights, poets, novelists, theologians and historians,” he said.
Robinson immersed himself in campus life, working as a resident assistant in Reynolds Hall for three years and serving on many campus committees. With a desire also to cultivate his knowledge and love for the masterworks of classical music, he took a course in music appreciation his first semester and became a regular attendee at the music program’s classical concerts. He had committed to memory 1,000 works of that musical genre before he received his undergraduate degree.
Brian Railsback, a professor of English and former dean of WCU’s Honor College, recollects having Robinson in his American literature class. “Brandon was a stand-out early on, and out of class we had discussions about the literature and the variety of works he was reading for his massive self-guided tour of the great books and writers of history,” Railsback said. “Fortunately for me, the conversations continued long after the class was over.”
As a WCU senior in December 2004, Robinson was chosen to deliver the primary address for the university’s fall commencement. After his own graduation, he went on to earn his master’s degree in American history at WCU, and then continued his formal education at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, where he received his law degree in 2013. The following year, he became the first African-American to be sworn into the practice of law in Davie County since its founding in 1836.
Even as a full-time practicing attorney, Robinson continues to be a voracious reader, and since finishing the 300-book project as a WCU undergraduate he has been working on shorter lists of 50 to 75 books focusing on a particular topic that take 12 to 18 months to complete. He also is currently writing two books – one about U.S. presidents and the other focusing on Reconstruction in North Carolina. He remains an active scholar, regularly publishing articles and reviews that address topics of law and history.
Robinson said he worries about “one of the most silent tragedies of American culture” – the decline of reading. “I think it portends negative consequences for American democracy,” he said. “Formal education is only a foundation that ensures, at least we hope, a level of basic competence and literacy. It cannot, however, alone equip our citizens with the context, perspective and critical thinking skills necessary to keep self-governing society viable. I think one of the most significant causes of our puerile and appallingly uninformed politics is a broadening public that does not take an active part in its own education. This allows a vacuum in which our mass media, driven by profits and ratings, can blithely supply us with reality shows, sound bites and entertainment, when it should be offering us a venue for lifelong learning.”
Currently serving as vice chair of WCU’s Board of Visitors, Robinson has returned to campus frequently over the years to continue his engagement in campus activities, including his presentation of the keynote address for the university’s 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Week. He also came back to Cullowhee in fall 2015 to accept the WCU Alumni Association’s Young Alumnus Award.
“My heart simply swells with gratitude when I think of Western Carolina University,” he said as he accepted the honor during a Homecoming Week awards ceremony. “WCU is not just where I went to college. WCU really is my family, and aside from the rugged hills of Davie County where my ancestors have roamed since before the Civil War, there’s no place on Earth more sacred to me than the Cullowhee Valley. It has been consecrated by the love, the investment, the sacrifice, the solicitude – all the wonderful things that I have gotten from professors, faculty, fellow students, staff members – everybody at Western.”
The online version of this story includes additional content not available in the print version.