Pat Robins had that special ability to truly listen when people talked and to hear what wasn’t being said.
Honed to a fine art in his professional life as a physician and orthopedic surgeon, that natural-born trait became an invaluable asset to all the many charities for which he volunteered his time and for the Clark Fork Coalition board of directors on which Robins served. It was one of the many things his wide circle of friends and family cherished about the compassionate man.
“Pat was remarkable, and he was remarkable because he never met a stranger and he was incredibly kind,” said Tracy Stone-Manning, who worked alongside Robins when he was president of the Clark Fork Coalition board and Stone-Manning was the organization’s executive director.
“When you talked with him, he would really listen and so he picked up things that were both said and unsaid, which made him a terrific board president,” Stone-Manning recalled.
“Being born and raised in Butte, he brought such a deep level of understanding of the work at hand that the Clark Fork Coalition was doing to clean up the river and remove the Milltown Dam,” Stone-Manning said. “And for him, I think it was a deeper sense of mission. Being from a family of welders and helping to restore the river – it was a way to play homage to the place that raised him.”
At the time, many Montanans and politicians believed the enormous, unprecedented task of cleaning up the Clark Fork River’s toxic mine waste produced by Butte and Anaconda during the turn of the 19th century could never be accomplished. And removing the Milltown Dam, where the river pushed much of the sediment, was an impossible feat.
But that challenge didn’t deter Robins from the end goal.
As a healer, and as someone who cherished natural landscapes and had a deep love for rivers, cleaning up the waterway was a challenge he would not deny.
Not only was it possible to achieve what others called the impossible, more importantly, Robins believed the time had come for Montana to do the right thing by bringing life back to the river and the communities that for too long lived with the health dangers of the mining legacy.
“He was such a presence on that board of directors,” Stone-Manning said. “He was such an optimist and he was so grounded, he gave us authority to reach for big things.”
Although he rarely took the spotlight for the countless organizations in which he served, in and around his medical career and the raising of four children with his wife, Kitte, on a few occasions he was so prompted.
During a 2003 hearing on the removal of sediments from the Milltown Reservoir, Robins lent his voice to urge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Quality to do right by the Milltown cleanup.
For many, that meant moving millions of cubic yards of contaminated reservoir sediments not to the EPA’s proposed repository at Bandmann Flats, but back upstream to Opportunity Ponds – nearer to the mines and smelters that produced the pollution.
“I encourage the EPA to sharpen your pencils and try to take these sediments to Opportunity,” Robins stood up to say at the meeting.
”I won’t apologize for the mess those mines created,” he said. ”They were a great resource for many years. But I will be very, very happy to be the first generation to see this river cleaned up and restored. I applaud the EPA for its good work on this cleanup plan.“
When Robins retired from surgical practice with Missoula Orthopedic Associates, he became the medical director of orthopedic surgery at St. Patrick Hospital in 2003.
He was a perfect fit for the hospital that shared the name of the saint he was named after, and for the job at hand.
“He was just one of those individuals who stand out from the moment you meet them as someone who truly cares for people,” said Jeff Fee, CEO of Providence Health and Services of Western Montana.
“Pat was a man who truly was kind-hearted and full of love,” Fee said. “He embodied the very core of our mission – to nurture the spiritual, physical and emotional well-being of one another – and it is not just in the way he treated his patients, but in the way he treated people he came into contact in every day life.”
When he wasn’t absorbed in his medical work or taking on the challenges of community work, Robins loved to spend time with his family and cheer on the Grizzly football team.
“He belonged to the Quarterback Club, and was very active in that from a financial standpoint – and as a supporter,” said Mick Delaney.
The Grizzlies head football coach and Robins were longtime friends, having both grown up in Butte and attended high school together.
“He was such a great guy – the kind of guy you just love to be around,” Delaney said.
A standout storyteller, Robins also had a keen sense of humor, which made for a lively gathering wherever he was.
But it is Robins’ remarkable sense of compassion that truly lingers in the wake of his passing from brain cancer at the age of 72 on March 15.
“He treated everybody the same way, and that was with respect,” Delaney said. “Pat was always one to give of himself with everyone he was ever involved with.”
When cancer claimed Robins’ life, his son-in-law Patrick Ninburg wouldn’t let the pain of his loss overcome his need to pay tribute to the man he dearly loved.
Ninburg sat down to pen the following words.
“Thank you Pat Robins.
“Most of all thank you for your time.
“Thank you for marrying Kitte and helping to raise four wonderful children.
“Thank you for saying, ‘Oh, thank God’ when I asked you and Kitte for your daughter’s hand in marriage.
“Thank you for the greatest of wedding cakes.
“Thank you for the stories, the jokes and your words of wisdom.
“Thank you for teaching us to value the importance of celebrating life’s milestones.
“Thank you for being at the birth of every one of your grandchildren.
“Thank you for leading by example.
“Thank you for your humility.
“Thank you for helping Kitte to make your home the most love-filled place I have ever been.”