Interviewer: I have to start by saying this interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on August 30, 2018 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral History Project. This interview is being recorded at the Federation Building. My name is Ron Robins and I am interviewing Gary Robins. On behalf of and just for everyone’s point of information, Gary happens to be my cousin, so we make that full disclosure. What I thought we would do. We’d have three distinct things, maybe family and history, maybe school, maybe business and then I thought maybe you’d like to talk a little bit about Columbus and the philanthropy the family was interested in so that would be like part four. Part one would be family history so tell me do you know where your family came from, their names and all of that?
Robins: No, I know a little bit about my father’s family. My father was born in Russia. They lived in a shtetl, Zhitomer, which is in the Ukraine now, it was probably in Poland or Russia at one time, probably went back and forth. Harry Robins was his name. In Russia it might have been Rabinovich, I think, something of that nature. He came here in 1913, if I’m not mistaken, from what I’ve read. I say I read this because in the August 15, 1970 edition of the Columbus Dispatch there was a little blurb that said ’50 Years Ago Today’ and it mentioned my father rescuing his family from the Bolsheviks. My father, Lou, of blessed memory, got a hold of the front page of the paper and low and behold there was an article about the family. It mentioned that my grandfather came over here in 1913. He was a barber. He came over here to raise money to go back to Russia and bring the family here. I guess his brother had preceded him here. The war broke out, the revolution broke out and it was seven years later before my grandfather could return to Russia to save the family from the Bolsheviks. In the meantime, I think, unbeknownst to my grandfather, my grandmother was pregnant with my father. My father did not see his father until he was six years old. That’s the first time they met. He came here on a boat. They fled through Poland. He got on a boat in Manchester, England and he came back. He came to the United States.
Interviewer: Did he go through Ellis Island?
Robins: No, I think they went through Philadelphia. I think initially my grandfather went through Ellis Island but I think the second time they went through Philadelphia.
Interviewer: Do you remember what your grandmother’s name was?
Robins: Do you mean what my grandmother’s name, Bluma. Yes, I knew. Bluma. My grandfather died before I was born so I never met him. My father came over here with two siblings, my uncle Max who was Ron Robins father and my aunt Gus. Later on my aunt Jeannie was born here in the United States.
Interviewer: Do you happen to know her maiden name?
Robins: Fergamet, okay.
Interviewer: How about the other side of the family?
Robins: My mother’s maiden name was Kahn. I’m not sure exactly, well, I knew they were from Russia. I thought originally they were from Minsk but I’m not sure. It’s a shame, I really don’t know much at all about where they came from.
Interviewer: Do you know their names?
Robins: Well, yes. My grandfather’s name was William Kahn. My grandmother’s name was Jenny. I think what’s really funny is that I obtained my mother’s birth certificate a number of years ago after my father passed away. My mother was born as Sarah Cohen, not Sarah Kahn. I was told that there was a fight among some of the Kahns or Cohens within the community and some of the Cohens changed their name to Kahn.
Interviewer: Do you think that’s what your grandfather did?
Robins: I don’t know.
Interviewer: Right, there’s nobody to ask.
Robins: Did she have brothers and sisters?
Interviewer: My grandmother had a brother, Phil Slobin, who lived in Columbus and he had two children. I’m fairly close with my cousin, Sandy Slobin. Sandy and Lester grew up in Bexley but now live in Houston.
Interviewer: How about the Robins, did they have family?
Robins: Sure, Max Robins.
Interviewer: No, I mean older. Did your grandmother have sisters and brothers? Did he have sisters and brothers?
Robins: One sister that I know of, Sophie, lived in Detroit. I think there might have been another sister. I never knew her.
Interviewer: Well that takes, I think, the family in. Now tell me about your family.
Robins: Okay. My parents are Louis, Sarah and Lou. They were married sometime in the mid 30s because my brother, Stan, of blessed memory was born in 1939. My father didn’t become a naturalized citizen until I think he was maybe in his 20’s or 30’s. I have those papers at home. My mother was born here in the United States.
Interviewer: Here in Columbus.
Robins: In Columbus and her father had a wallpaper and paint store. My grandfather Robins was a barber. My grandmother Bluma was a member of the Chevra Kadisha at Beth Jacob. I know this for a fact because Rabbi Stavsky, of blessed memory, would always remind me about that. That was quite an honor for her.
Interviewer: He was too by the way. Harry was also. Yeah he was. They both were what they call ‘Shomer Shabbas’ and so that was it. So you’re the youngest, oldest?
Robins: No, I’m the middle, I had a twin brother, Gregg. Technically, I’m older than he so technically I’m the middle child. I was seven minutes older than Gregg. We grew up in Bexley. Well we didn’t grow up in Bexley. Originally, I think when I was born the family lived on Forest Street. Then we moved to Broadleigh Road, just east of Bexley. Right before kindergarten I moved to Bexley and Robert Weiler built the house for my father.
Interviewer: Where was that?
Robins: On the corner of Dale and Gould. Gould Road is the dividing line between Bexley and Columbus. When we first moved into that house, it was literally like a dirt road. It had valleys that went up and down, up and down. It wasn’t until oh maybe ten years after we moved into the house that Bexley and Columbus decided that they would straighten that road out and pave the road and put sidewalks in and make a real road out of Gould Road.
Interviewer: Any interesting things that you remember growing up on Broadleigh?
Robins: Not a lot. I know one thing. We lived, I think our address was 750 South Broadleigh. Just to the north of us, my uncle, Harry Kahn, Nancy Kahn and their son, Steve. That was my mother’s brother. They lived next door to us. Next door to them was an empty lot which my grandparents Kahn eventually bought. On the other side of that lot was my aunt Bernice and Uncle Murray. Aunt Bernice was my mother’s sister.
Interviewer: Their last name was?
Robins: Barnett. In those days family was important, much more important than it is today and family looked after one another and babysat, did whatever had to be done. It was quite a good time. My uncle Harry moved first to Bexley and then we moved several months later and it was probably oh ten years later my uncle Murray finally moved to Bexley, built a home and moved to Bexley.
Interviewer: You started school in Bexley? You started kindergarten?
Robins: Kindergarten in Bexley.
Interviewer: Was that at Cassingham?
Robins: Yes. Miss Barbara, Barbara Drugan was my kindergarten teacher. She was a legend in Bexley. Even if she did not have you in her class, she knew your name and if she saw you 20 years later, she could pick you out of a crowd. She was an amazing, amazing woman. She was one of a kind. Growing up in Bexley was like unbelievable.
Interviewer: That’s what we want to talk about.
Robins: Bexley is a real community. It’s even more of a community now. It’s evolved into a real great community. Then, it was a safe place, of course, 72 years ago when I was in Bexley. Sixty-five years ago most places were pretty safe. Bexley was just a great community. The school system was good. The greatest majority of Jews in Columbus at that time lived in Bexley, probably still do to this day. There was a Russian social club in the north part of Bexley called the Excelsior Club. That was for the Russian Jews. Winding Hollow, the Jewish Country Club, was for the German Jews. Just great times at the Excelsior Club.
Interviewer: Do you remember some of those times?
Robins: Absolutely. They had what I thought was an olympic-sized pool but today would probably be an average-sized pool. The social fabric of the Jewish community really was like you had these clubs. If you weren’t a member of a club, you had the Jewish Center. Among the Jewish Center, Winding Hollow and the Excelsior Club most Jews 65 or 70 years ago knew one another in this community. It was a very tight-knit community.
Interviewer: Did the Excelsior Club, the Russian club, get built by the Russian Jews?
Robins: No, they bought that club. Initially I don’t know what it was.
Interviewer: A bath club.
Robins: Was it? Okay, alright, yeah. I mean it didn’t have, growing up I didn’t know it was a club for Russian Jews but it really was. I mean it didn’t have the stigma as being less of a social atmosphere perhaps than Winding Hollow. It just didn’t have a golf course. Winding Hollow was more expensive and it allowed the Jews of that time who could not afford the luxury of being a member of Winding Hollow.
Interviewer: Going ahead now, tell us about high school, some of your friends in high school, some of the things you got into in high school, some of the hijinks, some of the stuff you don’t want your grandkids to know about,
Robins: No, I was pretty good. I was a good kid. My two closest friends today are two kids that I grew up with, Jeff Grossman when I was five years old, and then Steve Pariser when I was seven years old. To this day, Jeff’s my closest friend. Steve is not as close as Jeff, but still two of my closest friends. I was at their home more than I was at my home. My mother, of blessed memory, was not the type that wanted people around the house and so I spent most, my twin brother, of blessed memory, and myself spent most of our time outside of the house at Pariser’s home. That was a unique situation because the front door was never locked, never locked. At any hour you could walk into that house. Grossman’s house was pretty much maybe the same thing. You might have locked your doors when you went away, left town, but that’s how safe it was growing up in a community like Bexley.
Interviewer: So what was high school like? Did you have other friends? Do you remember doing stuff?
Robins: Okay, so Bexley still has three elementary schools. They have one in the northern part of Bexley, Maryland. They have one in the central part of Bexley, Cassingham; and the southern part of Bexley is Montrose. The only way I knew some of the kids maybe in Montrose and Maryland would be from Sunday School or Hebrew School.
Interviewer: Where did you go to Sunday School?
Robins: I went to Agudas Achim. My brother and I were the first twins Bar Mitzvahed in the history of Agudas Achim. When seventh grade came around, that’s when all of the students from the three elementary schools gathered. Junior High School was adjacent to Cassingham elementary school. Then there was land that separated that building from the high school. Today it’s all one. It’s just intermingled into one entity. Growing up we had some really, really great times. We did some pranks, nothing that was earth shattering. We did a lot of pranks during Halloween when we’d soap peoples’ windows. I don’t think anyone even noticed the damage. You just took a bar of soap and you wrote something on a window. It was kind of hard to wash off but it wasn’t a serious prank. No one got in any trouble. We used to go around, in those days, Christmas trees, if one bulb went out, you unscrewed a bulb, everything went out on the entire tree. We’d go to north Bexley, some of these big homes that had huge Christmas trees, unscrew one bulb, and that was maybe not so nice. No, we really didn’t get into trouble.
Interviewer: You went around mostly on your bike?
Robins: Oh yeah. I had a bike, my twin brother and I. My grandfather,William, bought us these English Racing Bikes when we were about 11 years old. They were too large for us then. I would think that bike might be too large for me now. It was hard to maneuver but we were the envy of everyone in the community because we had these English Racing Bikes when no one had any type of bike like that. It was nothing to drive around the community. I’ll tell you how different things are today. When I look back at some of the things we didn’t think were serious health issues growing up, today are pretty serious health issues. Franklin Exterminating used to come with this fogging truck and used to expel probably DDT or something like that to kill insects and mosquitoes and everyone in the community would get behind this truck and inhale those poisons. Another thing too.
Interviewer: It didn’t kill you.
Robins: Well it might kill some people. You don’t know. Another thing too, when you went to buy a pair of shoes, a lot of shoe stores had what was called a floroscope machine. It was basically like an x-ray machine. You’d try on a shoe and you’d put your foot into this mechanism and it would show a picture of your foot inside the shoe to see if you had ample room in order to buy the shoe. Things like that, when you think about science, people didn’t know what could kill you today.
Interviewer: Do you know what the shoe stores were?
Robins: There was Modern Youth which was a shoe store downtown. A guy named Sam Sherman owned it. He had a partner, or maybe a business associate, his name was Eddie. I’m not sure what his name was. Sam Sherman eventually became a builder and developer. He did very well for himself. That store was right near Lazarus. Of course there were Schiff Shoe Stores. Herb Schiff was, we’re sitting actually in the room that Herb and his late wife Betty donated the funds for. This is the Herb Schiff Room or the Schiff Room at the Jewish Federation of Columbus. His father, Robert Schiff, was an immigrant, came to the United States and he started the shoe business. Schiff Shoes had retail stores. They also owned some manufacturing plants. They made shoes for their own stores. They were really ahead of the game. I remember they owned a store, Midstate Shoe Corporation, in Milwaukee. My father’s friend, Phil Felger, left Columbus to run that division and they had shoe plants up in New England. That business grew. Herb Schiff had a billion dollar business way before people knew what a billion dollar business was. He expanded. He had an appliance chain called Kelly and Cohen. Schiff Shoes he developed into SCOA which is the Shoe Corporation of America, which went public. They owned Hill’s Department Stores out of Canton, Massachusetts. They bought out several other shoe stores, shoe chains, one of which was owned by, I’m trying to think, they changed the name of the stores from Schiff to, it’ll probably come to me. One of the reasons why, Herb Schiff just thought that the name Schiff Shoes, being Jewish, was a detriment to selling shoes. He was very conscious of antisemitism, things of that nature. He bought a chain from a guy named Harry Karl who lived in Beverly Hills and was married to Debbie Reynolds, who was an actress. He took the name of that chain and then applied it to all the Schiff Shoe stores.
Interviewer: How do you know so much about this?
Robins: I know everything. I’m like an encyclopedia. Gosh, I’ll think of the name of the stores but they did change those.
Interviewer: Another shoe store that was very big and that our fathers worked in that was Gilberts.
Robins: Gilberts Shoe store, right. There was a fellow named Harry Gilbert who was basically one of the original shoe discounters in the United States. He had a large store downtown. It was a store that a lot of people of my dad’s age started business in, got their start there. My dad met his future partner, Al Rosen, at the Gilbert’s Shoe store, developed a relationship and then went into the wine business with Al.
Interviewer: That’s a side thing but let’s go there. Let’s talk about that.
Robins: It was 1936 when my father got into the wine business. Actually he started as a retailer. You have to understand that was three years after prohibition. We had prohibition in this country from like 1919 to 1933, 14 really terrible years for our country because basically what prohibition did was cause the rise of crime. The Mafia was formed with bootlegging alcohol, things of this nature. Three years after that my father now opened a store called LaSalle Wine. I think maybe it was called LaSalle Wine and Spirits, or LaSalle Wine Company. I think maybe at one time the chain grew to five or seven stores and eventually he evolved into the wholesale operation. Early on in those days, as a wholesaler you really were almost like a bottler. You bought a wine in bulk and you bottled it. You put a label on it and you sold it to bars. The wine industry in the 1930s and 40s is nothing, doesn’t resemble anything, like it is today because people who drank wine then, especially in the eastern half of the country didn’t know anything about California wines. Most of the wines that were consumed were like wino type wines and there were four or five dessert wines high in alcohol content. People did not drink wine with meals as they do today. It’s interesting to really see what has taken place in the wine industry. Our family, my father was a Gallo distributor in the early 40s and then lost Gallo and for whatever reason took on a wine called Colony which at that time was one of the largest wines in the country. By 1964, my family again took on the distribution of Gallo. I have to say that Ernest and Julio Gallo and Robert Mondavi did for the wine industry what Ralph Lauren and Georgio Armani did for the fashion industry in the United States. The Gallos and Robert Mondavi almost single-handedly created the fine wine industry that we know today. It’s really something. I entered the wine business in 1967. At that time we had no premium California wine label. Most of the wines that we sold were wines that winos drank. I hate to use that terminology but that’s how the wine business was then. Gallo started producing table wines and advertising these wines, kept at it, and through their efforts more and more people started drinking better wines and Gallo started producing better wines. What you have today, the wine industry is just an amazing thing in this country.
Interviewer: We’re going to get back to this part of the history. We’ve got to go back now. So you’re getting ready to gradate high school and you’re going to go to college. Let’s start there again. Pick up the story.
Robins: I tell everyone my twin brother and I had three choices where we could go to college, Ohio State, Ohio State, or Ohio State. It wasn’t because our grades kept us from getting into other schools. My father, just prior to us graduating in June, 1964, bought his partner out of the business, Al Rosen, so there was only x amount of dollars to go around. Also, my older brother, Stan, went to Ohio State and since it was good enough for him, it was good enough for the twins to go to Ohio State.
Interviewer: Did you mind being called the twins?
Robins: I minded being called the twins from my mother because she referred, we were the twins. We weren’t Gary and Greg, we were the twins. I didn’t mind being a twin. My twin brother hated being a twin. One of the bad things about being a twin, in my family, was if one was punished, the other got punished as well because we were like Siamese twins. My cousin Ronnie, with whom I’m speaking today, when his wife gave birth to twin daughters, I told them almost immediately, do not refer to them as the twins. I don’t know if you remember that. I didn’t mind being a twin. The thing was that from grades kindergarten through sixth grade my mother dressed us alike. My brother just really didn’t like that and couldn’t wait to acquire an image of his own. Throughout life whatever I did, he did the opposite. I always lived in Bexley. He never lived in Bexley. I did this, he would do that. He really did not like being a twin. We went to Ohio State. We were in ZBT Fraternity because my brother was in ZBT. During school my wife, Connie, transferred in her Junior year from a Junior college to Ohio State. I knew of her coming to Ohio State because her aunt Leah Zox, of blessed memory, lived down the street from me. Going up to school during Rush Week, in the fall, Leah Zox saw me because she was walking her dog and said “I have this gorgeous niece from Detroit and she’s going to school here. She transferred here. Why don’t you take her out? If you don’t take her out, have the ZBT’s take her out.” It went in one ear and out the other ear because I just pictured someone that might not be attractive if they’re making that big a play for them. But low and behold, I had a blind date with her. I won’t necessarily get into the circumstances because its too long a discussion of the situation. I needed a date and my twin brother’s friend fixed me up with her. Now it’s a strange situation because our aunt lived in Bexley and I remember it was Homecoming Weekend and my future wife’s parents, Jean and Mort Kiefer, lived in Detroit, came down from Detroit to visit her. My future wife, Connie, checked out of the rooming house and was going to be staying at her aunt’s house over the weekend. When I went to pick up my future wife for our first date, the same time I met her, I met my future in-laws. So that’s sort of an unusual situation. For me it was love at first sight. I’m not so sure about my wife. It was a good experience and then we got married. In those days you basically, which is so different from today, you usually met your spouse in college. You got married. You went out and you earned a living. You didn’t travel for a year or two or anything of that nature. I always tell people, in the Jewish community one of the first things you did, you joined a synagogue and then you joined the Jewish Center. That’s not true today because my generation got married in their 20s. My kid’s generation are not getting married till their 30s or 40s and not having kids until later. It’s a whole different world today.
Interviewer: Tell me about your kids.
Robins: We have four boys. My two brothers, among the three of us, five different wives because both my brothers were married twice, we had 11 sons and no daughters so the Y chromosome was very domineering. Dean will be 50. He lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. He went to school at ASU in Tempe which is near Scottsdale. He got married here in Columbus and was really disillusioned with everything. He went into my business but didn’t like it so he moved out to Arizona. My son Chad lives in Phoenix. He always said that he wanted to live somewhere where when he wasn’t working he thought he’d be in like a resort area. That’s really what he’s chosen for himself. He lives in the northern part of Phoenix, in a development called Fireside. It has two or three swimming pools. It has indoor athletic facilities. Across from where he lives, there’s a mountain that he hikes pretty often. Upon visiting his brother for the very first time in Arizona, he saw the type of life out there that he wanted for his wife and children and so he moved out there as well. My oldest son moved about 14 years ago and Chad moved probably 12 years ago. My number three son is Brett. He spends about eight months of the working year in Tuscany, in Italy. He works for a real estate development company that has a 4200-acre project and they developed fractional ownership resort properties. When he’s not there he’s in Snowmass in Colorado. Although every 90 days, he’s on a work visa so every 90 days he has to leave Italy and apply for a work visa and so he can either come back to the United States, which I think he’s doing this week, or he travels around Europe. He is not married. My youngest son went to the University of Arizona and met his future wife there. She’s from Mankato, which is a suburb of Minneapolis. He and his brother Brett started off very entrepreneurial. They started off with a potato chip business. They got a franchise for this potato chip business and they went down to Kings Island and literally worked about 18 hours a day for the whole summer. He got a great learning experience but they didn’t make any money. My son Zack was sort of disillusioned and decided he wanted to go to law school. He went to law school in St. Paul, Minnesota and he’s an attorney now. He and his wife have two children. Zack has two daughters. My oldest son Dean has a daughter who’s 17 and a son, Levi who is 14. Zack’s two children, the ones who live in Minneapolis, are four and six. Chad married a woman from Bogata, Columbia. Chad was living in Florida, Fort Lauderdale. He called us up and said he fell in love with this young lady from Bogata. This was like in January or February of 1997. He called us up and said he met this young lady, he’s fallen in love and he has to get married before August because she was on a green card and had to go back to Columbia. Her parents lived here, in Fort Lauderdale, but she had to go back. The only way she could stay would be the green card. Regardless of that, my son fell in love with her. She wasn’t Jewish and I said, “You know, your mother and I would like for her to be Jewish.” They said “Fine.” I had Rabbi Berman, at that time the senior rabbi and Tifereth Israel call and so she had a fellow rabbi from Boca Raton who went to their home and taught her over the next four months. Then she came here to Columbus to the Mikvah at Beth Jacob.
Interviewer: So how many grandchildren? I lost track.
Robins: I have six grandchildren, four girls and two boys.
Interviewer: Reverse the order there, not all boys.
Robins: No. Actually my nephew, Danny Robins, my older brother’s son, he broke the spell and then Dean, my oldest son, was the second one to do so.
Interviewer: Now, let’s get back to the wine business. The wine business was obviously successful so that leads us into the philanthropic part of the story here. We’re sitting here in the Robins Center for.
Robins: No, next door is the Robins Center for Philanthropy which I’ll expound upon in a few minutes but I tell people I was drafted into Jewish philanthropy. I say that because I was sitting in Temple Israel during Yom Kippur Services when the rabbi interrupted the service and said, this was in 1973, “Israel has been attacked from both fronts and there’s a war going on.” I was 26 years old. Before that I had been called on a couple of occasions by Reid Wasserstrom representing the Jewish Federation, asking me for a gift to help out people. He asked me for a $50 gift. Had he asked me for $100 I probably would have given him a $100 gift. He never did. Anyhow this war broke out and I was sort of drafted into Jewish philanthropy. I went to Ed Ellman’s house, of blessed memory, and every major big macher in the community was there and was basically pledging their lives away to help Israel during this crisis. This is the third war, the War of Independence in 1948, then you had the Six Day War in 1967. So it was just six years later that they had this other war. So I got involved with Jewish philanthropy at that time. It’s sort of a calling for me. My dad was involved but he never sat his sons down and said you’ve got to be involved in philanthropy. I think it’s just something that evolved. He was involved with Federation and then became involved with Wexner Heritage House which is Wexner Village. Wexner Heritage house is part of Wexner Village which is the home for the aged and he was past chair of that philanthropic entity. I got involved with Federation and I’m still the youngest Campaign Chair in the history of the Federation. I was 38 years old when that took place. Most of the people who were Campaign Chairs, at least in those days, were in their 40s or even 50s. So that was an accomplishment and that was in 1984. Then in 1985 there was this ‘Operation Solomon’ I think was the name of it where Israel decided they were going to take the Ethiopian Jews out of Ethiopia and bring them to Israel. There was a second campaign that I had to be involved with to do so. That was probably one of the most gratifying things because at that time you gave $6,000, you saved a life. The $6,000 was the amount of money that was needed to get these inhabitants from Ethiopia to Israel. Unbeknownst to me but maybe not to a lot of people at that time, Israel had to pay, was extorted to pay to get these people out of there. They had to pay the Ethiopian government.
Interviewer: The Ethiopians, how did they know they were Jewish? Why did they want to go to Israel?
Robins: There was no question. There was a group of them that kept Kosher, studied the Torah. They were like one of the lost tribes of Israel I guess and so JDC, Joint Distribution Committee, was very instrumental in picking these people up and taking them over to Israel. All the ones that came over, were they Jewish, probably not, same sort of thing with the Russians. Probably a lot of people that came over from Russia were not necessarily Jewish. Who Knows and Israel wasn’t about to say you can’t be admitted to our country. It was quite a situation because El Al landed their planes in Ethiopia and there were stairs that they had to climb in order to get to the plane. These people had never climbed stairs before. Their bodies weren’t built for that. Some of them needed a lot of help to get up those stairs. Some of them were probably even carried into the plane because they lived in a flat area. They lived off the land. They didn’t live in apartment buildings or anything of that nature. It was a pretty interesting thing. Then later on I was asked by some of the big members of the community. Meyer Mellman, Herb Schiff and I think Jack Wallick came to my office and wanted me to get involved with the Columbus Jewish Foundation. I did so. I knew at that time that this was a six-year commitment and that I would eventually become president, which I did. When I started working with the Foundation they were in the basement of the Federation Building. We decided that the Foundation needed a building of their own and so there was a community drive which I was part of. I think it was myself and I believe Sandy Solomon and Dee Dee Glimcher headed up this campaign. My two brothers and myself gave the seed money for the building. The building is named after us. It’s called The Robins Center for Philanthropy.
Interviewer: I didn’t know how that all came about. Was your dad involved?
Robins: He wasn’t one, he contributed but he was not part of the original.
Interviewer: So the three of you.
Robins: Yeah just the three of us. If you go over to the Foundation building there’s a marble slab against the wall. It has all the names of people who made contributions to the building. So I got involved with that and then I was asked to become president of the Chabad House on campus, the Schottenstein Chabad House. They needed some leadership. I’m not an Orthodox Jew but I took that assignment and I did that. I was also past president of Columbus Men’s Ort. Ort used to have a lot of women’s chapters in Columbus and they decided to establish a men’s chapter. I think I was the third and last president. The men’s chapter did not last long here.
Interviewer: You ruined it.
Robins: Yeah, I ruined it. I was just was brought up with the idea that you had to take care of those less fortunate. I’ve been fortunate so I’ve done so.
Interviewer: Where do you think that came from, that idea?
Robins: My mom and dad, it’s not like we had a Tzadakah box at home. We never talked about Tzadakah or anything of that nature. Maybe it’s just inbred or something. I don’t know, I guess I was in the right place at the right time when I was exposed to this group of older fellows in the community who pretty much just like we had to save Israel, and I said I wasn’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination because I was 26 years old but I said I could give whatever I could. I always believed in that philosophy. I’ve been to Israel 13 times. I think it’s important. I’ve led numerous missions to Israel. I tried to get people involved. If you’re not Jewish before you go to Israel, you pretty much are so when you come home. I’ve seen Israel really, really turn people’s lives around. It’s a great experience. Look Jews have to take care of themselves. It’s not like non-Jews are necessarily taking care of us. Today as we sit here in 2018 there’s a tremendous rise in antisemitism. It’s pretty scary.
Interviewer: Were your brothers as involved? You seem to be the most involved
Robins: My brother Stan was not involved at all. My brother Gregg actually was involved in some non-Jewish charities in town which was good. He was involved in Federation as well and had been to Israel, I think, 12 or 13 times as well. I went on some of these what’s called Prime Minister’s Missions, a certain level of giving you go there. Actually I was with Rabin four days before he was assassinated. Actually the night he was assassinated I was due to come home to the United States. I met Rabin. I met Shimon Perez. I was at Moshe Dayan’s house. I met numerous presidents of Israel and Ehud Barach I met. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve met a lot of Jewish leaders. I’ve also met a lot of world leaders easily enough too.
Interviewer: Like who?
Robins: I was in Israel once and I met Helmut Kohl who was the Chancellor of West Germany. He was staying at our hotel and we needed a special permit to go to dinner and a special permit to get back in. I came in and he was standing there. I went up and introduced myself to him. He was a great friend of Israel. I was with an organization called the YPO, Young President’s Organization. We were in Prague and had dinner with the first president of the free Czechoslovakia. I had dinner with the Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal. I was fortunate enough to go on a trip with Leslie Wexner and 12 other people. We flew over to Europe in Leslie’s plane in December, 1984. We were in Vienna. That was our first stop. That night 12 or 13 of us had dinner with Simon Wiesenthal which was an amazing thing. Through my business and everything too I met a lot of celebrities being in the beer and wine business, going to different meetings, met a lot of really interesting people. I think part of my philosophy of life, too, in business is to learn from some of the major figures that we did business with. Ernest Gallo was a genius. He was a tremendous marketing individual. We were a senior wine distributor and had a guy like Edgar Bronfman Sr., whom I met on a couple of occasions, who left his family’s liquor business and became president of the World Jewish Congress. There was a guy who singlehandedly was responsible for getting Jews out of Russia. He went to whomever it was. I don’t know if it was Gorbachev at that time or one of these leaders and said “Let these people leave.” He was also an individual who negotiated the war reparations with the Swiss for Holocaust victims and they gave him a number and he said “I’m not leaving here because that number is not satisfactory. I’m staying here until I get the right number.” He was an amazing individual. Those two guys really, I got to know them and to meet them and they really formed part of my business and social upbringing.
Interviewer: That’s pretty impressive by the way. Now tell me some things about Columbus that I don’t know because you are an expert on that.
Robins: First of all, let me tell you something about the Columbus Jewish community. Growing up I tell people we had sort of like a ghetto. I don’t say that, not a ghetto that you would have in Germany. It was a Jewish area. Basically it was Bexley. It was bordered by bordered by Nelson Road to the west. To the south was Livingston Avenue and then to the east there was James Road, actually go farther to Hamilton Road and Fifth Avenue or just before Fifth Avenue (to the north). This was this square area where most of the Jews in Columbus lived. Growing up with the exception of going to Town and Country Shopping Center which was on Broad Street which was built in 1948, it was the first regional shopping center in the United States. A guy named Don M. Casto Sr. built that. It was coined the ‘Miracle Mile’ because it wasn’t necessarily a mile long but it was this long stretch of land that bordered the government’s warehouse facility for who knows what was there during the war. It’s still there now. It used to be called the Defense Construction Supply Center. They changed the name of that facility about every five or ten years. There was this strip of land and he developed that. We’d go to Town and Country or we’d go downtown. Growing up all the good restaurants were downtown. On Sunday the family would get together, we’d dress up, we’d go to Kuennings. My older brother and my dad we’d tag along and we’d do window shopping at the clothing stores. There was Dunhills and there was Walkers. There was Humphries. That’s part of what you did. There were two movie theatres that we grew up in when we were kids. There was the Drexel Theatre, still in operation in Bexley. Just east of Bexley there was the Esquire Theatre. For 20 cents you could go there on a Saturday or Sunday, you could see two movies. They also showed, because TV was not the dominant thing in people’s lives in those days, they showed news reels from Europe. They were black and while news reels and they were really tremendously produced and showed you what took place during the previous week, activities in Europe or across the world, for that matter, especially in Europe because Asia wasn’t really on the map in those days. South America, nothing was going on except maybe some revolutions. You learned a lot from going to the theatre. It was a great experience. You grew up at the Jewish Center. The Jewish Center is part of the campus we are sitting on now. Next to this building we’re in, just to the north of us is Wexner Heritage Village and then you have the Jewish Center. That’s the third iteration of the Jewish Center. The first Jewish Center, I think if I’m not mistaken was built in 1952. I had some great times growing up there. They had a bowling alley there and that was a great place to hang out. There was also, there was one Hebrew School for the whole community and it was housed on the second floor of the Jewish Center. It was probably something that the synagogues should think about today because every synagogue wanted to have their own Hebrew School. It’s expensive. One thing about Hebrew, whether you’re a Reformed Jew or Orthodox Jew, you’re still the same religion, it’s still the same phonetics. It’s one religion. It’s not like Chinese where you have several different variations. Hebrew is Hebrew. Whether you’re teaching it to a Reform child or an Orthodox child, I don’t think it makes much difference because you’re going to Hebrew School to learn Hebrew, not going to learn about Jewish traditions or things of that nature. I think that’s the way, moving into the future, that the Jewish community can save their resources and maybe use those monies to be better spent for other things in the community.
Interviewer: Do you remember some of the hangouts, drive-ins, restaurants?
Robins: Rubino’s was a pizza place on Main Street in Bexley. It was opened in 1954. Unbeknownst to a lot of people, the guy’s name was Reuben Cohen that owned Rubino’s. He was a friend of my father. Most people didn’t know this guy. He never ran the business. He had two young guys named Tommy and Frankie that ran the business for him. Reuben Cohen could be seen in the early morning counting the money in that place and then handed the business over to these guys. They eventually bought the business from him. That was a tremendous hangout, I think it was maybe in those days, for 25 cents you got a cheese pizza. Rubino’s is in the same location. It’s basically almost unchanged since 1955. It’s still not air conditioned. You still have maybe one pinball machinethere. It’s the same identical pizza that you had 64 years ago which is amazing. Rubino’s was big. You had a lot of drug stores. Bexley had like soda fountains. The original Soskins Drug Store was on Main Street then a guy named Ben Balshone bought it, renamed it Lynn after his first daughter. It was Lynn’s Pharmacy, then it became Roger Pharmacy, then it became Bexley Pharmacy and now it’s a bank. Next door to the drug store was a, still is the original location, Johnson’s Ice Cream which started in 1950. Across from Johnson’s there was the Eskimo Queen. A guy named George C. ?? owned it. Johnson’s opened all year round but the Eskimo Queen, from like November 1 to like April 1st was closed. They went to Florida. That today is the Boston Market. If you go just over the Bexley line, just east, there’s a restaurant today that’s called Wings but used to be the Far East. I literally grew up at the Far East because we lived like maybe 1/8th of a mile away from there. In an area called Eastmoor you had Eastmoor Drive-in, you had Ciro’s Pizza. A guy named Alex Clawson had a pizza place there. That became one of the very first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Columbus. You had the Town House Drive-in.
Interviewer: Was that sort of like a hangout?
Robins: Yeah. Town House was a hangout but just east of there was the Eastmoor Drive-in. Eastmoor Drive-in, you could pull up and you ordered from a car hop that brought the food out to you. It was the kind of place that you drove your around. It was a hangout. There was this guy, I can’t remember his name now, he really disliked the teenagers driving around there because a lot of people would go in there and eat, as my mother would. Another place I just remembered too was the Feedbag which was a restaurant that was next door to the Drexel Theatre. Then you had Ackerman’s Drugs which is the northwest corner of Drexel and Main and then right across the street on the northeast corner was Wentz Pharmacy. Wentz Pharmacy today is a Graeters Ice Cream shop and Ackerman’s Drugs is now Giuseppe’s. Just west of there was City Hall which has since been torn down and Giant Eagle Super Market is there so is a shopping center. Capital University was always in Bexley but never ever played a role in Bexley. The new president, Beth (I can’t remember her last name), she’s really trying to get the community involved. The university could be more a part of our community. It never has been. Agudas Achim synagogue is in Bexley. You’ve got now Torat Emet which has since been built on Main Street which now occupies the space that McConnell’s Flowers once occupied. Then there’s the Bexley Library which you know a lot of people spend a lot of time in. When I was growing up there was a restaurant called The Glass Bowl which was really like a water goblet turned upside down. It was really, really an interesting place. A guy named Gustav Tsitouris owned that restaurant and he sold it to another guy, a Jewish guy named Bloom(?). I don’t know what his first name was. He made it into a donut shop and then it was eventually torn down. Cochran’s Pharmacy eventually took that place. Bexley has evolved quite a bit. The whole complexion of Main Street has really, really changed. It’s amazing, a lot more restaurants. Retail stores never did well in Bexley and still don’t really do well but there’s more to choose from in Bexley now. More people really patronize Bexley that live in Bexley is not true anymore because with the Drexel Theatre being a drawing card and some of these other good restaurants in Bexley, we get people from all over the Columbus area coming into Bexley, which is great. Yeah, Bexley was one great place to grow up.
Interviewer: Do you have any more little factoids about Columbus?
Robins: I could talk probably for hours. I just have seen such an evolution because Columbus when I was growing up was basically a cow town. People called it that. Even to this day if I go out of town people ask me where are you from, I say I’m from Columbus. I don’t put Ohio at the end because to me there’s only one Columbus. If I had said that 50 years ago people probably would maybe say Columbus? If they knew about Columbus, they knew about Columbus only because of Ohio State. Today Columbus really has a much bigger reputation. It’s the large mid-western town, has very good values. It’s a good place to raise a family. The cost of living here is reasonable. It’s always been a white-collar town. We never had any blue-collar industry here. I know that the big machers in the community, the Wolfs and the Lazaruses, and the Galbreaths, people like that, kept big industry out of Columbus. Although we did have a small plant here. We had a Westinghouse plant. We didn’t have any major industry because they didn’t want major industry to go on strike and hurt the community. We’ve always been known as a white-collar community. This has always been a banking place, insurance. We have Nationwide Insurance. You have major banks in town. You have Battelle Memorial Institute, Chemical Abstracts. Now Columbus is amazing. It’s the home to some, the largest company in the state of Ohio is in Dublin somewhere, Columbus won out. You’ve got the Limited here. You’ve got Ohio State, huge employers. Columbus has come a long, long way. The downtown area, if someone has not been here in five years and is to drive along High Street, they would not recognize High Street. The same thing is true about the east side of High Street on campus. They’ve torn a lot of things down and put up multi-use buildings, apartments and or condos, retail and office space. Columbus has really fairly changed over the years. It changed for the better.
Interviewer: A great place to live.
Robins: Yes it is.
Interviewer: We’re surely drawing to an end. I know you’re getting tired of talking.
Robins: I’m losing my voice.
Interviewer: I think it’s been an interesting interview. I think now that we’re sort of closing up, we’re sort of getting to the place in our lives, you know, where it’s sort of nice to sit back and say these are some things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. These are some things that are sort of important to me. These are some things I think are important that I’d like my kids to know about. These are some things that I did that I think worked for me. I’d like to take this little bit of time at the end of this interview to sort of go over that because some day somebody’s liableto pick up the tape that we’re doing now and they’re going to want to listen to it. It would be nice to say some things now that you think might help somebody. Mostly I’m thinking about our kids who might like to listen to this some day and sort of think that’s a good idea, that’s a good motto for life, that’s a good idea to carry forward. So, sort of think about that a second or two, sort of think about what you might like to have your family take away from this or somebody who is listening to this some day take away from what made you Gary Robins.
Robins: Well, there’s something, you can put this down on paper too, there’s something that’s called an Ethical Will which a lot of people have never heard of before. It’s not a legal instrument but Ethical Wills have been around for centuries and centuries, many thousands of years. An individual can put down on paper what they would like their family to know about them, to remember them about, or how maybe they should lead their lives. I’m not one to tell my children how to lead their lives. One thing that’s important is that I want them to be Jewish and I want them to be charitable and I want them to be nice parents and be nice people and to look out for those who are less fortunate. All my grandchildren and my kids are pretty much towing that line. I mean they just, they’re good people. I’m glad, I’m very fortunate. All my kids get along well with one another. That’s not always true about families. My kids are healthy. I thank God for that. I just want them to be happy. Times are different today than they were years ago. To me, I’m Jewish but if someone married someone who was not Jewish, that wouldn’t upset me. I would like them to convert but it wouldn’t be the end of the world because I think that the person’s happiness is the most important thing. If they find happiness with whomever then that’s how they should lead their lives.
Interviewer: I get to say that since Gary and I are first cousins, our grandmother used to say, “Apples don’t fall far from the tree” which means that our kids are seeing what we do and this is their way of approval.
Robins: My late father-in-law, Mort Kiefer, always said that statement, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” That could be used both good and bad but that is true, yeah.
Interviewer: Well that brings this interview to an end unless you have something to add. On behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society I want to thank you for contributing to the Oral History Project. This concludes the interview but it’ll be nice to know that this interview will be available, as soon as it gets transcribed, to whomever wants to pick it up and listen to it and I believe whoever does will come away the better for it.
Robins: Thank you.