Atop the Delta Queen, James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr. and Jack Davis watched tourists amble up the ramp and climb aboard.
The famous steamboat cruised along the Mississippi River, idling near Civil War battle sites. Davis served as master of ceremonies on the guided tours. The fan-favorite Robertson mesmerized travelers with his spellbinding tales.
As the two Civil War historians breathed in fresh air and peered down the starboard side, Robertson spotted a few younger passengers.
“I remember he’d always look for the children who’d come along with their families,” said Davis. “He made a point to get acquainted with the kids. He’d even speak directly to them in his opening remarks. He wanted to spark their interest in the stories he’d tell up and down the river.”
Robertson cared deeply about Civil War history and education. His popularity grew to icon status thanks to his knack for engaging and versatile storytelling.
He could sit fireside and trade allegories with historian buddies deep into the night. Just as easily, he could amaze a class of fifth-graders huddled in a school library with stories crafted just for them.
In the halls of Virginia Tech, Robertson inspired generations of students with jaw-dropping lectures. “Bud made history exciting,” said Davis. “He made it accessible. He spoke and wrote in ways anyone could learn from and truly enjoy.”
Robertson passed away in late 2019.
But his legacy is as solid and enduring as Hokie stone.
Inspired by Robertson’s commitment to education, friends and colleagues endowed a fund in his name at Virginia Tech.
The Robertson Memorial Endowment is made possible through the philanthropic efforts of Davis and his wife, Sandra, along with Mike and Joyce Francisco, and Ed and Leslie Derkum. The endowment will support the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, scholarships, and outreach programs in local communities and schools throughout the region.
“I’m enormously grateful for the generosity of friends and supporters who have created the Robertson Memorial Endowment,” said Paul Quigley, the James I. Robertson, Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War Studies. “The endowment significantly strengthens our ability to keep doing what Dr. Robertson did so well: teaching anyone who cares to listen, inside and outside the classroom, about the experiences of the Civil War generation.”
For the Davis, Francisco, and Derkum families, the endowment honors Robertson’s legacy and will aid young scholars for years to come.
Mike Francisco’s admiration for Robertson grew after attending one of the first-ever Civil War Weekends at Virginia Tech. Created by Robertson, the annual gathering has attracted thousands to the university since 1991. Guests experience storytelling from some of the world’s premier historians.
This year’s Civil War Weekend, held this weekend, March 25-27, serves as an ode to Robertson and his legacy.
Francisco is an alumnus of the Pamplin College of Business. He learned about Civil War Weekend while reading a copy of Virginia Tech Magazine and attended the third-ever gathering. Entranced, he learned history in unique ways from a variety of speakers, including Robertson. He hasn’t missed a single one since.
“It’s become a reunion of sorts for many of us,” said Francisco.
Among his fondest memories of Civil War Weekend, Francisco recalls Robertson describing the everyday lives of soldiers before leading an 1860s-style church service.
“Bud didn’t just focus on the battles,” said Francisco. “He put you in the shoes of soldiers and their families. He wanted you to understand the war from their point of view. You learned about the worries that soldiers had outside of the battlefield, from contracting disease to keeping their families safe back home. Bud put you right in the middle of it all.”
Robertson’s stalwart commitment to preserving and teaching history inspired Francisco to give back to his alma mater.
“Bud wanted people of all ages to love history,” said Francisco. “I truly believe that’s why he was so popular.”
Ed Derkum’s respect for Robertson blossomed on the Mississippi River in the 1980s.
After Robertson delivered a lecture aboard the Delta Queen, Derkum found a seat next to him on a bench.
“We started talking by the side of the deck,” said Derkum. “He told me about Virginia Tech and what he wanted to accomplish there, and he told me about his Campaigning with Lee program.”
Campaigning with Lee was one of Robertson’s most famous seminar experiences. For more than 30 years, the battlefield tour attracted history buffs from across the country, affectionately known as “Bud’s Brigade.” Virginia Tech sponsored the seminar.
Growing up in California, Derkum hadn’t known of Virginia Tech. But after meeting Robertson and witnessing his passion for history firsthand, Derkum and his wife, Leslie, traveled to Virginia to join the “brigade.”
All told, the Derkums attended 13 of the weeklong Campaigning with Lee events.
“I’m glad I shared that bench with Bud,” said Derkum.
The Derkums have continued traveling to Virginia each year to attend Civil War Weekend and explore the Blacksburg campus.
“We both wish we could have enrolled in one of Bud’s classes,” said Derkum.
For the Derkum family, the Robertson Memorial Endowment serves as a perpetual reminder of the importance of Robertson’s work and Civil War education.
“We want students at Virginia Tech to know that Bud wasn’t just a professor passing through,” said Ed Derkum. “He valued students, and his enthusiasm and honesty were unmatched. An education focused on the reasons for the Civil War, what it meant then, and its continued importance today is crucial to understanding and improving our country.”
Robertson wasn’t the only illustrious Civil War historian Derkum met on the Delta Queen. He also met Jack Davis.
Davis and Robertson shared a friendship spanning five decades. The two met in the early ’70s, when Davis was an editorial assistant for a magazine company and Robertson a frequent contributor. As their careers advanced, they reviewed one another’s publications and organized a variety of history events across the country.
Like Robertson, Davis shared his Civil War expertise with all who’d listen, and he has contributed mightily to Civil War history education.
When the Center for Civil War Studies opened in 2000, Davis joined his longtime collaborator at Virginia Tech to serve as the center’s executive director and to teach history classes.
Together, Davis and Robertson organized programs such as digital learning projects and graduate scholarships. One of Davis’ favorite projects involved assembling a guide for high school history teachers centered on the Civil War.
“Working with Bud was fun and easy from the beginning, and the center is a manifestation of his commitment to education,” said Davis. “The great thing about education is you learn more than how to simply earn a living. Education adds enrichment and variety in our lives. It teaches us how to advocate for others. Without education, we wouldn’t know our history — let alone begin to understand it.”
Davis has high hopes for the Robertson Memorial Endowment. He envisions Virginia Tech continuing to inspire students of all ages to explore history and use their knowledge to help communities.
“When you make a donation, you take it on faith there will be a payoff in the future,” said Davis. “I encourage people to give because doing so can enrich the lives of students, whether they receive grants and scholarships or simply gain a deeper appreciation for American history.”
Quigley, who succeeded Davis as director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, said the endowment comes at a critical time and exemplifies Robertson’s mission.
“Americans need the lessons of the Civil War era now more than ever,” said Quigley. “I’m delighted the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies can continue to support the education of K-12 teachers and students as well as Virginia Tech students.”
To learn more about the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and how you can support its mission, visit the center’s website.