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The Passing of an Icon… In Memory of James “Bud” Robertson

Every so often in life you have the good fortune to meet a great man.  Such was the quintessential “Virginia gentleman,” Doctor James I. “Bud” Robertson who died on Saturday, November 2nd, at the ripe old age of 89. 

Tapped by President John F. Kennedy to serve as as executive director of the United States Civil War Centennial Commission in 1963, Bud joined the faculty of Virginia Tech in 1967 where he would become the founding director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies 32 years later.  He retired from the university in 2011, but not from his passion for Civil War history as he served as an executive committee member of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission.

“History is the greatest teacher you will ever have,” Robertson often told his students. If history is the greatest teacher, many of them might have argued, then “Dr. Bud” was the second greatest.  “The next generations must have a knowledge of the past,” he said more than once. “If you do not know where you have been, you have no idea where you should go.”

Robertson used vivid stories to bring the American Civil War to life not just for generations of Virginia Tech students, but also for millions across the world through his award-winning books, frequent television appearances, popular radio essays, and passionate advocacy of history.

At Virginia Tech, Robertson offered the nation’s largest Civil War course to an average of 300 students each semester. During his 44 years at the university, more than 22,000 Virginia Tech students took his class. In several instances, he ended up teaching three generations of the same families.

With more than 20 books on the Civil War to his credit, his biography of General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is considered the definitive biography, won eight national awards and became a key source for a 2003 movie, “Gods and Generals,” for which Robertson served as chief historical consultant.

“For fully six decades Bud Robertson was a dominant figure in his field, and a great encouragement to all who would study our turbulent past during the middle of the 19th century,” said William C. “Jack” Davis, former director of the center and himself the author or editor of more than 50 books on the Civil War and the history of the South. “Moreover, amid a conversation that can still become bitter and confrontational, his was a voice for reason, patience, and understanding. In the offing, he has become virtually ‘Mr. Virginia,’ a spokesperson for the commonwealth past, present, and future. His voice is now sorely missed — and irreplaceable.”

Anyone who has ever had the privilege of listening to Bud will remember his trademark lisp that did nothing to hide the gentle passion he had for retelling and leading one to understand the common aspects of the Civil War.  Always personable and approachable, he would give of himself to anyone with a desire to know more about a particular event or to answer any obscure question.

Bud was predeceased by his first wife, Elizabeth “Libba” Robertson, in 2008. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth “Betty Lee” Robertson; his sons, James I. Robertson III and Howard Robertson; his daughter, Beth Robertson; his stepson, William W. Lee Jr.; and his stepdaughter, Elizabeth A. Lee.


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