James I. Robertson Jr., an alumni distinguished professor emeritus of history at Virginia Tech and founder of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, passed away Nov. 2 due to illness, at 89 years old.
“Dr. Robertson was a remarkable person who shared his life and gifts with so many,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands according to VT News. “His service to the nation, the commonwealth, his profession, and the Virginia Tech community is unparalleled. We are incredibly fortunate to have had the great benefit of his talents for so many years. May we carry Dr. Robertson’s passion for discovery and spirit of service forward in his honor.”
Robertson’s first wife, Elizabeth “Libba” Robertson, passed away in 2008. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth “Betty Lee” Robertson; his sons, James I. Robertson III and Howard Robertson; his daughter, Beth Brown; his stepson, William W. Lee Jr.; his stepdaughter, Elizabeth A. Lee; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Robertson was born and raised in Danville, Virginia. His career in history and Civil War studies began by earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Randolph-Macon College, and he then went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in history from Emory University. Later in 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Robertson to executive director of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission during the 100th anniversary of the Civil War.
Robertson started his journey with Virginia Tech after joining the faculty in 1967, where he taught the nation’s largest Civil War history course, attracting 300 students each semester. He taught over 25,000 students during his 44 years at Virginia Tech, including three generations of the same families in some cases.
In addition to teaching thousands of students, he authored and edited over 40 books and read over 350 radio essays weekly for nearly 15 years on National Public Radio about histories of the Civil War.
Soon after, at Virginia Tech, Robertson held the C. P. “Sally” Miles Professorship title, and then from 1976 until 1992 he was appointed Alumni Distinguished Professor. Eight years later in 1999, he became the founding director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. Virginia Tech honored Robertson with emeritus status after his retirement in 2011.
Robertson received a number of awards throughout his lifetime, including three commendations from the Virginia General Assembly, the Virginia Press Association’s 2004 Virginian of the Year and an election into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. He was faculty chairman of athletics and president of the Virginia Tech Athletic Association from 1979 to 1991 in addition to being a faculty representative from Virginia Tech to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Finally, Robertson was an Atlantic Coast Conference football referee for 16 years.
Roberston was a known generous supporter of the university and was a part of the Ut Prosim Society, which is an organization that recognizes philanthropic leaders supporting Virginia Tech.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that well-wishers consider giving in support of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies or the University Libraries at Virginia Tech. The family also requests that people explore their attics for possible Civil War artifacts they might consider donating to enhance the Virginia Tech special collection. Any donations may be made “in honor of Dr. Bud.”
Moreover, the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies created a tribute page in Robertson’s honor. People can contribute here to learn more about him and to contribute their own stories.