Robert's rules: Philanthropist doesn't let cancer stop his battles for kids

Local philanthropist Joe Robert isn't letting brain cancer stop his battles for kids.
By Mary Jordan
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Oprah and Bono call him on the phone, J-Lo and Marc Anthony meet him for lunch, Muhammad Ali stood in his living room.

Yet in the seventh-floor clinic at Sibley Hospital on a crummy-weather Monday morning, few people paid attention to Joe Robert as he rolled up his sleeve. One patient read a mystery novel, another slept under a plaid blanket and the two eldest stared blankly, each tethered to an IV pole.

Robert, 57, has been described as a business genius, the capital's most generous philanthropist, an extreme workaholic, an eligible bachelor and "the most influential Washingtonian you've never heard of." He made a fortune, gave away tens of millions, and raised hundreds of millions more for charity. He has directed more than $1 billion to Washington area children, if you add in his lobbying for federal funds.

None of it came easy. He didn't grow up wealthy. He grew up angry. How many Washington A-plus-listers were expelled from college and had their nose broken three times in fights?

"My whole life is about beating the odds," he said, his voice low, as the cool, clear chemicals flowed into his arm.

Last month, Robert brokered one of the largest foreign donations to the United States, $150 million to Children's National Medical Center, a gift from his friends in Abu Dhabi's royal family. He spent four years making that happen.

Next month, on Nov. 5, he will again host his signature charity event, "Fight Night," the annual testosterone- and cigar-fueled boxing event that turns fists into a fortune for kids -- $50 million since 1990. He learned to box as a young brawler growing up in Silver Spring. It has always been this way: Joe fights. Joe wins.

So what does a fighter do when he is only 57, his private jet parked at Dulles can take him anywhere in the world and doctors tell him there are even odds he won't be around next year?

Children take priority

"You got to get down here!" Robert yelled into the cellphone at a protest rally on Capitol Hill. He had just dialed Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty's private line.

It was only a few days after Robert's latest round of chemotherapy. Dressed in a baseball cap with an American flag on it, jeans and a gray Marines sweatshirt, he looked like a gym teacher among the hundreds of kids in Catholic-school uniforms. "Put kids first! Put kids first!" Robert joined the chant, pumping his fist in the air.

He worked himself into a lather, a real righteous froth, as he talked about the "moral obligation" to give poor children the same shot as wealthy kids at the best private and parochial schools. He pointed to the Capitol and said right now, this minute, members of Congress were trying to kill the District's school choice and voucher program.

"Doesn't matter what you are doing," Robert told the mayor. "This is urgent. What could be more important?"

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