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Ellis H. Robison

When the former Forest Home School building became the headquarters of Cornell Plantations in 1964, the school playground had been dismantled, but a 1-acre gravel yard remained. The story goes that one day over lunch, staff editor Audrey O’Connor and then-director Richard Lewis sketched out their ideas for a herb garden on a paper napkin. For the fundraising campaign, they used early donations to buy a pair of early-19th century wrought iron gates and featured them in an exhibit titled “Come, Open the Garden Gate.”

Their efforts caught the attention of Ellis H. Robison, Cornell Class of 1918, who gave the major gift to build the garden as a tribute to his wife, Doris, an accomplished gardener. Dedicated in 1974, the Robison York State Herb Garden is now the centerpiece of the horticultural collections around the Nevin Welcome Center. Recognized by Garden Design magazine as one of best herb gardens in the United States, the garden is laid out in 17 beds, with interpretive signs and plant labels that highlight the primary use of the plants and their biocultural significance.

After graduating from Cornell, Ellis ‘Roby’ Robison served as a missionary in Liberia from 1919 to 1923. He then joined American Locomotive in Schenectady, NY, as a safety engineer, and later became the chairman and CEO of John L. Thompson Sons & Company of Troy, NY, one of the nation’s oldest pharmaceutical companies. Roby’s devotion, advice and financial support to Cornell began soon after he graduated. He was a man with foresight; when he saw a need, he filled it. His generosity has enriched Cornell Athletics and the University Library. His concern for student-athletes prompted him to provide such practical gifts as vans for team travel, improvement of the tennis courts, and a shell house for women’s crew, which is named for his wife.

In the early 1980s, Roby and Doris sold their coin collections at auction and distributed the nearly $6 million proceeds to Cornell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Russell Sage College, and Brown University. At Cornell, the Robison Fund continues to provide annual support for the Herb Gardener’s salary and has also funded special garden renovation projects.

For more information about how you can create your own legacy at Cornell Botanic Gardens, click here or contact Lynn Swain at 607-255-7416 or