Blog

Lead first, ask questions later.

By Ray Robbins
University Liggett School’s first Headmaster, 1969-1984

From a small rural Massachusetts village, I was the first in my family of five siblings to attend college. That was Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. Chemistry became my major.

Upon graduation in 1958 I began my NROTC commitment and spent the next two years (much of it seasick) aboard a US Navy minesweeper as its Engineering Officer, crossing the Atlantic twice. It was these deployments that first opened my eyes to a larger world, inspiring curiosity and travel that resulted, during my TASIS years, with travel to much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and extensively the Soviet Union in 1967. The latter led me to create a summer travel/study program, Project Russia, for very lucky and able college students. The stories that could be told about that summer travel, during the height of the Cold War, are enriching and endless.

In 1960 we moved to Cambridge, where I had been accepted into Harvard’s Master’s program in science education. Often life has proven to me to be instances of “being at the right place at the right time;” this was one of them. During that year I met Mary Crist Fleming, the director of The American School in Switzerland (TASIS) in Lugano, which led to Lenita’s and my moving to Lugano and my beginning my career as a science teacher. However, several months into that assignment, I was offered the headmaster’s position! That was the beginning of a long career of heading schools. Over the years, I can’t think of anything that could have been more satisfying. Life is about challenges and I was and am a firm believer in “one can do almost anything one sets one’s mind on.” At my advanced age now, I would probably add “within reason,” but then that was not part of my vocabulary! I am particularly grateful to the faith in me that was exhibited by Mrs. Fleming.

During those TASIS/Lugano years, Lenita and I began our family. Both our son Kris and daughter Heather were born in Lugano. At that point, it became clear that we had to look further ahead and consider the education of our children, which to us meant a return to the U.S. We spent a year in Hanover deciding and interviewing for headmaster ships. From these visits and interviews, the future “ULS” became our (and fortunately the search committee’s) first choice! For me, the challenge in accepting the position was to merge two institutions with long, laudable histories—and very devoted alums, many of whom were not happy with the idea of a merger! As you can imagine, I was inexperienced in what I was asked to do, but Lenita and I had youthful enthusiasm and energy going for us and we wanted to live up to the faith the search committee had in us. So, I began my American “headmastering” by the merging of these two fine schools. The years at ULS were very special for Family Robbins. We were fortunate to be in a school with so many caring, competent people.

Fifteen years is a long time to head a school. For me they were nearly as perfect as they could be. Problems? Yes. Solutions? Many. Rewarding friendships, endeavors, experiences? Many, many!

And for my family? We all think back on these fifteen years in Grosse Pointe with the feeling of warmth and “home.” Heather attended ULS from kindergarten through graduation; Kris first grade through graduation. College, marriage, their own families. . .it seems like a long time ago (and it was), but ULS, 510 Chalfonte, and those friendships that have been sustained over the years continue to be influential in our lives.

Also, we have fond memories of the family trips we organized over spring vacations—trips to Spain (touring) and skiing in St. Moritz and Verbier, Switzerland.

After Kris’s and Heather’s graduations from ULS, we felt it was also time for us to seek a new challenge; time was marching on. Leaving ULS was extremely hard; it was “home”! ULS in its generosity helped us spend a year of “looking for that challenge.” We first explored the creation for TASIS of a campus in Rolle, Switzerland, or Uzes, France. Neither of those projects seemed feasible, but during that time we developed the idea of a new educational program. In 1986 we created Swiss Semester in Zermatt, a coed, academic program for high school sophomores during their fall semester. It has been a fabulous success, about which we are very proud. We are pleased that the program continues under our son’s, Kris’s, leadership. I wish to add that in all my endeavors, University-Liggett has been a vital influence in all that we have done. Lenita, my children and I look back with gratitude for our Grosse Pointe years!

Ray Robbins was Head of School for University Liggett School until 1984. Upon his departure, the school established the Ray and Lenita Robbins Scholarship, in recognition
of their outstanding leadership and commitment to University Liggett School. Ray and Lenita reside in Hanover, New Hampshire.