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Barbara Robey remembered as ‘giant’ in public education

Barbara Robey, long-time public education advocate (left) and Carolyn Warner, former state superintendent of public instruction, attended the Arizona School Boards Association’s Annual Conference last December. (Submitted photo)

Barbara Robey, long-time public education advocate (left) and Carolyn Warner, former state superintendent of public instruction, attended the Arizona School Boards Association’s Annual Conference last December. (Submitted photo)

She was barely 5-feet, 2-inches tall, but Barbara Robey was considered giant in public education.

Robey, who died June 10 at the age of 79, was well-known and respected at the Capitol where she lobbied on behalf of the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA), a role she filled for 17 years. And for 28 years she also served as chairperson of the board of directors of the Arizona School Boards Association Insurance Trust (ASBAIT), which provides health care benefit programs to school districts, their employees and families, and which she was instrumental in founding.

An untiring advocate for legislation beneficial to public schools and an equally fierce opponent of bills considered detrimental, Robey always sat in the first row at legislative committee hearings. She wanted lawmakers to see her, to send a message that she was watching – that public education was in the room.

Gov. Jan Brewer, a long-time friend, said Robey “understood that a quality public education opens doors of opportunity for Arizona’s students individually and increases Arizona’s competitiveness as a state.”

“She was always a consistent advocate for public education and a trusted source when I served in the Arizona Legislature,” Brewer said in an email. “I admired her ability to advocate strongly for her issues without creating ire or conflict. It also didn’t hurt that she hailed from the West Valley, like myself. Barbara will absolutely be missed.”

Robey’s West Valley roots are deep. She served on the Litchfield Elementary School District Governing Board for 20 years, and was a member of the Litchfield Park City Council for five years and as mayor for two years.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, whose work with Robey also dated back to his years in the Legislature, said in an email, “Barbara was an extraordinarily gracious woman whose passion for improving education and making the world a better place for our students was evident in everything she touched. As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, I worked closely with her for many years, and always valued her legislative perspectives and insight. We accomplished a lot together. My condolences to her family. They can take pride in the enormous education footprint she has left in Arizona.”

Carolyn Warner, a former state superintendent of public instruction and last year’s winner of the ASBA Barbara Robey Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contributions in support of public education, recalled their professional and personal relationship. “She and I were best of friends,” said Warner. “I would ask her to serve on a committee or a task force and she never said no. She always said yes. She provided great leadership. She was a great human being, and I’m sorry she’s gone.”

Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, called Robey “a giant in the education field.” A longtime lobbyist himself, Essigs said, “She was able to work with both parties and she was proof that by working together we can get more done.”

Chris Thomas, general counsel and lobbyist for ASBA, noted that Robey was a life-long Republican. “She was seen as somebody with absolute integrity, was very much received equally by Democrats and Republicans,” Thomas said. “She came from a time when public education advocates might differ about approaches, but support for it as a concept was bipartisan.”

Robey’s philosophy on lobbying focused on “persistent gentle pressure to try to move toward our objectives,” Thomas said.

Robey is survived by her husband William, daughter Pamela Despotes, son David, a brother and sister and four grandchildren.  A memorial service will be held, appropriately, at Barbara B. Robey Elementary School in Litchfield Park at 10 a.m. on July 19.

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