Greenwich Time columnist dies at 87
Updated 5:45 pm, Wednesday, October 4, 2017
GREENWICH — A memorial service will be held Wednesday, Oct. 11, at the First Congregational Church in Old Greenwich for John Robben, a writer and essayist whose inquisitive nature led to hundreds of columns on the meaning of friendship, faith, community and death.
Robben, who worked in the toy industry for many years, died Saturday at Stamford Hospital of respiratory failure following complications from a recent fall. He was 87.
As a regular columnist for Greenwich Time, Robben contributed observations and musings on life for 20 years. Several essays of his were published on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, and one of his pieces, “An Electric Nightmare,” about a fire caused by a downed power line at his home, won the First Person Award from Reader’s Digest.
Adopting a familiar and engaging tone, Robben wrote about the world he encountered in New York City and the suburbs of southern Connecticut.
In one essay, he recalled a feeling of spiritual solidarity with his fellow pedestrians, in a kind of epiphany: “I felt connected that evening to everyone and everything, not separate, not apart, not competing for the limited space we were all crowded into, joined rather in a common cause with each of my companions having the identical intention of returning home safely.”
In another piece on writers he loved, Robben wrote: “They’re all my friends, they’ve all spoken to me and shared their lives with me. What’s best is that none of them are calling me on the phone, nor knocking on my front door. They come to visit at my beckoning.”
John Philip Robben was born in the Bronx, N.Y., on Feb. 27, 1930, to Herman and Edith Ferris Robben. As a teenager, Robben delivered the local newspaper to pay for tuition at Fordham Prep. He later graduated from Fordham University.
Robben enlisted in the Navy during the Korean War, and he was a chaplain’s mate on the U.S.S. Lake Champlain, which was stationed in the South China Sea during the conflict.
As a young man, Robben was drawn to a life of literature, and he struck up a unique correspondence with one of the giants, receiving a number of friendly letters of encouragement from Ernest Hemingway. “Hope everything is good with you and your girl. If it’s rough at sea remember it’s rough all over,” Hemingway wrote the young sailor.
Robben was married shortly after he joined the Navy, exchanging vows with the former Margie Burger at St. Francis Xavier Church in the Bronx in 1954. The couple lived in Old Greenwich for many years, then re-located to Stamford about 10 years ago.
Needing to make a living, Robben worked with his father in the toy business, and he was the founder of RobToy Inc., an agency representing toy manufacturers. He helped make the “Baby on Board” sign a common sight on cars with very young children, according to his family.
A regular at Ebbets Field, Robben wore the Brooklyn Dodgers team colors all his life, and he coached baseball teams for the Old Greenwich/Riverside Community Center. He had a fascination with Irish culture and history he inherited from his mother, a native of Sligo.
“He was gentle, kind, always thoughtful of other people, and generous,” said his daughter, Susan Robben Bisanzo. “And he didn’t follow the status quo.”
Besides his wife, living in Stamford, he is survived by five children, all of them living in the Greenwich-Stamford area: Robben Bisanzo, Janet Robben Smith, Ellen Robben Atkinson, John Ferris Robben, and Robert Francis Robben. He is also survived by a brother, Tom Robben, and 15 grandchildren.
Family and friends are making donations to www.ForceNetwork.com, a charitable organization for First Responders, at P.O. Box 173, Old Greenwich, Conn. 06870-0173.
The service will be held at First Congregational Church in Old Greenwich at 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 11. Castiglione Funeral Home is handling the arrangements.