Serious about writing

My gratitude for Robin McNallie

By Ken Sullivan ('82)

Robin McNallie

      Robin McNallie

When I began writing The Way I Saw America during the summer of 1981, a good friend suggested that I approach the JMU Department of English to inquire about getting credit for my writing. While I had no idea how things would work out, I decided to heed my friend’s advice and headed over to the English department as soon as classes began in late August.

While I didn’t know any of the professors and I was nervous, I still remember climbing the stairs up to the second floor. When I stuck my head in the first open door I came to and introduced myself, a man sitting behind the desk introduced himself as Robin McNallie. Of course, I didn’t I know then that was the beginning of a long, positive relationship.

I explained that I was in the process of writing a book about a seven-month backpacking adventure around the United States, and I wanted to find out about the possibilities of getting credit for writing it. Robin’s response, “I want you to write a five-page paper as an overview of your work. Please have it back to me within a week,” was unexpected. I didn’t know what to say, but I was excited. When I returned with the paper within the week, Robin, who then knew I was serious, said he would work with me. After that we met each week during the school year, and as mid-year approached I worked with Robin and submitted a chapter of my work in the 1982 Datsun National Student Writing Contest.

Robin and I continued to meet each week after that until the contest results came out. I received an Honorable Mention, and to this day I am still thankful for Robin’s help. Robin paid me a compliment at the end of that year that I will never forget. “You’re one in a million,” he said. Even though I still had not completed my work by graduation, Robin stuck to his end of the deal and got the English department to provide six hours of independent credit. I told him I would return to complete my work after I returned from a three-month backpacking trip in Europe. This time Robin knew I meant what I said.

After the trip, I returned to Harrisonburg and convinced my fraternity brothers to let me stay in a small, unused portion of their house. This time Robin agreed to edit my work and didn’t ask for anything in return. So, week after week I showed up with new material for his review.

When the book was finally completed, I sent the first 10,000 words to three agents who each agreed I might have something if I would rewrite it. I was thankful, tired and not about to rewrite the 375-page book that Robin and I had worked on. I had also told Robin that because of his support I would put his name on the front cover if it ever got published.

Then in 1997, 15 years later, I was once again walking the halls of Madison’s English department when I ran into Virginia Alliotti, my former French professor. She said she remembered me and asked how she could help. When I asked if Robin McNallie was still a professor, she pointed to his office and according to the office hours posted on his door he wasn’t going to be in for a couple of hours. So, Professor Aliotti called him at home; I was surprised when he answered the phone and told me he was waiting on a plumber, but would cancel the visit so he could come over to say hello.

When professor McNallie and I finally got together it was a joy to see him. He explained that he had been a professor for 30 years and that at the end of each year he had made a list of the 10 most memorable students he had taught, and that I had been on that list for the past 15 years. I explained to him that I was going to continue to pursue getting The Way I Saw America on the bestseller list.

I have developed a Web page and am now selling The Way I Saw America, with Robin’s name on the cover, at I am forever grateful to Robin for putting me up to the challenge and helping me realize that I can do what I set my mind to.

Robin, many, many thanks.


Robin McNallie
Professor emeritus of English