John A. Robbins Jr., a retired graphic artist who headed Ladew Topiary Gardens and was a World War II veteran, died of surgery complications Jan. 6 at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center. He was 92 and lived at the Broadmead Retirement Community.
Born in Martinsburg, W.Va., he was the son of John Adrian Robbins, an American Oil manager, and his wife, Frances Watson. He moved with his family to Bel Air and was a 1943 graduate of Bel Air High School. He attended Washington College for a semester but left school to enlist in the Army’s Air Forces in 1944. He was assigned to the 487th Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force and was based in Suffolk, England.
Mr. Robbins was a ball turret gunner in the heavy B-17 bombers known as Flying Fortresses. He said in a memoir that his first mission over Germany was in February 1945. His plane dropped bombs on Weimar, was struck by enemy fire and forced down in a freshly plowed, watery Belgian farm field. He emerged safe but coated in mud. He went on to fly 25 additional missions over Germany before he left military service as a sergeant.
After the war he returned to Baltimore and earned a degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art. He taught art at Baltimore City College and worked his summers at the Baltimore City Department of Education’s old headquarters on 25th Street. He went on to become the school system’s director of publications and public information before he retired in the late 1970s.
He met his future wife, Martha Rutledge, through mutual friends. They married in the fall of 1948. The couple lived in Mount Vernon before returning to Harford County to build a house on her father's Rutledge Farms at Mountain and Hess roads.
“Mr. Robbins cut, stacked and dried the wood for construction of the farm house, which gives the home an even more personal association. He found poplar wood especially suitable for the raised hip paneling around the living room fireplace,” said a 1962 article in The Sun. “Mr. Robbins salvaged brick from the old Peggy Stewart Inn to build the dining room fireplace.”
Mr. Robbins had an interest in buildings and gardening and joined a consulting committee of the Harford County landmark, the Ladew Topiary Gardens, in the early 1970s. In 1978 he agreed to serve as Ladew’s volunteer director. He served in that capacity for two years.
“He was always doing what needed to be done. He had the practical abilities of an administrator and the creative ability of an artist,” said his daughter, Ann Robbins Forbes of Owings Mills. “He did the watercolors for the first public maps of the property.”
Mr. Robbins was a Ladew trustee for more than 35 years. He served on finance, buildings and grounds, planning and exhibits committees.
“He led the board in Ladew’s first solicitation of state funding in the early ’90’s which resulted in a state bond bill,” said Emily W. Emerick, Ladew’s executive director. “He took Ladew through the process that established it as a Maryland Historic Trust Easement Property. He and his late wife Martha were, together, hugely impactful Ladew volunteers.”
At his death he was a Ladew Emeritus Trustee.
Mr. Robbins continued his volunteer efforts with the Liriodendron Foundation from 1980 to 1982 in Bel Air.
He was a communicant of St. James Episcopal Church in Monkton, where he served for a number of years on the vestry.
In 2006, he moved to Broadmead.
“My father loved fishing, both fresh- and salt-water,” said his daughter. “He enjoyed going to Lewes, Del., every spring and fall for blue fish. He also taught his five grandchildren to fish and took them to friends' ponds in the summer for a picnic supper and a little fishing.”
In retirement, Mr. Robbins continued to paint in acrylics and did cabinet making and made toys and furniture for his grandchildren.
“He was a great observer and had a wonderful eye for all aspects of design,” said his daughter.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Broadmead Retirement Community in Cockeysville, where he moved in 2006
In addition to his daughter, survivors include a son, John A. Robbins III of Fallston; two brothers, Charles L. Robbins of Bel Air and James C. Robbins of Newark, Del; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife of 61 years, a display designer for the old Samuel Kirk silversmiths, died in 2010.