Robert Anderson, 1944-2009: Pioneering student dedicated life to helping others
By Chris Horn
Though he holds a prominent place in South Carolina's modern history as one of three individuals whose admission desegregated the University in 1963, Robert Anderson spent most of his life far away from his native state and the alma mater he left 43 years ago.
"He was a spirit lifter, a generous soul who would give you everything."
But his death earlier this year has prompted an outpouring of remembrances, shining a fresh light on the quiet man who spent his life helping some of society's most downtrodden individuals.
"He was a spirit lifter, a generous soul who would give you everything," says Susan Raskin, a social worker in New York City and Anderson's companion for the past 22 years. "We met while working at the Bowery Shelter--which was kind of a strange place to fall in love--and I was always struck by his calmness.
"He could get through to people who were crazy and talking out their heads. He was drawn to helping those that most people are afraid of."
Anderson's early life was marked by a series of challenges: his father's untimely death; his experiences as a student at South Carolina, which included many acts of racism; and combat service in Vietnam.
James Solomon, one of Anderson's fellow African American students in fall 1963 who went on to a long and successful career in state government, recalls Anderson's campus life.
"After we enrolled in September, especially during the early months, Robert was harassed quite a bit," says Solomon, who was a graduate student in mathematics and lived off campus. "Guys would bang on his dorm door late at night. When he would go to the door, they'd run, and he'd never know who it was."
'Sharp, biting sense of humor'
Matthew Perry, now a U.S. District Court judge, was a prominent Civil Rights lawyer who filed lawsuits to integrate South Carolina and Clemson University. Perry represented Anderson and Henrie Monteith Treadwell and reminded them that what they were doing was worthwhile--and would invite opposition.
"You're talking 1963 when South Carolina's education system was rigidly segregated on the basis of race," Perry says. "We conferred with all of the plaintiffs in these cases to advise them of the societal attitudes as we perceived them, that they might look forward to some resistance on the part of some people. We didn't think it would rise to the level of violence like what occurred in Mississippi, but we made sure to acquaint them with what they might face."
Thorne Compton, an English and Southern Studies professor, was a freshman at the University when Anderson enrolled. He was on the University debate team with Anderson and remembered his "sharp, biting sense of humor. He took very seriously what he was doing here, but he didn't take himself seriously."
After graduating from Carolina in 1966, Anderson, a Greenville native, moved to New York City. A combat tour in Vietnam followed, and Anderson returned to the city to work in a series of social services assignments. He helped Cuban refugees, worked with mothers and children in the Bureau of Child Welfare, and ran an alcohol counseling program. Along the way he earned a professional social work degree from Hunter College.
After retiring from the city in 1995, Anderson worked 12 more years for the Veterans Administration, assisting at homeless shelters.
One of his social work co-workers shared this thought at Anderson's memorial service in January: "We hold our belief in the sacredness of life even--maybe especially--for the least among us. We sit at desks and do our damndest to persuade and cajole, to push the lost, the crazy, and the addicted into living one more day. ... People like Bob don't burn out. Everything that could burn out already had decades ago."
'He was glad he came back'
Raskin marvels at the kindness that was his trademark. "It was amazing that he was this gentle soul, a supportive and nurturing man, especially considering his experiences on campus, the death of his father, and Vietnam.
"He would let you talk to him about your problems, but he didn't put out his stuff. He would rather listen."
In 1988, Anderson returned to campus for the 25th anniversary of South Carolina's desegregation. Grace McFadden, a now-deceased history and African American Studies professor, had organized the event in hopes of promoting healing and understanding.
"We were walking across campus that day," Solomon says, "and he said he was glad he came back, that it had changed his perception of the University."
Though he is now gone, Anderson's legacy at South Carolina should never be forgotten, Solomon says.