Larry J.B. Robinson, who built his parents’s storefront business into a national retail jewelry chain, died Feb. 20 of lung cancer. He was 74. A civic and community leader in Cleveland, he was a confidant of Ohio politicians, active in local radio and TV, and-late in life-a war-zone correspondent.
In 1959, Robinson took over his parents’s business and in just 20 years-by focusing on younger, less affluent adults-built it into J.B. Robinson Jewelers, a national chain of 96 stores. During those years, he became known in Cleveland as “Robinson, ‘The Diamond Man,’” through his radio ads, in which he was the central character.
In 1979, Robinson sold his chain to W.R. Grace & Co., but remained chairman until 1987, when Kay Jewelers bought the stores. (Today, Kay and J.B. Robinson are owned and operated by Sterling Inc., based in Akron, Ohio, the second largest U.S. retail jewelry chain.) Robinson tried to buy back the stores in 1986, and also made an unsuccessful bid in 1989 to buy the Merksamer jewelry chain. In 1990, he started the Antwerp Diamond Centre in Cleveland, the first of what was to be a chain of stores. It closed two years later, a victim of the recession of the early 1990s.
Robinson also had his own venture capital and consulting firm, and taught a university course in retail management.
In Cleveland, Robinson was an active civic and community leader. Over the past 30 years, he served as an advisor to a number of the city’s mayors, chaired more than 200 forums on Cleveland schools, was a president of both the City Club and the Citizens League, chaired the Cleveland Independence Day Association, and hosted a series of radio interviews with city leaders in the mid-1990s to mark Cleveland’s bicentennial celebration. He also served on the boards of the Cleveland Orchestra, the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland (to which he was a generous donor), and the Urban League.
One measure of his influence in the community and state was current Cleveland mayor Jane Campbell’s remembrance of him before her recent “State of the City” address. Both U.S. Senator George Voinovich and Congressman Dennis Kucinich issued statements praising his efforts on behalf of his community, city and state.
Robinson also was active in local media. Over the years, he owned eight radio stations, had his own local cable TV interview show, and in the late 1990s provided freelance reports from Kuwait, Bahrain, Cuba, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo for Cleveland radio and TV stations.
“You can’t begin to list his involvements and interests,” wrote Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Tom Feran shortly after Robinson’s death. “It barely scratches the surface to list some of the descriptions attached to him: community leader, philanthropist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, arts activist, world traveler.”
Robinson is survived by his wife Barbara (they would have been married 50 years in May), a daughter, two sons, and four grandchildren. Memorial contributions may be made to Ireland Cancer Center/University Hospitals, 11100 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, OH 44106, or to the Cleveland Orchestra, 11001 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44106.