‘I’ve never been anywhere I didn’t like’
Professor Main, retiring from yet another career, reflects on the state of the world
In the 1930s and ‘40s, when Robert Main was a boy growing up on a small farm in northern Missouri, the train from Chicago to Kansas City went right past his house at 5:30 every evening, its dining cars filled with travelers. “I just yearned to be going,” he said. “I always wanted to see new places.” Main’s sights, it turned out, stretched much farther than Kansas City.
His brother lives happily on that farm to this day, but retired Chico State University Professor Main’s travels—and 22 years with the military—have taken him places about which he’d never even dreamed. “I’ve visited, lived or worked in 55 countries and all 50 states. And I’ve never been anywhere I didn’t like, including Vietnam,” Main said.
His employers have included government public-information offices, Vietnam-era Gen. William Westmoreland—even the CIA. He briefed President Gerald Ford, had top-level “Q” clearance with the Central Intelligence Agency and was a contract field agent in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, setting up human intelligence networks. When he was the director of the Office of Information for the Armed Forces, he had a hand in creating the recruitment campaign, “Be All You Can Be.” He made award-winning educational films starring such actors as Michael Landon and Sammy Davis Jr. and ran a video production company in Chico. He continues to do consulting work and is currently in the midst of a contract with the California Department of Corrections, working out of Sacramento to develop an employee-training model.
At a young-looking 70, Main is about to start his last semester as a professor at Chico State University. He officially retired in 1997-98, and state rules allow teaching for only five years beyond retirement.
“I’m sort of anti-retirement,” Main said. “If you’re doing something you like, why would you stop?”
His final class will be one of his favorites: a freshman survey course called Introduction to Communication. “I think what I teach is something every American should know about,” said Main, who starts with a history of the human struggle to communicate and uses a carefully prepared, performance-type lecture approach to hammer home the point that “You should be skeptical of all information.” Main’s skill and popularity earned him a California State University Outstanding Professor award in 1989. “I’ve taught, I figure, about 12,000 students.”
Scott Johnson, an instructional-technology graduate student who’s been involved in Main’s notoriously hands-on internships for three years, said Main comes off as “rough and stern” at first, but “he’s really one of the most patient people in the world.
“He illustrates everything he’s trying to say with a story or example” and never seems to bring out the same story twice, Johnson said. “He has a way of bringing people around to the right way of thinking without telling them what to think. … I have never met one person who was not completely amazed with what they were able to learn from Robert Main.”
Main also has a knack for seeing the potential in individuals. “He can identify things about people and bring them out before they even have a clue,” Johnson said.
Chico State graduate Christopher Curtis is in full agreement. He studied under Main, and the two military veterans traveled to Vietnam in 1990 for a film project.
“He gets along so well with virtually anybody,” Curtis said. “He’s one of the most honorable people I’ve ever known in my life. He has character, experience and a big heart.” Curtis sees Main as a role model for both professional and family ventures. When he got to know Main, he said, “I knew someone of whom I could say, ‘I’ve met a teacher.'”
Main’s students and colleagues honored him at a Dec. 3 event, filling the Chico BrewHouse with friends and admirers.
It wasn’t Main’s first retirement party.
When he left the Pentagon in 1975, Main wasn’t sure what to do with himself, so his wife, Anita, encouraged him to go for his new dream job: college professor. Soon, he had a doctorate.
“I have a short attention span,” grinned Main, whose diverse undertakings have afforded him the opportunity to learn about everything from artificial intelligence to the disposal of nuclear waste.
As Main recounts his string of communications positions with the U.S. government, one is reminded of his earlier admonition that consumers of information think critically. “The worst scenario is that someone controls all the information you get,” he said.
In some of his jobs, “the whole idea was to manipulate the media.” That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, Main said, because even though the Army’s Public Affairs Division had an agenda, it wasn’t at odds with his values. “Never lie. That doesn’t mean you tell everything.” Main worked in the Pentagon at the time the Freedom of Information Act was being revised, and the idea that the public could have access to so much material was a welcome and exciting one for him.
Where he did run into a problem was when he realized, gradually and dishearteningly, that the government didn’t always do what was right. “I truly believed that we were the good guys—that we wore white hats,” said Main, who remembered World War II and served during the Korean War. But while working for the CIA, Main “found out that we did stuff that wasn’t fair.” And when he’d question the morality of certain things, he was told that, if the enemy does it, we have to, too. “I could never understand that justification, because then how are we different from them? That was a real disillusionment.”
In 1963, Main came to believe the United States should not be fighting the Vietnam War. Later, heavily armed forces called in to “defend” Washington, D.C., against peaceful hippie protestors and the “us-vs.-them” attitude that pervaded the Pentagon at the time reminded Main of something that would happen in a Third World country and “really disturbed me.” Later, in 1991, Main himself protested the war in Iraq.
Main, though shocked at the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “was not surprised that there were people who disliked us enough [to do that].
“We are not beloved,” he said. “Part of it is [that] everyone has some envy of the person who is really successful.” The United States consumes much of the world’s resources and its wealth is rubbed in the faces of foreigners by way of the mass media and, more recently, by President George W. Bush, who Main said comes off as arrogant to those in other countries, particularly with last year’s “axis of evil” speech.
“Instead of behaving like a benevolent giant, we’re behaving like a bellicose bully,” Main said, remembering Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “walk softly and carry a big stick.” With the fall of the Soviet Union and the accompanying “mutually assured destruction thing,” the United States has the big stick but isn’t walking softly at all.
Despite these complexities, Main still feels a strong fondness toward the military. “The military is more liberal than the civilians running it,” he said. “There is nothing that can compare to the horrors of combat war—and the things that people do to each other. Those who have been through it don’t want anyone else to ever experience it.”
He credits the military, and its merit-based system of advancement, with social improvements including the beginning of the civil-rights movement. (Main himself, who grew up in segregated schools, hadn’t considered the inequality dealt African-American citizens until serving in an integrated unit and then returning to civilian life.)
Overall, Main considers himself to be having “a really fortunate life” because he’s enjoyed so much of what he’s done. In fact, the only job that didn’t really appeal to him was writing speeches for Gen. Westmoreland. “I only had the job for three or four months,” Main said. “The reason I didn’t like the job was, for one, you have to write the speech to tell whatever slant he has, [and then] Westmoreland would get all the credit for saying it.”
Main and his family came to Chico in 1976, after a former colleague turned down a job offer at the university but suggested it try to land Main instead. “[Chico State] said, ‘We don’t have any money to bring you out for an interview but we’ll hire you.'” Main flew out with his son and was pleased when Chico reminded him of Columbia, Mo., of the 1950s.
“They told me I could build my own program,” said Main, who subsequently started and ran Chico State’s Instructional Technology Program, in which students learn how to use media communication systems to educate and train people. Main strongly believes teaching should be seen as a communication art.
“Learning should be fun and joyous,” he said, mentioning studies that show children stop enjoying school in the first grade. “By the time they reach high school, they can’t wait to get out of school.
“Advertisers can make us do stuff we don’t even want to do at all,” he said. Those same techniques and carefully planned and executed approach can be used for education: “You’re trying to get people to change their behavior, so you have to give them a reason and hold their attention.”
The Mains still live in the same Chico home they bought more than 25 years ago, where their stray-turned-pet cat seeks strokes and a family of deer has set up house in the back yard.
They are celebrating their 47th anniversary this month. Anita, who grew up in a military family, hadn’t wanted to move so much and was pleased when they settled in Chico. “I always said when we retired we would live like real people,” Robert Main said. One of their sons, Robert, is an entrepreneur in Virginia, while son David, a Green Beret, is a captain with the Chico Fire Department. Their daughter, Leslie, died in a 1979 car accident when she was 16—"the big tragedy of my life,” Robert Main remembered.
Anita Main worked for many years as the office manager at Bidwell Junior High School and spends much of her time directing a chorus.
Main’s son, David, remembers growing up with dinner-table discussions about everything from current events to the topics Robert Main covered in his lectures.
“He always encourages debate. He never accepts a pat answer or a cliché—you have to defend your position,” he said. And the son confirms the professor is not putting on a show in the classroom. “He’s the real deal,” he said. “There’s no pretense to him, no b.s. He’s got all the answers.”
Main plans to continue his consulting work, which focuses on performance improvement and teaching adults with the use of technology. “The thing that appeals most to me is a challenge,” he said. He’s even figured out the trick to getting clients to follow through on his advice: “I charge pretty much, so they listen.”
When he finally packs up his office at the end of the spring semester, the program will be in the capable hands of two professors who used to be his students there.
Main hopes to return as a guest lecturer from time to time. "I will miss the classroom," Main said.