A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

William T. ‘Bill’ Robinson loses fight with cancer, but his legacy is well-remembered and ‘spirit lives on’

By Judy Clabes
NKyTribune editor

William T. “Bill” Robinson has died at St. Elizabeth Hospice, after a brave battle with lung cancer and his customary “Upward and Onward” refrain to the end.

His loving family was by his side, including wife Joan. His well-wishers are legion.

His dedication and service to the region earned him more distinctions and regard than can possibly be mentioned in full. Call him “Mr. Northern Kentucky” – and everyone will know the reference.

He was a graduate of Thomas More College and the University of Kentucky College of Law where he was inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame. He was a partner and member-in-charge of the Florence office of Frost Brown Todd.

He was to receive an honorary doctorate from Thomas More College at commencement activities this weekend, and that will still be presented to his surrogate.

Thomas More President David Armstrong remembers Robinson as “most likely our most prominent alumnus,” citing his presidency of the American Bar Association which made him the “#1 lawyer in the world” at the time.

But more than that he remembers a deep friendship and incredible compassion.

“This is a sad time for Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati,” Armstrong said. “and certainly for the Robinson family and Thomas More College.

“Bill Robinson was the most wonderful man I’ve ever met and no matter what people say about how much he accomplished – he accomplished a thousand times that. He has mentored so many people that his spirit will live forever.”

The Robinson family was generous to Thomas More as well, creating the Robinson Family Mentoring Center.

“Bill was so elated that his oldest granddaughter Booke, who is graduating from Covington Latin School, would be entering Thomas More College in the fall.”

Supreme Court Justice Michele Keller remembers Robinson as a long-time colleague and friend:

“It is easy to find those who can pay tribute to Bill, and his biography is without comparison in his contributions to his community.  I speak as a judge, for our community, the 3rd branch of government.  Bill was a tireless and successful advocate on behalf of an independent judiciary, judicial education, and the Rule of Law. 

“His reach was local, national and international.  But, in the midst of that kind of influence and celebrity he remained loyal and accessible to his friends.  God Bless Bill, Joan, and the entire family.”

In 1987, Robinson envisioned a collaborative and cooperative regional economic development effort that became Tri-ED. The Northern Kentucky Chamber, which of course he served as chair (1986-87), recently announced an award to be given in his honor. He will be the first winner of the Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson Northern Kentucky Economic Development Award at this year’s annual dinner on September 28.

“Bill Robinson led by example, especially for our community.  Bill took his idea of a regional economic development entity in Northern Kentucky in 1986 and implemented it 1987,” said Dan Tobergte, Tri-ED executive director. “Tri-ED was thus borne and Bill served consistently for 30 years as Secretary/Treasurer of Tri-ED.

“Bill was an ardent proponent of economic development for our region and will unlikely be matched for his fervor and energy to make his home community that much better. He inspired us all to
progress ‘Upward and Onward’!

“On behalf of the 130+ Tri-ED and Tri-EF Board members since 1987, please know that we will truly miss him and want to thank his wife, Joan, for her steadfast support for all of Bill’s community endeavors. May he rest knowing that his was a life well-lived.”

“Bill’s impact in the region and his extensive leadership in our profession have been most admirable. His optimism and determination were infectious and will be greatly missed by all. We have lost not only an exceptionally creative and dedicated lawyer, but also a genuine friend. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Joan, Bill’s wife of almost 48 years, and the rest of his family,” says George Yund, Frost Brown Today Chief Executive Officer.

Chamber President Trey Grayson said: “Bill Robinson was an outstanding leader of our community, a true Hall of Famer. The visionary behind the creation of Tri-ED, Bill was involved with nearly every important organization in Northern Kentucky at some point in his legendary career.

“In his profession, he reached national prominence by becoming the president of the American Bar Association. More importantly, he was a good friend and mentor to so many of us in the NKY Chamber family.

“We mourn his passing and our thoughts and prayers are with Joan, Tay and the rest of the Robinson family.

“In a farewell note that he posted on his CaringBridge page, Bill noted that ‘even the greatest poems, movies and books must have an ending.’ While today may have marked the ending of Bill’s time with us on earth, his legacy of contribution to the success and vibrancy of Northern Kentucky will endure.”

Among Robinson’s many distinctions:

* He was appointed in 2015 by Gov. Beshear to the Kentucky Economic Development Partnership Board;
* In 2016 he was named chairman of the National Judicial College Board of Trustees;
* He was the 50th president of the Kentucky Bar Association and president of the Kentucky Bar Foundation;
* Active in the American Bar Association for more than 30 years, he was its 135th President (2011-12) and served on the Board of Governors for 10 years;
* He was consistently on the “best lawyers” lists;
* He served on the CVG board and was named by the Kentucky Department of Aviation as Kentucky Airport Board Member of the Year;
* He was named to the Northern Kentucky Business Hall of Fame in 2014;
* He was named Person of the year by the Covington Education Foundation in 2012 and earned the Public Advocate Award from the Kentucky Department of Pubic Advocacy the same year.
* Redwood School presented him with the President’s Award in 2009;
* NKU gave him the Lincoln Award in 1994, the Chamber awarded him the Dunlevy Frontiersman Community Service Award in 1991, and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation awarded him the Jacob E. Davis Volunteer Leadership Award in 1988.

See a long list of other distinctions, awards, recognitions and speech engagements here.

“Bill was a zealous and dedicated advocate for both his clients and our community,” said Candace McGraw, CVG CEO. “He approached every challenge as an opportunity and his positivity and enthusiasm were infectious. He will be sorely missed by the Board and staff at CVG as well as our entire region.”

Mike Sullivan, president of the Northern Kentucky Bar Association, and an attorney with Sullivan, Mounty, Stainback & Miller in Owensboro, remembers Robinson as “a legend” in the legal profession.

“Bill’s reputation is legend. He unselfishly gave his time and talents to the legal profession, first in Kentucky and then nationally, culminating as president of the American Bar Association. At the same time he was a model for the practicing bar as he carried on his law practice. Bill was a tireless worker who always found the time to take on the next challenge, help his fellow citizens, and get the job done while continuing to be an example as a lawyer, a member of his community and church, and a devoted family man. Bill will be sorely missed by the legal profession of Kentucky and those with whom he served nationally. May he experience well deserved rest in peace.”

Kenton County Judge-Executive Kris Knochelmann remembered Robinson’s legacy:

“It is a very sad day in Northern Kentucky with the passing of Bill Robinson. Any man could be proud having accomplished only a fraction of what Bill did in his life, and his legacy will live on forever. From business organizations like Tri-ED to organizations serving those most in need like Redwood, Bill never stopped giving to others. His character, professionalism, positive outlook, high energy, class, and faith are standards that we all can look up to for our entire lives. I know I will.”

His friends who followed his journey through his illness were touched indeed by his final  Journal entry in Caring Bridge, where he kept his family and friends up to date on the progress of his medical treatment.

It was April 27, by William T. (Bill) Robinson III :

Wellllllll … you make me want to shout! … throw my arms up … and shout! ….throw my hands up … and shout! …. com’ on now … shout! … shout! … shout! …….. (remember the song “Shout” by the Dubi Brothers =  one of Joan’s and my favorites … oh, how we loved to dance to that!) …. 

However, …. we have now reached the point where it’s time for us to “shout” and to sing out in joy, prayer and thanksgiving to the Lord for the wonderful life which Joan and I have shared since we met and fell in love (THANKS, again, Bernie for introducing us!) to each other in October, 1985 at Thomas More Collge (over 50 too-short years ago!) where our Miss Brooke will in the fall start as a Freshman and will possibly play volleyball and or tennis.

We have now reached the point that most, if not all. of us had hoped would never have arrived so soon regarding my cancer adventure but it has arrived ….

Joan and I today, in a meeting here in my room at St. Elizabeth Medical Center, have been advised by our medical care team that there is no point in continuing the Keytruda … there is no point in my receiving further chemotherapy … and no point in my receiving further radiation … except to manage the cancer pain … and to mollify and reduce as much as possible the spread of my cancer in my bones ….

It’s been a long but positive day …. even the greatest poems, movies and books must have an ending.  Will conclude by thanking all of our wonderful family and friends with a word that captures it all at this point … T H A N K S … now nowhere to go but UPWARD AND ONWARD !!!

His friend Jim Votruba, former president of Northern Kentucky University, said “In his recent book, the Road to Character, David Brooks describes resume virtues and eulogy virtues.  The former focuses on what a person’s accomplished, their positions, awards, and recognitions.  The latter focuses on who a person is, their integrity, compassion, hopefulness, and their commitment to values larger than themselves. 

“Bill Robinson scores ‘off the chart’ on both sets of virtues.  He is also one of a generation of NKY leaders who dedicated themselves to building our region, not just for themselves but for those whom they will never meet and for generations still unborn.  Bill leaves a legacy of commitment to our community and to nurturing the next generation of leaders who will carry on his work.  He was a gifted teacher in the broadest sense of the word and, in his last lesson, he has taught us how to leave this earth with grace, dignity, and thankfulness.”

Though there is a last entry in CaringBridge, today, by his wife Joan – a loving and moving message about Bill:

“The cancer adventure is over and Bill’s unique journey in life has concluded.  To the end, he was optimistic and excited about the future.  He said he was sad to leave me, Tay and the grandchildren, who we know he adored, but that he was kinda looking forward to the next adventure. 

“He said: “Think about it, I have had a great life here and this is a very small window of time.  The next time period is eternity.  Think of how great that will be and that is forever.ˮ

“He was loved by many and will be missed but the important thing is that he did make a difference in the lives of those he had the privilege to serve.  He loved a life of service to others. 

“If one would like to do a memorial in Bill’s name, his request is a donation to Redwood School, located at 71 Orphanage Road, Ft. Mitchell, KY 41017 ( www.redwoodnky.org ).  This is a special charity to him and he has been involved in it for 50 years.  He has been chair of the board (what a surprise) and held other positions throughout the years.  He has been chair of the Dorothy Wood Foundation fka Dorothy Wood Foundation Trust since it was created in 1979.  The Dorothy Wood Foundation was established to further the cause of rehabilitating children and adults with disabilities by providing financial support to Redwood.  Bill loves gifts that impact lives now and long term.  So, in lieu of flowers that have a short, limited life we appreciate your considering Redwood.  Thank you all for your love, support and prayers. 

“God bless all of you,

Robinson is survived by his wife Joan, son Tay of Crestview Hills and his wife, Jennifer; daughter-in-law, Bridget Robinson; grandchildren, Brooke Taylor, William V, James Raymond and Rosemary Joan. He is preceded in death by son Todd Arthur.

This will be updated as arrangements are announced.

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Frost Brown Todd has created a webpage where your stories and remembrances about Bill can be submitted: Click here

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One Comment

  1. Tom Gramke says:

    Hi, my name is Tom Gramke. Just found out Bill had passed. I’m very sorry for the loss. You never heard of me but I was an early client of his in the 70’s. I had fallen 35 ft and had a two and one half ton piece of steel fall 35 ft and land on top of me. Bill handled my case and i feel as though we had gotten close. I even made a knife for him and had it engraved and put on a stand. He will be missed. I just wanted to touch base with him, but I missed it. Thanks for this opportunity to tell u what a great guy he was, as if u didn’t already know.

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