We knew him as Robin Winks, idiosyncratic scholar and brilliant mystery man.
From what we saw, Professor Winks was Yale’s Sherlock Holmes, a dapper, tweed-jacketed professor who devoted himself to good stories and good students with equal and astounding enthusiasm. He was a tireless environmentalist and historian who only graded essays on airplanes and had a Smokey the Bear-like fascination with national parks. (He proudly told students he was one of only two men ever to visit all of them.) He ambled around campus with the self-possession of a spy, though he consistently denied ever working for the intelligence agencies he so thoroughly studied. He began his classes promptly at 1:30 p.m. because to do otherwise was to cheat students out of their education, he was known to say.
While we had the chance, we watched the careful arranging and rearranging of his papers before a speech or during the “harangues” he delivered with calculated glee at the beginning of his seminars. Or, after waiting in the longest office hour lines there were, we saw the view of Beinecke Plaza from his wood-panelled Berkeley College office, if we were lucky enough to see him in person before he stopped teaching this fall.
What we did not see, though — that is what we will miss most.
Winks, above all other professors, inspired among students the kind of speculation and bewilderment generally reserved for recluses and superheroes, though as far as we know he was neither. He had been everywhere, it seemed, spoken to everyone, read everything and then read it again before filing it away in his dimly lit campus library. Who was Professor Winks exactly? A Renaissance man, for one thing, but a mystery man above all else. We read his detective novel reviews for clues, his books on British imperialism, on environmentalism, and on espionnage. And possibly, without even knowing it, we read the mystery novels he wrote under a pseudonym he never publicly divulged. Like many undergraduates, we heard all different versions of the Winksian lore: the stories about how he transformed the History Department during his three years as chairman; the rumors about his work with the Central Intelligence Agency; the theories about his literary alter-ego.
In a quarter century, when they unseal the file of his personal papers in Manuscripts and Archives, maybe the world will learn the secrets of the mystery writer behind the pseudonym. But we at Yale have already known for 45 years the passionate teacher in the classroom, the dedicated master of Berkeley College and the inspiring presence around campus. Robin Winks’ death is a tremendous loss for this University, and our grief is overwhelming.