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Northland trailblazer Cecelia Robinson retires from William Jewell College

Cecelia Robinson has a month to pack up scores of books, research notes, awards and memories she has accumulated after 34 years of teaching English at William Jewell College.

Robinson, who is the school’s first and only fully-tenured African-American professor, formally retired at the end of the spring of the semester this month. Former colleagues, students and friends said she is a trailblazer whose career as an educator and work as a community leader is worthy of emulation.

“She has been a model faculty member, an excellent teacher and a great mentor and role model for our students, and in our institution that is very important,” said college president David Sallee. “Just about in every way she has been a model of what a faculty member should be and what a citizen should be and we will miss her a lot.”

Robinson said that having reached retirement age, it was time to set and accomplish new goals, including a trip to China and continued work on various Northland causes.

“I would like to rest a little and live a little,” said Robinson, who grew up in Dallas and whose parents were educators. “I just have to adjust to not going to Jewell Hall every day. It was my special place in the universe.”

During a teaching career that spanned 42 years, Robinson has taught English at the high school and college levels. She began teaching in 1971 at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college in Texas. Robinson moved to the Kansas City area a year later after she married Ken Robinson, who grew up in the Northland.

Robinson said she and her husband enjoyed the small, close-knit community in Liberty. They became residents and were active in the local community. Ken Robinson passed away in 2011.

In 1972, Robinson became the first African-American teacher at Oak Park High School.

She said there were very few African-American families in the school district at the time.

“It is often through teaching that young people can see African-Americans in leadership roles other than sports and entertainment,” Robinson said. “Also, it is important for black youth to work, observe and communicate with teachers and professors who understand their culture, values, traditions and beliefs.”

During those years, Robinson also taught at Penn Valley Community College. In 1979, Robinson joined the English Department at William Jewell.

“At the time, Jewell was a small, Southern Baptist, liberal arts college and the majority of the students came from small religious, rural backgrounds and many had not seen an African-American in person,” she recalled. “They saw them on television, but to walk into the classroom, you had to prove yourself to them.”

Students such as Tara Moreland said Robinson has been positive influence on the campus.

“I also deeply admire Dr. Robinson for her strength,” said Moreland who graduated this month and plans to attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school in the fall. “For many of her years at the college, she was the only black faculty member and, I'm assuming, had to deal with the ignorance and politics that come along with a minority being in a position of leadership in our society.”

“She never let those negative forces distract her from her goal of educating students, and her confidence and courage in this respect serve as a wonderful example for the minority students at William Jewell,” she said.

Nearly 30 years ago, Robinson helped organize the Northland’s annual community celebration commemorating the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Earlier celebrations were held in churches but they grew larger each year. The annual event is now held in the John Gano Memorial Chapel on the William Jewell campus.

Over the years, Robinson has worked on behalf of various causes that championed racial diversity and understanding in the Northland. She has served on the Clay County Historical Millennium Board and the Rebuilding Together Liberty board. At William Jewell, Robinson directed the Jewell Writing Center and the college’s advancement board.

She also is a charter member of the Clay County African American Legacy Inc. and has worked to help restore the historic Garrison School in Liberty.

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a former classmate at Prairie View, said Robinson spent countless hours working to improve race relations not only at William Jewell but throughout the Northland.

“So, she will be missed and I hope someone, black or white, will be ready to step up and be the symbol of the kind of change that she has worked for now for 30 years,” Cleaver said. “I am certain that her presence is going to be missed greatly at William Jewell.”