Scholar, musician, inspiring teacher. Born June 25, 1939, in Ottawa. Died Aug. 16, 2011, in Toronto of Parkinson’s disease and frontal lobe dementia, aged 72.
When his father was appointed Canadian ambassador to the Vatican in 1969, Emmet Robbins interrupted his promising career teaching classics at the University of Toronto to join his parents in Rome. Although John E. Robbins was ambassador, it was clear to any visitor that his vivacious son, a gifted linguist fluent in four languages and knowledgeable in many others, was running the embassy.
Emmet grew up in Ottawa with his older brother, Bernie. Their mother was Catherine St. Denis, from whom Emmet inherited his fluency in French and his vibrant personality.
Our first meeting was in 1953 in our Grade 10 class at Fisher Park High School in Ottawa. We quickly became best friends and shared many academic interests, beginning with music, in which Emmet excelled. He had virtually completed the requirements for the ARCT diploma when he was 12, a record he shared with Glenn Gould, for whom he once turned pages at a concert in Ottawa. Emmet never needed a page turner – he could memorize a Mozart concerto by flipping through the music in the half-hour before his lesson.
Not surprisingly, he had trouble choosing a career after high school: pianist? scholar? diplomat? After a year of deliberation, he enrolled in social and philosophical studies at the University of Toronto, where he ranked first out of 500 students. In his second year, he switched to honours classics, and received in rapid succession his BA, MA and finally PhD. After several years of travel and education in Italy and Austria, in 1972 he returned to U of T, where he rose to full professor in 1988 and chair of the department of classics from 1990 to 2001, when he retired.
A polymath by nature and education, academically Emmet will be remembered best for his sensitive and scholarly contribution to the understanding of Greek lyric poetry, particularly Sappho, while as chair of classics his diplomatic skills won new teaching positions.
His sense of humour, inherited from his mother, ranged from wit of words through whimsical and absurd situation to ribald comedy. Encountering a problem hanging his coat: “Ever since they did away with capital punishment, there has been a shortage of hangers.” His mother’s wit combined with his father’s thrift: In Vienna, he received a request to be godfather, and replying by telegram (which charged by the word), Emmet pared his response to a half word of assent, god-.
In his last five years of illness, we visited once a week at his nursing home, taking trips in search of ice cream in both fair and foul weather. On each visit, my last words, like my first, were always quoted from the teacher in whose class we first met, his highest praise: “You’re a good man, Emmet Robbins.”
By John Traill, Emmet’s friend and colleague.
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