Donald Robinson, a man who kept crossing seas long after being a sailor, died on June 25 in Boca Raton, Fla. The philanthropic communal leader was 91.
Gifted with an eye to perceive, Robinson, a lieutenant (junior grade) in the Navy, chartered Jewish communities to promised places. Both in Pittsburgh and around the world, the rippling effects of Robinson’s toil will long be felt, said those who worked beside him.
“He was someone who understood what it means to be a leader,” recalled Jane Berkey, a staffer for the 1993 Renaissance Campaign of the United Jewish Federation, now the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
In steering the endeavor, Robinson was tasked with transforming and rehabilitating the infrastructure of multiple Jewish organizations in Pittsburgh.
“It was the biggest capital campaign the Jewish community had ever done,” she said.
As chair, Robinson “understood process,” but he also “understood setting a goal and getting to it.” Such was why he achieved not only the cooperation of seven local Jewish agencies, but raising nearly $54 million on their behalf, Berkey said.
Propelling projects forward was commonplace for the Altoona, Pa.-born son of Alex and Leona Robinson. At 20 years old, as an ensign on the USS General Harry Taylor, Robinson operated as the ship’s disbursement and procurement officer, transporting troops from Europe. Shortly thereafter, the young professional returned home and joined his father and older brother, Harold (Buddy), in A. Robinson & Company, a wholesale tobacco and candy business. The company founded White Cross Stores in 1961. By then, Sanford Robinson, the youngest of the three brothers, had come aboard. Donald served as president and the chain eventually stretched from its first store in Erie, Pa., to more than 100 sites across the East Coast.
As Robinson himself explained in a 1978 oral history with Betty Alpern and Marcia Baskin of the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section, White Cross Stores went public in 1965. A year later the company was listed on the American Stock Exchange and then, in 1967, on the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1972, White Cross, and its approximately 180 stores, merged with Revco Discount Drug Stores in a transaction then valued at nearly $82 million by The New York Times. With that exchange, Robinson returned to investing resources and time in communal works.
A self-described “semi-workaholic,” the University of South Carolina graduate, who completed his studies at Harvard Business School, incessantly sought to benefit local causes.
For years, Robinson served active roles in the Pittsburgh Symphony Society, as chairman of its investment committee, and on the boards of WQED Public Television, Montefiore Hospital, the Rehabilitation Institute of Pittsburgh, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh.
In 1967 and 1968, he was campaign chair of the United Jewish Federation and then president of the organization from 1971 until 1973. As legend has it, it was then that the Colfax School and Taylor Allderdice graduate forever solidified his place as a leader among Pittsburgh community leaders.
“During the Yom Kippur War he apparently gave up everything he was doing and basically camped out at the Federation, working 18-hour days, mounting an emergency campaign, going above and beyond in a volunteer-led organization,” said Howard Rieger, former president and chief executive officer of the United Jewish Communities and former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and chief executive officer of the Federation, continued that the story goes that the “then executive director of the Federation was out of the country and Don literally came into the office, sat in the executive director’s chair and made sure our community responded in a stellar fashion for Israel.”
More so than the myriad countries spanning the seven continents that Robinson visited, Israel was a place that he had a “passion for,” explained his daughter, Carol Robinson. “He grew up in the time of the Second World War and was involved in the war effort. He felt really strongly about the importance of a Jewish homeland and felt very comfortable there. He loved it.”
But even apart from place, Robinson loved Jewish people.
He served as president and chairman of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, national chairman of the Interfaith Hunger Appeal, chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and as a member of the board of the United Israel Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federation and Welfare Funds, said his family.
In those positions, and largely because of his activities at the JDC, Robinson was introduced to scores of Jewish communities throughout the world. And even more than the brilliant images which he captured, developed, displayed originally in slide form from a Kodak carousel in his den and eventually in detailed printed color throughout the hallways and galleries of museums, organizations and offices across Western Pennsylvania, the experiences themselves left rich indelible prints on Robinson and his family.
“I think he always felt a strong commitment to people who had unmet needs and that he along with others could improve the quality of life for individuals and the community as a whole,” said his daughter.
“When he spoke about the specifics of the work visiting Ethiopian Jews, or visiting a senior residence in Israel or something happening at the JCC, he felt that it was really important that the Jewish people were strong and had the resources to be a vibrant community.”
It was a sentiment that was wholly shared by his life partner, Sylvia. Married in 1947, the couple raised two children, experienced the joy of three grandchildren and even two great-grandchildren.
“Had my father lived, they would have celebrated their 70th anniversary in November,” said Carol Robinson.
The Donald and Sylvia Robinson Family Foundation, which they established years ago, allowed them to philanthropically impact organizations both in Israel and here in Pittsburgh. “They shared in that together and they supported each other,” added the daughter. “They certainly set a good example for all of us in terms of what an enduring relationship is about — how to support each other, how to accommodate each other and how to enjoy each other.”
As exotic a route as the two travelled, their initial beginnings will always be something the family remembers.
“Shortly after my parents were married, my dad built a boat for himself in his father-in-law’s garage in Squirrel Hill,” said Carol. “It was a powerboat, and they took it out on the Allegheny.”
Named for the woman who would remain his co-captain for nearly 70 years, he called it “Saucy Syl.”
Donald Robinson is survived by his wife Sylvia (née Miller), their two children, Stephen (Teresa) and Carol (Jeffrey Markel) Robinson; and three grandchildren, Abigail (Michael) Foster, Leslie Markel (Felix Berger) and Richard Markel. The family requests contributions be directed to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee at jdc.org, or the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at sama-art.org.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.