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You Must Remember This: Theodore Robins…a few things you might not know

By NANCY GARDNER

If you go to the web page of Theodore Robins Ford, you will find a history of the organization including its start in Balboa in the early 1920s, but I’m afraid it’s sadly lacking. Nowhere is there mention of founder Theo Robins’ high kick. The site tells of Robins first establishing an auto repair business in Balboa in 1921, of two men offering to buy the repair shop two years later in the hope it would give them an edge in the purchase of a Ford dealership, of Robins turning down the offer, zooming (or as zooming as you could in an era with no freeways and small engines) to Los Angeles and snagging the dealership for himself, of his subsequent success with the business which is now in its fourth generation of Robins – all that, but no high kick.

Fortunately, my father remedied this oversight. He relates that he was 11 when he became aware of Robins. He was living in Balboa with his sister Jesse and her husband, Dick Whitson. The Whitsons would often host parties in their backyard which included the Robins – and in the shadows, overlooked by the adults, an observant 11-year-old. The parties always culminated with a special event. The tallest man at the party would hold a glass high above his head, and, after appropriate buildup, Robins would kick the glass out of his hand, a feat my father, not a limber person himself, found astounding, and one even a Rockette might find challenging – but not a word of this on the website. Nor, reading the website, would you learn that Robins was a combat pilot in WWI and having survived that perilous role became a barnstormer for a period, was the first man to fly over Mt. Shasta and went on to set a world record of 156 mph at the Long Beach International Air Races. Yes, yes, yes, Robins Ford has been an extremely successful business, but come on, guys, how can you omit high kicks and world speed records?

My father insisted that he was the only person in the city to have bought a car from each of the Theodore Robins Ford four locations. When he was in college, he bought a used Model T at the Balboa location for $25, then over the years station wagons at the Newport Boulevard, PCH and Harbor Boulevard sites. It wasn’t that Robins couldn’t make up his mind where he wanted his business. He was just so successful he kept outgrowing each lot before becoming a fixture at the present site on Harbor. I don’t know how agile subsequent generations were/are. I don’t know if any of them raced/race airplanes, but they have certainly inherited Robins’ business acumen as their continuing success attests. It’s not just business smarts that Theodore Robins provided, however. There is also a strong family tradition of community involvement.

In the early days of our city, there wasn’t much in the way of civic organizations. Theo Robins helped change that. He was a galvanizing force in the founding of a number of groups including the Lion’s Club, the Exchange Club and the Boys Club, as well as joining forces with other WWI vets in establishing the American Legion. He was twice president of the chamber of commerce, the first time in 1937 when as a city we were very small potatoes and again in 1962 when we were beginning to realize we were hot stuff. For those and other contributions, he was recognized by the chamber as Citizen of the Year in 1966. His example of civic engagement has continued in the family.

His son Bob not only took over the company, but was just as active in the community, involved with Hoag Hospital, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and the Newport Beach and Costa Mesa chambers of commerce, the latter giving him a lifetime achievement award. In 1994, he joined his father as a Citizen of the Year and a quick web search shows that the next generation is carrying on this same tradition of civic involvement. Obviously, Theodore Robins set a high standard for the family – even higher than his kick and certainly more important – but I still think the kick should be mentioned.

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Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, long-time resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.