During a long, successful tenure overseeing the Episcopal Church’s pension, Robert “Bob” Robinson befriended one of the organization’s board members, an attorney named Nelson Adams. Adams also was a trustee of another group, and asked Robinson to bring his financial prowess to that organization.
Robinson eagerly agreed, and was glad he did. Over the last 30 years, working with the Henrietta B. and Frederick H. Bugher Foundation brought him much pride as their organization became the largest research donor in the history of the American Heart Association, funding groundbreaking work in stroke and heart disease while helping launch the careers of dozens of medical investigators.
Robinson was an active leader for much of that time, then shifted to an emeritus role after his health declined and his daughter, Gayllis Ward, became a valued trustee. Robinson died Saturday after a long illness. He was 88.
In 2012 interview with the American Heart Association, Robinson talked about how proud he was of his connection with the AHA through the Bugher Foundation.
“It sounds as if you’re boasting to say you’re proud, but there’s a sense that you have accomplished something in your life outside of your own field, that you’ve done something hellishly good for people,” Robinson said. “We put a huge amount of energy into this, but it was more satisfactory as time went on. There’s a huge joy in trying to help and being part of something I really believe in, knowing I was there from the start.”
When Robinson took over the Church Pension Group, the fund was worth $166.8 million. He eventually hiked it to $1.39 billion, an increase of more than 800 percent. His touch continued with the Bugher Foundation, with its financial sheet going “up like a rocket,” he said in the 2012 interview.
“Bob was a caring, generous man, said American Heart Association Chief Executive Nancy Brown. “He brightened any room he was in. Because of the vision both he and Nelson Adams had decades ago, countless lives have been saved and improved. Thanks to Bob’s many years of financial stewardship, the Foundation is in the position to continue doing so for generations to come. “
The Bugher Foundation began in 1961, set up by Adams on behalf of Fred Bugher in memory of his parents. Because both died of heart disease and lived in Washington, D.C., the group’s aim was funding cardiovascular research in the District of Columbia.
When Fred died in the early 1980s, he left the foundation millions of dollars; his passing also created a vacancy on what was then a three-person board of directors. Adams tapped Robinson for the spot, and, in recognition of their new fortune, the trustees expanded the foundation’s aim to funding cardiovascular charter across the country. For guidance, they turned to the American Heart Association, the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization dedicated to cardiovascular research.
Robinson vividly recalled the 1984 meeting in which Dr. Howard E. Morgan outlined the AHA’s vision for a relationship with the Bugher Foundation. The proposal included a focus on recruiting and retaining young researchers, something that remains a major part of the group’s efforts today.
“It seemed to go with what we wanted so well that we said, ‘Hurray,’ ” Robinson said. “It worked beautifully. From that point on, we were hooked.”
Robinson was born Sept. 11, 1925, and grew up in Thomaston, Connecticut. After high school, he served in the Army, getting wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. He spent two years in hospitals recovering from a shattered leg. During a hospital stay on Cape Cod, he met a nurse named Ann Harding; they married on June 7, 1947, and were together until her death in 2005.
Robinson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brown University and taught English literature at Brown and the University of Illinois before turning to a career in business. He worked his way up to head of the Trust Department at Colonial Bank and Trust Company in Waterbury, Connecticut. Local power brokers urged him to run for Congress, but then he was offered a job better suited for him and his family – working for the Church Pension Group in New York.
The New York law firm of Davis Polk represented the Church Pension Group, and Adams was one of the firm’s top executives. Although Adams was about 15 years older than Robinson, they hit it off right away. Their friendship grew from professional to personal, going from being together at board meetings to having their wives join them for dinner and dancing. So when the spot opened on the Bugher board, Robinson was an easy choice for Adams.
An interesting wrinkle about the Bugher Foundation’s passionate involvement with the AHA was that none of the trustees had heart disease – that is, until Robinson suffered a heart attack in the early 1990s. He battled chronic heart disease for his last two-plus decades. His wife also had a heart attack, followed by open-heart surgery that extended her life by 20 years.
Robinson is survived by Ward, son-in-law James B. Clemence, and a brother, Walter Robinson.
Photos courtesy of Gayllis Ward