Sally and Russell Robinson’s lives of service sprouted from summer camp

05/17/2014 4:58 PM

03/03/2015 12:29 PM

Sally Robinson was just 7 when her older brothers came home from summer sleep-away camp with a full-color catalog advertising a sister camp in northern Georgia.

For months, she pored over the pages every evening after supper, begging her parents to let her go. When she turned 8, it was finally time.

Her mother helped her pack a brown foot-locker full of T-shirts, shorts, swimming suits and socks, and sent Sally off to Camp Chattooga for 8 weeks.

Little did they know the summer of 1942 at camp, and the four that followed, would instill in young Sally a love of leadership, a spirit of independence, an inclination to find solace in nature and decadeslong friendships.

“Even though I was just 8, I learned to value self-reliance,” Robinson said, remembering back to that first summer. “I began to feel more independent at camp.”

Sally Robinson and her husband, attorney Russell Robinson, are two of Charlotte’s most admired and ardent community leaders.

Russell Robinson, 82, is a founding partner of one of North Carolina’s largest law firms, Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson. He has spent decades serving as trustee of the Duke Endowment, UNC Charlotte and Duke University, among other leadership roles.

Sally Robinson, 80, served as a founding member of the Levine Museum of the New South, the St. Francis Jobs program (now the BRIDGE jobs program), and has been on the boards of the Arts & Science Council, the Charlotte Symphony and the McColl Center for Visual Art, to name a few.

This year, the Robinsons are the honorary chairs of the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund.

The fund raises money to send kids from low-income families to day and overnight camps. Thanks to the generosity of readers, as well as matching grants and corporate donations, more than 260 kids will attend 14 camps this summer. This is the fund’s sixth year.

“The leadership skills we learned at camp have led us to be interested in serving in community roles,” Sally Robinson said.

“Russell and I were fortunate in that our parents were able to send us to camp, and so it would be our great hope that every child who wanted to go to camp could go,” Robinson said on a recent morning, sitting with Russell on a bench along a woodsy trail on the couple’s property off Wendover Road.

“But we know that’s not the case,” she continued. “That’s why the Observer (summer camp) fund is so important.”

Russell Robinson, who attended Camp Kanuga and Camp Carolina in the North Carolina mountains for four summers, said his summers at camp made him see the outdoors as a safe retreat from life’s hassles.

“It’s a scientifically established fact that a connection with Mother Earth is necessary for the emotional and behavioral well-being of people,” Russell Robinson said. “Young people who grow up in the concrete of the city, that’s a gap in their development.”

For the Robinsons, going outdoors and back to the camp mentality has always been an antidote to the pressures of work and community projects.

So when the couple decided to build a new home in 1967, they picked a spot with plenty of land for walking trails and outdoor nooks.

When the stresses of community leadership mount, Sally Robinson said a walk through the woods provides the release valve she needs. “There’s something about a hike through the woods that gives me a great sense of peace. My mind is clearer when I get back.”

As an adult, Russell Robinson organized an annual backpacking trip with close male friends – a tradition that spanned 25 years, into his 70s. No matter where the trip took them, whether to the Colorado mountains or the Alaska wilderness, “it was so important in regaining balance,” he said.

And he said he has camp to thank for ingraining in him essential safety skills – such as how to swim with a buddy – that would prove valuable in his lifelong adventures.

“We learned risk awareness and risk avoidance,” he said.

Russell and Sally Robinson sent their own three children to summer camp. And their love of the outdoors has trickled down to their grandchildren as well. Two became camp counselors and two earned the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts.

Sally Robinson smiles as she tells one of her favorite camp stories.

She was on an overnight canoe trip on Aug. 14, 1945, when she looked up to see a small plane writing “VJ” in the sky – signaling the end of World War II. Her four older brothers were in the war, so to learn of the Japanese surrender was an enormous relief.

“To see ‘VJ’ in the sky was just incredible,” she said.

She still has the letters she and her mother wrote to each other during her summers at camp, and although about seven decades have passed, she still remembers writing each one and how it felt to receive notes from mom in the mail.

“Camp meant so much to me.”

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