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Obituary: Dick Robbins, Tunneling Industry Pioneer

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In June, The Robbins Co. announced the death of Richard James Robbins, president and CEO from 1958 to 1993.

Robbins passed away surrounded by family on May 30 in Seattle, Washington. He is survived by his wife Bonnie, son Jim and daughter Jennifer.

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Dick Robbins was widely regarded as a titan of the tunneling industry and built The Robbins Co. into an industry leader, from the first Double Shield machine to modern-day disc cutters for hard rock, to his notable TBM innovations at the Channel Tunnel connecting the U.K. and France.

RELATED: The Robbins Co. Celebrates 60 Years

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In total he filed 11 U.S. patents and 56 foreign patents in the field of underground mechanical excavation, and ultimately won the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Engineering for his contributions. He accomplished all of this after taking over the company at the age of 25 following the untimely passing of his father James S. Robbins in a plane crash.

“In 1968 when I first had the chance to work for what was then known as James S. Robbins Co., I did not fully appreciate that I was getting a chance to work with the greatest innovator in the tunneling industry,” said Lok Home, Robbins Co. president. “Dick was a great mentor as a boss and as a person. He was always pushing the limits of what could be done with TBMs. Dick’s integrity, energy, and passion improved the worldwide tunneling industry, and his creations set many of the industry standards.  It has been an honor to further the great name of Robbins in the industry.”

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Dick’s many awards garnered over the years included numerous honorary degrees, memberships and directorships in a wide variety of organizations ranging from Virginia Mason Medical Center to the Board of Trustees at his alma mater Michigan Technological University.  In 1999, the Engineering News-Record selected him as one of the “125 Top People of the Past 125 Years,” an equipment innovator who “helped shape this nation and the world.”

“Dick unselfishly gave back to his industry and to his community,” said consultant and former ITA president Harvey Parker, a long-time friend of the Robbins family. “He was very active in our industry’s professional associations both here in the United States and internationally.  I was honored to work closely with Dick during his significant involvement in the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association (ITA) where he served on the Executive Council for years, was elected First Vice President, and was a leader for the ITA Working Group on Mechanized Tunnelling.”

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He was well-known in Seattle for his active contributions in community organizations and sports.

“Dick was a wonderful family man,” said Parker.  “He was a great personal and professional friend who was always charming and pleasant.  He designed and lived in his own innovative floating home (houseboat) on Lake Union in Seattle.  He was an avid and very competitive sailor who designed a state-of-the-art sailboat in which he raced worldwide in races such as the famous Sydney-Hobart race.  Dick was also very active and competitive in water sports, particularly in rowing crew races.  Dick will be sorely missed, not only by those of us in the tunneling industry but also by those in the many other fields of endeavor that he touched during his active life.”

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SOURCE – The Robbins Co.

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  • Ross Galbraith
    July 11, 2019 20:29:44

    I started working at The Robbins Company in 1988 as a fresh-faced 19 year old with a drafting degree. Before long I was working in marketing creating proposal drawings for projects.

    I got a chance to work with Dick as a drafter/designer when he was actively developing some very innovative TBM concepts. Dick was very approachable and down-to-earth. Although I was in my early twenties, he never made me feel out of place due to my youth and inexperience, and indeed listened to my input with complete objectivity.

    I worked off and on for The Robbins Company until recently, accumulating almost 15 years of service. I feel very lucky that I had the chance to meet and collaborate with such a pioneer in the industry, and a great man.

    Rest in peace, Mr. Robbins.