One look at the photos, and you think you know the man. In his younger years, Robert Preston Brooks (BSC 1904) resembled the silent film comic Harold Lloyd; you can almost imagine Lloyd spoofing the stern, bespectacled academic by having stiff winds send him flying across campus, robes in full sail. As Brooks aged, he looked more like an irascible and implacable Walter Huston, his mouth permanently set in a thin grim line, stained by cigars.
One of UGA’s most respected and accomplished economics scholars, Brooks left scores of files stuffed with careful columns of figures on the state’s financial climate, and his own newspaper articles were backed with studiously compiled graphs and charts. However, his personal writings and speeches—and in some cases, what he chose not to write—also show Brooks to be something else: An empathetic human being whose most important role may have been behind the scenes, putting the well-being of the university, its faculty, and its students above all else.
Brooks was, in short, UGA’s necessary man, quietly steering the university toward a progressive future that belied his own firmly entrenched Southern upbringing.
His remarkable 51-year UGA career as star student, professor, and dean includes a number of UGA firsts and distinctions:
- First Rhodes Scholar.
- First dean of the “commerce department,” which later became the School of Commerce, the business school, and now the Terry College of Business.
- Namesake of Brooks Hall.
- First secretary of the UGA Alumni Association.
- Founding editor of the Georgia Alumni Record.
- First Georgia director of the Institute of Public affairs, which brought eminent speakers and leaders to Athens.
- Founder of the Bureau of Business Research, and later, the Institute for the Study of Georgia Problems—both forerunners for UGA’s interface with the business community and the world at large.
In addition, in his initial position as a history professor, Brooks may have authored the first Georgia history textbook. The first edition, printed in 1913, was adopted as the official textbook for Georgia schools, and it sold 100,000 copies.
In addition, Brooks was a tireless campaigner for state and federal funding, strongly supporting tax legislation that helped boost Georgia’s colleges and universities far beyond his lifetime. (He described a 1930s effort to emasculate the state tax system as “the Tax Dodgers League.”)
Brooks’ life (1881–1961) bridges a number of pivotal events: The Great Depression, an influenza epidemic that decimated the globe’s young, two World Wars, as well as the Korean conflict and early involvement in Vietnam. He lived to see UGA transformed from the small, all-white, all-male campus he attended, to a large, integrated, coeducational university. His story includes some of the most iconic individuals in Georgia and UGA history: Walter B. Hill, Talmadge (Gene and Herman), Ellis Arnall, Harmon Caldwell, Walter Cocking, and Sandy Beavers, as well as national figures like economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who wrote to Brooks protesting his decision to leave a wartime stint with Washington’s Office of Price Administration.
Brooks’ undergraduate experiences—editor of the Red & Black, tennis doubles champion, membership in ATO fraternity and the Sphinx honorary society—had a profound effect on him and he came to know many prominent Georgians.
“He was personally tied to people in influential positions, at a time when half the state leadership had gone to UGA,” says Thomas Dyer, author of The University of Georgia: A Bicentennial History, 1785–1985. “He was like Dean Tate later on—the last one who really knew everyone on campus.”