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Serious About Writing: My Gratitude for Robin McNallie


Robin McNallieSerious about writing: My gratitude for Robin McNallie

By Ken Sullivan ('82)

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.

"To this day I am still thankful for Robin’s help."

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.

Photo of Robin McNallie at LifeLong Learning Institute anniversary celebration
McNallie, far right, at the 15th anniversary celebration of JMU's Lifelong Learning Institute

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.

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Published: Monday, April 8, 2019

Last Updated: Tuesday, January 26, 2021

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