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In Memoriam: Nicholas Von Robison

In Memoriam: Nicholas Von Robison

Passed June, 2000

by Tim Olsen

Originally published in American Lutherie #63, 2000 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013

How well I remember the first letter we got from Nick. He told of being introduced at a party as a “Master Craftsman.” At first he was flattered, but was quickly brought back to reality when the local birdhouse tinkerer was also identified as a “Master Craftsman.” That was in 1982. Nick and I kept up a lively and voluminous correspondence for the next eighteen years. Nick was a GAL member for twenty-three years.

As a kid, Nick was in a rock band with his big brother called The Hatfields, and they actually put out a single in the ’60s. He also did a stint in a hippie combo modeled along the lines of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. His later musical taste ran to playing Japanese flutes. He worked as an amateur luthier, and then began the enormous project of singlehandedly building a good-sized wooden sailboat. He had completed a lot of the fittings and had a good start on the hull when a fire at the space he was renting deferred his dream. He often wrote of his plan to sail to Bora Bora and Tahiti.

But he did get around. He spent a summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and recently he had discovered sea kayaking. He was an avid fly fisherman and had some articles published in fishing magazines. And remember the big hoo-ha about the Mojave Phone Booth a year or two ago? Nick was the discoverer of the Mojave Phone Booth. It’s a long story, but a well-documented one.

Photo by Dale Blindheim.

Nick was a GAL True Believer. We published many of his articles over the years, and he served for a time as an Associate Editor of American Lutherie. His academic and practical knowledge of botany and wood anatomy was particularly valuable. He was our go-to guy for all wood identification questions and was the major contributor to our book Lutherie Woods and Steel String Guitars. He had a special commitment to the Guild’s benefit auction, spending hours tending the preview at conventions, as well as donating many items and paying ridiculous prices for others.

The Guild owes Nick a particular debt of gratitude for talking me into getting e-mail, then hounding me into agreeing to try out a web page for the Guild. Back in the primitive 14.4k days of 1995, he developed the page, got it up on the web, and proceeded to maintain and improve it for another couple years, all as a volunteer. To date we have had more than 170,000 hits on our page, and half our annual income flows through it.

I only saw Nick a few times, at GAL Conventions and once when he came through town on a vacation. Still, he was a close friend. Our correspondence covered everything from God and Man to rock ’n’ roll.

They tell me Nick took his own life in the first days of June. I really can’t believe it. It just does not fit with the rest of the story. It seems a lot more like he’s finally off on that long journey to Bora Bora, and some day he’ll tell me all about it. I’m going to think of it that way.