Alumni Memories: Orem O. Robbins, ’36 BSB

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

When Orem O. Robbins graduated from Minneapolis West High School in 1932, he planned on going to work. But with the Depression crushing much of the U.S. economy, no employers wanted to hire a teenager with no experience. Then Robbins’ mother pulled him aside and told him she had saved $25—almost enough for one quarter’s tuition at the University. “You can start with this,” she said, “and make your own way.”

Robbins had wanted to major in electrical engineering, but the cost was too high, so he switched to the College of Arts and Sciences, where the business school was then housed. During the next four years, he took a full load of courses while working two or more jobs. He started out as a janitor at the University Bookstore and a dish washer at the Men’s Union.By his senior year, he’d worked his way up to book repairman and exam proctor. “I didn’t have time to do lots of the things that some of the other students did, like playing bridge, but I’m making up for that now,” says Robbins, a lively 94-year-old who lives in Florida. A serious student and long-time advocate of community service, Robbins won the 1936 Tomato Can Loving Cup Award.

After graduation, Robbins worked for AT&T in northern Minnesota. That experience—along with the military drill work the University required of all male students—led to a position in military intelligence during World War II. After the war, he earned a law degree from the University and later founded the Security Life Insurance Co. of America, which is now based in Minnetonka, Minn.

Robbins attributes the intellectual curiosity that fueled his career and his many philanthropic activities to his years at the University. “With education,” he says, “you get a thirst for knowledge.”