Robin and Chris Kaler
J. Christopher and Robin N. Kaler Endowment Fund
Robin Kaler’s ready smile and warm personality have their roots in her childhood. She was born in North Carolina, but spent the first eight years of her life in Texas, Mississippi and North Dakota before landing in Rantoul, Illinois — the Bedouin lifestyle so common among military families. All of that moving around made her an expert in making friends. “I just wanted to be friends with everyone,” Robin said with a laugh. She thrived on meeting new people and being the social director for her neighborhood.
The family stayed in Rantoul, and Robin graduated from Rantoul High School where she developed a love of sports. And while she wasn’t a talented athlete herself, her skill at writing led her to sports journalism as a potential career.
The choice of Illinois for college seemed an easy one, almost a given. Her older sister went to school here and as Robin stated, “When you’re a local, this is where you go.” As a first generation college student, Robin said her parents were unable to offer much assistance either strategically or financially. Thankfully, Robin received a number of scholarships her freshman year, and her costs were covered. Unfortunately, she didn’t know to reapply for those scholarships, and sophomore year received an unexpected bill for tuition. So, her first student loan was born.
Today, Robin has a special affinity for first-generation students, making time for their questions and helping them navigate the often-winding road to college.
Robin majored in journalism and soon discovered WPGU. At first, she wrote up sports stories. “It was a lot of Team A beat Team B,” she recalled. The news side seemed to be having a lot more fun following breaking stories. So, she switched.
WPGU became her family. She also was a lifeguard at IMPE and managed the swim team for a couple of years. “WPGU was pretty consuming,” she said. This was also when she started distance running — 5 miles a day; 16 laps to a mile — at the IMPE indoor track. “They switched directions each day, so one day you were dizzy in one direction and the next day you were dizzy in the other direction.”
Robin focused her energy on learning broadcast journalism and how to tell a story with visuals. Robin recalled, “Sarah Toppins was my absolute favorite professor in journalism. She was laser-focused on the fact that the reporting has to be solid. The facts have to be well-researched and confirmed. You have to get to the essence of what people are talking about.”
While at Illinois Robin met her husband and “life happened.” After graduation she worked at WDWS, a radio station in Champaign, and rose to the position of news director. She enjoyed the thrill of the hunt for a story, crunching data and figuring out that it meant something. It was also great to be in the know. “I was the only one in the news room when the Challenger crashed. The AP bells went off — I thought the world had ended. We cut to CBS and stayed there for days.” While at the station she started teaching classes for the College, building her connection to the university.
After about ten years at the station and the birth of her first child, Robin applied for and became a speechwriter for then-Chancellor Michael Aiken. She continued to teach in the College and worked her way up in public affairs at the university.
The O.J. Simpson trial was the first big story she did not work. She also remembers the first election after leaving the station and not having to stay up all night for returns. “I do miss writing. I don’t get to do it very often now,” she said.
Robin states that her connection to Illinois is visceral. “It’s my home and has been for a long time,” she said. It took some time for her to realize how special this place is, that what happens here doesn’t necessarily happen everywhere.
One of her first major projects was the creation of historical markers around campus. “Through that project I discovered so much about Illinois,” she said. It’s been an evolutionary understanding, “I’ve been affiliated with the university for so many years and I still learn new things about the impact all the time.”
Robin believes that changes in technology have had the biggest impact on how journalists do their jobs today. “The internet has been the game changer,” she said. "When I first started in the field, there were times I was so stressed about getting the technology to work that I couldn’t focus on the reporting."
She remembers using a bag phone to report during a flood and being able to be on scene and describe what was happening in real time. “I was able to tell them what I was experiencing as opposed to thinking about getting the equipment to work. You really could just focus on what was the story, what you were trying to say to people.”
Robin is confident in the skills students currently learn in the College. “The communication skills you develop at the University of Illinois are transferable to so many things. Companies say employees are lacking good communication skills. If you can write well — clearly, factually — do solid research, talk with people, listen to people, synthesize information, you are a golden employee.”
The rise of entrepreneurial journalism also offers graduates new opportunities. They can think about their passions and find a way to get close to them.
Robin believes that the college made her who she is today. “The College of Media allowed me to explore, to try things, to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes, and it taught me how the world works," she said. "The first time I went I learned a lot about the mechanics of being a journalist — the rules. The second time I went back, I learned the nuances. “
In 2005, Robin and her husband, Chris, created an endowment to support journalism education in the College. She feels strongly about giving back. “The people of the state of Illinois put their faith in this place to train me to become a good citizen of Illinois. They kept their deal, and I think my deal is to make sure it’s here for the next generation of students who go here.”
If you have questions or would like to discuss donation options, please contact:
- Marlah Bonner McDuffie
Associate Dean for Advancement
College of Media