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Joe's toughest fight
D.C. philanthropist doesn't let cancer stop his battles to help 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?"

Robert hears the clock ticking. In February, he learned why his vision suddenly blurred on a ski trip. Glioblastoma. The same brain cancer that struck Sen. Edward Kennedy. "I want to put the ball through the hoop as many times as I can before the clock runs out," he said.

Councilman Marion Barry arrived at the rally, and Robert gave him a bearhug. As Barry went to the microphone, Robert said he "converted" the former mayor to the school choice cause at a dinner party last year.

Without a good education, he said, disadvantaged youths set off "on the race of life with no shoes."

Robert knows all about that.

Fight after fight

Robert's father, for whom he is named, held a string of real estate jobs and at one point made so little money that Robert remembers the family being hounded by creditors. He said his 6-foot-4 father was an "alcoholic abuser" and he, his mother and four siblings lived in fear of his violent outbursts. "Never once did he throw a ball with me," he said.

He remembers going to see fireworks in Takoma Park when he was around 8 and getting lost. "I yelled out, 'Mom! Mom!' " in the dark, but he couldn't find his parents. He told an ice cream vendor who told a police officer, who reached his father. When Robert got home, his dad took him outside and beat him with his belt, Robert said, recalling it in precise detail. "He thought I ran away. What little kid runs off in the dark?"

His dad would tell him he was a loser, he said. "I was told early on that I wasn't very smart and I wouldn't amount to much."

Robert said he has spent his life proving him wrong.

The young Robert had a knack for sales. Still in elementary school, he was selling Christmas trees to raise money for St. Bernadette's church when he noticed that once he put a "hold" sign on a tree, buyers immediately wanted to buy it. His liberal use of "hold" signs cleared the lot.

When he was 10, his local Catholic Youth Organization was throwing away boxing equipment, so he took it home and started organizing bouts among kids in his back yard. He made pocket money by selling lemonade, popcorn and his surprise hit -- bacon. "There was a packet of bacon in the fridge, so I fried it up and sold it."

Carlos Santucci, a childhood friend, remembers the days. Ask Santucci where Robert started out and he points to his face.

"Joe broke my nose!" said Santucci, standing outside his deli in Four Corners, a block from where Robert grew up. Robert was always looking for a sparring partner and Santucci obliged until Robert could pummel him easily: "He was very, very good."

Robert said boxing gave him confidence and taught him winning was all about perseverance -- "just staying in the ring." He won fight after fight, and in 1973, won the Eastern Regional Kickboxing Championship.

His teens, though, were a "troubled and angry" time. He barely graduated from St. John's College High School, at the time an all-male military school. "Getting in a fight was like going out and shooting hoops," he said. His skull was cracked with a pipe when he pulled five guys off someone he didn't even know.

After a drunk driver backed a truck into his father's car and sped off, Robert chased him on foot and climbed onto his cab. When the driver got out to fight, Robert landed one punch, the man fell back, hit his head and fell into a weeklong coma.

Police came to his house and told him he could face manslaughter charges if the man died.

He lived.

At 19, Robert was expelled from Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., after a violent incident that began with a dog.

A freshman across the hall in his dorm was keeping a puppy and beating him.

"The dog would scream out in terror," Robert recalled. "I told him the next time he slapped the dog, I would slap him."

Then one night, after hearing the mutt get hit again, he announced he was coming in to take it away from him. When the scared freshman locked his door, Robert picked up a baseball bat and bashed a huge hole in the wall and forced his way in. After fists flew, Robert took the dog away, renamed him Sarge and kept him for 17 years.

After the college kicked him out, his father did the same. He slept on a rotted mattress in a friend's basement.

For years, Mount St. Mary's tried to give him an honorary degree but he refused it. Last year, he finally accepted -- and used the platform to chide school officials for not sitting down with "that kid who was me to find out what was troubling him."

Robert said he hit rock bottom in the back of Santucci's car not long after. The boys had been drinking and he was in the back seat well after midnight. "Something hit me like a 2-by-4. I thought, 'My God, what am I doing with my life?' " The next day, he borrowed money for gas and drove his motorcycle to Ocean City. He slept in the pump room of a swimming pool. After chipping concrete floors for a construction boss, he decided he liked his next job better: wearing a Hawaiian shirt and selling lots for weekend homes.

He sold encyclopedias, unloaded freight trucks, worked as a bouncer in a District bar.

Becoming a machine

He tried to talk his way into 18 other colleges; he even pleaded with American University officials that he would pay double the tuition if he didn't earn straight A's.

There were no takers. So he got stacks of college books on real estate and started reading.

"I turned myself into a machine," he said. He focused on characters in movies and books he admired and set out to be like them. He devoured books, he said, "about people who changed the world."

He bought his first condos in Beltsville at age 20.

His net worth has nose-dived in the current slowdown, but at its height, his McLean-based real estate and asset management company, J.E. Robert Co., was valued at more than $1 billion. He really hit it big in the 1990s with assets and offices stretching around the globe. Robert was running deals in so many time zones that he had a special ski helmet built with a cellphone in it, so he could work while racing down the slopes.

He liked to live big.

With his friend Jim Kimsey, co-founder of AOL, he traveled to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro, the jungles of Colombia to meet the head of FARC, and to the Mediterranean with glamorous women (in 2007, Robert proposed to 24-year-old model Ashley Tayor in Capri but that was later broken off). "Intrepid" is how Kimsey described Robert, who survived a helicopter explosion that killed a man next to him when he went fishing in the Arctic Circle. "He is all about carpe diem. . . . Somehow he intuitively thought, 'Life is too short to drink bad wine.' "

"He would get up at 5 to read newspapers, have already finished a breakfast meeting by 8, fly to New York and maybe another city, and return home to go to a black-tie event that evening," said Jill Sorensen, the second of Robert's two ex-wives and the mother of his youngest son, Luke, 8. (He has a 29-year-old from his first marriage.) "You pay a price for everything," said Sorensen, a former model originally from Sweden who remains a friend of Robert.

Sorensen said Robert's "extreme drive" kept him away from family life and was a key reason they broke up in 2003 after 11 years of marriage.

Yet, he always went to great lengths for his sons. Luke was the reason Robert left in the middle of a White House luncheon. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other dignitaries were all there, still seated, at the 2006 event for Chinese President Hu Jintao. Condoleezza Rice had invited Robert as her guest and he had told her he had to leave by 2:30, which wasn't supposed to be a problem. But as delays set in, Robert said he started sweating. He weighed the costs, and decided Hu would never remember the slight, but Luke would surely remember that his father had reneged on a promise to read to his kindergarten class.

Celebrity friends

One sunny day recently, Robert walked around his six-acre McLean home, past the koi pond, pool, tennis court, vegetable garden and giant children's treehouse. His right leg occasionally buckled. But he kept walking and talking, ignoring the effects of the cancer inside his head.

His cellphone pinged.

Bono. Texting, jesting: "All of Ireland is praying for you so watch out!"

Robert takes 28 pills a day, for nausea, joint pain, seizures. One spell in August landed him on a ventilator for three days. But on this day, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds was resting upstairs. The singer is one of many celebrity friends who bunk here.

Robert accompanied Oprah Winfrey to South Africa to open a girls' school there. Oprah and Joe even performed a rap song together for music industry icon Quincy Jones at a party they threw for him in Beverly Hills.

Former secretary of state Colin Powell, who lives a couple doors away from Robert, said one thing that sets him apart is his close friendships across the spectrum of celebrity, from military to politics to entertainment to business.

And he corrals them all for kids' causes, Powell said.

Former transportation secretary William Coleman, who lives next door -- Robert put a gate in his fence so Coleman could more easily walk over -- said Robert has unusual rapport with people. His business know-how, he said, equals any in the "Harvard-Wharton crowd."

Since he has been sick, Robert has spent more time with his sons and mother, Aimee. Years ago, she divorced Robert's father, who now suffers from advanced Alzheimer's. For years, Robert didn't speak to his father, but once he talked to him about his painful childhood. "He basically said if I thought I had it bad, he had it worse" from his father.

National security adviser Jim Jones, a close friend, said he has come across a few proud dads, but none quite like Robert.

When Joseph III was a Marine in Iraq, Robert flew there to visit him. With Quincy Jones, he threw a concert for 50,000 Marines at Camp Pendleton with Destiny's Child, Kiss, Godsmack, Ted Nugent and other stars. From his rise from modest beginnings to his "calmness" in handling his cancer, Jones called Robert "exceptional."

Joe III said his father has done Herculean things with his "ridiculous ability to focus." He thinks his father can beat this cancer and knows, no matter how he feels, he will keep working: "He never feels like he has done enough."

Over the years, Robert has paid tuition for tens of thousands and given money to 150 children's organizations through his Fight for Children foundation. His latest plan, he said, "is big, crazy, huge!" He'll only say it involves the U.S. military.

'This clarity about Joe'

Doctors are telling Robert that people with his kind of cancer typically live 14 months. They say he has a 5 percent chance of making it through 2011.

"Those are statistics and I am not a statistic. I am going to beat this disease," Robert said.

A practicing Catholic, he joked that God should do a "net present value" looking at "what I can create, contribute. . . . I believe the numbers will convince him I am more valuable doing His work here!"

Last week, he spent the day with actress Jennifer Lopez and singer Marc Anthony, speeding around Washington in a black Ford SUV visiting a District school and Children's National Medical Center.

"There was this clarity about Joe -- his heart is in it," said Anthony, in an interview in the SUV. It's clear that he has no agenda other than to help kids, he said. When he mentioned he wanted to help poor Latino youths, Anthony said, Robert immediately offered his time and contacts.

Lopez, sitting beside her husband, piped in: "He's all about doing it. Joe says, 'Are you ready to go? Let's do it.' " At San Miguel School, J-Lo captivated the 13-year-old Latino boys as she walked among them in her startlingly high heels and gave them a pep talk: "Keep working hard, guys!"

Only days before he had been rushed to the hospital after another seizure. But now he beamed as he watched the scene he orchestrated, the movie star and the thrilled kids.

"A great day!" he said.

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