Robinson family is epitome of FHSU grit; named Tiger Alumni Family of the Year

alumni fam

By Diane Gasper-O’Brien
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. – Homecoming at Fort Hays State University has long been special for descendants of the Wallace and Shirley Robinson family.

For years, between 10 and 20 family members gathered on Saturday morning of homecoming to run the 5K race.

This year, more than two dozen of the Robinson children, their spouses, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are expected to be in Hays for the 2018 homecoming festivities. Not a single one is scheduled to line up for Saturday’s early-morning run, though, because this year, they have a lot of other activities on their homecoming agenda.

The Robinsons have been named the Tiger Alumni Family of the Year, a distinction which is in its second year and sponsored by the FHSU Alumni Association. Two dozen family members and their spouses attended Fort Hays State, and 16 of those graduated.

All nine of the Robinson children, who were raised in Hays, attended the hometown university, and all but two of those received bachelor’s degrees in areas ranging from speech pathology and psychology to business fields, from history to computer technology.

Wallace and Shirley Robinson grew up in east central Kansas, and both attended college in Emporia, where Wallace played football for Emporia State and Shirley attended a private school, the College of Emporia. They started a family before moving to Hays, where Wallace went into the wholesale ice cream business, King’s Quality Ice Cream, with his brother, George.

While Shirley took care of their growing family as a stay-at-home mom, Wallace helped run the business. One April day in 1964, the Robinson family’s lives changed dramatically.

Wallace filled in for one of his route drivers who was ill, and while driving the roads of northwest Kansas, the steering went out on the ice cream truck. The truck rolled, Wallace was thrown out and lost his life when he was pinned underneath the truck. Wallace was just 40 years old, and Shirley was left to raise their nine children ages 6 months to 16 years.

She used her husband’s life insurance money to build a new house in Hays, designed for a preschool in the home, which she ran for 30 years. All the while, Shirley stressed that each of her children would attend college, and she took classes at Fort Hays State herself.

“It was just always a given that we would all go to college,” said Ruth Heffel, the third oldest of the Robinson siblings (and oldest girl) who was 13 years old when her father died.

“I didn’t know people didn’t go to college,” added Heffel, who earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from FHSU and worked at Fort Hays State for more than 25 years.

The Robinsons all stayed close to home to continue their education and still remain active with their alma mater. An avid sports fan, Shirley attended Tiger athletic events, as well as other university activities, into her 80s. A Foster Grandparent at FHSU, Shirley died in 2006 at the age of 83.

Shirley’s children followed her lead in becoming involved in their university, then and now.

Heffel joined the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority, and her younger sisters, Sheryl Rogers and Sharon Irvin, later followed suit. So, too, did Rogers’ daughter, Kelsee Hirsch, who remains active with the sorority today along with Hirsch’s sister-in-law, Carin Rogers. Four of the Robinson brothers were members of fraternities during their college days.

“I gained sisters when I joined a sorority,” said Hirsch, who graduated with a bachelor of science in nursing in 2013.

Hirsch said that because of her experience at FHSU, her husband, Bryan, chose to attend there as a non-traditional student.

“We bragged about what a great school it was,” Hirsch said, “and Bryan’s younger brother and his brother’s wife decided to come to FHSU.”

While Fort Hays State means different things to different members of the family, Hirsch said she has “very few family members who haven’t been impacted by this institution. FHSU has been such a big part of my family’s lives and will continue to impact us for many more years.”

Hirsch, a registered nurse at HaysMed The University of Kansas Health System, said she tried to get the most out of her college experience while working toward her degree.

“I loved my experience as a student worker, nursing student, sorority girl and now an alum,” she said. “More than likely, my kids and nieces and nephew will be Tigers one day, and that makes me smile.”

Shirley Robinson surely would be smiling Saturday, knowing that nearly 30 of her family members were representing her family being honored by the FHSU Alumni Association.

“Mom would absolutely be thrilled with this,” Heffel said. “She wanted us all to go to college. We all had part-time jobs growing up, and she made it happen.”

Heffel recently retired from the HaysMed Foundation after a long, successful fundraising career. She said that while she and her siblings obviously learned a lot of responsibility growing up, she also credits her Fort Hays State education for her success.

“I believe, and I think all my siblings would agree, that the education we got at Fort Hays State was equal to, if not better than, any other university we could have gone to,” she said. “The hands-on experience we got at Fort Hays State was part of a quality education that surpassed any other. I know one of my nieces says that she would put herself up against anybody with what she learned at FHSU.”

That niece, Kayla Casey – who earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance in 2009 – and her husband, Allen, will be making the longest trip this weekend, traveling from their home in Moscow, Idaho.

The Robinsons’ oldest sibling, David, who lives in the Denver area, won’t be able to attend this year’s homecoming. But his eight younger siblings promise to fill him in on the weekend.

The other five brothers and their hometowns are: Greg, Weskan; Joel, Denver; Jamie, Topeka; and Mark, Westminster, Colo.; and Phillip, Aurora, Colo.

Heffel says her house will be “home base” for her brothers and her sisters – both who are making the trip from their farms near McCracken – and their families.

Heffel said the family always looks forward to getting together, but the alumni family honor makes it even more special this year.

“I was shocked when I heard we were chosen as the Tiger alumni family,” Heffel said. “Everybody is really looking forward to it.”

The Robinson family will ride in the 1 p.m. parade down Main Street Saturday, on a trailer behind the vehicle carrying FHSU President Tisa Mason and her husband, Bill. The Robinsons – who will range in age from 1 year old to 69 – will be dressed in gold Tiger T-shirts from the alumni association.

After gathering at the Heffel home for a “tailgate party,” the Robinson family then will attend the 7 p.m. football game between the Tigers and the University of Central Oklahoma, where the family will be recognized at halftime.

Cutline: A favorite Fort Hays State University homecoming activity for descendants of the Wallace and Shirley Robinson family over the years has been the 5K race. 

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