Growing up poor didn’t matter. Neither did being female. Twenty years on, a cadet returns home
By Sean Markey
Photographs by Karen Kasmauski
The Norwich Record | Winter 2020
Dawn Robinson ’99 was so excited for Homecoming, she left San Antonio nearly a week early. The civil engineer and her husband, Mark, a computer scientist and university professor, decided to bring the kids along, turning the trip to Vermont into a family vacation.
On Sunday, as they drove their rental car—with ten-year-old daughter Sarah and nine-year-old son Jake in the backseat—past the Northfield/Norwich University exit sign on Interstate 89, Robinson took a picture. She posted it on Facebook with a single-world caption: “Home.” Within an hour, it seemed, dozens of replies lit up her page. Sure, the post might seem a bit twee. But in Robinson’s case, the sentiment was real.
Robinson grew up in San Antonio, raised on a shoestring broken and tied many times over by her single mother. Still close to her dad, an Air Force medic, Robinson joined the JROTC program at John Jay High School, the largest cadet program in Texas.
Back in 1995 when Robinson entered Norwich as a rook, Shannon Faulkner was still making headlines at the Citadel, where she was receiving a vitriolic reception as its first female cadet. But unlike the Citadel or even the student corps at Texas A&M closer to home, being a female rook at Norwich was no big deal for Robinson. Women had served in the Corps at Norwich since 1974, one of the first among the country’s senior military colleges.
Which may have explained, in part, why Robinson felt at ease from day one. Maybe it showed, because her cadre chose Robinson to spend her first week as a rook tailed by an Associated Press television crew, who were on campus to film a counterpoint story to the ongoing drama at Citadel.
In the Corps, no one judged you by the clothes you had or the shoes you wore or the car you did or didn’t drive. Cadets all wore the same thing, anyway. “We were all gross, nasty rooks regardless of what your background was. We all started out the same,” she recalled. “Your background mattered so much less than who you were as a person.”
Robinson remained devoted to Norwich, a dream graduate for any alumni office. It was devotion to an institution that had welcomed her as she was and helped her become the adult she wanted to be. In return, Robinson stayed connected. Over the past two decades, there was hardly a year that went by that didn’t see her giving back, serving with the San Antonio alumni club or the university’s alumni association board.
Now, 20 years since graduation, it was time to meet with old friends and classmates. Robinson rented a Vermont farmhouse in a nearby valley with classmates Brian Gibbons ’99 and Jennifer Bruhn ’99 and their significant others.
On Monday, before most people arrived, Robinson and her husband took the kids to Bragg Farm Sugar House and Cabot Creamery. Everyone was having a blast, and, for once, Robinson got the timing right—trading the Texas heat for Vermont’s Indian summer. (Rather than being one of those “crazy people” she felt like as a student, i.e., someone who traveled to Vermont in the winter and returned home to Texas in the summer.)
The family fun continued and by Thursday, as other friends trickled in, Robinson and her husband, Mark, and the kids planned to meet up with friends to tour campus. Around 11 a.m., Robinson took a moment to pop into Mack Hall and peek at the new building’s lobby and auditorium. “Wow!” she exclaimed, stepping into the 460-seat theater. As a student, back in the days of Dole Auditorium, Robinson joined the Pegasus Players, first as chorus girl in a production of Cabaret, later as a stage hand. Now she wondered if she could go backstage in Mack, to see if Dole’s graffiti-covered, backstage brick wall had somehow been preserved. But the doors backstage in Mack were locked. No luck. Robison posed for a quick photo and hurried off to rejoin her family.
As the weekend drew closer, more friends and classmates and fellow alumni arrived on campus. That night, Robinson and her friends hosted a Bravo Company barbecue at their rented farmhouse. Gibbons brought and shared photos from back in the day, including some Robinson had never seen before. It felt amazing to see her younger self marching with her fellow cadets to get their junior rings. Robinson also spent time catching up with Bruhn, her former roommate.
On Friday morning, Robinson ran in the second annual Alumni Dog River Run with Gibbons and Andrew Neil ’99 and a squad of other classmates. The event was one that Robinson and her colleagues from the NUAA events committee had helped establish the year before. The chilly river couldn’t dampen her spirits. Robinson planned ahead—she was an engineer and a gal from Texas, after all—and brought a change of clothes so that she could shed her wet running gear.
That night, her outfit had changed again. Robinson wore a shimmery plum ballgown to the Bicentennial Gala in Shapiro Field House, complete with a petite fur shoulder wrap—a nod, perhaps, to oil boom high society. The former rook crowned it all with a tiara. She brought her family and spent the first part of the evening table-hopping to chat with friends from the Class of 1999 who were there. Maryanne Burke ’86 & P’18, another friend from the NUAA board, gushed over her tiara, borrowing it for a spell.
For her kids Sarah and Jake, the evening’s highlights included the rappel by the Mountain Cold Weather cadet from the field house ceiling and the thundering fireworks display that followed the Gala.
The next day, Robinson marched in the Alumni Parade and later received the Sustained Service Award from the NU Alumni Association. As she stood on Sabine Field before the announcement, her friend and former rook buddy Carey Regis ’99 found her there. The two were Facebook friends, but hadn’t seen each other in person since graduation 20 years earlier. Robinson was thrilled to catch up.
Like everyone else, they had been through so much together at Norwich. More than most at other schools. It was a kinship Robinson felt not only for Regis, but for nearly any Norwich alum, whether she knew them at school or not. It was a feeling that they would be the type of person she knew she could be friends with.
By Sunday night, Robinson and her family had flown the 2,000 miles and an extra time zone back to San Antonio. It felt good to be home, returning to work and school. A few days later, Robinson would reflect on her Homecoming experience and what it meant. “You tend to have lots and lots of memories … being at Norwich. But they do tend to get kind of sepia colored after a while.” The trip to Norwich changed that. Seeing everyone on campus again snapped her back in time, restoring vividness to memories from her life 20 to 25 years ago, at the place she also called home.