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Campus celebrates and remembers Robert Yin ’12

No matter how and why someone remembers Robert Yin ‘12, whether for his voice, his athletic pursuits or his presence in a room, everyone seems to universally recall one trait—his smile.

“He had different kinds of smiles: a happy smile, a mischevious smile, a joking kind of smile, a glad-to-see you smile, a supportive smile,” said Evelyn Freeman, one of Robert’s Track and Field coaches. “There were all sorts of smiles he had, but it was always a smile.”

Robert passed away on May 17, 2010 from complications resulting from a head injury sustained during a fall while pole-vaulting during a track meet at Illinois College on May 14. For many students, his death set the tone for the end of the 2009-2010 school year.

A memorial service will be held this afternoon at 4:30 p.m. in Herrick Chapel. Friends will be invited to share their memories as Grinnell celebrates and remembers the life of Robert Yin, and the service will conclude with the dedication of two trees in front of Rose Hall—Robert’s residence during both of his years at Grinnell.

P.J. Mahaffey ’11 first met Robert during Robert’s first year at Grinnell, when they were both members of G-Tones, the campus’ all-male a cappella group. According to Mahaffey, Robert quickly found his place in the group. A music major and musical connoisseur who began singing at the age of two and half in his home state of Maryland, Robert would often walk around campus singing with his headphones on. His presence in G-Tones was very influential.

“We nailed a song that we had been working on for a couple of weeks … and Rob … just did this full, chest-out roar,” Mahaffey said, emulating Robert’s trademark move. “From then on, whenever we’d hit a song and it sounded good, we’d do that gesture.”

Mahaffey, and the rest of the G-Tones, quickly adopted Robert as a member, and he quickly saw G-Tones as a second family. In the close-knit group, Robert was a bright thread.

“The first time I met him he was a little bit shy,” Mahaffey said. “But by the second practice, the true Rob shone through. He was grooving, and moving, and smiling.”

The night after Robert’s death, G-Tones performed a song in his memory, and took part in a campus-wide candlelight vigil.

Robert’s energy and charisma also found a place on both the Track and Ultimate Frisbee teams.

“When someone would pass him in practice, he would cheer them on. He was a really supportive teammate,” said Track Coach Will Freeman.

Robert was the first person that track member Que Newbill ’12 met on his floor last year after transferring to Grinnell College as a second-year.

“Rob was my teammate, my floormate, my friend,” Newbill said.

Newbill first felt his connection with Robert when Newbill was walking around their Rose 3rd hallway, tired and lagging. He was moved when Robert approached him,  concerned for Newbill’s well-being.

“There are very few people that I meet in life that are genuine,” Newbill said. “Very few people who when they act sincere, are sincere.”

After his death, the G-Tones created an annual award in honor of Robert and Chris Hade ‘09, a former member who passed away in 2008. Adam Thein ‘10 received the award last year. The $1,500 award will be given to a graduating senior who wants to pursue music—Robert’s passion.

“It was a really great way to pass on Rob’s legacy and how much he cared about music,” Mahaffey said. “To give it to Adam and see how much it meant to him was a really great way to remember Rob.”

In the days following Robert’s death, the campus reacted emotionally. The final week of Grinnell’s 2010 academic year was largely defined by the loss of someone who had been a  visible presence on campus. On GrinnellPlans, hundreds of members of the Grinnell community posted their sentiments. Many reached out to a person they may have never officially met but whose passing greatly affected them.

“I will never forget your smile,” one Plan still reads. Another states, “You brought out the best in me every time I saw your infectious smile and laughter.”

One parent of a Grinnell student left a comment on Robert’s Facebook memorial page, writing that her daughter did not personally know Robert, “but was quick to point out that [Robert was] always smiling friendly and someone that cheered you up even when you walked by.”

For a student called “Happy-Guy” by Coach Will Freeman, the memorial this afternoon will bring students together around a person that left a permanent mark not only on friends, but also on anybody who had ever passed the smiling, singing and vibrant Robert on campus.

“It’s hard to move on from it being sad,” said Robert’s friend Kate Duran ‘12. “But he really deserves to be celebrated.”

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