Hecky’s Barbecue owner Hecky Powell has photographs displayed along one of the walls of his restaurant, honoring people who have made special contributions to the local African American community.

One of the photos shows Mr. Powell seated next to Leon G. Robinson Jr., co-founder of Robinson Enterprises and for years the City’s most prominent Black business person.

Mr. Powell spoke frequently with Mr. Robinson Jr., receiving advice on building a business as well as in many other areas, he said.

“I never called him Leon,” he said. “I called him ‘The Godfather,’ because he was the Godfather in the Black community. When people needed something, they went to him.”

Services were held at Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church June 21 for Mr. Robinson, who died June 7 in his Florida home surrounded by close family and friends. He was 90.

“The Robinson family’s rich legacy at Ebenezer AME spanned over seven decades,” said Gerry Sizemore, a trustee at the church.

Known to many as “Sonny,” Mr. Robinson was born the eldest child of Josephine and Leon Robinson Sr. on Jan. 4, 1929.

Mr. Robinson grew up in Evanston, attending local schools. 

“We got our first job together at the Kresge Company’s dime store” [then located in Evanston’s downtown] recalled Bennett Johnson, who later become president of the local chapter of the NAACP. 

Mr. Robinson was “low-key, pleasant, never argumentative or mean, just a peach of a guy,” he recalled.

Mr. Robinson left the area after graduating high school to attend West Virginia State University and served in the U.S. Army but ultimately returned to his home community.

Back home, along with his parents and brother Roy, he founded  Robinson Enterprises, then consisting of two Mobile gas stations and a fleet of taxicabs.

The family’s start in the bus business came when Leon’s father, started driving Head Start kids to schools in his cabs. They “then bought a miniature bus and the Robinson Bus Company was born,” Mr. Robinson Sr., said in an interview in 1972.

Of those early days, his son, Leon Jr., later remembered, “We drove the bus, we fixed it and we washed it.”

By the 1990s, the-one bus company had grown to a 700-bus fleet, marking it as one of the biggest transportation carriers in the country owned by an African American, before its acquisition by a British-based company in 1998.

The Robinson name was not only established in Evanston and nearby Niles, Glenview, Wilmette, Winnetka and New Trier, but as far away as the Port Authority in Newark, N.J.

Under Mr. Robinson’s leadership, the company also began exerting a strong presence in Evanston’s residential, commercial and industrial real estate market. 

Lynn Robinson Phillips, Mr. Robinson’s daughter, now serves as chief executive officer of Robinson Rental.

During his career, Mr. Robinson served as President of the National School Transportation Association and on the boards of Evanston First Bank & Trust, Evanston Chamber of Commerce, Evanston Hospital, and many other public and private boards, the family obituary noted.

Speaking at the memorial service at Ebenezer AME on June 21, retired Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl recalled meeting Leon Jr. for the first time when she was the coach of the Martin Luther King Jr. Laboratory School third- and fourth-grade softball team.

“At the end of practice, one of my players, William, told me he couldn’t go home,” recalled Ms. Tisdahl. “I asked him why. ‘I lost my lunchbox,’ he said, and my mother told me not to come home without it.”

The two eventually found their way to the Robinson Bus Company offices, where Mr. Robinson personally led the child onto the bus to recover the lunchbox.

“Afterward, Leon told the boy, ‘Your mother was right. You should take care of your lunch box,’” Ms. Tisdahl recalled, “‘and  your coach went out of her way to bring you here. She didn’t have to. You should always listen to your coach.’”

With those words, “I became a Leon Robinson fan for life,” said Ms. Tisdahl.

“Over the years we talked about business, education, politics and city government,” she continued. “His advice was excellent, his analysis brilliant. I went to him for help when I needed it.

“One of the reasons I thought I could have the courage to run for mayor,” she added, “is that I knew Leon wouldn’t let me botch it up.

 “There is a gaping hole in the heart of Evanston today,” she concluded.

Current Mayor Stephen Hagerty and former Mayor Jay Lytle were among those who spoke in praise of Mr. Robinson’s contributions.

Robert Yohanan, First Bank & Trust  CEO and Managing Director, said Mr. Robinson’s  “knowledge about business in general, and start-ups in particular … helped us in so many ways,” as the bank was getting started in 1985.

Mr. Robinson as a member of the bank’s Board of Directors “Day One,” was “very supportive as we began to grow,” he further noted.

“He knew we wanted to be the community bank in Evanston,” recalled Mr. Yohanan, “and it was easy for him to do that [support efforts in that direction] … He was so accepted by the community.”

Mr. Robinson worked to provide jobs for many minorities that were otherwise unavailable to them.

He established a Commercial Driver’s License [CDL] driving school to train and license African American bus drivers as well as a program to provide African American mechanics with on-the-job training  and certification.

In 2009, aldermen approved an honorary street sign on Emerson Street, honoring Mr. Robinson, for his many contributions.

Awarding Mr. Robinson its Community Service Award in 2013, the NAACP noted his “immense pride in the town and the people it serves,”  and  how he “constantly gives back to the community that has given him so much throughout the years.”

Mr. Powell placed a large banner over the door of his restaurant upon Mr. Robinson’s death, proclaiming “You’ll be Missed, Leon Robinson,” with “The Godfather” written in parenthesis underneath.

The two men continued to talk several times a week, even after the ailing Mr. Robinson began spending more time in Florida, Mr. Powell said.

Mr. Robinson advised him on wide variety of topics, Mr. Powell said, including the importance of keeping close watch over expenditures as the business expanded.

“I was from the streets and he never looked down at me,” Mr. Powell said. “He saw something in me I didn’t see in myself.”

In that respect, he was the community’s Godfather in the best sense of the word, said Mr. Powell.

“He really loved Evanston, and he was really loved back,” Mr. Powell said.

The husband of Alice Phillips for 65 years, Mr. Robinson Jr. is survived by his daughter, Lynn Robinson Phillips, sister Rita B. Turner, grandchildren Bryson and Brielle Phillips and many relatives and friends.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.