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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 05:03 pm

A generous man who enjoyed the art of the deal

CHARLES E. ROBBINS Sept. 18, 1934 – April 30, 2012

When a powerful tornado clawed its way through Springfield in 2006, Charles Robbins could have made a fortune selling real estate to homeowners and business owners whose buildings were destroyed. Instead, the legendary local real estate developer helped the city recover by offering his properties for free to the displaced.

That was just part of Robbins’ generous nature, says Doug Kent, who worked with Robbins for 23 years.

“When somebody was down, he was there,” Kent said of Robbins. “The list of the people he helped out was endless. He was one of those guys who, if someone had less than him and their woes were legitimate, he wanted to step up and help them.”

Robbins died April 30, 2012, at the age of 77. He left behind a wife, Joan; two adult daughters, Kristie Brandt and Kim Noonan; and four grandchildren.

Born in Akron, Ohio, in 1934, Charles “Charlie” Robbins grew up in Loami, outside Springfield.  He graduated from New Berlin High School in 1953 and served two years in the U.S. Army. He moved to Springfield after the Army and worked as a welder and electrician for farm equipment manufacturer Allis-Chalmers, while also trying his hand at insurance sales part-time. He eventually started his own real estate firm, Charles Robbins REALTOR, in 1965, building the company into one of the largest real estate firms in Springfield.

Robbins met his wife, Joan, in 1970 through a mutual friend. They dated for a long time, Joan Robbins says, adding that the couple married in 1990. She was originally attracted to him because of his honesty and kindness.

“He was just a very nice person,” Joan Robbins recalls. “And he was single.”

Joan Robbins says her late husband was the quintessential example of a self-made man, growing up with very little and building his real estate empire by himself from scratch. The early days were difficult, she says, adding that Robbins often joked that he “almost starved selling real estate.”

“His hopes of ever doing what he did were zero,” she said. “He had no help from his parents or anyone. He came from absolutely nothing.”

Part of his success was his self-motivation and enterprising nature, Joan Robbins says.

“Give him a deal to put through and he could do it,” she said. “He had the insight to see what was needed and the ability to make it happen.”

Robbins’ do-it-yourself spirit didn’t always translate well from the business world to the real world, Joan Robbins recalled with a laugh. She remembers one occasion in which Robbins attempted to run some wires in the basement of a for-sale home.

“He drilled a hole in the ceiling of the basement, then went upstairs to find the hole and couldn’t find it,” she said. “He went back downstairs, and sure enough the hole was there. He had drilled through the leg of the piano. … He was not a handy person.”

Art Seppi met Robbins in 1977 at a dinner party. Seppi says that at the time, he was trying to decide what he wanted to do for a living, and it was Robbins who suggested Seppi get into real estate. Seppi began working for Robbins in 1978, and the two men quickly became close.

“He was my best friend,” Seppi said. “We worked together for 35 years, and we were best friends the entire time.”

Seppi says Robbins had a keen ability to see opportunities for growth in Springfield. Robbins knew the city would continue growing west and developed Southwest Plaza Shopping Center off of Veterans Parkway, which includes stores like Bed Bath & Beyond, Old Navy, David’s Bridal, Gordman’s and more.

“Charlie was very intelligent,” Seppi said. “He knew a good deal. He had a small-town ethic of honesty and hard work, and he applied those same principles to his real estate career and his life.”

Doug Kent remembers Robbins as a down-to-earth “country boy” who went out of his way to do the right thing. Kent says Robbins would even pay crews to pick up trash along the stretch of Veterans Parkway that borders Southwest Plaza Shopping Center, even though the road is the responsibility of the state.

“He didn’t have to do that,” Kent said. “He just didn’t want to be associated with a dirty property because he took so much pride in what he did.”

Kent says the thing he’ll miss most is sitting in Robbins’ office to chat.

“He was such a people person, a fun guy to visit with,” Kent said. “There was so much humor that just came out of him. He was a guy that wanted you to succeed personally, and he gave great advice like ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated.’ He understood the basics, and he instilled and enforced them. It’s just good fun to be around someone like that.”

–Patrick Yeagle

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