PUBLISHED:November 23, 2020

Duke Law mourns passing of Professor Emeritus and Rear Admiral Horace B. Robertson, Jr.


Robertson joined the Duke Law faculty in 1976 after serving as judge advocate general of U.S. Navy.

The Duke Law community is remembering Professor Emeritus and Rear Admiral Horace B. Robertson, Jr. following his death on Nov. 19 in Durham. He was 97.

Professor Emeritus Horace B. Robertson, Jr. Robertson joined the Duke Law faculty as a visiting professor of law in 1976 following his retirement from the United States Navy after 31 years on active duty, first as a general line officer (surface warfare) and then, for 21 years, as a judge advocate. From 1972 to 1976 he served first as deputy and then as the judge advocate general of the Navy. Known to his friends as Robbie, he joined the Law School’s governing faculty in 1977 and served as senior associate dean from 1986 to 1989. He retired from teaching in 1990.

“Robbie had an unshakeable commitment to fulfilling his duties as a professor — to his students and to the law school — always deploying his seasoned judgment,” said David F. Cavers Professor of Law Deborah DeMott. “To be sure, aspects of the academic world sometimes stumped him — I recall that Robbie was puzzled when an announced dean search did not generate more candidates from within the faculty.”

In an interview with the Duke Law Oral History Project, Robertson recalled being interested in teaching law while still on active duty, but found himself “somewhat old to be on the market” by the time he was ready for a career transition. The dean of Duke Law, A. Kenneth Pye, a good friend and former classmate at Georgetown University Law Center, first sent him job leads at other law schools, but then found an opening at Duke when, by mistake, 50 more students than usual were admitted to the Class of 1979, and he needed someone to teach “medium sections” of Torts and Contracts for their first year.

Robertson went on to regularly teach first-year Torts and Legal Analysis, Research, and Writing at Duke Law. Senior Lecturing Fellow Dan Bowling ’80 recalled being in Robertson’s small section as a 1L in 1977, when both were new to the legal academy. “We both were somewhat unsure of ourselves starting at Duke — and both sensed it,” Bowling said. “But he knew I was a long-time deep-water boater and of course, he was an admiral, which is what I called him at all times over the years. So between those similarities we bonded and got through it and remained friends.”

Robertson’s primary research and teaching interests were in the field of public international law, with a primary concentration on the law of the sea and the law of armed conflict. In this field he taught courses and seminars in public international law, law of the sea, international organization, and admiralty. Following the completion of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Professor Robertson served for a number of years on the Council on Ocean Law's Panel on the Law of Ocean uses, which produced a number of research papers designed to encourage changes to the Convention which would make it acceptable for United States ratification, an effort which, combined with that of other groups, resulted in the president's submission of the Treaty to the Senate for consent to ratification in 1995.

A native of Kannapolis, N.C., Robertson attended Davidson College for two years before being appointed to the Naval Academy in 1942. Following his graduation, he served at sea in destroyers and on an anti-submarine warfare staff until 1950, when he was selected by the Navy for post-graduate education in law according to an obituary provided to Duke Law by his family. At Georgetown University Law Center he placed first in his class and served as editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Law Journal. He completed one more tour at sea after his 1953 graduation, as commanding officer of a landing ship tank, before joining the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and serving in a succession of high-level posts, including as special counsel to the secretary of the Navy, assistant chief of staff for legal affairs to the Commander U.S. Naval Forces Philippines, and special counsel to the chief of naval operations. In the 1960s he attended the Naval War College, where he received the Stephen B. Luce Award.

On his retirement from the Navy, Robertson was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for his service as deputy judge advocate general and judge advocate general. He also received the Legion of Merit.

“You would be hard pressed to meet a finer person than Robbie Robertson,” said Associate Dean for Alumni & Development Kate Buchanan. Her late father, Dan Bernard ’67, served in the JAG Corps with Robertson in the Philippines and they forged a close and lasting friendship. 

 In the 1991-92 academic year, Robertson taught International Law at the Naval War College as the Charles B. Stockton Professor of International Law.

Robertson and his wife, Patricia (Trish), who died in 2016, endowed a scholarship fund at Duke Law, the Horace B. and Patricia L. Scholarship.

DeMott, who joined the faculty in 1975, said that Robertson quickly became a trusted colleague and good friend when he came to Duke Law the following year. “Like his wife Trish, Robbie had a keen interest in other people coupled with an enormous capacity for empathy and kindness,” she said. “Although not all of our interests overlapped, the three of us always had so much to talk about. They were excellent hosts in their Durham townhouse, so welcoming and vibrant and eager that their friends meet each other.”

Robertson is survived by two sons, Mark, of Columbia, S.C., and James, of Austin, Texas; their wives, Deborah Robertson and Melinda Taylor; four grandchildren, Emily and her husband David Bosch, Helen, Nicholas, and Julia; and one great-grandson, Robertson Henry Bosch. The family will hold a private memorial service in Durham with graveside services at a later date at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md. In lieu of flowers, they suggest those who may wish to memorialize Robertson consider a gift to the Endowment Fund of Epworth United Methodist Church, Durham, or to the Horace B. and Patricia L. Robertson Scholarship at Duke Law.