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Jill Robbins (1931-2020)

Eulogy to Jill Robbins, November 2020

“We seem to give her back to you, dear God, who gave her to us.  Yet as you did not lose her in giving, so we have not lost her by her return.”  I found these words of the Indian poet, Tagore, among Jill’s papers along with other quotations, many of them about moving on, heaven and the welcome awaiting.  They are all full of hope in times of darkness and trust in God’s promises.  

“In every room in our Father’s house, He will be there, as Lord and Host.”

Over the last few months, since she asked me to give this tribute, I have been gathering recollections of Jill from some of those who knew her best.  From each one her faithful friendship shines out, going back twenty, fifty, seventy years.  Faith, friends, family, these three threads run through Jill’s life.

Faith was the formative influence in Jill’s life.  Along with her firm belief and trust in the love of God was her conviction, like the philosopher Edmund Burke, that “for evil to triumph all that is required is for good men to do nothing”.  I found that among Jill’s things, scribbled on a piece of paper - actually, not scribbled, Jill never scribbled anything.  And she certainly didn’t “do nothing”.  Her active faith goes back to her days at Cheltenham Ladies College when, as a difficult teenager (her words) she boarded with the Dolman family.  There began a friendship which has lasted through four generations.  From that family she learned the daily practice of prayerful times of reflection which changed her life and eventually led her, after initially training as a teacher and then teaching in Woodford Green, Essex, to dedicate herself to the work of Moral ReArmament (now Initiatives of Change).

Those who knew her in Clacton-on-Sea from dog training, from her Baptist church or as a valued member of the community, might not have suspected that this modest woman, so full of brisk and cheerful common sense, had a great sense of adventure and had travelled the world:  India, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and many European countries.  At one point, during a two year stay in Asia, she and a colleague were tasked by Rajmohan Gandhi with going to Malaysia to prepare the visit of a large international delegation.  It was a delicate mission at a time of fierce inter-racial conflict.  Jill’s work was often in a supporting role, getting things done, the sort of unseen enabling without which the more visible aspects of an organisation collapse:  overseeing the practicalities of international conferences; the running, and eventual sale, of the movement’s embassy in Berkeley Square; managing the wide distribution of the weekly magazine; raising and handling funds for specific projects.  

One such project was the filming of an educational pantomime, Give A Dog A Bone.  In the late 60’s she accompanied the distinguished educator, Constance Smith, on an Asian tour to promote the film, meeting leaders in education and politics, staying with local families wherever they went.  Jill was always appreciatively at home with local customs.  On one occasion, I think in Malaysia, she was offered eggs for breakfast.  Jill appeared in the morning, full of anticipation, to find a cold fried egg awaiting her on the breakfast table.  She ate it bravely.  Thinking she must have been late, she came down earlier the next morning, only to find the same.  This happened on three consecutive mornings, until finally she got up so early that she encountered the cook taking a fried egg out of the fridge.

Although considerably older than Jill, Constance remained a close friend until she died.  Indeed, Jill faithfully cared for and regularly visited a number of elderly friends - who will, I am sure, have been there at an enormous welcoming party in heaven.  

Another thread running through Jill’s life has been families.  Again in a supporting role, she looked after a number of children to enable their parents to fulfil missions abroad.  She had sole care of me in loco parentis for nearly a year, when I was two, while my parents worked in Nigeria.  She wrote to them faithfully every week in her elegant script, letters I still have.  As she looked back in later years she reflected that these absences were not always good for her charges, but she did her absolute best to fill the needs of the children entrusted to her.  She kept in touch with us, following our careers and those of our children, praying for us all regularly, remembering birthdays and Christmas.  She kept a meticulous prayer diary with lists of people to pray for on each day of the week.  I found  a well-thumbed birthday book among her papers and started to count the entries.  I stopped counting when I got to 100 in only the second week of March.

Jill had strong opinions and she could be forthright with them - generally, if perhaps not always, appreciated by the recipients.  Several of Jill’s friends have written appreciatively about the observations and advice she had the courage to give them about bringing up their families.  But she was equally aware of her own failings and valued forthrightness in others.  Her closest friend of latter years with whom she shared a great love of dogs, and who supported her devotedly through her illness, told me of their nearly twenty five years of very happy friendship and added, “I stood up to her”.  Clearly, Jill was grateful for that.  One of her bookmarks said:  “O Lord, forgive what I have been, bless what I am and direct what I shall be”.

Jill loved to dress well, often in clothes she made herself, for she was not a wealthy woman.  A discerning frequenter of charity shops, such money as she had was very carefully monitored and she was frugal almost to a fault.  She believed in stewardship and giving was also important to her.  She went without so that she could give generously.  In 1980 she became a Donation Governor of Christ’s Hospital, the school attended by both her father and uncle.  This involved a gift to the school (in today’s money) of some £11,000, no small sacrifice for Jill. It enabled her to sponsor a first class education for a number of young people whose parents would not otherwise have been able to afford such an opportunity.  They have all gone on to successful and productive careers.  Jill remained a proud supporter of Christ’s Hospital all her life, attending the annual St Matthew’s Day celebration in London whenever she could.  

Jill’s papers were meticulously in order:  bank statements, cheque stubs, Christmas cards sent and received, lists of recommended reading.  When I took her papers home to sort, the biggest, rather daunting, pile turned out to be of rough paper.  The only little stashes we found in her well organised home were drawers full of recycled gift wrap.  She made 48 Walton Road, the house that had belonged to her parents, very much her own.  It was full of photographs of her cherished Dannatt cousins, their children and grandchildren, as well as her godchildren and friends.  The visitors’ book, kept faithfully since 1975, bears witness to the many people who came through her home, both when she was there and during her extended periods abroad:  families enjoying seaside holidays, friends in need of rest and recuperation.  The entries testify to what a wonderful host she was. 
One student Jill was asked to sponsor at Christ’s Hospital was unsuccessful in passing the entrance exams. Jill’s letter said, of course, how sorry she was, but also, “You can be proud of the fact that you did your very best”.  That says so much about Jill, how she sought to encourage others and also, in every aspect of her own life, to do her very best.   I found notes she had written to herself with lists of advice about how to manage the symptoms triggered by the onset of her illness:  one said, “Every action should be surrounded by a circle of no hurry.”

Jill has been a great gift in my life, as she has been in the lives of all of us who knew her.  
“We seem to give her back to you, dear God, who gave her to us.  Yet as you did not lose her in giving, so we have not lost her by her return.” 

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