Historian Robert Hine, Mentor, Scholar and a UCR Founding Professor, Dies at Age 93

The two-time Guggenheim fellow noted for his work on California’s utopian communities was best known for his book about recovering from blindness

By Jeanette Marantos

Robert Hine

Robert Hine

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — American West historian Robert Hine, one of UC Riverside’s founding professors who became known outside academic circles for his moving autobiography about regaining his vision after 15 years of blindness, died in his Irvine home March 27 at the age of 93.

“Bob was such a fine, gentle person, dearly loved by his students and his wife, a man of kindness and what the ancient Greeks called ‘large-souled,’” wrote David Glidden, UCR professor emeritus of philosophy. “He was a positive scholar, whose interests in utopian communities were always oriented toward appreciating ideal community life, neighborly devotion and the fabric of what Robert Bellah has called the good society…. Knowing Bob Hine has made me a better person.”

Hine was born in Los Angeles on April 21, 1921. He attended UCLA, graduated from Pomona College and received his doctorate from Yale. While in graduate school in 1949 he married Shirley McChord of Idaho, whom he had met at UCLA, and they later had one daughter, Allison, who was born in 1955.

The professor developed close relationships with many of his students and friends, whom he hired as readers to help him research materials while he was blind. He authored multiple articles and a dozen books, primarily on the American West and the utopian communities of California, from the earliest settlers to the communes of the 1960s and 1970s.  One, “California’s Utopian Colonies,” has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1954.

His greatest acclaim came later in life in 1993, however, when he wrote his memoir, “Second Sight,” which chronicled his childhood bouts with rheumatoid arthritis, which damaged and progressively worsened his vision as he aged, the total loss of his sight about 1971, and the dangerous, miraculous surgery that restored his vision in one eye in 1986.

Until her death in 1996, his wife, Shirley, was his regular companion, reader and translator as his vision declined and disappeared, describing paintings to him in detail when he received the first of two Guggenheim fellowships to research images of the American West at the British Museum in 1968, driving him around the state every summer to research communes in the 1970s and murmuring visual narrations of the movies they both loved to attend.

Shirley was beside him, as usual, when the nurse removed his bandages the day after his eye surgery. He saw the nurse first, “a cloudy image in a trousered white uniform…, then turned to the one person I most wanted to see again, Shirley, and there was her silver hair shining, her loving face and eyes smiling. She did not seem much changed to me….after 15 years her face still glowed with that warm softness that I could see even without touching. Now she was draped in color, wearing — was it deliberate? — a multicolored blouse with wide stripes; I touched the colors and identified for her the yellow, the blue, the green.”

Hine described the drive home as a “Disneyland ride, or an early Cinerama movie. Cars in unbelievable colors streaked by at breakneck speed in every direction, terrifyingly close. … We turned from the towering palms of Victoria onto Mangrove and into our driveway and garage. It was the first time I had seen our house; we had bought it only eight years ago. The garage hit me first, the shelves of old magazines, the boxes of material, some closed and labeled, some overflowing with junk, the benches with cleaning fluid, tools, wire. … In the months ahead I wondered much about sight and beauty. A child can see, but can he or she tell us what is beautiful? Today I became a child again. I saw nothing shabby, nothing gaudy; everything was wondrous. Even our junk-filled garage revealed marvelous forms and patterns and colors. On that day, I was the lord of the childhood and the critic of nothing.

“I walked into our bedroom. It was shadowed with a dark rust carpet and beyond the sliding doors the cool, green patio with blue and orange birds of paradise in bloom. Now it was time for tears. It was too much. I cried. Shirley cried. We were supposed to start a series of drops in the eye when we got home, but it proved useless for a while; the tears washed them right away.”

Irwin Wall, professor emeritus of history and a colleague at UC Riverside, said Hine was amazingly prolific, writing books that became classics of the field. “He struggled against real enduring handicaps,” Wall said. “Early childhood arthritis left him permanently lame, and the treatments caused blindness to develop as he approached middle age. In preparation he taught himself Braille while still sighted.  He pioneered in the construction of multi-media presentations that were like documentary films for the teaching of history, using the technology then available, multiple slide machines, accompanying sound track, recorded commentary and music. The slides were choreographed to appear and disappear as illustrative material to go with the text. I borrowed the technique from him for World History and when the PC era came they were easily adapted and polished with the new technology and programs like Power Point.”

After he regained the vision in one eye, Hine was able to read again, and wrote other books, including “Broken Glass: A Family’s Journey through Mental Illness” in 2006 as well as two historical novels, “Dynamite” and “Dreams and I Have Seen the Fire,” both in 2008. His professional honors included a National Endowment Senior Fellowship, the national Harbison Award for Distinguished Teaching, the California Historical Society’s Henry Wagner Memorial Award, the Communal Studies Association’s Distinguished Scholar Award and the Western History Association’s Award of Merit and honorary Lifetime Membership.

Glidden particularly remembered how Hine worked to make his teaching come alive during his blindness, using innovative visual aids and other techniques that were then uncommon in most university lecture halls.

“As he became totally blind, except for light and shadows, he kept a Braille note card system so that in his large lecture courses he could call on students individually by name, once they learned to sit in the same seat each class. In those large lecture classes he introduced lots of visual aids, pictures and photos from and about the history he taught. So, he was well ahead of his time in using vision in higher education, even though he himself was blind,” Glidden recalled. “This was characteristic of a man who always put others’ interests and needs ahead of his own. He was truly loved and will remain a unique figure in UCR’s fine history.”

Hine more humbly recounted his many teaching innovations in “Second Sight,” calling them necessities to keep him relevant as a professor, historian and human being. He taught himself Braille, learned to play the piano and found a kind of salvation in an early computer that read his writing back to him, so he could do his own editing. He loved order or organization, he wrote, and used it to his advantage to catalog his work and lectures.

“If I could conquer blindness by organization, I would do it step by step,” he wrote in “Second Sight.” “The process itself was victory. Of course, given the choice, I would prefer my organization with sight. ‘Dark is a long way,’ as Dylan Thomas said, and I never will deny the blackness and the sadness. I am not a Stoic or a Christian Scientist. But blind is one way to live, and creative or not I would live.”

In addition to his daughter, Allison Hine-Estes of Santa Cruz, Hine is survived by his grandson, Skye Estes; his brother, Richard B. Hine of Tucson, Arizona, and his sister, Katherine H. Shaha of Draper, Utah. Donations in memory of Robert V. Hine may be sent to the Braille Institute, 741 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029.

Hine’s friends and colleagues are planning a memorial service for later this year.

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