Brothers build business and civic legacy with lactose intelligence
By Coleman Cornelius with reporting from Eric Brown | Photos courtesy of the Robinson family
They claim to be taking it easy these days – enjoying golf and time with grandchildren – but brothers Dick and Eddie Robinson didn’t rise to the pinnacle of Colorado business and civic life by being idle. On most weekdays, they still dress in suits and drive to their shared office in downtown Denver to monitor investments, handle correspondence, and contribute ideas to myriad charitable causes.
Never mind that Dick Robinson is 89, and Eddie Robinson is 87.
“Not doing too much,” Eddie said with a chuckle, during a recent meeting at their office near the Cherry Creek Shopping Center. As Dick once joked in an interview with The Denver Post, revealing the brothers’ lifelong routine of ribbing each other, “Eddie would retire, but his wife won’t let him.”
At the height of their careers, the Robinson brothers were scions of a fourth-generation family dairy business, founded in the late 1800s by their great-grandfather off West Colfax Avenue, in what is now Lakewood. For years, they owned and ran Robinson Dairy in Denver. The two grew so influential in the nationwide dairy industry that Dick Robinson served as chairman of the Milk Processor Education Program and was a mastermind behind licensing the “Got Milk?” advertising slogan in 1995, merging it with the national group’s celebrity-driven milk mustache campaign, a pairing that became one of the most iconic ad campaigns of all time. In 1999, they sold Robinson Dairy to Dean Foods, the nation’s largest processor and distributor of dairy products, with a portfolio of brands including Meadow Gold, Land O’Lakes, and TruMoo.
But the brothers didn’t stop working. For several years, they continued on as co-chief executive officers of Robinson Dairy under its new ownership. Among many signs of their entwined contributions as business and civic leaders, the Robinsons were together inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame in 2000 and were together named 2009 Citizens of the West by the National Western Stock Show.
“They represent the spirit of service and the most compassionate side of human nature,” Pat Grant, president of the National Western, said when the Robinsons received one of the region’s best-known accolades for highfliers in business, education, politics, and philanthropy. “They’ve made their names in the Colorado ag business, but they represent much more.”
Both their success and their benevolence began with their great-grandfather, Labisch Rabinovich, a Jewish dairy farmer from Russia or Eastern Europe. The family isn’t sure where Rabinovich lived before immigrating to the United States, or even how he spelled his name. They think he likely escaped persecution in the pogroms, a series of riots that terrorized and killed Jewish people in territory acquired by the Russian Empire, including Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine; a wave of these anti-Jewish attacks occurred in the 1880s.
Rabinovich – whose name was later Anglicized as Louis Robinson – sailed to America with his wife and young children and arrived in Denver in 1885. They settled and started the family dairy on 1,280 acres off West Colfax in Lakewood; at the time, it was the residential and commercial home of Denver’s early Jewish population and, in particular, attracted an influx of Russian Jews who had fled economic hardship and discrimination in their homeland, according to a neighborhood history compiled by the Denver Public Library.
In keeping with the philanthropic ethos of the community, Robinson donated 100 acres of his land to the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society for construction of a sanatorium, which opened in 1904 to treat patients with tuberculosis. The sanatorium, one of many in Colorado at the time, became a landmark on West Colfax and treated an estimated 10,000 patients with tuberculosis. The sanatorium campus, a National Historic District, is now home to the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design; the Robinson Building stands at the center as a testament to the dairyman’s charity.
Three generations later, Dick Robinson told his biographer that he imagines his great-grandfather as a man much like the protagonist, Tevye, in the musical Fiddler on the Roof – a poor Jewish milkman who clings to his religious and cultural traditions in the face of expulsion from his Ukrainian village. The comparison is in the opening chapter of The Brothers Robinson: A Story of Milk and Honey, whose title references the biblical Promised Land of the Jewish people. “Tevye’s famous song from Fiddler on the Roof, ‘If I Were a Rich Man,’ may not have been on the lips of the ancestral Robinsons. It did, however, come to be true for their American descendants. Wealth came to them with the success of their dairy, but it also arrived in the form of great appreciation, lasting friendship, and enviable status in their communities,” notes the biography, written by CSU journalism alumnus James Churches.
Their biography, published in 2012, also reflects the brothers’ humor, with section headings that allude to dairy cattle, including “Grazing,” “Ruminating,” and “Lactating.” In their Denver office, the Robinsons keep samples of their family’s milk bottles, lined up in chronological order and covering 125 years. Recalling their family history, they marveled at dramatic changes in the dairy business: When they were kids, for instance, milk was delivered in 10-gallon cans; now it’s hauled in 7,000-gallon tankers.
The Robinsons were born and raised in Denver and attended Steck Elementary School; just around the corner, near their present-day office, “cows used to actually line the street along Colorado Boulevard,” Dick remembered. They graduated from Denver East High School, then attended Colorado A&M, as Colorado State was earlier known; Dick graduated in 1951, and Eddie followed in 1954, both with degrees in animal science.
The two recalled running every piece of equipment at the University dairy, in contrast to later years, they joked, when company employees barred them from touching high-tech computer equipment at Robinson Dairy facilities. Dick, who earned an honorary doctorate from the University in 1990, quipped that his younger brother “was just lucky to graduate from college,” adding, “He had a little trouble with chemistry.” Jabbing back, Eddie wryly noted that Dick didn’t make the dairy judging team.
Both were in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which prepared them for service in the U.S. Army after college. The Korean War was underway when he graduated, and Dick served as a unit commander during the infamous Battle of Pork Chop Hill, which preceded the armistice of July 1953. Dick was wounded in combat, and for his bravery earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart. Eddie, who graduated from college after the Korean conflict ended, served as a second lieutenant in an Army artillery unit, stationed in Neu-Ulm, Germany, and has called his military service one of the most important experiences of his life for the lessons it imparted.
After returning to Colorado, the brothers re-entered the family business, eventually buying it and taking over operations in 1975. In the early years, the business encompassed farming, milking, and more. Robinson Dairy, however, bought milk from producers and added value through processing, packaging, and marketing, with a niche in sales to hotels, schools, and hospitals. Industry consolidation over the decades led to tighter profit margins, and the Robinsons sold the business to Dean Foods in 1999; at the time, the company posted annual sales of $55 million, according to the Denver Business Journal.
Yet, the Robinson brothers were as busy as ever with civic life. Dick helped broker the deal that brought Major League Baseball and the Colorado Rockies to Denver; Eddie helped establish the Buell Theatre. The Robinsons have served on numerous business and nonprofit boards at the local and national levels and have contributed to scores of fundraisers. Banks, colleges and universities, hospitals, industry, the arts, and faith, cultural, and youth organizations. These and more have benefited from the Robinson brothers, their connections, and their business acumen.
The Robinsons likewise have supported Colorado State University student scholarships, athletics, and alumni programming. Dick served on the University governing board from 1984 to 1991 and led the board as president during the hiring of former CSU President Albert Yates. The two committed $500,000 to renovate the Animal Sciences Building and received the 2016 William E. Morgan Alumni Achievement Award, the University’s highest alumni honor, for their accomplishments and contributions.
The charitable tradition, a hallmark of Judaism, began in the Robinson family more than a century ago, when their great-grandfather donated land for a medical facility, and it has continued ever since. “Our father and grandfather taught us to treat people well, to do good. It comes back many times over,” Eddie once told The Denver Post.
These days, Dick said, “We consider it a privilege to be in a position to give back, and we’ll continue doing it as long as we’re still around.”