A small town like Astoria is at the mercy of who shows up. By that I mean it is new blood that has given the place new ideas, connections and cultural investment. Jo Robinson was one of those who in the 1990s brought a sunny personality and energy to the town. She died on Aug. 24.
It is common these days to learn of new residents coming here on a weekly basis from Portland, Seattle and beyond. It was much less common 30 years ago.
Having grown up in Olympia, Washington, Jo was married to a U.S. Air Force officer. She was 32 when Maj. Robert Robinson died. She and her children settled in Oklahoma, where Robert’s parents lived. Decades later, in retirement, she sought a new home on the Oregon Coast.
I met Jo in the living room of my parents, on Eleventh Street, at a party that included John Buckley, then co-proprietor of Cannon Beach Book Co., and Astoria’s mayor, Edith Henningsgaard. Also Buckley’s partner, Valerie Ryan.
Some years later, when a group of us attempted acquisition and restoration of the bedraggled Liberty Theatre, Jo was an obvious recruit.
Jo had spent part of her life in the performing arts — as part of the Oklahoma Symphony Guild and with a family connection to the Metropolitan Opera. When Jo joined the board of directors of Liberty Restoration Inc., it was natural to ask her to create a Liberty Theatre Guild, to raise funds through concessions and recruit ushers. That board contained a remarkable array of personalities and talents, including Michael Foster, Hal Snow, Cheri Folk, Mary Davies and Marge Bloomfield.
Through the many reversals that our cause encountered, Jo remained enthusiastic. Her level of optimism was essential to this nascent endeavor that needed to attract allies.
In addition to her Liberty work, Jo was instrumental in reviving the local Retired Officers Association. The former U.S. Coast Guard commanders, Capt. Rod Leland and Adm. Ed Nelson, were among her colleagues.
Astoria’s cultural ferment in those days included a group of women who dubbed themselves the Uppities. They included Jo; Rae Goforth, whose cause was Uniontown’s renewal; the photographer Diane Beeston; Jan Mitchell; Donna Gustafson; Darlene Felkins and Sue Davies Collins.
Their automobiles carried decals proclaiming “Uppity Women Unite.” They met monthly for dinner. Some of them created an Astoria Arts Celebration, which was sort of a progenitor of the monthly Art Walk. And there was a wonderfully eccentric event called the Umbrella Parade, as well as Jane Barnes Day. That period fostered a lot of freelance innovation.
Once Jo and I discovered our common affinity for opera, we traded anecdotes. Maj. Robinson’s uncle was Francis Robinson, who was the Metropolitan Opera’s press agent. When Jo and Robert visited New York, Francis hosted them in his box at the Met. She described after-opera dinners at which some of the Met’s biggest stars would let their hair down. Jo’s big crush in the opera world was the Illinois-born baritone Sherrill Milnes. As time marched on, Jo frequently despaired that she did not recognize the new crop in the Met’s roster.
Long after she left the Liberty board and the guild, Jo did not stint in her support. Enthusiastic about the initiative of the theater’s director, Jennifer Crockett, Jo delighted in delivering checks to “Jenny.”
Jo did not let life’s reversals get her down. Her fortitude in the face of cancer was inspiring. And she maintained that quality that is essential in old age. She did not stint in staying up to date and having a good time.