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Dick Robers’ approach to problem-solving (read, think, synthesize, suggest) has occasionally rubbed people the wrong way. That has never stopped the flow of ideas.
Dick Robers has always been a man with ideas. Even in retirement—after five years—he can’t resist the temptation to say, “I have a great idea for you,” to almost anybody who will listen. Over the years, those who have listened have been many and the benefits have been considerable.
Robers has used his talents in industry, government, cultural organizations and charities. His ideas have always been up-front, often a little ahead of the crowd. When he suggested, in 1989 as a member of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, that the proposed Virginia Tech “Smart Road” be used to develop smart vehicles, some laughed but serious people took his advice.
“I remember this bigwig calling me and saying, ‘Who do you think you are, Buck Rogers?’” The test bed, of course, has developed into one of the largest programs in Virginia Tech history and is the site of considerable development for the auto and road-building industries.
As a one-term member of the board of supervisors (he was beaten by Fuzzy Minnix because “I favored consolidation”), he helped build the Spring Hollow Reservoir and the Smith Gap Landfill, two monumental accomplishments by a board that has had little to recommend it in recent years.
While he was president of Maid Bess Corporation, he recognized that health insurance costs were eating companies and employees alive and he helped found a hospital coalition of businesses that urged a merger of Carilion and LewisGale. Carilion “took it to court and we lost. But it was a good idea.” After that, he helped found—and became chairman of the board of—New Horizons, a health care group that takes care of the poor in the Roanoke Valley. That includes dental care.
He then turned his attention to TAP, the Roanoke poverty agency with the national reputation. His business acumen led TAP to form a real estate group, which became quite profitable and enabled it to stretch dollars a long way.
He and a group of business buddies founded the think tank Issues Management Group (“That was more of a hobby”) and he found a spot consulting with Center in the Square on its recent renovations. At one point, he served on the Roanoke Regional Airport Commission.
“I was always in the middle of things, trying to keep a low profile,” he says. But the ideas kept coming. “I read a lot and I’d get one idea from this area, another from somewhere else and they’d merge with something new.”
These days, the man who has been termed a “visionary” upon occasion has toned it down a bit. He is the president of the Hunting Hills Place (where he and his long-time artist wife Mary Jane live) Homeowners Association and he is periodically writing articles for the local daily. “I am occasionally asked to consult on something,” he says, smiling.
There was a point a few years ago when an excited Robers met with Congressman Bob Goodlatte with an idea to retrofit a decommissioned aircraft carrier and use it as a hospital ship and rescue vehicle for regions in emergencies. “It could go anywhere in the world, ferry people on helicopters, fix things, take care of the sick and dying. A workforce would live on board, ready for action, bring back refugees.”
The idea, obviously, went nowhere.