April 20, 2023
By D.T. Baker, Musicologist
The appropriateness of describing Bill Robbins as “a man of faith” is so obvious, it seems like an easy, one-dimensional summary. But it works on so many levels, let’s expand on that.
A religious man, a member of the Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, Bill Robbins took the Christian ideals of charity and good works to heart. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Francis Winspear Centre for Music have benefited greatly from the generosity of Bill and Mary Jo Robbins for a remarkable 34 years – and counting. It started with Nutron Industries, an Edmonton-based company that was part of Robbins’ business ventures run mostly from his full-time Houston home. And it only blossomed from there.
Bill Robbins passed away on April 13 at the age of 91. As proud of his Edmonton connection as he was of the Lone Star State, he was here frequently, and if you never really knew if he was in town, that might have been deliberate. “He doesn’t like to be out in the limelight – he doesn’t like that at all,” Ann Bilinski said in an interview with the ESO’s Signature magazine back in 2002. At the time, Ms. Bilinski was Vice President of Administration for Nutron, and would later look after the activities of the Robbins Foundation here in Edmonton. That interview was done precisely because of yet another extraordinary gesture on the part of Bill and Mary Jo – specifically, as one of the major sponsors of the gala concert at which the Davis Concert Organ was unveiled.
For over three decades, the Edmonton Symphony’s popular Lighter Classics series bore either the Nutron or the Robbins name as title sponsor. For over two decades, the Pops series was the same. They also proudly sponsored Christmas at the Winspear. That’s a wonderful legacy for the ESO and its community to acknowledge. Add to that sponsorships of the Citadel Theatre, little league baseball, and minor hockey, and we can certainly appreciate all that was added to the cultural fabric of the city
But then add the Robbins Pavilion, which has endowed research in cardiology and women’s health, and which houses the Robbins Learning Centre, the Lois Hole Hospital for Women, the Robbins Chapel and Bell Tower, and the CK Hui Heart Centre.
So there’s another layer to the opening assessment. For a man who arrived in Edmonton as a businessman expanding his corporate reach, Bill Robbins showed an extraordinary faith in Edmonton, and to making it a better place to live. “At Nutron, we consider ourselves to be a leader, not only in the industry, but also a leader in the community,” Ms. Bilinski’s 2002 interview stated. “Mr. Robbins likes doing things, of course, but he also knows that (symphonic music) brings a lot of pleasure to our employees, and that’s the reason he got involved with it.”
That may be the reason it all began back in 1989, but long after Bill hung up his business shingle, long after his visits to Edmonton became fewer and farther between, it may not completely explain why, year after year, right up to and including this season’s Robbins Pops series, Sunday Classics, and Christmas at the Winspear, Bill – and Mary Jo – continued to make sure that the ESO continued to benefit from their generosity.
Bill's support, patronage, and friendship meant so much to us. We will miss him and remember him with great fondness. We are grateful that Bill, with Mary Jo, have always recognized the importance of making music accessible to the whole community and that his legacy lives on with her and the important work of their charitable foundation.