Bill Robinson was an inspiration to many
Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, chair of the College’s Board of Trustees, knew how to live and how to face the end of life.
On the day, April 25, 2017, when his doctors informed him there was no use in continuing cancer treatments, he wrote to friends: “It’s been a long but positive day … even the greatest poems, movies and books must have an ending.”
His came two weeks later, May 9, when he succumbed to the disease after a seven-month battle. Friends and associates know that he typically ended letters and emails with a rousing “Upward and Onward!” On April 25, it was “THANKS – now nowhere to go but UPWARD and ONWARD!!!” He was 72.
He leaves behind his wife of 48 years, Joan; his son Tay and four grandchildren, along with untold numbers of friends and admirers from a long and successful legal career highlighted by his service as president of the American Bar Association from 2011–12.
He joined the NJC Board of Trustees in 2013 and was named chair in June 2016.
“Bill was remarkably dedicated to The National Judicial College,” said Chair-Elect Kim D. Hogrefe, who served as acting chair while Mr. Robinson was ill. “Even when his illness prevented him from travelling to Board events, he actively participated by phone from healthcare facilities and from home. The faith and positive attitude with which he dealt with his disease will continue to inspire those of us who had the privilege to have known and worked with him.”
Mr. Robinson’s dedication to the causes he believed in – especially law and the judiciary – amazed many. He ended his legal career as member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky office of the multi-state law firm Frost Brown Todd LLC; he specialized in civil litigation. But over the years he also served as a volunteer leader of an astonishing array of professional and charitable organizations. His profile on the Frost Brown Todd website, printed out, ran 12 pages. The list of his ABA roles alone filled a page and a half. At the time of his death he remained chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on the American Judicial System.
He was once asked, when he was past 65 but before his cancer diagnosis, if he planned to retire. His answer: “No. Being a lawyer is who I am, it’s not what I do. You can’t retire from who you are.”
After a year as the ABA’s president-elect, he took over as president of the organization in 2011. He made no secret of his top priority. As he would soon write in the ABA Judicial Division’s Judges Journal magazine, funding cuts to state courts, brought on by the economic collapse of a few years earlier, had reached serious, even ludicrous levels. New Hampshire’s state judiciary had been forced to suspend all civil jury trials for a year. In Ohio, a municipal court announced that no new cases could be filed unless the litigants brought their own paper to the courthouse.
Speaking at the ABA’s annual meeting in 2011, he declared that these budget cuts threatened “the very viability of our entire justice system.” It was up to the ABA, with its national scope and expertise, he said, to do something about it.
Mr. Robinson led the charge, traveling the country to lobby state legislatures and mobilize public opinion. The road shows generated media attention but weren’t successful overnight. Judicial budgets remain tight in many states to this day. But the situation improved in states such as New York, California, and his home state of Kentucky as tax coffers refilled. Many credit his efforts with spurring legislators to restore judicial budgets sooner than they would have otherwise.
As ABA president, the statesmanlike attorney easily took on the additional role of ambassador general for justice. Frost Brown Todd Managing Member George E. Yund recalled the time his friend made an official visit to France. Getting off the plane after an overnight flight, Mr. Robinson hurried from the airport not to his hotel but to a local elementary school. There he delivered a heartfelt lecture to French children on the virtues of the U.S. judicial and legal systems.
“Bill was dedicated to promoting the rule of law, not just in our country but everywhere, and also to improving our courts and our system of justice,” said former NJC President Chad Schmucker, who retired at the end of April. “When Bill supported something he was ‘all in’ with time, talent and treasure.”
The NJC’s new president, Benes Aldana, knew Mr. Robinson for many years through their involvement with the ABA. He recalled his interview for the presidency last month in Las Vegas. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments had limited the board chair’s participation to mostly calling in to meetings on a speakerphone. But he flew to Nevada to participate in the interviews with the final candidates.
“Members of the search committee later told me that one of the reasons I was offered the job was because my enthusiasm for the College’s was palpable,” Aldana said. “That was from seeing Bill across the table. His dedication was inspiring.”
Friends wishing to honor Mr. Robinson for his lifelong commitment to the rule of law and the judiciary may contribute to the Wm. T (Bill) Robinson III Scholarship Endowment. Learn more or make a gift (enter “Robinson Endowment” in the comment box). The fund will provide scholarships in perpetuity to ABA Judicial Division members to attend courses at the NJC. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that memorial gifts be made to the Redwood School in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
Remembering Bill Robinson
“It was incredibly difficult when you were with Bill to pick up a check. He would always say he would pay ‘because I’m older than you and I’ve been blessed with success. And I expect you to do the same when you’re with a lawyer who is younger than you.’ He was always thinking about how he could help you be better a lawyer, a better person. It was just part of his DNA.”
Palmer G. “Gene” Vance II
Member, Stoll Keenon Ogden, PLLC
“One of my favorite memories of Bill is from the ABA annual meeting in London in 2000. It was a tremendous experience. Near the end of the trip, Bill, myself and a few others were invited to the Queen’s Garden Party at Buckingham Palace. We decided to go all out and buy morning coats, top hats—the whole nine yards. We went all dressed up and had a wonderful time. It was a beautiful day. Although we weren’t supposed to have a camera, somehow a picture was taken of Bill and me, arms on our shoulders, overlooking the garden. I remember laughing and smiling together thinking, ‘Who could believe we were here?’ Bill came from a working-class background. His father worked a night job as a janitor, and Bill was among the first in his family to go to college. I also came from the same background. My father was a coal miner. So I remember at the moment Bill and me saying, ‘Who would think we’d end up here 40 years ago?’ That’ll always be a special memory of mine.”
Hon. John Vittone (Ret.)
Member, NJC Board of Trustees
“Bill Robinson enriched my life and that of others … personally, professionally and spiritually. Integrity was his compass. Bill’s enthusiasm for life and service to others was endless, and he tackled adversity with optimism. He was a figure of goodness and firmly believed one can do well by doing good. He defined professionalism as ‘never being out of date … it is timeless and essential to how one conducts oneself in the face of failure or success.’”
Henrietta F. Heywood
Legal secretary to Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, Frost Brown Todd LLC
“One of the things that was amazing about Bill was that with all the power and influence he had, he was a very cordial and cooperative sort of guy. He was never one to say, ‘I’ve got the answer, and this is what we’re going to do.’ He would say ‘This is what I think we should do, let’s hear what everybody else thinks and reach a consensus on how to move forward.’ He had a strong ego but was humble at the same time.”
Member, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC and past chair, NJC Board of Trustees
“Bill taught me that true courage is how you respond when no one is watching—without the expectation of recognition, honors or accolades. When Steve Zack passed the ABA presidential gavel to Bill Robinson, the state courts faced their greatest challenge from the purse not the pen. Bill tirelessly crossed the country speaking with editorial boards, state funders and lawyers about the very real impact insufficient funding of courts has on all of us. Bill’s honesty, integrity and genuine commitment to our legal system became a rallying cry to judges, lawyers and court professionals across the nation: “No courts, no justice, no freedom!” Thank you, Bill.”
President, National Center for State Courts
“Bill Robinson, was a lawyer’s lawyer! His opponents respected him, the Courts trusted him, his clients relied on him, and his colleagues leaned on him for insight and guidance. As a seminary student he developed an insight about serving others that informed the remainder of his remarkably accomplished life. Servant leadership always puts the needs of others above one’s own. It brings a positive attitude and outlook to each of life’s journeys … anticipating the opportunity to improve the lives of those one encounters. Bill was the quintessential example of servant leadership and his presence in this world will be sorely missed by us all!”
Founding shareholder, Greenberg Traurig Las Vegas office; member and past chair, NJC Board of Trustees; chair, Lewis & Clark Law School Board of Visitors
“What I especially loved and respected about Bill Robinson was the way he handled disagreement. On the occasions when we didn’t see eye to eye, Bill didn’t play games or make it personal. He was honest and straightforward making his points but also open to truly listening to and considering opposing viewpoints. He understood that reasonable people could disagree but also set aside those differences for a greater good. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from him, work with him, and be inspired by his graciousness, generosity and good humor.”
CEO, the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession; member, NJC Board of Trustees
“No attorney anywhere in America had the impact or was as supportive of our courts and our legal system as Bill Robinson. As president of the ABA, chair of the NJC, and all the many other organizations he was involved in, he took his role as officer of the courts very seriously. Whether it was writing op-ed pieces in prominent newspapers or organizing dialogue and programs, he helped our courts in a myriad of ways, and he was a central figure in virtually all of those efforts…. The more I got to know him, the more contagious his enthusiasm and zeal was. Above all else, Bill Robinson was my dear friend and a man I will forever admire and respect.”
Hon. Mark M. Martin
Chief Justice, Supreme Court of North Carolina
“During the two years when Bill was president-elect and president of the American Bar Association, I was fortunate to serve as chair of the ABA House of Delegates. This meant that we had many opportunities to work closely together to advance the ABA’s mission of serving our members and serving justice, a passion of Bill’s that was stronger than in anyone I’ve known before or since. His care and enthusiasm were infectious. I’m convinced that his presence in my life shaped me and made me a better ABA president.”
President, American Bar Association