With his signature phrase “Upward and Onward” Bill Robinson captured his unbridled enthusiasm for life and his eternal optimism.

My lasting impression of Bill is not only his contagious spirit, but of how humble and genuine he was in spite of his tremendous accomplishments. Bill attributed much of his work ethic to his humble upbringing. He grew up near Christ Hospital in Clifton and to help pay the bills, the Robinson family cleaned and maintained a building near the hospital. To make a little extra money for himself, Bill also washed cars for the doctors who worked in the building. Bill’s wife, Joan, told me one of Bill’s favorite stories was that years later, as a distinguished and powerful lawyer, Bill would take the depositions of some of those same doctors that he had worked for as a child. After a tense deposition, Bill would ask the doctor if he recognized him. Following a pause, Bill would excitedly say, “It’s me, Billy Robinson. I used to wash your car!”

After a stint at St. Gregory Seminary, Bill transferred to Thomas More College, graduating in 1967, and then attended the University of Kentucky College of Law where he graduated in 1971. Bill established himself very quickly as a competent, dependable and efficient lawyer in the Greater Cincinnati area, as well as a community leader.

Those who knew Bill only casually or by reputation knew of Bill’s many accomplishments and his stature in the community. Let’s face it–someone like Bill Robinson only comes along once in a generation. When he was elected president of the American Bar Association, Bill became only the third lawyer from the Greater Cincinnati area to rise to the level of being the top lawyer in the country.

Always striving for excellence, Bill became a leader, not only in the legal profession but also in his community, particularly in the area of economic development. Bill saw a need for a unified effort to drive economic development in Northern Kentucky and in 1987 led the effort to establish the Tri-County Economic Development Corporation, which has since been responsible for much of Northern Kentucky’s sustained economic growth. He also served as chairman of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport Board (twice), the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Bar Association.

But while his many accomplishments, accolades and awards are indeed admirable, to those of us who knew Bill and were fortunate to interact with him on a regular basis, Bill was a true and loyal friend and mentor.

In late 1998, I received a call from Bill. I was working with another law firm in Covington and Bill wanted to see if I was interested in joining him at his firm. I must admit that at that time, I knew of Bill only through reputation and very sporadic contact throughout the years, and was somewhat intimidated by him. We met at Bill’s very impressive corner office with the stunning view of Cincinnati at the top of the RiverCenter Tower in Covington. Bill greeted me at the reception desk—French cufflinks, tailored suit, polished shoes, perfect hair (you get the picture)—and took me to his office, which was adorned with trophies and mementos of his many accomplishments. Did I mention I was intimidated? I became very impressed with the “public” side of Bill Robinson.

But most impressive of all was what happened next. Bill had asked me to lunch after our meeting and we went to the parking garage and got in his swanky Mercedes-Benz. As we were leaving the garage, a parking lot attendant who had been sweeping the garage floor approached Bill’s car. Bill rolled down the window, said, “Hi, Jimmy,” and proceeded to carry on a long and very friendly and personal conversation with him. You could tell that he cared about Jimmy and his family and that Jimmy felt the same way about Bill. After lunch, I called my wife Katie to tell her how the meeting with Mr. Bill Robinson went. I didn’t tell her about the meeting or Bill’s trophies, French cufflinks and fancy suit or his Mercedes. No, I simply told her about the interaction with Jimmy in the parking garage and said, “I want to practice law with this guy.”

Since joining Bill in the practice of law, I have learned that there are many, many more people in our community with similar stories about Bill. Bill taught us all a lot of valuable lessons, the most important being the value of service to others. He would often say, “How can we make a positive difference in the lives of those we have the privilege to serve?” Bill had a true servant’s heart and through his many accomplishments, he was able to leave a lasting legacy that will affect not just our community, but indeed the entire country.

Bill discovered that he had lung cancer last October. His positive attitude as he communicated the news to his family and friends was nothing short of inspiring. Bill decided to set up a Caring Bridge webpage to keep those of us who cared about him up to date on his condition. Thousands of people all over the country signed on to receive the updates. As the prognosis got worse over the coming months, Bill’s messages remained upbeat, ending each one with an enthusiastic “Upward and Onward.” By late April, Bill was in the last few weeks of his life. Facing the inevitable, Bill posted that “even the greatest poems, movies and books must have an ending…now nowhere to go but Upward and Onward!!”

In the end, Bill had saved his best lesson for last—he taught us how to die with dignity. As the Bishop stated at his funeral, “I have never met someone so prepared to die as Bill. But let’s all say a prayer for Jesus, because I’m sure Bill is there now taking him to task for all those things he said about lawyers in the Bible.”

Bill—thanks for all the valuable lessons that you taught me and many others like me. Thanks to you, as you always liked to say, “The best is yet to come.”

 



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