On Wednesday, members of the Indiana University Northwest community gathered at the Heartland Christian Center in Valparaiso to say a bittersweet good-bye to Associate Vice Chancellor Robin Hass Birky.
Tears and laughter flowed in equal abundance as friends, colleagues, family members, and admirers shared their stories and memories about Hass Birky, 41, who died from injuries sustained in a car accident near her Valparaiso home on Aug. 29. Anyone who didn’t know Hass Birky well before Wednesday’s celebration of her life and legacy certainly did by the time it was finished.
IU Northwest Professor Emerita of English Mary Harris Russell described her friend and colleague as someone who filled her waking moments with goals and purpose.
“Robin’s professional life was always about adding on, not taking away,” Russell said. “She stayed up late and later, and she got up early and earlier. And there was always her cup of coffee.
“She wanted her students to get the big picture, not just a series of factoids,” Russell observed.
Others who knew and loved her described Hass Birky as a “ball of energy,” and as a person who sustained those around her with an inexhaustible supply of positive thoughts and vibrant good will. She was a person who was always working hard at something, but who never lacked the time to encourage others – students and colleagues -- to do their best, as well. Hass Birky was a relentlessly social being who thought nothing of approaching a group of mothers at her son’s ball game with a heartfelt proposal: “You guys seem like fun. I want to be your friend.”
A professor of English at IU Northwest who’d just begun her 14th year in the classroom, Hass Birky was a proud and true academic, friends said, but her friendships cut across social and professional lines. It was said that she never used her Ph.D. as a status symbol, though she wasn’t above dropping the “Dr.” in front of her name when she felt that somebody wasn’t showing her due respect as a woman and as a fellow human being. Hass Birky, who earned her doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin, was very blonde and had the bubbly personality to match, but anyone who stereotyped her according to her hair color made a severe miscalculation, according to colleagues.
“I remember Robin telling me that she didn’t mind playing the dumb blonde, when it helped her navigate the political landmines of the university,” said Hass Birky’s good friend and “AQIP twin” Linda Delunas, Ph.D., the associate dean of the College of Health and Human Services. “But the joke was never on Robin.”
Hass Birky’s infectious congeniality didn’t make her classes any less challenging, students and colleagues agreed. The medievalist and grammarian, whose areas of expertise included Geoffrey Chaucer and Arthurian legend, expected her students to master the technical details of the language she loved.
“Students would say, ‘Oh, that grammar class is awful! But Robin Hass Birky is wonderful!” recalled Professor of English Alan Barr, Ph.D., who said he first interviewed Hass Birky for her IU Northwest teaching position in a San Antonio airport in 1995.
“She was always looking for ways to stretch our thinking and push us toward excellence,” attested 2008 IU Northwest graduate Anne Sharp, who is now a teacher at Chesterton High School. “Her tests were insane. I remember thinking, ‘This woman is crazy! She must think that we’re as smart as she is.’
“When I teach, a part of Robin is with me in front of the class. When I write, Robin is there pushing me to go further,” Sharp said.
In recognition of Hass Birky’s dedication to learning and to her students, IU Northwest announced Wednesday the establishment of the Dr. Robin R. Hass Birky Scholarship Fund, which will recognize outstanding academic achievement at IU Northwest and will be awarded in preference to an academically excellent female student of sophomore standing or higher who is majoring in the humanities and exhibits financial need. Hass Birky’s family has sincerely requested that contributions to the scholarship fund be made in her memory.
Everyone agreed that while Hass Birky was highly intellectual, she was not exclusively so. She could discuss the finer points of Emily Dickinson with one colleague and talk about the latest episode of “Big Brother” with another.
“She loved reading Chaucer, but one of her favorite gifts recently was a subscription to ‘People’ magazine,” said Hass Birky’s secretary, Julie Bishop. “She was down to earth and classy at the same time.”
Colleagues, friends and family members all commented on Hass Birky’s great love for her husband, Mark Birky, and her son, Coel Hass, as well as for her parents, Kenneth and Jolene Hass, and her entire family. Her brothers, Lanny and Danny, shared insights into Hass Birky’s younger years, recalling a younger version of that same positive, determined, fun-loving person that would later embody the essence of IU Northwest.
"In the Bible, Jesus tells us to run a good race,” said Lanny Hass. “My sister laced up her shoes and jumped into that race. And what a race she ran.”
Hass also noted humorously that, even as a child, his sister was a person of such decency that she once “put soap into her own mouth for cursing.”
During his eulogy for Hass Birky, Pastor Phil Willingham said that her life, and the day’s words of praise about her, illustrated the difference between inheritance and legacy. Robin Hass Birky, he said, had given back far more than she had received.
“We haven’t heard much here today about inheritance,” he said. “But we’ve heard a lot about legacy.”
In a particularly stirring tribute to Hass Birky, her boss, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Kwesi Aggrey, who hails from Ghana, West Africa, commemorated his colleague’s spirit and achievements with a song that he sang in his native tongue.
“It does not matter that it is in my native language,” Aggrey said to Hass Birky. “Because where you are, language is not a barrier to communication.”
On the subject of how he and the rest of IU Northwest might get along without the university’s most industrious administrator and advocate, Aggrey assured the audience that they would get no pity from Hass Birky on that score. Only a sincere vote of confidence … and perhaps a cup of coffee.
“I know already that you would say, ‘You can do it!’” Aggrey said. “So, OK, we will muddle through and try. And when things get tough, we will regroup, get one more cup of coffee, and get it done.”