Skip To Content Skip To Menu Skip To Footer

From Elton John to Benjamin Rush: Alumna's Passion for Collecting Reaches Into College History

As a child, Robin Arnoff '83 was electrified by an Elton John song. That inspired a lifelong passion for the piano and for collecting.

As a child, Robin Arnoff '83 was electrified by an Elton John song. That inspired a lifelong passion for the piano and for collecting artifacts.

Lifelong collection inspires passion for artifacts, unique way to give back

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

The rustling trees. The friendly “hellos.” The mermaid. The study session on Morgan Rocks. Those old stone steps. There are many ways that the Dickinson campus can inspire love at first sight. For Robin Arnoff ‘83, it was the profound sense of history that captivated. Rolling into the Revolutionary-era downtown with her family during her older brother’s campus visit, she immediately knew she’d found her undergrad home. That reverence for the college’s history remains, and it inspires Arnoff to help support the college’s efforts to preserve historic documents and objects to make them available for learning and research. 

Arnoff majored in history and English at Dickinson and got involved as a photographer for The Microcosm and The Dickinsonian, a pianist for Dickinson Follies, and a Gamma Phi Beta sister and Beta Theta Pi little sister. After graduation, she worked for Baltimore Magazine, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins and Folio, moving from small-space advertising to managing full creative and editorial development of special-edition consumer magazines.  

And through the decades, Arnoff also kept a lifelong tradition that keeps her passion for history and historic preservation burning bright. 

It began when Arnoff was nine years old. Shopping with her mother, she heard an Elton John tune, the 1970 hit, “Your Song,” over the store’s sound system. She had already been playing piano for several years, and John’s piano-forward ballad took her in new musical directions and sparked a lifelong love affair with the instrument. It also led her to collect Elton John memorabilia, with a focus on rare paper artifacts—concert posters, handbills, advertisements and tickets. Eventually, she began to acquire all manner of paper ephemera, including European prints, early American documents and rare books. 

“When you open an old book, you open a window into another time that’s different from your own—a time when people thought differently, wrote differently and used different materials,” says Arnoff, who’s recently begun to study ancient cultures in depth. “Holding an artifact from another era in your hands tells you a story that’s unique to that object.” 

Arnoff began to focus her attention on her personal story after her older brother, David, passed at age 52. David was a keen sailor, and in his memory, Arnoff had shepherded a family gift to his alma mater that reflected David’s lifelong passion. She wanted her Dickinson legacy to be personally meaningful as well. Tapping into her deep appreciation for history and artifacts, Arnoff is providing funding for an endowed chair for Dickinson’s Archives & Special Collections 

“I’m an historian and archivist by personality,” the former history major says, “so to be able to help preserve the materials of Dickinson’s nearly 250-year history for students of the future and give a boost to the archives program is really exciting to me." 

For Arnoff, giving back can be transformative, both for those benefiting from the gift and for those who make it. “I see philanthropy as an act of empowerment, especially for women,” she explains. “It’s a way for us to give a gift of love and experience, and to build a bridge between people and between generations. And it’s so satisfying and easy to give when you love the thing you’re supporting.” 


Published September 10, 2020