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Dean Robb

Rick Coates - December 20th, 2010
Dean Robb: An Unlikely Radical
New book covers the activist attorney’s career
By Rick Coates
Attorney Dean Robb leans back in his chair as he reviews documents at his
computer-less desk in his Suttons Bay law office. A portrait of Abe
Lincoln towers over him from behind, while on the wall next to him are
three photographs that are from pivotal moments in his life. One is from
1963 with Martin Luther King at the first ever conference of “white and
black” lawyers that Robb helped to convene, the second photograph is with
South African civil rights (anti-apartheid) leader Nelson Mandela, who
served as his country’s president from 1994-99. The third picture is of
Robb’s youngest son Matthew with President Obama.
At 86, Robb shows no signs of retiring or slowing down. “I can’t afford to
retire as I have this problem of spending money as fast as I make it,” he
chuckles. But for Robb, his storied legal career was never about the
money; it was about championing the rights of those who had been wronged.
Now, that career and life of working tirelessly on behalf of others has
been documented -- or at least half of it -- in a new biography, “Dean
Robb: An Unlikely Radical,” written by his son Matthew Robb on the Lost
Prairie Press ($24.95) and available at bookstores around the area. The
Robbs will host two book signings this week starting with a Holiday Open
House at the Dean Robb Law Office in Suttons Bay from 6 to 8 p.m. and the
second on Thursday from 6 to 8 pm at Horizon Books in Traverse City.

“An Unlikely Radical” covers Robb’s life and career through 1971, and for
good reason.
“I didn’t want the book to be too long and thick,” said Dean Robb. “So we
stopped just at the point of the first of my many midlife crises. This
book covers my life prior to moving to the Leelanau Peninsula.”
The idea for the book came a few years back when Robb was diagnosed with
colon cancer and had a massive heart attack.
“My father was 61 years old when I was born, but he was always young at
heart, energetic and healthy, and until I was midway through college and
he had health issues, his age was never a concern,” said Matthew Robb.
“When he was diagnosed with cancer and had the heart attack I think for
all of us, me in particular, we became fearful for his life and the
realization how imminent death was for him. So we began discussing a book
about his life.”
Matthew always knew his father was special and felt that his story should
be told.
“For me growing up, my father was special, because while everyone knew him
as this famous attorney, I knew him as a father who always had time for
me. No matter how long his day was, he took time to spend with me, whether
it was hitting fly balls to me or taking the time to find out how my day
went,” said Matthew Robb. “As I got older I noticed how many people he
knew and how much he meant to other people and I felt that people would
find his story interesting.”

The father and son team, along with Cindy Robb (wife and mother), sat down
at their kitchen table and began outlining the book.
“We started the process with a trip after Matthew graduated from college
by traveling to my childhood home (a farm) in Illinois and revisiting my
past.” said Dean Robb. “We traveled to several communities in the south
where I was involved with the early days of the civil rights movement.”
That involvement included working to bring white and African American
attorneys together. He organized the Atlanta Conference in 1963, the first
meeting of major African American and white attorneys to discuss
strategies for the Civil Rights Movement. Both Dr. Martin Luther King and
Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth were a part of that conference, but for Dean
Robb the highlight of what came out of the event was something else.
“King’s presence was important, especially since he had been arrested a
few days earlier during a protest and no one expected him to be in
attendance,” said Robb. “What I think was most important was that fact a
dialogue came out of this and other meetings between white and black
attorneys. I remember one prominent southern white attorney who, until
this moment, would have never been willing to sit down with a black
attorney. But what he found out was that he and the black attorney that he
met with had so much in common. Colleagues, friendships and lifelong
relationships came out of this conference.”

Dean made his way to Detroit, where he would carve out a legal career
rooted in the Civil Rights Movement.  Along with George Crockett Jr. (the
first African American lawyer in the U.S. Department of Labor, 1939–1943)
Ernest Goodman and Morton Eden, Robb co-founded what is believed to be the
first racially-integrated law firm in the United States. Robb represented
several famous people during his Detroit days including Mayor Coleman
“He ended up marrying my secretary,” said Robb. “Then I was her attorney
when they got divorced.”
In “Dean Robb: An Unlikley Radical,” Matthew Robb believes that not only
will readers learn about his father, but also about themselves.
“When I set out to write this book I thought I was going to learn so much
about my father. But through this process what I learned was actually a
lot about who I am as a person and my hope is that in addition to people
learning my father’s life story that they will learn through his life
something about themselves.”
Matthew graduated from Suttons Bay High School where he was a star on a
golf team that won two State Championships. He played golf at Ferris State
University before making his way to the James Madison College at Michigan
State University. In 2007, he became a full-time volunteer campaign worker
for Barack Obama in Iowa. Today, Matthew teaches high school social
studies in Detroit as part of the federal “Teach for America” program.
Dean Robb through his 60 plus years in the legal world has had many high
profile cases. While Robb attributes his longevity in his profession to
“spending money as fast as he makes it,” his success is probably actually
a result of a missing word in his vocabulary.
“I can’t say no,” said Robb. “I get asked all the time how I get all these
interesting cases and it is because I said yes when others probably would
have said no. Sure, I can’t take every case that comes my way, but I can
take the time to listen, and I do, and as result a lot of interesting
people have crossed my paths over the years.”
If you would like to cross paths with Dean Robb and get a copy of “Dean
Robb: An Unlikley Radical,” join him and his son Matthew this Wednesday,
December 22,
from 6-8 pm at the Dean Robb Law Office, 416 N St Joseph, Suttons Bay, for
a Holiday Open House; or on Thursday, December 23 from 6-8 pm at Horizon
Books in downtown TC. To order a copy of the book, check out

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