In Memoriam: Robert S. Cox

By Dee Boyle-Clapp, Director of Arts Extension Service

Our colleague and friend Rob Cox, Director of Special Collections and University Archives died from cancer on May 11.  He was a brilliant, special man, and even with four Masters Degrees and a Ph.D. to his name, not a bit arrogant. Rob was always busy with his own research, teaching, writing, and the SCUA collection in his care, and he genuinely wanted to build a collection that served a social justice purpose.

I was able to work closely with Rob on our shared National Arts Policy Archive and Library (NAPAAL) which we launched with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other partners in 2013, then expanded.  NAPAAL houses an alphabet soup of the best collections in our field including the NEA, Americans for the Arts (AFTA), National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), NASAA’s Community Development Coordinators (CDC), The Association of American Cultures (TAAC), private collections, and of course, the Arts Extension Service (AES). While Rob followed best practices for an online archive, I regularly nudged him to make small changes to make the archives more user-friendly to the layperson. He always appreciated feedback, especially from our students, and reworked the site to make the finding aid more visible, and to make the archives, as I had always asked, work more like Google.

So what is an archives all about? Rob taught us that an archive is the holding of disparate elements, together, research is able to provide the full story when taking the time to explore, piece together, and read between the lines. In our field, NAPAAL holds the earliest records of the launching of our field of arts working with a community, within the states, and documents the rise of each organization and how they served the arts. For the NEA this meant supporting an ever-broader series of art forms with grant programs, including jazz, dance, design, folk arts, and important for our time, shows how inclusion came to be recognized and addressed.  AFTA showed the development of partnerships that joined together to become the nations’ largest arts advocacy and arts service organization. AES’ story is there, our efforts to support and educate arts managers so they could not only run stronger organizations but serve their community through the arts.

Rob taught our partners and me much about archives and the process including what to save, how to sort, and never to toss anything that seems unimportant, as it may be an essential link telling the backstory of why a policy or a grant program was needed, who advocated for it, and how it came into existence. Rob, upon opening boxes filled with lanyards from a convening, or a carton chock full of the same brochure, did remind us that five copies of an item is plenty. He was so informative, kind, and clear that the NEA asked him to come to Washington D.C. to instruct them; relying upon his expertise even though, they could have easily called upon the National Archives. 

I always thought it funny that a person that tall measured collections not by the number of boxes or the number of items, but by linear feet. It was always a treat to visit Rob at his office on the 27th floor of the library. The view was amazing, but his office brimmed with books, posters, paintings, photos, sculptures, and more. He would rattle off brief stories of what they were, which collection they belonged with, how SCUA (well, Rob, obtained them) and in these stories, I would learn more about his past, vast interests, and places he loved. We both had large farm animals (he had ‘his boys’, two steers, and I have my menagerie) and we regularly exchanged stories of their care, challenges, and sorrow when they passed. 

Rob’s warmth, kindness, and sincere interest in so many things made people trust that their precious collection was safe in his hands. He treated each person’s items with the same level of care. It did not matter if the items were a personal book collection, the archives from a church, or the Pentagon Papers, everyone I know who worked with him said that he made them feel they felt that their items were important.

Protecting an item “forever” and making it publicly available takes time. Rob taught us that archives are not to be rushed. Collections require time to be processed, scanned, organized so they could be found online, and then returned to their boxes where they can be found in context so a future researcher could make discoveries on their own. Even when individuals or even organizations wanted a faster turnaround, for Rob, it seemed there was no rush.

During one of the last times we talked, Rob shared that he and wife Danielle had been fostering a little girl, named Phoebe, and he was clearly smitten. I hope it was a comfort to both that they were able to officially adopt her a week before he passed.

It is truly sad that Rob is not here at this pivot point of social justice, economic inequity, and the pandemic, with climate change looming. He would be excited to collect as much as possible and put it together so that future generations could make sense of how we made the very most of our time, as he clearly made the most of his.

Learn more about Rob's life and his contributions to our campus community. Those who wish to contribute to a fund in Rob's memory, the Robert S. Cox Special Collections Fund has been established in his honor.