Tribute to Keith Robinson

Rev. Diane Rollert, 12 June 2016

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Keith Robinson was born in Burnham-on-Crouch on September 15, 1928. He was just too young to serve in the Second World War and his father was just too old. He grew up sailing the River Crouch, and watched the German bombers falling from the skies. He went to technical school to become an electrical engineer. He was hired by Marconi, the British telecommunications and engineering company, and was sent to Iran to work. 

While in Iran he fell in love with Kendal, a beautiful 19-year old American woman, on vacation with her mother and brother. They were married in Florida in 1961. Eventually, Marconi would send them to Montreal, where Keith would stay for the next forty years of his life. Together, Keith and Kendal had three sons in three years: Jeff, Scott and Stephen. He was a devoted father who taught his sons to sail. In the winter he would create a homemade ice rink for their hockey games. He was always generous and loving.

Keith met his second wife Doris at the Ile Perot Yacht Club, where he was one of its earliest members. They shared a love of sailing and the finer things in life. They were married by Rev. Charles Eddis in the Unitarian Church of Montreal, when our building was still on Sherbrooke and Simpson Street. Together, they became beloved members of this community. Keith sang in the church choir and most recently served on the Wardens Committee. He also sang for many yeas in the Carmina Choir that rehearses at the church every Tuesday night.

When Keith retired from Marconi after more than 40 years of service, his life hardly slowed down. There were never enough hours in his day. He always kept a woodworking bench in operation, making half-boat models and as well as working on his beautiful, meticulously maintained wooden sail boat that he moored at the yacht club. He was loved by all his four grandchildren, who enjoyed spending time with him.  When his youngest son Stephen died at the age of 49, less than two years ago, Keith gave generously to the Salvation Army in thanks for the support it had given to his son. He also volunteered for L’abri en ville, helping with housing and building community for the mentally ill.

The first time I met Keith was ten years ago when he was a member of the ministerial search committee that ultimately invited me to come to Montreal to serve this church. Keith was assigned to be my chauffeur for much of that cold and snowy weekend of extensive interviews. I remember being a bit intimidated when I first met him, this handsome, older gentleman with a refined British accent. But he quickly put me at ease with his charm and his slightly off-colour humour. He was no snob and I loved that about him.  

Sometime during the vetting process, Keith took me to the Bayview Centre, a residence for people living with impaired health. He wanted me to meet Stephanie Lilly, his dear friend and member of this congregation. Stephanie has had Multiple Sclerosis, MS, for nearly 30 years now, and is confined to a wheel chair. It was clear that the visit was an important test. 

As Stephanie and I met, Keith watched us carefully. The congregation may have said that its first priority was to have a strong preacher as its new minister, but that wasn’t at the top of Keith’s list. He wanted to make sure, more than anything else, that I would be a minister who could sit and listen with compassion to a young woman who had MS. 

When Stephanie and I clearly connected, that was it. I was in, and he told me so. I was so impressed by Keith that day, by the care and respect he showed for Stephanie. We took the long way back, along Lake St. Louis, so that Keith could show me the lake that he so loved. It was covered in ice and snow and he spoke with pride about his ice boats. I confess, I was smitten that day, the way you fall in love with a dear uncle. Without realizing it, it was Keith who sold me on the idea of coming to Montreal — not because of his sophistication, but because of his big heart. He made me feel confident that if he loved this community, I would love it too.

Today, Stephanie sends her regrets that she could not be here. She remembers Keith as a true and thoughtful gentleman who first started visiting her with his wife Doris. After Doris died in 2002, he continued the visits, always bringing Stephanie at least one bottle of wine. She loved his kind generosity and companionship, and the way he called himself the Dalai Lama on his voice mail.

The last time I saw Keith he was in the hospital. We talked for a long time, although it wasn’t easy for him to speak. The infection in his leg had worn him down. Still, there were memories that he wanted to share.

Whenever I saw Keith, he always told me that he had two communities in his life that meant the world to him: the Unitarian Church of Montreal and the Ile Perot Yacht Club. He reminded me of his allegiance to these two worlds once again as we sat together in the fading afternoon light in his hospital room. He also reminisced about his first diary, the one he said he began in the mid-1950s. Somehow, in his early thirties, he decided it would be important to record everything he did for the rest of his life. He kept up his diary until just a few months before he died. 

These weren’t diaries that expressed how he felt about his life experiences. They were a running record that described each day’s events. He wasn’t one to use computers or the Internet, so everything was written down by hand. It was important to Keith that everything he had done for most of his adult life could be found and verified in those accounts. I asked him if this was his spiritual discipline. “I suppose it is,” he told me. Though, of course, Keith never spoke in terms of God or spirituality. He was a lover of the natural world, of the seas, the rivers and the lakes where he could sail. That was his faith.

Keith told me that he felt he was growing older much too fast. The past 18 months since his knee replacement had been anything but a picnic. He only managed to make it to church a few times over those months, something he missed terribly. It had become too difficult to get around. Giving up his car and his independence was a major loss. It wasn’t the kind of life he had imagined for himself, moving in and out of hospitals. But he was clear that he had no regrets. He marvelled that he’d had quite a life.

He talked about going to work as a young man for Marconi, and what an interesting career he’d had. He talked about learning to sail as young boy in England and then winning a North America Sailing Championship in Kingston that was in the news. “I still have the clipping,” he said. “It’s in my diary.” Later, Jeff and Scott later told me that he won the race with his friend Barbara as his teammate. The newspaper headline was “Wifeless Robinson Wins Race,” or something like that.

Keith also expressed his gratitude for this church’s Caring Network. He said that everyone had been wonderful with their calls, visits and cards. He always felt he was remembered and cared for, even when he had been forced to stay away for so long. 

At the end of our conversation, he told me that lately he had been thinking a lot about the village of his childhood. He said his father’s family had been blacksmiths and he remembered them shoeing horses. “You know,” he said, “I’ve recently realized what a beautiful place I grew up in.” That was the last image he shared with me before he politely suggested it was time to say goodbye. It seemed profound to me that he found himself returning in his heart to the place of his childhood after so many years away. I think he knew that he was going home.