Worth Robbins, publisher of the Harvard Press who died earlier this month, left a legacy of warm memories and civic accomplishments. The editors of the Press asked a few former colleagues and acquaintances to share stories and memories of time spent with him in the office, on committees, around town—and on the golf course. Here’s what they had to say.
Worth Robbins was two years into his first term when I first took my seat at the Harvard School Committee table in the Bromfield House in January 1987. Committee membership was changing with an evident shift in philosophies. Worth’s calm, balanced presence aided the committee in navigating that transition. It was my good fortune to serve the better part of my two terms alongside Worth.
Worth was a keen listener and an equally skilled questioner, but he never dominated discussion; he enriched it. He arrived at our Monday night meetings with the daunting information packet we each received on the weekend, full of scribbled notes and ideas for consideration, and immersed the five of us in careful analysis of the issues.
Worth sets the timer at a candidates debate in 2008. (Photos by Lisa Aciukewicz)
Increasing expectations and shrinking resources punctuated those times. In a scant few years we would study school regionalization as an option for Harvard’s schools, pursue support for a new elementary school building, and perhaps most importantly, search for a new superintendent to help lead us into the future. Worth energized that search process and quickly oriented Florence Seldin, our new superintendent, with his deep knowledge of town finances and a regard for the “town side” as well as the “school side.”
On a sunny June afternoon, I remember sitting in front-row seats with Worth as the Bromfield seniors in their blue and white robes marched across the south lawn of Old Bromfield to take their places on the commencement stage. We shared the pride and joy of the gathered parents and families for two luxurious hours. As the last graduate vacated the stage, Worth turned to me and said, “Well, coffee break is over.” Few could match Worth’s work ethic.
Many years after our service together on the School Committee, I enjoyed brief encounters with Worth, often at the General Store. Catching my eye as he scurried up or down the stairs or looked up between texts, he would come over, stealing a brief few moments for conversation, usually about our families, golf, and tennis. On one such occasion he shared, “You know Chuck, I’ve been in countless work groups and committees over my career but our time on that school committee was special, we were a real team.” I think he meant: We were mutually respectful, clear about our purpose, and results-oriented. That was Worth.
I miss my colleague and friend. And so does the town of Harvard. But now whenever I drive past the schools, hike the conservation trails, support and read the Press, I will think about and thank Worth Robbins.
Chuck Christensen served with Worth on the Harvard School Committee.
I first became aware of Worth some 25 years ago. We were both members of the same private golf club in Sterling. Although we never formally met, we would frequently see one another late on a summer’s evening, when it was a good time to practice alone. I think we both appreciated the solitude that presented itself and the opportunity to spend some time outdoors. I could see in him a passion for the game, for I too had that passion. You know it when you see it.
I think we demonstrated a mutual curiosity toward each other. Golf is a competitive sport and if you’re competitive, you’re always keeping an eye on the competition. No doubt, we were each being watched by the other. What’s his swing look like? How well does he drive the ball? How’s his game on and around the greens? Mental notes, just in case. Occasionally, we would run into one another between holes. It was never more than a passing wave or a quick “hello.” Time was precious and we both always seemed intent on making the best of it.
Time passed. I guess I can say that over time I developed a respect for Worth. He seemed like me: a guy who loved every aspect the game of golf offered. A guy who relished its tradition, history, and excitement.
Well, the day came when I finally did meet Worth. It was long overdue, of course. But it wasn’t the usual “at the bar” or “in the locker room” encounter. It was in a head-to-head tournament match. Worth Robbins vs. Ken Ashe. Looking back, it’s funny that we had never shaken hands until that traditional moment of introduction before our match. But that’s golf, and that’s one of the reasons we both enjoyed the game. It brings people together.
The details of the match are a blur. Something mostly forgotten. What I do remember is walking away with my head down, looking at the ground in disgust. In golf, it’s called shoe buffing. Yep, Worth had officially “cleaned my clock.” What little I do recall is that he played well, and I did not. He was also focused. Me? I was a cocky young man. I thought the match would be an easy victory. Lesson learned. Simply put, Worth was prepared; I was not. Seems to sum up the man.
I’m sure Worth had a better recall of that day than I. Conquerors remember their victories. The same is true for golfers. Over the course of the years, in the few encounters we had from time to time, the match was never mentioned. I suspect it was due to a sore spot on my end. For Worth, I would guess it had to do with integrity. A defining quality. That was him and that’s golf.
Ken Ashe is a Bromfield graduate and former resident.
Those who knew Worth knew he approached every day with humor first. He was well known in the office for jokes and especially his (unrepeatable in this newspaper) limericks, for which he had an amazing memory.
Worth had two modes: full throttle and sleeping. I’m not sure how often he slipped into second gear. When he signed on to be part of the Press, he said he would handle all of our technical needs and help get our website going. Little did he know that would be the least of his Press tasks. With the exception of editorial decisions, there wasn’t a single area of the business that Worth didn’t have a hand in directly or indirectly. No task was too big or too small, and by the end he managed all business aspects of the Press while selling ads, securing and then serving dinner at deadline, and keeping the refrigerator stocked with the beer-a-week we all enjoyed at the end of layout night.
Worth grabs stacks of the inaugural print run of the Harvard Press, Nov. 16, 2006.
No one deserves more credit for shepherding the Press into its 15th year than the Robbinses. While Sue manages the million little details of the paper, website, and subscriber database, Worth was always thinking of new and creative ways to finance the Press. He secured angel funding again and again, came up with the idea of “sustaining subscribers,” and most recently secured a Paycheck Protection Project loan during the pandemic. You could find him in the office almost any day of the week, including weekends.--- I’d have a sneaking suspicion the paper was his one true love, but having had to sneak a valentine into the paper for Sue every year, I know it was only his second.
But beyond the dedicated publisher that he was, he was also one of the kindest human beings I’ve known. If there had been a particularly bad snowstorm, Worth would offer to pick me up for work, as well as other staff members. If a subscriber missed an issue, Worth would often deliver it to their door.
If I had to stay late to finish up work, he would often stay late, too. And it was our late-night conversations I’ll miss the most. When the office got still, he would tell me stories about growing up in Kentucky, going to the same high school as Muhammad Ali, serving in the Air Force in San Antonio—his first foray into the larger world, the practical jokes he and Sue had played on co-workers at Ford Motor Co. where they met, the travels through Europe they undertook the year he worked in Switzerland for Digital, hiking up Mount Katahdin at the end of the Appalachian Trail with his son Ken (both of his sons completed the trail), and sharing videos of his son Mark doing death-defying backcountry ski runs and funny stories about his granddaughters. Though he was one of the most tireless public servants I’ve ever known, it’s Worth’s humanity that I will miss the most.
Lisa Aciukewicz is a co-owner of the Harvard Press.
The General Store located a small table at the foot of the stairs leading to the Press office. Knowing Worth passed it several times a day, I often lay in wait, hoping for another master class in bettering the lives of Harvard citizens. He never disappointed; we spent these impromptu sessions pondering the prospects and perils of direct democracy.
Worth spent a good portion of his adult life identifying Harvard’s issues and conjuring remedies. The issues were practical, the remedies often surprising.
An example: If encouraging and facilitating residential solar installations was a good idea, why was the state’s program limited to those with the right solar exposure? After untold hours of advocacy, the commonwealth agreed and the Harvard Solar Garden flowered. Worth’s conviction and smarts got this done.
Worth experienced setbacks. His proposal for the disposition of free cash was rejected by town meeting several times. However, knowing that circumstances change, he was waiting patiently for the right time.
His greatest success was the Press. With his passion, he rallied a team; with his credibility he attracted funding; with his agility he guided the operation, never tempted to use the paper as a platform for his personal views.
The Press is a tangible asset. Other successes were less visible, but as important. Worth believed Harvard would benefit from a review of its organizational structure and the role and responsibilities of its employees and volunteers. Like many towns in the commonwealth, Harvard never had a written charter. Because there was little public enthusiasm for creating one, he stood—alone—at the Transfer Station on many cold, wet days, explaining the idea and soliciting signatures for a petition that asked town meeting to establish a Charter Commission. Presented with a convincing argument, town meeting endorsed the proposal. A commission was formed. A charter was created and approved at the 2018 Town Election.
Worth was devoted to bettering the lives of Harvard citizens. We are all beneficiaries of his good works. Like many of you, I’m a grateful beneficiary of his warm, insightful master classes.
Ron Ostberg is a member of the Community Resilience Working Group and a former member of the Charter Commission.
It was just about 10 years ago when I had the privilege to begin collaborating with Worth Robbins, whom I’d become acquainted with but didn’t know well. The seeds of our mission had been sown in his mind a few years before, in 2008-09 during the early days of the Patrick and Obama administrations. These were watershed years for state and federal energy legislation that both generated revenues for and funded new programs such as the Green Communities Act.
Worth had been pondering how he and Sue could power their home with solar energy, but they lacked sun exposure. Would that deter him? We all know the answer. In the new legislation, Worth discovered possibilities for neighborhood-scale solar energy generation, a concept that sparked what would eventually become the Harvard Solar Garden, the state’s first member-owned, community-shared solar installation.
Worth cuts the ribbon as the Harvard Community Solar Garden goes on line after a dedication ceremony June 27, 2014. From left: State Representative Jen Benson, Steven Strong, Robbins, State Senator Jamie Eldridge, Gerry Palano, Selectman Stu Sklar, and Dwayne Breger.
This genesis story began in earnest in 2011, soon after Harvard achieved Green Community status and qualified for participation in the new Solarize Mass program that incentivized on-site solar installations, with Worth serving as Harvard’s point person. As more Harvard residents signed on, a growing list lacked viable solar access and were unable to participate. This was Worth’s moment to respond to a higher call. Handing the Solarize reins to neighbor Jim Elkind, he focused his attention on creating a shared solar facility that could serve those left out.
A series of setbacks and delays ensued that would defeat any of us, but not Worth. Each obstacle—and there were many—became another channel for his perseverance and uncanny ingenuity. Over the next few years, in the face of local opposition, we filed citizen petitions resulting in town meeting articles and passed votes on zoning, taxation, and permitting. While clearing those hurdles, we also faced a financial outlook scary enough to wilt most MBAs, but Worth’s business acumen was paired with a gift for sensing the power of ideas aimed at a public benefit. Convinced that community-shared solar could be successful, Worth overcame roadblocks with carefully conceived innovations, some incorporated into state energy regulations and tax law. The Harvard Solar Garden was a signature contribution to the common good, but it was just one of many Worth bestowed upon us.
Eric Broadbent is a former resident and former member of the Harvard Energy Advisory Committee.