The stories sound impossible, but they are true.
Throwing a concert for 50,000 Marines in Iraq with Destiny’s Child, Kiss and Ted Nugent.
Leaving partway through a White House luncheon hosting Chinese President Hu Jintao to read to his son’s kindergarten class.
Joseph E. Robert Jr., who died of cancer Wednesday night, became a real estate titan in the 1980s and 1990s when his J.E. Robert Cos. capitalized on scores of real estate pushed onto the market by the savings and loan crisis.
But many of the people who reflected on Robert’s life Thursday after hearing of his death offered memories of his work on behalf of underprivileged children in Washington, D.C.
Anthony Lewis, mid-atlantic region vice president for Verizon Wireless, was a close friend of Robert’s and supported the charity Robert founded, Fight for Children. After meeting for the first time in 2004, Robert invited Lewis to lunch and asked if Verizon could provide some calling cards that troops abroad could use to call home. “I said “Yeah Joe, we can do that,’ ” Lewis said. “I was thinking he wanted a handful. He wanted thousands.”
Like Robert, Lou Donatelli graduated from St. John’s College High School. Donatelli went on to found the real estate firm Donatelli & Klein a few years before Robert started his own businesses. Together they raised money for their alma mater. “He was a very important ingredient to the Washington community over the years,” Donatelli said.
William J. Wolfe went into business with Robert when they were both 29 years old and bought into a condominium project together in Florida. They sold the condos over the course of the next year.
“We were just two young real estate kids and new into the industry and looking for a way to make some money. It was a big risk for both of us and we convinced a banker or two to back us and we were very successful with that product,” he said.
“He was a marketer extraordinaire,” Wolfe added. “He could come up with ideas for both business and charitable endeavors and figure out how to develop them and sell them to major worldwide investors in the real estate industry and to thousands and thousands of us in Washington as he continued his work on behalf of children.”
Jim Abdo, of Abdo Development, said he joined the board for Fight for Children after being recruited by Robert and was at Robert’s McLean home last week for a board meeting. He said Robert’s drive is what made the charity succeed. “Great organizations have somebody great at the top and he was as good as it gets,” he said.
Robert also pushed very hard for the federal government to create the District’s school voucher program, said John W. Hill, president of the business group Federal City Council. “He really felt strongly that kids who did not have the same means as other kids be given an equal opportunity to get a quality education,” Hill said.
Fight for Children issued a statement: “As our Founder and Chairman, Joe led the fight for low-income children for 22 years with courage, determination, and strength. Tens of thousands of low-income children in the District of Columbia are better off because of Joe. We will miss him, but find solace in the fact he built our organization to endure so that his passion for helping children will not end. We express our heartfelt sorrow to Joe’s family, friends, and colleagues.”
On Twitter Thursday morning, Washington business, political and philanthropic leaders shared their thoughts. A sampling:
Steve Case, former AOL chief executive: “Joe Robert has died (WPost) wapo.st/v2njuN Proud to have known him. Grateful for his many contributions. RIP, Joe.”
Kwame Brown, chair of the D.C. Council: “Joe Robert was a great man. A fighter for Education. He will be missed. May he Rest in Peace. My condolences go out to his loved ones.”
Bruce Johnson, reporter and anchor at WUSA 9: “RIP Joseph Robert Jr, a man who donated early and often.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz