Some 20 years ago, El Paso businessman Kirk Robison saw a piece in the Wall Street Journal about a woman in North Carolina who drove around with dictionaries in her trunk to distribute to classrooms. “She didn’t have any money, but she asked for some so she could buy those dictionaries,” Kirk recalls. “I thought that was the coolest idea. I tore out the article and gave it to my assistant to file.”
Fast forward a couple years, and Kirk asked his assistant to dig up the news item. Inspired by the story, he and his wife, Judy Robison, decided that every third-grader in El Paso County needed a dictionary – and their great, big dictionary drive was born.
Today, the Robisons give away 72,000 dictionaries a year to third-graders across the state, in every elementary school in every zip code where one of their 49 Peter Piper Pizza restaurants are located.
“This dictionary frequently is the only book these kids have ever owned,” Judy says. “They can take it home, share it with their families, write in it and keep it. The thank you letters we receive from students are so special to us.”
Kirk likes the project for its simplicity. Every restaurant has a marketing person who distributes the dictionaries from the trunk of his or her car. “The project stays local and the administrative cost is a big fat zero,” he says. “The contribution goes from the donor to the recipient with no expenses or structure whatsoever.”
The Robisons’ yearly September dictionary giveaway is just one of the dozens of contributions the Robisons have made to the charitable landscape since they moved to El Paso in 1973. Their hands-on involvement and generosity for so many good causes add up to a lifetime of giving, making them the El Paso Inc. Community Spirit Award recipients for 2017.
“The community has been very good to us, and there is so much need in El Paso,” Judy says. “When you have the resources and the time and the passion, you want to give back. We’re adamant about keeping our resources in this community.”
Kirk, who is 78, adds, “Once you get to the point where you have more money than you used to have, you need to step up.”
Kirk and Judy, who have been married since 1961, can trace their first philanthropic involvement to the interests of their two daughters, Amy and Jill. Judy served as the president of every PTA at every school the girls ever attended in El Paso. When the girls followed their parents in playing competitive tennis, Judy took on leadership roles at the local, regional and national levels of the United States Tennis Association.
After Amy joined the El Paso Symphony Orchestra’s youth orchestra, Judy began her longtime involvement with EPSO’s board. After Amy earned first chair in flute in the state youth orchestra, Judy became active in the Texas Association of Symphony Orchestras, and when she chaired the organization’s board, she brought their annual conference to El Paso.
After their daughters graduated from Coronado High School, Judy’s philanthropic path and board leadership roles broadened to social causes, including the Child Crisis Center of El Paso and the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region, which honored Judy as the Benefactress of the Year in 2015 for years of service and generosity, including establishing the YWCA’s Judy and Kirk Robison Mi Casa Homeless Program.
While Kirk has held his share of roles in local nonprofits, including co-chairing a $10 million capital campaign for the YWCA, he is quick to credit Judy for sharing her time and talents directly with so many different organizations. “I’d rather write a check than sit in a board meeting!” he says.
“Once you become a volunteer or a donor, you’re on the ‘list’ and that’s a good thing,” Kirk adds. “After you develop a track record for serving on a board or supporting a cause, that’s when other organizations call.”
While philanthropy is a major part of the couple’s lives and their company’s corporate culture, giving was not a part of their upbringing. Judy, who grew up on a small farm in Oklahoma, said her parents had to stay focused on providing the basics in life.
Kirk’s parents, who ran a small grocery store in southern California, had similar priorities. “They never had the resources, but if my father had money, he would have been a world-record giver,” Kirk says. “He was the kind of guy who would go to Las Vegas, have part of a prime rib dinner at the Stardust, and then give the rest of it to some poor person on the street.”
The couple has passed down their generous spirit to their two daughters and nine grandchildren in Dallas. “They have never been hungry or cold, but they have seen those that are,” Kirk says. “All nine have been in community service involving children in need and those less fortunate.”
El Paso has been fortunate to have Kirk and Judy Robison quietly making a difference in their own way over the last four decades. Scratch the surface of dozens of nonprofit organizations and social causes in the area and you’ll see their lifelong community spirit shining through.