Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

Commentary

September 18, 2012

The lost ethic of Fraser Robinson

After all the oratory at both political conventions, one line stands out. It was from Michelle Obama, talking about her late father, Fraser Robinson, and his insistence on paying his small portion of her college tuition bills on time. "You see, for my dad," she said, "that's what it meant to be a man."

In one moving sentence, she opened a vista on a life of self-sacrifice. The narrative arc of her rendition of his life bent upward, and understandably so. He was a working-class father who raised two Princeton University graduates. But she could just as easily have invoked a sense of the country's loss.

Because we don't really make Fraser Robinsons anymore. He was a high-school-educated man who married and stayed married, who worked and kept working despite considerable adversity. Whatever his relative lack of education and skills, he was a hero of character, shaped by mores that have been eroding for decades.

According to Michelle's convention speech and to published accounts, her father was a pump operator at the city water plant in Chicago. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a young man, and still got up to work every day. The first lady described how she watched him "grab his walker, prop himself against the sink, and slowly shave and button his uniform." When he came home, he'd reach down to lift one leg after another to make it up the stairs and greet his kids.

It's difficult to imagine a more affecting depiction of everyday dutifulness than that. With his wife of 31 years, Marian, Robinson built a family deeply invested in his children's future.

Too few men in his position now do the same. The 2010 study "When Marriage Disappears," a publication of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values, tells the story. In the 1970s, 73 percent of adults with a high school degree or some college were in intact first marriages. In the 2000s, 45 percent were. In the 1970s, 50 percent of blacks at that level of education were in intact first marriages. In the 2000s, 33 percent were.

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