(1920 - 2003)
My grandfather, Robert Lewis "Bob" Robbins, was the eldest of five children born to William Bryan Robbins and Marie Lewis. When he was born on 21 September 1920 in Muskegon Heights, Muskegon County, Michigan, all four of his grandparents and three of his great-grandparents were living. When he died on 29 December 2003 in Corpus Christi, Nueces County, Texas, he was survived by his wife, five children, seventeen grandchildren, and 21 great-grandchildren. Thus, in his lifetime of 83 years, he was personally acquainted with seven generations of Robbinses, whose lifetimes will span over two centuries.
When Bob was born, his parents were living with his maternal grandparents, George Emmett Lewis and Mary J. Wilkinson, at 1132 Hoyt Street in Muskegon Heights. Later, his family moved into the house next door. In 1930, when the Federal Census was taken, the family was living on East Broadway in Norton Township, also in Muskegon County. Besides his parents, his younger brothers and his sister Shirley, the household included his uncle Angelo Merrick Robbins, Jr. Bob's youngest sister was born not long after this.
Bob's childhood was during the Depression, and as the eldest child, he was partially responsible for providing for the family. This was especially helpful since his father, a World War I veteran, was sometimes out of work due to the economic hardships of the time, as well as illness associated with being gassed during the war. In the summers, Bob, his younger brother, and some of their cousins worked on the farm of their paternal grandmother and step-grandfather, Mary May Kimball and Orlando Horace Kenfield. For a summer's hard work in the fields and gardens, their step-grandfather would buy them each a suit of clothes for school. Sometimes his mother Marie would make paper doilies, and Bob and his siblings would pick wildflowers and sell the bouquets to bring in much-needed cash. When he was older, he delivered telegraphs for Western Union, first on foot, and then later on a bicycle, which was purchased by his father with his World War I Veteran's Bonus money.
As I have mentioned, Bob had three great-grandparents alive when he was born. They were Charles H. Robbins, Benjamin Henry Kimball and Mahala (Sayers) Wilkinson. His great-grandfathers were both Civil War veterans, and although Bob never recalled meeting his Great-grandfather Kimball, he did know his Great-grandfather Robbins well. Bob used to attend reunions of the Grand Army of the Republic (a fraternal organization for Union veterans) with Charles, who died when Bob was thirteen. Bob remembered his Great-grandmother Wilkinson running her finger down his nose and saying, "Love is like this..." and then running her finger up back up while saying, "...but marriage is like this!"
When Bob was a young man, his parents moved near Conklin, Ottawa County, Michigan. Not long after, Bob discovered a pretty young lady who lived in nearby Coopersville. She was 16 and he was 20 when they married. Together they raised five children, including my dad, as well as caring for a number of foster children.
Bob received his draft notice in 1942. He applied for and received a deferment, possibly because his eldest child was on the way. After her birth, he and his brother enlisted together in the U.S. Army Air Corps (a precursor to the U.S. Air Force). He started out at Camp Custer, Michigan, was trained at Camp Luna, New Mexico, and was stationed near Coral Gables, Florida; Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; and also in Alaska. He served as a flight mechanic in the 1452nd Army Air Force - Alaska Division, Air Transport Command - Army of the United States, and achieved the rank of sergeant. Once he was directed to fill only one of a plane's two tanks, but relying on his better judgment, he disobeyed orders and filled both. It was a gutsy thing to do, but also lucky, because while out flying, the pilot and crew got lost and would have crashed without the reserve tank being full. Bob also told about how he remembered flying on one mission near the Magnetic North Pole; the plane's compass simply spun around and around and could not be used. During his time in the North, Bob's hands were frostbitten, and for the rest of his life he could not handle the cold. When he became a retiree, this influenced his decision to spend the winters in Southern Texas.
After World War II, Bob and my grandmother purchased two lots on what was then the outskirts of Coopersville, at 185 River Road. Carpentry being in his blood for several generations, he built a home for his growing family, which by then consisted of my grandmother, aunt, and father. He also started Robbins Body Shop, renting at two different shops before building his own next door to his house (his father Bryan worked for him in the shop). Later on, my grandparents bought the lots in back of the house and shop which faced West Street (at that time, the street was there on paper only; there really was no road there yet). Grandpa made several additions to the house; one to the front, and the other to the side, connecting it to the shop. Much later, he converted one of the front rooms into a beautician shop for Grandma, so she could do her customers' hair at home.
Although Bob was a mild-mannered gentle man with a twinkle in his eye and a story in his heart, his patience could be stretched. Once a customer brought in a car with a dented hood. Bob did the repairs, but when the customer came to pick up the car, he declared it had not been done correctly. So Bob re-did the work. Again, the customer complained. After the last time, Bob realized the customer had no intention of paying. There was a sledge hammer kept next to the front door of the shop. On his way out the door, Bob grabbed the hammer, took a big swing that landed in the center of the hood, and told the owner, "There was a dent there when you first came in, and there it is again; now get out of here and don't ever come back!" As my father said, "Dad was forever regretful of the incident."
Bob loved children and they loved him in return. It wasn't just his own children or his foster children who loved him. The neighborhood kids would come knocking on the door and when my grandmother answered, they would ask, "Can Mr. Robbins come out and play?" He was involved in the Sunday School Department of Ottawa Center Chapel for many years, and often came up with fun and innovative ideas for the programs. One year, to advertise the Sunday School rally, in which the church would try to increase attendance, he set up a rocket and shot it off when the goal of attendees was reached. He could walk on stilts and also learned to ride the unicycle (I can remember him riding it when he was nearly 60)! This was a part of his longtime clown act, which he performed at birthday parties and other events.
He was very active in his church, serving as a board member and Sunday School director. He pioneered a camping program on an island in the Grand River for many, many years and participated in Vacation Bible School. Even in retirement, Grandpa volunteered in church camps and Bible schools for many summers.
He and Grandma and their children went on auto trips all over the country, an amazing feat considering the large family he had and the modest income he earned. They would drive their station wagon and camp out along the way. They visited New York City, Pike's Peak (Colorado), Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico), Canada, and Washington, D.C. As a family, they would hunt and fish together, too. When Grandma's parents passed away, Grandpa and Grandma bought property at Crockery Lake in Ottawa County with some money Grandma had inherited. Grandpa built a cement block "cottage" on the foundation of an old barn than had been there before. It was rather large (two bedrooms), and later he added a garage that also served as another bedroom.
He always loved traveling, and even when he reached his 70's, he and Grandma would drive to the high school graduations and weddings of their grandchildren, who were scattered from Washington State to Florida. When I was a girl, my family lived in Alaska, and my grandparents made several visits there as well. I am quite certain he visited every state in the union, with the exception of Hawaii (he didn't have any grandchildren living there!).
By the late 1970's, Grandpa had sold his body shop to my uncle and he and Grandma lived in Southern Texas for most of the year, except for visits back to Michigan in the summer. He worked construction jobs and especially enjoyed working with the many Hispanics who lived in the area. In 1984, Bob took a fall on a job. He was examined by the company doctor, who ordered him to just sit in a chair the rest of the day. They didn't want him to go home as they didn't want to destroy their perfect record of 'No Lost Time to Injuries.' A few months later it was discovered that he had stomach cancer. Grandpa always believed that the fall contributed to the cancer, as it tore everything loose inside. His discovery of cancer was only a couple of days before his insurance expired after the end of that job. The prognosis was grim. Most of his stomach was removed and he underwent chemotherapy. Through the grace of God, he survived. He later told his family that he had asked God for 10 more years; he was given nearly twice that.
He had left school at the end of tenth grade to help support his siblings; in 1987 he studied for and received his high school diploma. My grandmother received hers the following year. They spent their retirement years driving around the country visiting children, grandchildren, and inevitably the great-grandchildren that came into their lives. Grandpa, ever the fisherman, continued fishing as long as his health held out. In 2001, he developed some lung problems. Only recently did it come to light that this was caused by the bacteria in the Texan soil where he had done a lot of lawn mowing. However, there were many things he had done during his life that probably made his lung problems worse: smoking for a number of years; his many years' service as a fireman in the Coopersville Fire Department; the Bondo dust and paint from the body shop; doing brake jobs (asbestos) and welding in the shop; and doing pipefitter work (where he actually used asbestos putty to contain heat). He said if he knew that he was going to live so long, he would have taken better care of himself! With the lung problems, he became frail and had to be on oxygen continually. During this time, he was honored as the Grand Marshall of the Memorial Day parade in Coopersville; he wore his World War II uniform.
A week before Christmas 2003, he was hospitalized as his body began to fail. He passed away the morning of December 29th. His funeral was held 2 January 2004 at Salt Lake Baptist Church in Rockport, Fulton County, Texas; he was buried three days later at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas. (obituary)
If there are two things I hope to have inherited from my grandfather, they are his strong faith and his sense of humor. I know that I have inherited his love of storytelling; after all, that is what this website is all about!
More about my grandfather, Robert Lewis Robbins, can be found in the AnceStories of his parents, William Bryan Robbins and Marie Lewis, as well as his parents-in-law, Alfred Henry Holst and Nellie May Concidine.
Thanks to Dad and Aunt Louise for all the additional info and corrections. Grave photo courtesy of Bill Myers of Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness.
created: 29 Dec 2003
updated: 17 Aug 2006
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©Miriam Midkiff, 2003 - 2006