From altar boy to Marine Corps general

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If you ask Ken Robinson, he'll tell you he has been a parishioner of St. Agnes Church in Arlington since 1948. In-between his sophomore and junior years at Boston College, the now 81-year-old retired Marine Corps general visited that parish for the first time while attending "summer camp" at Marine Corps Base Quantico.

St. Agnes became something of a spiritual headquarters for Robinson, a place where he could return after 33 years of service with the Marines, and a place where he continues to share his gifts and talents to further the Church's mission.

Robinson was raised in the Faith, educated in Catholic elementary and high schools and greatly influenced by the Jesuits at Boston College. Growing up in the 1930s in Swampscott, Mass., just north of Boston, Robinson was an altar boy, a Boy Scout and a drugstore soda jerk. He attended St. John the Evangelist School in Swampscott, St. Mary's High School (for boys) in Lynn, Mass., and Boston College.

While at St. Mary's, Robinson met Marie, his future wife, who attended St. Mary's High School for girls. After a party one evening, he walked her home in the middle of a snowstorm.

"It was one of those New England snowstorms where there was no traffic and we could walk down the middle of the street," he said.

Their snowy walk resulted in six decades filled with faith, love, family and a whole lot of moving boxes.

From Jesuits to Marines

In his four years at Boston College, Robinson encountered a "rich faith experience" in the presence of the Jesuits.

"There was a constant awareness," he said. "We were never far from our faith there."

But, he added, "it's one thing to be faithful while you're parading around under the care of the Jesuits," he said. "It's another thing when you are alone."

When Robinson graduated in 1950 with a major in English and a minor in education with thoughts of being a teacher, the Marine Corps offered him a training position in Quantico. He accepted, married Marie in September 1951 (when his train derailed the night before the wedding, he had to hitchhike part of the way to Massachusetts), and the couple honeymooned in Lorton, next to the jail.

After a year in Quantico, Robinson accepted an "all-expense paid tour" to Korea, he said, on the assurance that he would get a round-trip ticket. Robinson and his fellow Marines lived in tents, slept on cots with a sleeping bag and coveted "dressers" made out of orange crates.

"It was strange and a bit frightening," he said.

He sought out opportunities to go to Mass in the field whenever there was a chaplain nearby. While in Korea, he got word that Marie had given birth to their baby boy, Edward Kenneth.

"That made getting home more rewarding," he said. "I left one, and I came home to two."

After Robinson's yearlong tour, he put Korea behind him physically and mentally, and headed home to his growing family. The Robinsons moved to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he served as company commander. Robinson spent some time in Puerto Rico before he was asked to report for duty at the Pentagon. In response, the family relocated to south Arlington, and the now two children, Edward and Elaine, began attending Blessed Sacrament School in Alexandria. As a Marine Corps captain in his 20s, Robinson had the responsibility of briefing the chief of naval operations, who is the senior military officer of the U.S. Navy and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"At a very young age I learned some of the ways Washington works," Robinson said. "But hobnobbing with hierarchy comes to a screeching halt when you come to your next duty station. When you go back to the Marine Corps (as a captain), a major is next to the Lord."

One tour to the next

After three years at the Pentagon (during this tour the Robinsons welcomed "Ruthy" into the world), Robinson went back to Quantico for another year of school. He then was ordered to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, in-between Los Angeles and San Diego, Calif., to prepare for active duty with the Fleet Marine Force in the Western Pacific.

The family joined him for the two years he was in California, then went home to Massachusetts while Robinson went to sea. By then, the couple's fourth child, Doris, called Danae, was born, and Robinson had been promoted to major.

While with the 7th Fleet, Robinson planned training landings for troops in Australia, China, Thailand, the Philippines and Korea. When he got back to California, he flew back to Massachusetts, picked up his family and drove to Vallejo, north of San Francisco, for his next tour.

"After being apart for a year, we suddenly had a year of togetherness where the kids could walk across the street to Daddy's office and often did," he said. "It was a great family tour."

In California, the Robinsons welcomed their fifth and youngest child, Gordon, named after Robinson's only brother.

The family headed back to the East Coast, where Robinson, now lieutenant colonel, worked as a speech writer at Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington. The family resettled in Arlington, and "we've been there ever since," Robinson said.

Kind of.

After attending Fort McNair Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Fort McNair in Washington, Robinson led an infantry battalion in the Vietnam War. His time southwest of Dà Nang was comparable to "being the father of 1,200 teenagers," he said. He assisted in the planning and carrying out of operations and helped with racial tensions among the Marines. He lived out his faith by continuously supporting the chaplains in their work of promoting the "values of the homeland" to the young Marines. The day he arrived back in San Diego, he was promoted to colonel.

Back in the United States, Robinson earned an MBA in finance, which paved the way for the next phase of his life. He was promoted to general and was assigned as commander of the Marine Corps Base in Okinawa, Japan, in 1975.

"My job was to improve the readiness of the combat units by providing equipment they could use in non-combat situations so their other equipment could be packed and ready to deploy," he said.

He, Marie and Gordon spent four years in Japan, with the other children visiting at intervals.

In addition to his duties as general, i.e., working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, in his last year, commanding the 3rd Marine Division, Robinson again worked closely with the base chaplains.

In 1979, the Robinsons returned to Camp Pendleton, where Robinson served as base commander until 1983, when he retired after 33 years with the Marines. Before he left California, he was named an "honorary chaplain" for all the support he gave them in their duties.

The 'honorary chaplain' goes home

After his retirement from the Marines, Robinson headed home to Arlington and to St. Agnes. In January 1984, he was named CEO of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, a post he held for 16 years. In 2000, Robinson retired again, this time to put his faith "front and center." For Robinson, once a general always a general. After he was recruited as an usher at St. Agnes, he became the coordinator of ushers. After he was recruited as a money counter, he became the coordinator of money counters. He continues to fill both positions today.

Robinson coordinated the Rooted in Faith - Forward in Hope capital campaign and the Bishop's Lenten Appeal (BLA) at the parish level, before moving on to co-chair the BLA at the diocesan level this spring. He is a member of the diocesan finance council and serves as an Arimathean at Fort Myer, giving support for military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.

"I claim I'm the oldest altar boy in Arlington County," he said.

In January 2009, Marie, former administrative assistant at the Catholic Herald, passed away from a brain tumor. For their life together, Robinson credits his Jesuit education for instilling in him a strong faith, which he carried with him through his wide breadth of life experiences.

The Jesuits, he said, stressed accomplishing faith through good works. As a husband, father, Catholic and American, Robinson has worked for 81 years to do just that.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010