W. Delores Robinson, the longtime principal of Sumner Elementary School in North Lawndale, will retire in July after 47 years in education, more than two decades of them spent at the West Side institution she currently helms. Last Sunday, Robinson commemorated the milestone doing what she does best — rejoicing in her suburban Maywood church and giving back.
“I have endured and was sustained due to my passion, faith and prayers,” Robinson often says. And during two June 12 services held to commemorate her retirement, Robinson’s current and former students, coworkers, family members, friends and fellow congregants offered a litany of testimonies that spoke directly to that claim.
Tracy Treadwell, a former student of Robinson’s, was the wayward son of a preacher who had a reputation for his way with girls and with his hands.
“Most people who knew me knew I was a pretty tough cookie growing up and was respected,” said Treadwell during an afternoon Gospel concert Robinson hosted at her church, the proceeds of which went to college scholarships for young people. During the morning service, Robinson saw to it that nearly 30 of the church’s longtime educators were honored with certificates of recognition and white roses.
Treadwell said Robinson, a short, petite woman with an outsized, no-nonsense reputation, was one of the few teachers who could see through his manipulative appeals for pity and hold him accountable for his behavior.
“When it came to [some of the other teachers], they were pretty tough,” Treadwell said. “We all had a saying, ‘Nobody loves me, they just treat me so wrong.’ Many of the other teachers would cry and pat you on the head. But with Mrs. Robinson, you couldn’t get away with that.”
Treadwell said Robinson sternly counseled him to “put all this effort that you have in fighting and put it into your classroom work.” She said the young Treadwell reminded her of Fred Hampton — not a thug, but a brilliant leader of men. Treadwell took the comparison to heart, eventually becoming the leader of Sumner’s local school council.
“She was never my direct teacher, but she put the fear of God in all of us,” said Gospel music recording artist Kim McFarland, who sang during the afternoon concert.
If Robinson was tough, those who honored her recalled, she loved tougher. McFarland’s brother, Theodore McFarland, quipped, “If the laws were then like they are now, most of my teachers would just be getting out of jail,” before recalling paddles made in woodshop and used by teachers at Sumner as behavior modification devices, to put it euphemistically.
“But they disciplined us and chastised us, because they loved us,” he said.
Vanessa Dukes, a member of the Gospel recording group the Brown Sisters of Chicago, said the retiring Sumner principal “was there for the Brown family” even in crises, such as the death of her sister and the illness of her mother.
Brown’s mother was Robinson’s longtime aide and her “dear friend,” who once experienced a grave sickness that could’ve left her permanently unemployed if it weren’t for Robinson.
“My mother lost both of her legs in that illness,” Brown recalled. “She became very, very ill, but she came back to [Sumner] to help. This woman of God gave her another opportunity to come back to work in the school system. I love you for that.”
Robinson’s daughter, Keisha Robinson-Campbell, herself a Chicago principal, recalled her mother’s devotion to her late husband, Richard Robinson, and their four children, despite long days at Sumner that would often spill into nights.
Robinson’s work at the West Side school would earn her the attention of multiple mayors and even the White House. During President Barack Obama’s first term, Robinson was invited to Washington, D.C., to share her expertise during a Department of Education panel discussion on improving under-privileged schools.
“Mrs. Robinson has a spiritual gift,” said Theodore McFarland. “It takes a person with a spiritual gift to be able to deal with personalities that come from diverse homes and different kind of environments. We were coming from homes that were marginalized and disenfranchised, with single parents. It takes a special individual to deal with that. I’m so glad God put her in our path and allowed us to be the dreamers that she and her co-workers were leading us into being.”