Why Reggie Robinson should be a household name in Kansas

Reggie Robinson's last civic role in Kansas was as CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation. (Submitted by the Kansas Health Foundation to Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Kathleen Sebelius is the 44th governor of Kansas.

When Reggie Robinson died at his home in Lawrence on Saturday morning, I lost a friend and Kansans lost a champion. In a year of devastating losses, losing Reggie’s leadership in what he called his dream job at the Kansas Health Foundation will impact people across the Sunflower State.

I met Reggie in 1998, when he returned to Kansas from the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. A good friend who worked with Reggie told me a remarkable young lawyer was returning to his home state of Kansas and said I should get to know him. So I did.

Reggie’s may not have been a household name in every corner of the state — but it’s hard to think of any Kansan who gave back more to the state where he was born and raised.

I knew Reggie to be both a passionate and a compassionate leader, a man of great accomplishment who helped those around him succeed as well. Reggie cared about educational excellence, about social justice and about the legal profession and system — and he served in leadership positions in all of these areas, both advancing the causes he cared about and making Kansas a better place for us to live.

Reggie’s career in public service goes back at least to his undergraduate days at the University of Kansas, where he was student body vice president — the start to a long list of contributions.

He was a White House Fellow, a deputy United States attorney general, a field artillery officer in the U.S. Army, a law professor at the University of Kansas and dean of the law school at Washburn University. Reggie served as president of the Kansas Board of Regents and later led KU’s public affairs efforts and its School of Public Affairs. Reggie was a proud Jayhawk and loved the university where he received his undergraduate and legal education.

Reggie had three very special women in his life: his beloved wife, Jane, and his two daughters, Clare and Paige. He was so thrilled with the engagement and then marriage of Clare to Jason last year. When I visited with him and asked to see a photo shortly after the wedding, he sent me dozens, since “it was so wonderful.” They were the joys of his life, and his famously broad smile was even brighter when he talked about his family.

Reggie left KU for what he described as the opportunity of a lifetime, the chance to serve as CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation. He accepted the position just before the turbulence of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Kansas and the country, and he helped to guide the foundation’s response. According to the foundation’s board chairman, Matt Allen, Reggie helped “the board and staff envision how we could bring a greater focus to our work on race and health equity.”

I was so pleased that Reggie was the new leader of this critical foundation, and we talked a lot about his vision for the future, for making a real difference in the lives and well-being of Kansans for generations to come. Reggie felt that he was in the right place at the right time and wanted the opportunity to develop programs and plans that would help Kansas recover from the economic and health crisis caused by the pandemic. He wanted to mobilize resources and initiatives that would create a brighter, healthier future for Kansans, and was busy enlisting his army of supporters who could help with the mission. I was delighted to be enlisted.

It’s hard to calculate the scope of the loss when a man like Reggie Robinson leaves us — especially coming on the heels of the death of another heroic crusader for justice and fairness, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. These are people who, wherever they went, left things better than they found them. People whose legacy includes nurturing generations of leaders who followed them.

I’m pleased to join the chorus of accolades coming from Reggie’s friends, colleagues and students. The chorus reminds us of what we’ve lost — but should encourage our ambition to emulate Reggie’s enterprise, unselfishness and grace.

We all need to commit to doing our part to deal with the health, economic and social justice crises we currently face. We should use this time of mourning also as a time of resolve — to work harder and smarter for a better future. That is the best way to honor Reggie’s life.

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