This city's business community reacted with more sadness than shock today to the bankruptcy petition filed by A.H. Robins Co., one of Virginia's largest employers and community supporters.

"I'm certainly sorry this has happened to a great company in Virginia," said former Republican governor John N. Dalton, a prominent member of Richmond's Main Street establishment.

"I hope they can work things out," Dalton said.

Both the pharmaceutical company and Robins family members are prominent in a variety of civic, political and cultural projects in Richmond.

"They've given a lot to the community -- millions and millions -- it must be tough for them," said Walter Anderson, branch manager of the brokerage firm of Scott and Stringfellow.

Another broker echoed those words, adding that there is a "sadness for the people who work there." He said he had received calls from a couple of pensioners, inquiring about the effect of today's announcement on retirees.

The company had said it was considering bankruptcy proceedings and at company headquarters near I 95, President E. Claiborne Robins Jr. broke the news to 17 or 18 top executives a few minutes after the petition was filed at 3 p.m. in U.S. Bankruptcy Court here.

Robins gave its officers a statement to read to their employes, saying it expects no layoffs or benefit reductions from the action. Robins has 1,500 employes in Richmond and 6,000 worldwide.

Roscoe E. Puckett Jr., manager of public information for Robins, said letters were being sent to all employes and retirees, repeating assurances that their paychecks or pension checks would not be affected.

The biggest beneficiary of the Robins' family philanthropy has been the University of Richmond, a private school in Richmond's fashionable West End.

Puckett said the vast majority of money given to the university, estimated at $100 million, came from the personal funds of E. Claiborne Robins Sr. and his son.

The biggest gift came in June 1969 when the Robins family gave the university's endowment fund $50 million in Robins stock. The university subsequently sold most of that stock.

H. Gerald Quigg, the university's public relations director, said today that less than 5 percent of the school's $160 million endowment fund remains in Robins stock.

Other recent gifts to the university include the Robins athletic center, dedicated in 1972, and the Lora Robins Court, a women's dormimtory. Years ago, Robins Sr. gave money for the university's infirmary, which also is named for him. The university's school of business is named for Robins Sr., an honor not tied to a gift. University president E. Bruce Heilman serves on the Robins' board of directors.

The Robins executives also have been major contributors in Virginia politics, usually backing Republican candidates. One of the candidates the company supported, Sen. Paul S. Trible, tried and failed to get approval for legislation that would have limited the company's liability in product liability lawsuits.

Numerous lawsuits and claims over the company's Dalkon Shield birth control device prompted the bankruptcy petition.

Although Dalton said he has not done any work for Robins himself, his firm, McGuire, Woods & Battle, is listed among the Robins major creditors and is owed $697,000, according to bankruptcy documents.

Other Virginia firms listed as creditors include Central Fidelity Banks, Bank of Virginia and Sovran Bank.