You are a talented young man, but there is no future in law for radicals. You have to get along with the power structure.

-Advice that Dean Robb totally ignored

It’s been a week of incredible loss for Leelanau, with noted artist Fred Petroskey, wine industry pioneer Bernie Rink, and historian George Weeks passing away, so I guess it’s no surprise that time took another great from us, Dean Robb who passed away last night. I knew Dean from when I was a kid, spending a lot of time with my family at his Leelanau farm and even getting a chance to share the stage with him in a Leelanau Players production when I was 12 years old. What I saw at every moment was a man who saw the value & dignity everyone and understood the duty of those in the business of justice to work on the behalf of the most threatened.

Robb was in his 30s in 1961 when he began helping a group called Friends of the South organize 25 civil rights attorney to get Freedom Riders and other civil rights activists out of jail, challenge illegal arrests, and work with southern lawyers and civil rights organizations. In 1963, he organized an inter-racial conference of 10-12 southern lawyers in Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke shortly after he was released from a Birmingham Jail. Robb’s biggest civil rights case was a civil lawsuit against the FBI filed by the family of murdered Detroit freedom rider Viola Liuzzo. The Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist from Michigan was murdered by Ku Klux Klan members on the last night of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March in Alabama.

His awards & accomplishments include being named a Champion of Justice by the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association & State Bar of Michigan 1994, nomination as the Democratic Michigan Supreme Court candidate in 1986, service on President Carter’s and Clinton’s Selection Committee for Western District Federal Judges and U.S. Attorney, and Past State Officer and Director of Michigan ACLU.

Locally he served on several boards and was a stalwart member of both the Leelanau Players and Traverse City Civic Players. His one person Mark Twain show was his pièce de résistance – still looking for a video of it so please share if you know where one is!

As this Toledo Blade feature explains, Dean:

…spent his early years defending people such as the legendary George Crockett and Coleman Young, and winning cases giving workers their rights. In 1971, in what he calls the “first of my many midlife crises,” he started wondering whether he was really a country farm boy or a radical city lawyer.

“So at the age of 47,” he said, “I decided it was time to be both.”

He bought an old farm in Leelanau County and started to defend hippies. After his wife left him for his law partner and best friend, he married a woman almost 30 years younger — Matt’s mom, Cindy. He ran for the Michigan Supreme Court, lost, but kept up the good fight. He doesn’t intend to stop.

“At all the times in my life when I’ve felt down on myself, I’ve always felt better by getting active,” he said. “The longer I sit around, the worse I feel. Get into action.”

The Greatest American Lawyer blog had a great three-part interview with Dean back in 2010. His advice for young lawyers is interesting to read:

Steve Quick: You do a fair amount of mentoring of young lawyers, can you tell us about that?

Dean Robb: Yeah, that’s one of the joys of being an older lawyer. I think, is that the younger lawyers need help, they need encouragement. I think the main thing that I try to do when I get that opportunity is to help them overcome fear. Fear is our big disabling feature for all us of, we want to stay in our comfort zone, and yet to be a good lawyer, you have to get out of your comfort zone. You have to do things and say things and work on things that you don’t initially think that that’s your cup of tea. So, my mentoring is that’s the first thing I try to do is to help them deal with this issue of fear. Second thing is to urge them to get out of their comfort zone once in a while. Say yes, instead of no. Take chances. Question authority. Go after every opportunity you have to take a matter, even though it’s not something you’re comfortable with initially, if someone asks you for help, try to help them. And that’s my main message.

Steve Quick: How can lawyers impact society and help to drive social change?

Dean Robb: Well, we’re sort of the architects of freedom in many respects in terms of trying to keep this a country of rule of law so that we can business deals that are enforced with each other. We’re out of the cage, so we have to act like it. I’m very crazy about the profession overall. I mean, there are some scoundrels in every profession but we do the hard dirty work of keeping the system working. We represent all kinds of people, we do things that are out of comfort zone and I think that is helpful.

More can be found in Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 at Greatest American Lawyer.

This Leelanau focused profile from the Enterprise has the perfect sentiment to close with regarding Dean’s thoughts on his accomplishments:

“It’s never ending, but the thing I’m proudest of is that I’ve stuck up for the little guy. I’m against bullying and discriminations of all kinds. I believe in equality for everybody, and I hope that’s what my signature is.”

It very much is, Dean. Bless you and your family.

Dean’s son Matt shared:

As he took his final breaths, I gave him a pen to take into the Hereafter and said “your story will continue to be written forever.” If Dean has helped or inspired you in any way, please consider writing us a letter sharing your story and how Dean was there for you. Stories can be sent to:

PO Box 879
Suttons Bay, MI 49682