Corbin Robertson leaves mark on athletics

About six months before Hugh Roy Cullen passed away in 1957, he asked son-in-law Corbin J. Robertson to take care of two things: his family and UH — the university that the Cullen family had a big hand in developing.

Cullen wanted Robertson to keep his two passions in order.

Fifty-five years later, the memories of both men are still alive. Cullen is considered the father of UH and Robertson the father of UH Athletics.

The football stadium now bears Robertson’s name; several structures on campus, and a street adjacent to the University have the Cullen family name.

According to his daughter Beth Robertson, Robertson believed athletics is important to the success of a university. In the ’50s, when University brass thought about giving up on athletics, Robertson was one of the staunchest opponents.

“He felt very strongly that to be a full-fledged University you need a full-fledged athletics program to go with it,” Beth said. “He called it the windows to the world of the University. Athletics provided the easiest venue for people to see.”

Beth, a former chairperson of the Board of Regents, said Robertson helped athletes who needed summer jobs and even opened the family home to athletes and coaches.

“We would be sitting there in the dining room table … and there would be some big football player and I would be passing the mashed potatoes over to him,” she said.

Robertson helped with the purchase of Jeppesen Stadium in 1970 from the HISD school board. In 1980, the stadium was rededicated and renamed Corbin J. Robertson Stadium. In 1983, Robertson Stadium underwent a $2 million renovation. UH hosted the NCAA Track and Field Championships that year.

He served as the Athletics Committee chairman and vice chairman of the UH Board of Regents when it first became a public institution from 1963-65.

Robertson died in 1991 and never saw the Cougars play full time in the stadium. The team played a full home schedule at Robertson in 1998 for the first time since 1949. But he enjoyed watching the Cougars play in the Astrodome because of the advantage it gave in recruiting, Beth said.

In 1965, UH was the first college team to play its home games in a domed stadium.

Even after his death, Robertson’s children still have a hand in the next phase of UH athletics and a presence in the development of the University.

Lillie T. Robertson is a supporter of UH arts programs; Carroll Robertson Ray is a current member of the Board of Regents and Corbin Robertson Jr. has helped UH secure funds from the state government in Austin.

“We’ve seen the schematics of the new stadium and we’ve all contributed. I’ve given $1 million to it,” Beth said.

Robertson could relate to athletics and the working-class principals that UH was based on because he embodied both, Beth said.

“He loved the University of Houston because it was open, young, tenacious and ready to take on different stuff — just like he was.

“UH is was not afraid to try and I hope it will never change,” Beth said.

“This is for the people that can’t go to Princeton and who couldn’t get to Austin or College Station because they needed to be here to support their families.”

Robertson was born on the southside of Chicago to a family of modest means and attended Northwestern University on a football scholarship. Without a scholarship, Robertson would not have been able to attend because his parents could not afford tuition.

He never earned a college degree though — military service intervened. Robertson fought overseas as a member of the U.S. Army Air Corp. and was stationed at Ellington Field, where he met his wife Wilhelmina.

Wilhelmina, the matriarch of the Cullen family when she passed away in 2009, loved UH and it spread to Robertson, Beth said. Wilhelmina graduated from UH in 1944 with a bachelor of science degree and received an honorary doctorate in 1988. Wilhelmina donated $10 million the athletics department in 2008.

Beth said the reason Robertson first fell in love with UH Athletics was simple.

“He married my mom,” Beth said.

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