Sylvan H. Robinson, local attorney, activist, dies at 90

Sylvan Harold Robinson

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Sylvan H. Robinson, longtime St. Louis attorney and  human rights activist known for his keen sense of humor and optimism, died Sunday, Nov. 26 in his apartment at The Gatesworth, where he was receiving hospice care in recent weeks. He was 90 and a lifetime resident of greater St. Louis.

Sylvan Harold Robinson was born Aug. 1, 1927 to Louis and Beatrice Robinson.  David Robinson, Mr. Robinson’s son, noted that his dad often bragged that he attended Harvard as a small child—meaning Delmar Harvard Elementary.  He was a graduate of University City High School and later of Washington University with a law degree.  He married his late wife Nancy in November 1949.  They were the first married couple to graduate together from Washington University—he with a law degree and his wife with a bachelor of arts degree in  social work. 

In July 1945, Mr. Robinson enlisted in the Coast Guard.  He had been a pitcher at U. City High School and had been looking forward to playing baseball for Washington University.  While in the Coast Guard, he received an invitation to try out for the St. Louis Browns.

“He briefly considered going AWOL for the tryout, but he stayed true to his country instead,” son David Robinson said.

Mr. Robinson enrolled in Washington University’s School of Business and Public Administration, and was an exceptional student, though he always found time for baseball. While at Washington U., he was an active member of Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, his good grades helping his chapter win the school’s annual fraternity scholarship trophy.

During the Korean War, Mr. Robinson became an army first lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, serving at Fort Benjamin, Ind.

Mr. Robinson was a longtime and active member of the St. Louis Chapter of the American Jewish Congress (now the Midwest Jewish Congress), serving on its Commission on Law and Social Action.  He was also an active member with his wife Nancy of B’nai Amoona Congregation, where they were involved in a block partnership project, helping residents of a poor inner city community. 

When B’nai Amoona moved from University City to its Mason Road location, Mr. Robinson and his wife were among the founders of Kol Katan, which held spirited meetings and discussions in members’ homes.  They welcomed a group of refugees from Vietnam, including Than Lu, who became a lifelong friend.

Last May, Mr. Robinson and other members of Kol Katan were able to formally donate a Torah scroll to Central Reform Congregation.  Kol Katan had obtained the Torah from the Westminster Synagogue in London, which had been given custody of many scrolls that had been damaged or salvaged during the Holocaust. Mr. Robinson drew up the papers to make the gift official.  

“My dad was once president of the University City Optimist Club, so it’s no secret that he was glass-half-full guy,” David Robinson said in his eulogy. “But it’s really more accurate to say that the glass was always overflowing. He had listened to his doctor’s prognosis, but he wasn’t close to ready. He wanted to keep enjoying visits from friends and family. He had many more jokes to tell, many more questions to ask, many more ‘I love yous’ to convey.”

Funeral services were held Nov. 28 at Berger Memorial Chapel, where Rabbi Noah Arnow of Kol Rinah officiated.  Burial was at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, 7570 Olive Blvd.

The family requests memorial contributions be sent to the donor’s favorite charity, or “to a political candidate of any party who stands for fairness and tolerance.” 

Survivors include sons David (Carol Morton) Robinson and Steve (longtime partner Josephine Zhao) Robinson; two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.