John W. Robinson IV gained many friends in law and community work

TAMPA — John W. Robinson arrived at meetings on time and prepared, and with the names of those he might see in the room committed to memory.

He was a buttoned-down lawyer who usually represented employers, a straight arrow. If Mr. Robinson allowed himself any deviation from the corporate look, it was in his choice of neckties.

Instead of Italian silk, Mr. Robinson chose his ties from Tabasco, the company that also manufactures hot sauce.

They came in subtle shades of red and blue and green, but all suggested a barely constrained wildness that Mr. Robinson liked. He owned 43 of them.

Mr. Robinson, who rose to leadership positions in numerous civic organizations and one of Tampa's most prominent law firms, died at home Sunday of cancer. He was 60.

"We are devastated," said Rhea Law, the chief executive of the Fowler White Boggs law firm. "He was the consummate professional. We have young lawyers who are going through their careers who see (Mr. Robinson) as the epitome of what they want to aspire to."

A partner in Fowler White Boggs who had chaired its employment and labor law practice group, Mr. Robinson earned a reputation over the years as a strong ally of employers charged with discrimination.

"He was considered a leader in the Tampa Bay area and in the state in that area," said John Emmanuel, a 25-year colleague.

Among an assortment of other duties, Mr. Robinson handled employment law for the New York Yankees.

"He had an extraordinarily keen intellect, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge," said C. Norman Stallings Jr., a senior vice president and Florida counsel for the Yankees.

He was born in Atlanta to a family with deep Alabama roots.

A graduate of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., Mr. Robinson edited the school's newspaper in his senior year.

He met Ellen Showalter on a blind date while in law school at the University of Georgia.

"Everybody thought they were pretty with it," said Ellen Robinson, 60, "and he showed up in a seersucker suit and a bow tie. My friends said, 'He's not for you, he's too straight.' "

She found that the man in the suit, who stood 6 feet 4, read ancient history for fun, called everyone "sir" or "ma'am," and reacted to things that amused him with a gravely her-heh-heh chuckle.

They married in 1976 and spent three years in Germany, where he served the Army as a military lawyer.

He joined what was then Fowler White Boggs Banker in 1980, and found time for civic activities.

"In Tampa at times, it's more difficult to break into the community if you didn't grow up here," said Jack Boggs, a native of Virginia and chairman of the firm. "John was able to break in right away."

The list of civic involvements grew, as did a Christmas card list that began to rival a telephone book.

He was legal counsel for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, commodore of the Tampa Yacht and Country Club, and on and on.

But sometimes, the couple needed to break out, to escape. They accomplished that with trips to California as two children went to Stanford University.

They also visited Avery Island, La., to see how the McIlhenny family cultivates the pepper fields there and mines salt below the ground to make Tabasco sauce.

Mr. Robinson routinely daubed eggs, baked potatoes and other foods with Tabasco sauce, an interest that led him to the Tabasco Country store's online catalogue and its impressive line of ties

"First he liked the sauce," his wife said. "Then he liked the ties."

Mr. Robinson had just been named secretary-treasurer of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce in February 2010, in line to become chairman in a couple of years, when doctors diagnosed cancer of the kidneys.

He enjoyed playing with his grandson, and flew to Hawaii last summer to attend the wedding of his son, William.

As word spread of his declining health, friends and former colleagues sent letters and e-mails of gratitude that filled two thick notebooks.

The messages came as no surprise to William Robinson, 30, who said he learned the value of honesty and hard work from his father.

"There was just no question ever that he was going to do the right thing," he said.

He and other relatives will each attend Sunday's funeral service wearing one of Mr. Robinson's trademark Tabasco ties.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

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John William Robinson IV

Born: April 29, 1950.

Died: Jan. 9, 2011.

Survivors: Wife Ellen Robinson; son Will Robinson and his wife Lauren; daughter Anna Alldredge and her husband Nathan; mother Elizabeth Robinson; sister Margaret Buker; brother Rutledge Robinson; and numerous nieces and nephews.

Service: 1 p.m. Sunday, St. Mary's Episcopal Church Tampa, 4311 W San Miguel St., Tampa.

John W. Robinson IV gained many friends in law and community work 01/13/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 13, 2011 9:43pm]

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