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2008 Alumni Distinguished Service Award: Robert Herman '51

As he expounds on the beauty and optimism of an art deco façade that marks Los Angeles’ post WWI boom, Professor Emeritus Robert Herman ’51 offers an alternative to the gritty and dodgy L.A., exposing a city that is vibrant and inclusive. “The center of the city has life—enchantment,” he says.

Herman began offering tours of downtown Los Angles in 1986, and since then he has conducted hundreds of walking tours for Pomona students, alumni, faculty and staff, as well as non-Pomona groups.

He hopes people come away from his tours wanting more—shedding their inhibitions and the congested snare of L.A. freeways to explore the cityscape by foot. Leaving the frustration and fatigue of driving across town can be liberating, Herman says. “When you get out of your car and walk, you see the city within its context.”

For his tireless advocacy of a stronger connection between the people of Pomona College and the gems of downtown Los Angeles, Herman is the recipient of Pomona’s 2008 Distinguished Service Award for alumni, which will be presented during the May 2-4 Alumni Weekend.

Though Herman has an obvious passion for downtown L.A., this urban enthusiast and his wife Carol B. Herman ’51 have called Claremont home for nearly 50 years A sociology major at Pomona, Herman returned to the College in 1960 where he taught until he retired in 1998. That same year, he wrote and self-published the first edition of Downtown Los Angeles: A Walking Guide, which is now in its fourth printing. The Robert D. Herman Prize in Sociology, established to honor his contributions to the College, is awarded annually to a graduating senior for excellence in sociology.

For Herman, urban sociology became not only an area of interest, but intensive work. After a sabbatical year in 1984-85 focused on urban issues in Boston—known as one of America’s best “walking cities”—Herman returned to L.A. amid a new boom of art and commerce buildings. He began leading student and faculty tour groups. The arrival of Metrolink in the early 1990s offered a direct connection between the Claremont Depot and Union Station, enabling him to increase the frequency of the tours.

His trips to the city’s core yield a trove of arches and colors—a mix of art deco, Spanish colonial revival and minimalist modern structures. If pressed to pick a favorite Los Angeles destination, Herman says hands down the Central Library. He appreciates the egalitarian nature of the library, calling it “truly cosmopolitan.”

Herman continues to offer tours of downtown L.A., The Claremont Colleges and Claremont, where he’s been involved in historical preservation efforts for years. He is often seen walking under the canopy of Claremont trees to his Hahn office at Pomona. And two or three days a week he volunteers at The Huntington Library, cataloging and researching another life-long love, streamline trains. His current research project examines the social and culture aspects of "the streamline era" (1934-1954) of American passenger railroading. 

About the award, he modestly says, “It was easy to do the things that the College thinks of as service.” If his volunteer service is, as he calls it, “cherry picked,” maybe it is because Herman found his life’s calling.

If you would like to nominate a alumnus or alumna for a Distinguished Service Award, please e-mail alumni@pomona.edu.