Cherry Robertson: episodes in a generous, compassionate life

Published 12 January 2010

cherrybookCherry Robertson’s own children, and people who remember her as “the mother of the students” at the University of New England, have celebrated her generous and compassionate life as revealed in a newly-published book of her writings.

“The mother of the students” was the phrase in which UNE’s Associate Professor John Ryan, speaking at the launch of the book, encapsulated Mrs Robertson’s 24 years of dedicated service to the University.

Mrs Robertson – now a frail but courageous 99-year-old – was present at the launch, together with her daughter Suzanne, son John, and daughter-in-law Geraldine. Her son Richard and daughter Stephanie were not able to attend. Several representatives from Cherry Robertson’s time at UNE were also present at the launch – which was at Armidale’s Bupa nursing home, where Mrs Robertson now lives – as well as Sophie Bailey, acting manager of the nursing home.

Cherry Robertson: Episodes in the life of a very special person provides insight into the quietly remarkable life of the author of Long Youth Long Pleasure: Adventures Behind the Scenes of the University of New England 1956-80, Mrs Robertson’s previous book, published in 1982. While Long Youth Long Pleasure illuminates her founding and sustaining role in the University’s residential college system, Cherry Robertson places her achievements at UNE in the context of a life characterised by intelligence, sensitivity, and humanity. It conveys, in Dr Ryan’s words, “a zest for the seemingly mundane patterns of life and a celebration of their deepest meaningfulness”.

Geraldine Edith (Cherry) Johnstone was born in Balmain, Sydney, in August 1910, and married Hugh Malcolm Robertson at Griffith, NSW, on Christmas Day 1936.

Cherry Robertson begins with a “travelogue” chronicling her movements from town to town in NSW from 1910 to 1956 – first within the family of her father (a magistrate), and then with her husband (a bank manager) and their four children. In 1956 Hugh Robertson was posted to Armidale as manager of the town’s Rural Bank branch, where the family lived in the bank residence until Mr Robertson’s retirement in 1972.

The book includes pieces written by Mrs Robertson during her periods of residence in rural communities throughout NSW – writings reflecting her appreciation of (and involvement in) the struggles and personal triumphs of people living in such communities. It also includes some engaging memories, written in her later years, of her childhood and young womanhood. The chapters describing her work as a legal secretary – especially with Garfield Barwick (subsequently Chief Justice of Australia) – were of particular significance for her.

After devoting much of the previous 20 years of her life to being a housewife and mother, Mrs Robertson returned to the full-time workforce in 1956 to help finance the education of her children. After a brief period of work in UNE’s administration centre, she became secretary to the Warden of (town) Students, Ben Meredith, and played a major role in the establishment of two of the University’s colleges – first Robb College and then Drummond College.

Dr Ryan, in summarising her UNE career, spoke about Mrs Robertson’s service to town students, overseas students and external students, as well as to the college residents, and “her insightful participation in what we once so proudly called ‘adult education’ or ‘university extension'”. His appreciative comments on the book itself included high praise for a substantial piece, titled “University of New England Seminar in Indonesia, January 1967”, written after Mrs Robertson’s return from a tour of Indonesia by 66 Australians led by Arch Nelson, who was UNE’s Director of University Education. “It is perhaps one of the most insightful and memorable responses to Indonesia – especially in the 1965-1967 period – that has ever been penned in Australia,” Dr Ryan said.

Mrs Robertson’s daughter Suzanne, who works at UNE as a doctor in the University’s Medical Centre, prepared and published Cherry Robertson: Episodes in the life of a very special person from her mother’s papers. “These stories have been part of our family life,” Dr Robertson said. “Publishing them as a book at this time gives our mother recognition important to her in coping with a difficult condition, as well as providing a resource for those interested in the social and historical implications of her experiences.”

“This University has been graced by the life and work of Cherry Robertson,” Dr Ryan concluded. The book is a testament to that grace.

Cherry Robertson: Episodes in the life of a very special person is available from S. Robertson, PO Box 150 Armidale (phone 0414 954 650).

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here expands to show the cover of Cherry Robertson.