A Writer is Born—In a St. Ambrose Classroom


By Craig DeVrieze '16 MOL

It wasn't quite like pulling teeth. John Robinson's innate capacity for remembering events in vivid detail is an invaluable resource, after all, for a critically-acclaimed novelist, playwright, essayist, memoirist, and short story writer.

Still, Robinson was sitting in a dentist's chair, preparing to answer a question about when he started a career in writing. That's when he was hit with the realization that the series of essays he was constructing for a book called The Hungry Years wouldn't be entirely complete without a story about where-and more precisely how-his passion for his craft began.

It started at St. Ambrose. In the summer of 1967. In a class taught by Joe McCaffrey, PhD, a professor then scarcely older than Robinson's own 21 years.

"I was in the wrong major," said Robinson, who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business and Economics in 1968 and hasn't spent a day as a businessman since. "What was great about St. Ambrose was that they believed in the humanities, and so we were compelled to take these liberal arts classes. One of these was Joe McCaffrey's, and lucky for me."

The experience culminated with McCaffrey's declaration to his young student: "You are a born writer" and in that moment a writer indeed was born. "The rest of my life was lived on the other side of those words," Robinson recalled.

It's a life that includes 30-some years of teaching writing and literature at universities, high schools and secondary schools as a means to pursue his passion-writing.

His first teaching assignment was fresh out of St. Ambrose, as an eighth-grade teacher at Bryn Mawr Elementary in Chicago, where the future Michelle Obama was in the lower grades.

Robinson later spent two years in Europe, amassing experiences that have led to multiple essays in journals across the country, stories he will share more fully in The Hungry Years. The memoir will join a pair of previously published novels, several plays and one anthology on Robinson's writing resume.

The bulk of his teaching experiences were in New England, where he resides with his wife in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. "Teaching became a wonderful way for me to continue to write," Robinson said of a life far different from the one he imagined when he came to St. Ambrose College from his native Chicago, or even before he first set foot in McCaffrey's Philosophy of Man class that fateful summer.

"The great philosophers were extremely interesting and the discussions were powerful, the kind of things you hope you'll have in college," he said of the course that changed the course of his life. "You hope you're going to have a class like this. If you send your children to school, you hope they're going to have a class like this. I had one at St. Ambrose. And I thank God that I did."

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