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Zelig Robinson, business attorney and Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s personal lawyer, dies

Zelig Robinson liked to be involved in political campaigns without running himself.
Zelig Robinson liked to be involved in political campaigns without running himself.

Zelig Robinson did not just dip his toe into politics. He dove in headfirst.

As an undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins, Mr. Robinson printed buttons critical of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunts and freely distributed the buttons to friends at parties and to strangers on the streets. Mr. Robinson revealed his distaste for Vice President Spiro Agnew when he commissioned the design of a Mickey Mouse watch with the former Maryland governor indicating the time on the face of the watch. And Mr. Robinson served as the late Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s personal lawyer.

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But Mr. Robinson never considered campaigning for office.

“He liked to be involved in campaigns, but he didn’t want to run one for himself,” his wife, Linda Robinson, said with a laugh. “So he had to be involved in other people’s campaigns.”

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Mr. Robinson died June 9 at Seasons Hospice at Northwest Hospital in Randallstown of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 85.

“Zelig was a giant,” said Vincent M. Lancisi, founder of Everyman Theatre, of which Mr. Robinson was a board member from 2002 to 2013 and theatre president from 2004 to 2010. “He was an old-world, strong, civic-minded leader with a big heart. So he roared like a lion — as a lot of good lawyers do — but he was also just as likely to take you under his wing and protect you.”

Mr. Robinson was the oldest of two children of Morton Robinson and Mary Ackerman Robinson, who raised him and his sister, Abby, in Baltimore. While Mrs. Robinson worked as an office clerk for a windows and blinds manufacturer, Mr. Robinson was an attorney, and his brother, Jerome Robinson, was a Maryland District Court judge and a state delegate from 1939 to 1961.

“Zelig was born into a family that was imbued in the law and conscious of their public responsibilities, and you could see that in his life,” said Arnold M. Weiner, a childhood friend.

Mr. Weiner said he had known Mr. Robinson since they were in the same kindergarten class at John Eager Howard Elementary School (now known as Dorothy I. Height Elementary School) near Druid Hill Park. Mr. Weiner said he and Mr. Robinson always chuckled over their first and last fistfight in the third grade.

“Each of us took a swing at the other and missed,” Mr. Weiner said. “We stopped and laughed and went back to being friends.”

Mr. Robinson graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1954 at the age of 19 and earned a law degree from Harvard in 1957 at the age of 22.

From 1958 to 1960, Mr. Robinson wrote rulings for the Reorganizations and Dividends branch of the Internal Revenue Service. From 1961 to 1964 and from 1967 to 1968, he served as associate counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. From 1968 to 1969, he was a special legal consultant to the House committee’s special subcommittee on investigations.

Mr. Weiner said Mr. Robinson excelled in law.

“There was no one better,” he said. “He was extremely intelligent, astute in his evaluations of people and situations, and meticulous in his planning and execution.”

Mr. Robinson and Mr. Schaefer “were a perfect match” because of their tough exteriors and internal drives, according to Mr. Weiner. Mr. Schaefer joined Mr. Robinson, a partner at Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander in downtown Baltimore, in 1995 and then decided to run for state comptroller at Mr. Robinson’s insistence.

“Schaefer started complaining that he didn’t want to spend something like $275 to sign up to run,” Mr. Weiner said. “So Zelig gave him a $20 bill and said, ‘This is your first campaign contribution.’

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“Schaefer’s last public service was almost entirely through the prodding of Zelig and [former aide] Lainy LeBow Sachs.”

For several decades, because of a packed work schedule, Mr. Robinson — who also served as of counsel for Thomas & Libowitz — had two secretaries, one during the day and one during the night. He curtailed his schedule after marrying the former Linda Strangmann in 1987, but never tired of the intricacies of his occupation.

“He just loved law,” Mrs. Robinson said. “It’s like he was born to be a lawyer.”

Mr. Robinson was not the typical warm-and-fuzzy type with his three children, John, Christopher and Kristin, from his first marriage to the late Karen Bergstrom, who died in 2018. Christopher Robinson recalled his father taking him to the Enoch Pratt Central Library on a Saturday because he was struggling with a paper on clipper ships for his English course at the Gilman School.

“This was my dad’s version of playing catch in the backyard,” Mr. Robinson said. “He sat with me in the library, and I’m sure he was bored to tears as he was reading his newspaper. But it was how he wanted to raise his kids — to be self-sufficient, to teach them what they needed to get through this world, and to not be afraid to struggle with something and need help in finding the answers while not being given the answers.”

Kristin Robinson said her father escorted her — then a freshman at Bryn Mawr Prep — to the Library of Congress in Washington when she had to interview someone and write a paper for U.S. history on that person’s involvement in a significant event. At the Library of Congress, he showed her the legislation he had written to enact public broadcasting.

Her teacher’s response? “She loved it,” Ms. Robinson said. “I got an A.”

From 1989 to 1991, Mr. Robinson was a board member for the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission and then served as the commission’s chairman from 1991 to 1996. He was a trustee of the Baltimore City Historical Society since 2002.

Mr. Lancisi of Everyman Theatre said Mr. Robinson was instrumental in a capital campaign to raise $18 million to move the theater from a 180-seat site that was a bowling alley on North Charles Street to the former Town Theatre, a 253-seat venue at 315 W. Fayette St.

“He led that charge, climbing up that big hill with all of the naysayers,” Mr. Lancisi said. “He put his money where his mouth was, and all of his friends didn’t run the other way when they saw him coming.”

Mr. Robinson enjoyed traveling to beach destinations such as Costa Rica and Honduras and driving convertibles. He also was interested in anything related to World War II and regularly attended Cinema Sundays at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore.

A memorial service for Mr. Robinson is being planned for the fall, but details remain undetermined.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Robinson is survived by his children John of Baltimore, Christopher of Philadelphia and Kristin of Louisville, Colorado, and his sister, Abby Kratz of Plano, Texas.

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