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Allison Alexander (Robbie) Robertson (1921–1991)

by Ian Ross

On 28 July, A. A. Robertson, former head of Buildings and Grounds, died in Melbourne, aged 69.

Allison Alexander (Robbie) Robertson, born in 1921 in Adelaide, was a graduate in engineering from that university, obtaining a Distinction in Machine Design. He had worked for almost twenty years with the Electricity Trust of South Australia when he was appointed to the University in 1957, as Laboratory Manager of the Research School of Physical Sciences, while there he served on the Buildings and Grounds Committee, a connection which led in 1965 to his appointment as Planning Officer, reporting initially to the then Associate Registrar, Tom Owen, and subsequently (as Assistant Registrar) to the newly appointed Registrar (Property and Plans), David Dexter. The latter's retirement in 1978 coincided with the end of the University's expansionary building program. From 1979, Property and Plans was reorganised as the Buildings and Grounds Division, with Robbie as its Head. On his retirement in 1985 he was made an Honorary member of University House.

It was a matter of regret to many that during Robbie's headship of Buildings and Grounds, the University acquired not a single significant building to carry the Robertson stamp. Rather, it was his unglamorous lot to maintain, with a much reduced workforce, a building stock that was already showing its age, and, given increasing pressures for space, tactfully and imaginatively to find it.

Buildings deteriorate especially rapidly in their internal services and mechanical plant. Heavy calls were made on his eventual successor, Ken Harrison. Robbie's tenure should be remembered for their joint achievement in maintaining both the fabric of the University and its essential services and especially, when oil prices exploded, for eliminating the University's dependence on oil-fired boilers for heating. A National Energy Management Award displayed in the Chancelry lobby commemorates this work.

Robbie will, however, be even more remembered for his professional ability, his sensitivity (architectural and personal), his transparent fairness and honesty, his devotion to the ANU, his humanity - and his amazing handwriting. His dealings on the campus were marked by deep respect for the academic mission, and great patience in arriving at solutions with which all parties could be content. Notable testimony to the trust reposed in him from all quarters can be found in his having been asked, in 1977, to take responsibility for the University's industrial relations, then at their nadir. The transformation effected by his taking on this additional and ardous duty was swift and lasting.

Robbie loved all things mechanical. His garage long harboured a slightly cannibalised torpedo for which RSPhysS had no further use. He was, to the last, working on restoring a veteran Vauxhall tourer, for which task he had undertaken a panelbeating course at Reid TAFE (and he served on a succession of TAFE Councils for many years). Even more he loved old Rudge motorcycles: Robbie in his leathers, heading off to a rally, was a warming sight.

He treasured equally the staff of the University's workshops, and regularly lamented that the exquisite skills of particular craftsmen seemed to be inadequately rewarded. Some time after his retirement he was invited to provide advice on future directions for the University's workshop services. The Roberston Report is notable, particularly now, in this era of managerialism, for putting staff and effective service first, and administrative tidiness a distant second: which goes a long way to explaining his earlier success in the minefield of industrial relations.

In 1947, Robbie married Pamela Tenison-Smith. There were three children and all survive him. For all his devoted service to the University, there was never a doubt that his family came first. His former colleagues know how great was their loss when cancer claimed as good a man as they are likely ever to know.

Original publication

Citation details

Ian Ross, 'Robertson, Allison Alexander (Robbie) (1921–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

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