Floating to Hawaii in a Martini Shaker: Tom Robbins Graduates from RPI, 1959

Dale Brumfield
Contributing Writer

Tom Robbins, 1959. Courtesy 1959 Cobblestone yearbook, VCU Cabell Library Special Collections. photo courtesy of vcu cabell library special collections

In January, 1959, RPI student and future internationally-renowned novelist Tom Robbins warned in his final issue as editor of the student newspaper The Proscript that Mutual Broadcasting veteran sportscaster Bill Stern may have considered Richmond Professional Institute (forerunner of VCU) a breeding ground of communist activity because there was no football team.

“Young people are charged with emotional electricity,” Stern said over the air, “and if this energy is not directed into proper channels, it will be released in improper ones.”

While Stern did not specifically identify RPI in his dubious comments, RPI’s identity as a true college at the time was questioned, not just for its lack of a football team but its untraditional “cobblestone campus” and proliferation of strange and emotionally electric art students, whose eccentricities provided rich caricatures for Robbins in his weekly column “Walks on the Wild Side.”

Despite stepping down as Proscript editor, Robbins directed his own youthful energy from his previous column “Robbin’s Nest” under the new name throughout the spring semester before graduating in June of that year. A student on a GI Bill, Robbins also worked as a headline writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, reportedly drinking up his paycheck at Etons, a Grace Street hangout located at the present VCU Police office beside the Grace Street Theater.

A melting pot of fiery and unconventional personalities, Etons seemed to appear in almost every Proscript column Robbins wrote. He claimed to have discovered the joint as a “lad of about 13” in the late 1940’s while visiting Richmond with his father. “The hamburger was horrible and I was too young for beer, but even then I was fascinated by the place,” he wrote in March, 1959 of his first impressions. “How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Etons?”

Etons’ pull on the young writer so drawn to Richmond’s most marginalized was hypnotic throughout his tenure at RPI. He continually singled out denizens for profiles throughout his final semester, such as painting student Paul Miller, who lived in a barely-heated carriage house behind the Anderson Gallery: “Shuffling down his alley in paint-spattered shoes; tall, gaunt, hungry looking, with intense eyes, near-eastern moustache and very long black hair, he looks like a holy man who has crossed the hot deserts and walked the back alley of the worlds – to bring the Word to the lost ones at Etons.”

“Crowns may topple, empires crumble and banks fail,” Robbins wrote, “but there will always be an Etons.” In 1967 RPI banned students from patronizing Etons because of its reputation as catering to homosexuals.

Etons was not the only topic Robbins explored in his column. In March he also wrote of the sorry condition of nearby Monroe Park, which the city and the college were looking to turn into a parking lot after a murder there. “Its tall winged elms are gnarled and black, its birds and squirrels as disreputable in appearance as some of the winos who walk its night-paths, the pseudo-heroic statues of Williams Carter Wickham and Joseph Bryan so encrusted with Pigeon dung and soot that all the tears of all the ladies in all the chapters of the Daughters of the Confederacy would not wash them clean.”

1958-59 Proscript staff. Tom Robbins is standing fourth from right. Courtesy 1959 Cobblestone yearbook, VCU Cabell Library Special Collections. photo courtesy of vcu cabell library special collections

That final semester Robbins also editorialized Richmond’s ingrained conservatism (“He enjoyed savaging southern culture,” said friend Dr. Edward H. Peeples), but he also lamented the comfortable suburbia in which he saw America continuing to slip. “Even now,” he wrote in April, “the shadow of the TV antenna looms ominously across our souls. I can see doom rising in the distance like a great tidal wave … I can hear the death angel cry, “Look mommie! No cavities!”

In his final May 21, 1959 column, Robbins said goodbye to many of the colorful locations, teachers and eccentrics he profiled over the course of the school year before renouncing his original post-graduation plan to float to Hawaii in a martini shaker. “I vow to keep right on in my frantic effort to purge American civilization of its complacency, to continue to stir up the animals and to trod on the toes of abominable bridge players and dullards who take automobiles and athletics seriously.Nothing bores me as much as sanity.”


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