M. Richard "Dick" Robinson Jr., the chairman, president, and CEO of Scholastic, whose nearly five decades at the head of the company shaped it into one of the world's most prominent and recognizable publishers of children's literature and an influential education and media company, died on Saturday, June 5. He was 84. In a statement, a Scholastic representative said Robinson died “unexpectedly,” noting that he “had been in excellent health and had been overseeing Scholastic’s long-term strategic direction and day-to-day operations” as he has been for the better part of five decades.

“We are deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Dick Robinson,” Scholastic's board of directors said in a statement. “Dick was a true visionary in the world of children’s books and an unrelenting advocate for children’s literacy and education with a remarkable passion his entire life. The company’s directors and employees, as well as the many educators, parents, and students whose lives he touched, mourn his loss.”

Robinson's contributions to Scholastic, of which he was elected president in 1974 and CEO in 1975, are manifold. The company was founded in 1920 by Maurice R. “Robbie” Robinson, Robinson's father, as a publisher of youth magazines, and went on to publish its first book in 1926 before branching out into the book club business in 1948, international publishing in 1957, and educational publishing in 1961. Under Dick Robinson, Scholastic branched out further, expanding into the school book fairs business in 1981—a business that now comprises 120,000 yearly book sale events at schools across the country—and teaching resources with the debut of Scholastic Professional Publishing in 1989.

During Robinson's tenure, the publisher acquired activity kit publisher Klutz, production company Weston Woods Studio, and encyclopedia publisher Grolier, and launched the influential kids' graphic novel imprint Graphix in 2005. Its trade publishing arm also published such zeitgeist-dominating series as Ann M. Martin's the Baby-sitters Club, Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen's the Magic School Bus, R.L. Stine's Goosebumps, Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants and Dog Man series, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, and Suzanne Collins's the Hunger Games.

Robinson is widely admired throughout the publishing industry, and has been recognized by major organizations including the National Book Foundation, which awarded him its Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community in 2017, and PEN America, which honored him at its 2019 gala. He was a former chair of the Association of American Publishers, and is a member of the Association of Educational Publishers Hall of Fame.

A steadfast champion of the power of the book, Robinson considered reading a civil right—and his publisher one of its boldest champions. “We have been banned in schools in the '30s and '50s for being too soft on communism; in the '40s and the '60s for promoting liberal views on race, civil rights, and the Vietnam War; in the '70s for articles on student rights—not a popular subject in schools; in the '80s and '90s for climate change; and in the 2000s for the Iraq war,” he told the PEN gala audience in 2019. “Despite these controversies and temporary bans, schools have relied on our balanced approach to help the young gain basic knowledge about their world, with the larger goal of helping kids know how to build and maintain a fragile democracy.”

That commitment to the life of reading focused, of course, for Robinson, on the reading life of children. “Research says that if children choose and own their books, they are much more likely to finish them,” he said upon accepting the 2017 Literarian Award. “Scholastic is privileged to be the link between the child, the school, and the book.”

Scholastic's Class A shareholders and its board of directors will meet independently in the coming days to “determine the best course for the company’s direction,” including the appointment of an interim operating head. Until then, as per a pre-authorized governance strategy, operations will be overseen jointly by James Barge, Scholastic’s lead independent director; executive v-p and chief strategy officer Iole Lucchese; executive v-p and general counsel, and secretary Andrew S. Hedden; and chief financial officer Kenneth Cleary.

As word of Robinson's death spread over the weekend, tributes to the late publisher began to be posted. Among the first was one from bestselling author J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter books were published by Scholastic. “I heard the news of Dick Robinson’s passing with shock and profound sadness. Dick was a wise, kind, and humane man, who leaves behind him an extraordinary legacy in the world of children’s literature,” Rowling said in a statement. “I’m just one of thousands of children’s authors who were proud to be published by Dick Robinson, and I’ll miss him very much indeed.”

This story has been updated with further information.