THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“As I came to NOW and went to that first board meeting, I immediately adopted the label as a feminist. I identified as a feminist and I have ever since.”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, July 2022
KR: Thank you so much for being willing to tell your story to the VFA Pioneer Histories Project. I’m delighted to be talking with you today. Please start by telling us your name and when and where you were born.
JR: My name is Jim Robson. I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1942. I lived in Scranton for a few years. I was actually born into the same neighborhood at the same time as our president, Joseph Biden. His family were members of St. Paul’s Parish, and so was mine. As far as I know, we never made contact. I checked, and we weren’t in the same kindergarten or Sunday school together or anything like that.
KR: That’s great. Tell me what your growing-up life was like.
JR: We had a lot of activities in our home. My family was made up of some hotel keepers. We had a country hotel, a downtown hotel, and my aunt had a hotel in Harrisburg. At the age of five, my mother and father and I, an only child, moved to Harrisburg and managed the hotel there. It was known as the Thompson Hotel. That was our residence. We lived in the hotel for several years.
As finances ebbed and flowed, we lived in the hotel, or we lived in the suburbs, or we moved back into the hotel and back to the suburbs. It was a very active life. I went to parochial Catholic schools. I was active in ice skating and a lot of other healthy activities. When I was in first grade, most kids would come home by way of the city streets.
Not me. I came home by way of the alleys, and I looked for discarded radios. I brought them home when I found them and tore them apart. By the age of 14, I got my first amateur radio license. That was a big part of my teenage life because I belonged to a local radio club and all that kind of stuff. I was also part of the ham radio club in my high school.
KR: Where did you go from Pennsylvania?
JR: I graduated from high school, and I went into the Navy. on active duty, and I was in electronics. I was a reserve, so I only had a two-year hitch. My first year was on a communication ship, and my second year was on a PT boat.
The second year was very interesting because our boat was assigned to deliver SEAL team members to beaches and then pick them up in the dead of night with their rubber rafts. We just had a ball with that. My Executive Officer wanted me to re-enlist to go to Southeast Asia. But the SEALs at that time, who had already been there, said, “Man, unless you want a Navy career, it’s not for you. Don’t do it.” So, I decided to accept my Honorable discharge and avoid the adventure in “Southeast Asia” aka Vietnam, in 1963.
KR: At some point, you ended up in Milwaukee.
JR: Right. A lot of my Navy training was done in Great Lakes, Illinois, which is near Milwaukee. On weekends, a lot of my liberty was taken in Milwaukee. I made friends at the USO up there and volunteers would take us to college dances and church. I really enjoyed it. But the most interesting thing was the Milwaukee School of Engineering, so I wanted to attend and at least get an Associate Certificate, or possibly an Electrical Engineering degree. I went to the school for two years, but those dreams didn’t really materialize. I wasn’t a great student. I had other activities that I enjoyed.
KR: You got involved in the open housing marches while you were in Milwaukee?
JR: Right. In about 1967, I got involved with a local parish priest in Milwaukee named Father James Groppi. He organized marches to the segregated sections of Milwaukee. His parish was mainly black. He was white, but he very much loved his people and wanted to see them advance and succeed. He started these civil rights marches, and I joined in. At one point those marches landed me in jail for a long weekend.
I happened to meet my future wife, Mary Jean Collins, on those marches. We marched together for civil rights. Mary Jean and I fell in love, and we had so much in common because of our involvement in the civil rights movement and our Catholic faith, and we really formed a great relationship. We soon got married 1n 1968.
I got a job opportunity in Chicago so Mary Jean and I moved to Chicago however, we missed the civil rights movement. There wasn’t the racially integrated civil rights movement as there was in Milwaukee.
It was mostly black, and we didn’t feel quite comfortable or welcome in the civil rights activities in Chicago. I did attend a few of Jesse Jackson’s rallies, but it wasn’t the same. But along came NOW, and Mary Jean said, “Hey, let’s go to the NOW conference in Washington.” That was 1968. It was the second NOW conference. We attended and it was the beginning of a really big thing.
KR: One of the things that was unusual is you took each other’s names and you both had a hyphenated name, right?
JR: Yes. I was known then as Jim Collins-Robson, and she was known as Mary Jean Collins-Robson. We really enjoyed that and embraced that at the time.
KR: I remember one time I was traveling with her. We were in an airport, and the person behind the desk saying to her, “Collins-Robson. What an unusual last name.”
JR: Yes. We got a lot of that. We both did.
KR: Tell the story of what happened once you got to Chicago, got involved in NOW, and all of the above.
JR: Another activity in 1968 in Chicago was the Democratic National Convention. That was a contest between Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey. I just loved Eugene McCarthy to pieces and did everything I could to support him. I went to Vermont to campaign for him. I was just sold on him for the presidency.
The Democratic Convention brought along with it what some people called riots in Grant Park. They were earliest demonstrations of support for the democratic party to take an antiwar position, which was the main difference between Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. McCarthy was antiwar. All of the people in Grant Park at the demonstrations were antiwar, including myself. That left me with a very strong taste for the antiwar movement.
Soon after that, we went to the NOW conference, and I still had that antiwar fervor, and I wanted to convert NOW to an antiwar organization. That was the last thing in the world that Betty Friedan wanted. I made a motion on the floor and got the motion seconded. Then skillfully, Betty called for lunch before the vote could be held. As she would, she got me into a corner during lunchtime and just convinced me that making NOW identify with the antiwar movement would have been divisive to the membership in NOW because at that time, the membership in NOW was quite diverse.
We had nuns from a college. The nuns were on the board of directors. We had Republicans and Democrats from all over the country. For us to adopt an antiwar position would have been very divisive and Betty convinced me of that. When we got back from lunch, I withdrew my motion from the floor, and she was so happy because she didn’t want to fight that battle.
KR: She was amazing.
JR: Later on, at the convention, I was elected to the board of directors of National NOW. Again, Betty approached me and said that she had more important work for me to do, and if I would just be patient, she would get me involved in another way. Once I withdrew that motion and accepted Betty’s suggestions to withdraw from the board of directors, she and I bonded. She appreciated that I was flexible enough to listen to her wisdom and her guidance by doing what was best for NOW.
KR: What was it she had in mind and what ended up happening?
JR: During all this time, Mary Jean and I had been very active in the Chicago NOW chapter. I took upon myself the publication of the monthly newsletter and I was the leader of the direct-action committee, which meant we were leading sit-ins into men’s bars, men’s grills. We also got involved with the United Airlines stewardesses who were opposed to the men-only flight that was from Chicago to New York. I think it was a once-a-week flight; it was only on a Friday afternoon.
We joined the flight attendants in their street rally/presser opposing that. That resulted in quite a bit of publicity for NOW. I had taken off from work that day, and my employer saw me on TV supporting the flight attendants position. He got me aside and said he didn’t want to see me on TV anymore. Unfortunately, he did, but even so didn’t do anything about it.
Along came the 1969 NOW National Convention, which was in Chicago. In all that activity, the newsletter and everything, we had purchased a mimeograph machine and an IBM Selectric typewriter and we had members of the NOW chapter who were stenographers and typists, and they volunteered to help. We organized the convention so that we took notes of the proceedings and then published them and had them ready for the members in the morning. That impressed a lot of people. They thought, wow, this Chicago chapter has got it together. We gained more than a little favor from the output if that old mimeograph. So near the end of the convention, some of the board, including Betty Friedan, approached me and asked me if I could do something about organizing a NOW national office.
Until that time, there was a wonderful woman named Dolores Alexander, who lived in Manhattan, on the East Side. She was doing her best to manage the records in shoe boxes kept under her bed. That was NOW’s beginning of record keeping.
The board recognized that we were growing and we needed a bigger operation to be a national office. They didn’t want employees. They invited me to start a company, to be a service company for NOW. I did that, and we called it C-R Office Programs. The C-R stood for Collins-Robson. We found an office space on the south side of Chicago on 73rd Street and went on from there. That was late ’69.
We started with that one mimeograph machine and the one typewriter. We soon had to move to a larger building because it was rapidly growing. But the story I always like to tell is that in 1969, when I received the official NOW membership records from Dolores Alexander, I bought an old Addressograph machine, which is a big cast iron typewriter thing that made metal plates of names. They were like a dog tag with the stamped name. I typed every member’s name in manually.
And when I was done, I counted 89 members. That was the entire membership of NOW in 1969. Many people, of course, identified as NOW members, but who actually paid dues and got on the rolls, there were 89. From then on it just mushroomed. The assigned task of C-R Office Programs was to publish newsletters, and to print new member packets for chapters.
When a chapter would form, they could write to the national office, and we would send them a package of new member packets. That was our main role at that time. And then, of course, to receive the incoming membership records and funds from the individual chapters and put them into the Addressograph system. Those next couple of years were quite explosive. Then we had to modernize with a computer card system, and it was a lot more modern than the Addressograph.
We had a staff of about, I think it peaked at around 12. We had a shipping clerk. He spent his whole day at the shipping table, packaging and sending membership materials to chapters. We had people who maintained the incoming membership records. As our production demands accelerated, I was handy with machinery, so I scoured the classified ads for used printing presses. I started with one, and I was able to repair and make that work very well. They were called Multilith presses, which was an actual offset printing press. I don’t want to bore anyone with details of the machinery, but suffice it to say we accumulated quite a bit of equipment to do what needed to be done. It was fortunate that I was handy with the equipment and that sort of thing because it allowed us to grow quickly on a limited budget.
KR: I remember that office really well. It was always busy, and there was always printing going on. It was, for the time, very sophisticated. We’re talking about early ’70s at this point. It was really humming along and busy.
JR: One of our press operators was a young woman, Darlene Kemerer (Kem). She later went on to be the multi term president of Chicago NOW, and after that became the first female officer of the Madison Wisconsin police force where she retired. She is now well remembered in this VFA Pioneer Histories Project. The shop was almost state of the art. As we approached the mid 70s, we had a lot of encouragement to get computerized. We did a lot of inquiries on it and it never really materialized because as things grew it mushroomed, the growth rate became so large that even though our office was efficient and had very smart, dedicated people and good equipment, we could not keep up with that exponential growth rate.
There were a couple incidents. One, which was very embarrassing, was that there was a fundraising mailing that we were supposed to get out at some point in late ’74, I think it was. It just didn’t get out on time. It was supposed to go out in November, and it didn’t go out until late January. That was an indication to the board that we were starting to get over our heads. (I was later informed by Mart Jean Tulley, President of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, that the mailing had been extremely successful and helped create a new direct mail fund raising “season”.)
They started looking for other resources, and they sent me on trips to interview potential vendors to take over that role, the vendors that had computer equipment that could absorb the growth rate. We released that responsibility just in the nick of time because soon after that, from the 89 members, it grew into the hundreds of thousands of members in the late ’70s. I’m glad we didn’t get crushed in that.
KR: Your time at the national office ended when?
JR: We started in ’69, and it ended late ’74.
KR: What happened after that? You closed down the office, I would assume.
JR: Yes. We closed the office. There were tensions going on at that time. Mary Jean and I saw fit to part company. That was ’74, ’75. We still maintain our friendship and we are Facebook friends, and we still communicate, but we weren’t compatible in that sort of way.
KR: You got caught in the politics in NOW at that point as well.
JR: Yes, indeed. I went to a national board meeting in Baltimore. At that time there were some tensions between me and a board member named Jo Ann Evans-Gardner. Jo Ann had a company called KNOW, Inc., She felt that she could manage the national office in a good way also and sometimes found fault with my operation, which may have been justified. We weren’t perfect, that’s for sure.
I want to interject that during a lot of that time, I had a drinking problem. At that time in that board meeting in Baltimore, I was drunk. Jo Ann got up and said something about my company and me, and I just got up and called her a dirty name. That was the beginning of the demise of my company.
Since that time, Jo Ann and I have met at a VFA dinner in New York, and I made amends to her for that, and she forgave me. We ended with no ill feelings about that. But I’ll add that since that time, in fact, during the time that I made amends to her, I had begun a recovery program. By the grace of God, I’ve been clean and sober for over 36 years (as of 2022), and for any mistakes that I made during that time, I sincerely apologize to the board and to the members of NOW.
KR: That is very generous of you to say because you did an amazing job for NOW. I was there during most of that time, and I know how you guys worked and what a great job you did. From my side, there’s nothing but gratitude and thanks for everything you did. Anything further that we haven’t covered?
JR: At the time we were in Milwaukee on civil rights marches, if someone said, “Are you a feminist?” I would have said, “What’s that?” As I came to NOW and went to my first National Conference, I immediately adopted the label feminist. I identified as a feminist then, and I have ever since. I still feel that equality of women and the justice that’s deserved, to me, is a matter of course. I value that as a treasure of my life, that I gained that wisdom through my association with so many wonderful feminists in NOW.
KR: And also, through the work you did. You helped change the world for women too, so you should be proud of that.
JR: Thank you Kathy. And your contribution to the women’s movement, was and continues to be enormous.