The legend of Robert Stevenson lives on in the form of a graduation gown

Bill Chamberlin (B.A., 1967; Ph.D., 1977) unzipped a long bag and pulled out a purple, velvet graduation gown that looked fit for royalty. Previously owned by Robert Stevenson (Ph.D., 1974),

Bill Chamberlin unzips the bag to reveal Robert Stevenson's gown. Photo by Erica Thompson

Bill Chamberlin unzips the bag to reveal Robert Stevenson’s gown. Photo by Erica Thompson

Chamberlin held it up to Jason Gilmore (Ph.D., 2013), while balancing the tam atop Gilmore’s head. Although much different than the certificate awards that had been handed out earlier in the night at the 2013 Celebration of Excellence on June 4, the meaning was evident.

Robert (Bob) Stevenson, who passed away in 2006, became a world-renowned scholar of international communication during his 40 years at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where he was famous for his teaching and hospitality of international students, and world-wide travel. He spoke in 134 countries, including academic conferences and responding to university and government invitations. He also opened his home to hundreds of foreign students – providing them a place to stay, entertainment at brew pubs, and gourmet home-cooked meals.

Although Stevenson died nearly a decade ago, his good friend, fellow University of Washington alum, and colleague at UNC Chapel Hill, Bill Chamberlin, was able to fulfill a mission this June that Stevenson requested before his death. Stevenson wanted Chamberlin to wear his doctoral gown until he retired and then pass along the European-style gown to honor a UW Ph.D. student who exemplified excellence and commitment to international studies.

For Stevenson, Chamberlin said, his “gown was a very important symbol of who he was and he made it very clear to me that he didn’t want it lost, thrown into a trash heap, or put away in a closet never to be seen again. He thought it was important that it be given to a worthy international student.”

COMPLETING THE MISSION

When Chamberlin retired in 2008, he asked the Department Chair David Domke to eventually recommend a student worthy of representing Stevenson’s international tradition. This year Domke decided that Jason Gilmore fit Stevenson’s interests.  Gilmore had spent most of his adolescent years in Mexico and is passionate about international communication, studying the relationship between United States and Latin America.

“When I was first talking with Bill about Bob, Stevenson’s name didn’t necessarily ring an immediate bell, but it itched a little bit in the back of my head,” Gilmore said. “So I looked through this stack of print outs from my first and second year here when I was exploring what international communication was and sure enough, about halfway through the stack was a piece by Bob from 1994 talking about international communication research and how difficult it is.”

Gilmore said the article is still relevant today and that he agrees with the points made. Gilmore had planned on renting a robe for the graduation ceremony and then buying one several years from now, but was honored to be awarded with Stevenson’s gown.“To me, the robe is a piece of pretty amazing history,” Gilmore said. “Maybe I didn’t know Robert’s work extensively, but what I do know is that he’s one of the pillars of international communication research and one of the first people who ventured into a field that was seldom examined.”

Gilmore is now interested in passing the gown on after he is done with his career about 40 years from now to start a tradition, which Chamberlin thought was a great idea. Jason found a tag that said the gown was purchased in 1991, making it already 22 years old.

Gilmore said he rarely looks for anything in the world that is brand new, instead searching for one-of-a-kind pieces with character and history. “It will be a dated robe when I finish using it, but I think that’s the cool part about it,” Gilmore said.

Gilmore also wants to be known as a person who is receptive to international students, as Stevenson was, because he knows what it feels like to grow up and study in another country.

“Even though we see lots of international students around here and may think ‘oh, they look like they’re doing just fine,’ it’s a lot more difficult than we perceive it to be,” Gilmore said. “I hope that I can carry on not only the tradition of the robe, but that idea that I would be the person to whom international students or people interested in international communication research would gravitate to.”

Robert Stevenson wearing his UW polo. Photo courtesy Bill Chamberlin

Robert Stevenson wearing his UW polo. Photo courtesy Bill Chamberlin

With his background and current interests, the meaning behind the robe worth $1,000 meant more than the monetary gift.

“I felt I was chosen for something that fits me well,” Gilmore said. “Not just the fit of the gown itself, but there is a connection between Bob and me. Not that we’re the same people or anything like that, but I think he and I probably would have enjoyed some beers over some barbecue while talking quite a lot about the state of affairs in the world and the discipline.”

Chamberlin presented the robe to Gilmore at the Celebration of Excellence and Jason wore it at graduation on June 13. In his presentation, Chamberlin said that the gown could be looked on as simply a beautiful piece of cloth, but that materials take on the meaning and symbolism that human beings give them.

“A table is a table only because we call it that and things such as the robe have the value we attach to it,” he said. “There is value in this robe not only because the University has put value in it, but also because the first wearer of the robe was somebody with a real commitment to international studies, who lived that life and who wanted the robe to represent that life and be given to someone who had an equal commitment.”

THE STEVENSON-CHAMBERLIN CONNECTION

There is one part of the story yet to be told – the totality of the University of Washington contribution. Chamberlin first met Stevenson in 1973, knows his family well, and unintentionally followed Bob around the country for several years before they met.

“Bob’s mom was a teacher, and his dad a small farmer in a very small Wisconsin town, Poy Sippi,” Chamberlin said, “but Bob excelled at the ‘big city’ high school in Berlin several miles away.”

Stevenson then went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison a little before Chamberlin attended a different UW, the University of Washington. Bob served in the military in Germany, a country he loved and became closely tied to his academic career, and Vietnam, and returned for his master’s degree, leaving Madison just as Chamberlin arrived for his master’s program.

Meanwhile, Stevenson worked at what was then the U.S.I.A.  He was talked into leaving Washington, D.C. a year before Chamberlin arrived in that city so his wife Jeanne could get her master’s in librarianship. At the end of that year, during the summer President Nixon resigned, Chamberlin arrived at UW in Seattle for his doctoral degree in communication, just one year after Stevenson had started there.

“In the late summer of 1973, after Jeanne and I followed Bob from coast to coast for at least a half dozen years, we still hadn’t met,” Chamberlin said. “It was at the University of Washington that I first saw Bob although we were in different parts of the doctoral program and did not interact a lot.”

Bill Chamberlin balances the tam atop Jason Gilmore's head at the 2013 Celebration of Excellence. Photo by Erica Thompson

Bill Chamberlin balances the tam atop Jason Gilmore’s head at the 2013 Celebration of Excellence. Photo by Erica Thompson

Stevenson was in the social science part of the program and Chamberlin studied law and history, but the UW was the slow beginning of a special friendship. Stevenson finished his Ph.D. and was hired at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “one of the best state universities and communication programs in the country,” Chamberlin said. “And either there is a god watching over me or I’m a lucky guy, but UNC had an opening in my specialty that they chose me for one year later.”

Stevenson had put in a good word for Chamberlin during the hiring process and greeted him and his wife in the 100 plus degree weather as they rolled up in a U-Haul in North Carolina. He had dinner ready for them and a relationship began between all three of them that none of them could have expected.

“Bonding is a mystery thing and you can never predict it, but over the 11 years that we were in Chapel Hill Bob, Jeanne, and I really found each other,” Chamberlin said. “We were as close to brother and sister as you can get.”

Stevenson came over every Sunday night to get ready for the week, he had lunch with Chamberlin almost every noon hour, and the two taught each other professionally, based on their strengths and weaknesses.

“Bob taught me how to work with graduate students and I tried to teach him a little bit about how to teach,” Chamberlin said. “Teaching was my skill, research was his skill…and we talked all the time about the limits of graduate education and how to do things differently.”

Over time, they both worked their way up to director of the master’s program, the doctorate program, and the graduate program – Stevenson always a year ahead based on his experience. Then in 1987 Chamberlin got an offer he couldn’t refuse from the University of Florida to develop a graduate program with an emphasis in law.

Bill Chamberlin and his wife Jeanne at his retirement party in 2009. Photo courtesy Bill Chamberlin

Bill Chamberlin and his wife Jeanne at his retirement party in 2009. Photo courtesy Bill Chamberlin

Stevenson and the Chamberlins remained close friends after the move and on Thanksgiving Day six years ago the intensity of the bond became apparent. The Chamberlins generally invited foreign students into their home for a Thanksgiving feast, but Jeanne somehow knew that they were supposed to go to Chapel Hill that year.

“There are times when I believe in women’s intuition or Jeanne’s instincts or whatever they are,” Chamberlin said. “Going to Chapel Hill was the last thing I thought about, it wasn’t even an option, but Jeanne has a quiet will about her and she enforces it seldom enough that when you see that strength, you’re a believer – at least when you’re her husband.”

When they got to Chapel Hill, they could see that Stevenson was weak. He started panting after 500 yards “like he was in the war zone.” They had a tradition of visiting European art museums and chose to see a special European art exhibit the Saturday after Thanksgiving on the way to the Chamberlin’s flight home.

“He was stumbling as he walked away from the museum and I had to catch him in my arms as he fell for the last time in his life,” Chamberlin said. “It’s not something you forget.”

The legend of the two Husky friends lives on in the form of a graduation gown at the UW Department of Communication. Although Stevenson was never the type that would seek out recognition and mocked those who wanted buildings named after them, his gown was different. He wanted it to stand for something.