Parents, three sisters join her with education honor



A nonprofit that usually recognizes individual careers in education recently broke with tradition by inducting the entire family of a San Diego State University adjunct professor into a hall of fame.

Youth on the Move International Educators’ Hall of Fame has recognized about 620 people from 30 countries since its creation in 1992. Last month the hall added Eleanora Robbins of SDSU; her sisters Penni Rubin, Thea Iberall and Val O’Connor; their 102-year-old mother, Helene Iberall; and their late father, Arthur Iberall.

“It was just amazing,” Robbins said about the ceremony, which included a red carpet entrance in an Orange County ceremony Oct. 24.

The hall recognizes a variety of educators, and recently expanded to include law enforcement and members of the military who are known as teachers in their field. Honorees must be either retired or have worked more than 20 years, and are judged by criteria that includes work they do beyond their jobs and personal challenges, such as their own learning disabilities, that they’ve overcome.

Iberall family members were not all classroom teachers, they all were educators in their own way, and their combined resumes reads almost like a fanciful movie script.

The patriarch, Arthur Iberall, was a physicist who developed a concept

SDSU adjunct professor Eleanora Robbins has been inducted into the Youth on the Move International Educators’ Hall of Fame.



being used in the design of a space suit for missions to Mars. His wife, Helene, taught English to Russian immigrants, once smuggled letters from dissidents out of the Soviet Union and holds a world swimming record for people 90 and older.

Robbins served in the Peace Corps and teaches geology to children on local Indian reservations. Thea Iberall is an author and playwright, O’Connor is an artist and musician, and Rubin is an artist and musician who has dyslexia and founded a school to help students who have different ways of learning.

“They’re role models,” said Pat Adelekan, founder and CEO of Youth on the Move. “And what better example of role models than a family who has given their lives to education?” Arthur Iberall was a pioneer in homeokinetics, a branch of physics he developed with two other physicists in the 1970s. The concept treats all complex systems on an equal footing, providing them with a common viewpoint and language.

While standard physics study systems at separate levels— atomic, nuclear, biophysics and others— homeokinetic physics study the processes that bind the different levels, with a basic premise that the entire universe consists of atomisticlike units bound in interactive ensembles to form systems.

In the 1940s, Iberall developed the concept of lines of non-extension in the human body. The theory that there are lines on the body that don’t stretch or contract during body movement was used in a space activity suit developed by NASA and the Air Force in the 1950s. Although that suit was never put in use, the concept is the basis of a new form-fitting space suit being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for possible trips to Mars. After his death in 2002, the University of Connecticut created a conference in his honor to encourage young mathematicians, physicists, psychologists and other science students to follow in his footsteps. Besides being a brilliant physicist who wrote more than 200 papers, Iberall also was a natural teacher, Robbins said about her father, who was a visiting scholar at UCLA after moving to California in the 1980s. Helene Iberall was in some ways a conventional mother, helping out at her daughters’ schools and leading a Camp Fire Girls troop, but she also has been a passionate advocate for certain causes and has gone to extreme levels to help others.

Robbins said when her sister Thea came out as gay, her mother talked to neighbors and gave lectures about tolerance in Philadelphia, where they were living at the time. After moving to a retirement community in California, she taught English and Yiddish to Russian immigrants. As an active swimmer in her retirement community, she also set a swimming record for people 90 years old. Robbins, 73, said her mother surprised her with a daring move during a trip to the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The two were accompanying Robbins’ husband, Brian, who went to Moscow as part of studies on rats and bats he was doing for the Smithsonian.

“She got hold of the American Jewish Congress — she was a board member — and said, ‘Who needs to be visited and what should I take?’” Robbins said about her mother’s plans before the trip.

Helene Iberall collected books, letters and money from Americans to take to their friends and relatives in Moscow, then loaded her suitcase with letters from the Russians to bring to the U.S. Among the letters was one from Israeli politician and writer Natan Sharansky, who would spend nine years in Soviet prisons.

As for her own career, Robbins said her interest in geology began while picking up fossils near a creek on walks with her father in Washington, D.C., where she was born.

After earning her degree, Robbins joined the Peace Corps and helped in geological surveys in Tanzania.

“Coming from my family, volunteering was something normal,” she said about the experience, which included playing American folk songs on her guitar with local children.

She worked for the U.S. Geological Survey through seven presidential administrations, and for 11 years taught outdoor science to inner-city children in Washington, D.C., in a program that earned a “Thousand Points of Light” recognition for volunteerism. After she retired and moved with her husband to San Diego in 2001, Robbins became an adjunct professor at SDSU and continued her outreach by teaching geology at 11 Indian reservations. She since has cut back to teaching monthly at six.

Thea Iberall, 66, a computer engineer and writer, has a Ph.D. in computational neuroscience from the University of Massachusetts and taught at the Hartford Graduate Center in Connecticut. She also has a master’s degree in writing from the University of Southern California, where she was a research faculty member until leaving to focus on writing in 2001. “People in my family don’t really retire,” she said from her home in Massachusetts.

An award-winning writer with more than 50 published poems, she combined her scientific training with language to develop a style called contextual poetry, as explained in her website.

“I combine some of my father’s theories of complex systems with mythology and how the patriarchy is destroying us,” she said.

Her play, “We Did it For You,” toured from San Diego to San Francisco, and she wrote the children’s musical “At Seven” with her sister Rubin, 70. The subject of the play was based on Rubin’s research and theory that people develop their vocational interest around age 7. Discovering that she was dyslexic as an adult, Rubin has worked at helping children overcome learning challenges and has written many educational books. She was the educational supervisor at the Cleveland Children’s Museum and now teaches art and painting to adults while taking care of her mother in Laguna Woods. Her sister O’Connor, 64, lives in Davie, Fla., and teaches children piano, which she and all her sisters play. O’Connor also does work to help schools, alumni associations, chronically ill children and others. Adelekan said she got the idea for a hall of fame for educators while watching an induction ceremony for an athletic hall of fame. “I was thinking, ‘Educators need that,’” she said.


Eleanora Robbins tutors children at the Barona Reservation and teaches monthly at six reservations.



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