The Robinson Family

As told by Will Robinson Jr. and Parks Robinson

The wonder of the great outdoors  has captivated the Robinsons for decades. And that love has run through every aspect of the family’s ventures—from opening sporting goods stores to designating nature preserves in Manatee County. It all began with H.L. “Robby” and Genevieve Robinson, who moved from Pikeville, Kentucky, to Southwest Florida in 1948. The couple wanted to escape coal country and settle in a healthier landscape, so they chose Sarasota (at first) over their second pick, Colorado. But Genevieve Robinson did not enjoy the taste of the water in Sarasota, so the couple decided to live in Bradenton instead, according to Will Robinson Jr. (their grandson). The couple’s son, Bill (Will Robinson’s late father), was born in 1949, and was one of four children, including John, Penny and Becky. Together, the two generations of Robinsons would make themselves known to the local community (and to the rest of the country) by one name: Robby’s. 

“Robby (my grandfather) and Uncle Penny started a pop-and-son retail sporting goods store called Robby’s Sports (with fishing poles, golf clubs, tennis rackets, etc.),” Will Robinson Jr. says. “The first store they had was on Manatee Avenue in Bradenton, just west of 43rd Street, back in the 1960s.”

Bill Robinson joined the company in the early 1970s after finishing college. He later married Peggy, who he met at the University of Alabama, and the couple moved back to Bradenton to make their home. “My dad and uncle grew Robby’s and, at one point, there were nearly 50 stores in the southeastern United States,” Will Robinson Jr. says. “They sold the company in 1988 to Woolworth Co., and Robby’s merged with Champs Sports, which had several locations in malls all over the country.”

After the chain was sold in the late 1980s, Bill Robinson bought some land in Manatee County and became a tree farmer. This move would embed the Robinson name in the local landscape forever. “A lot of that land—about 1,000 acres or so, which was originally supposed to be a golf course and subdivision—was donated to Manatee County toward the Robinson Preserve,” Will Robinson Jr. says. “That preserve is very important to my parents. My dad had always been an environmentalist, and loved nature and being outside, and he passed that along to his boys.”

Robinson Preserve in Northwest Bradenton currently consists of 682 acres of mangroves, tidal marshes and former agricultural lands that have been transformed into a coastal wetland habitat. The preserve protects the living space of 75 species of fish and marine invertebrates, as well as more than 100 species of birds. It was Bill Robinson’s tranquil sanctuary, especially in his later years. “My dad passed about one-and-a half-years ago. He was going through some very serious cancer treatments, and he and my mom would walk Robinson Preserve,” Will Robinson Jr. says. “To his last dying days, he loved the outdoors. He was just very proud of his community and always tried to give back.”

It was a way of life that his children have gone on to perpetuate. Will Robinson Jr. is now a real estate lawyer/partner at Blalock Walters Law Firm. He is also a Republican member of the Florida Legislature, representing the House of Representatives District 71 (which encompasses parts of Sarasota and Manatee counties). His brother, Wes Robinson, is a ticket marketer; and his other brother, Parks Robinson (who has three children with his wife, Kate: Parks Jr., Genevieve and William Blaise Robinson), is the owner of Fit2Run. 

Bill and Parks Robinson launched Fit2Run, a successful runner’s superstore, together in Manatee County in 2006. The company now has 15 stores (14 in Florida and one in Puerto Rico), and sells running shoes, accessories, apparel and gear. The concept carries on the Robby’s tradition—a family-run, father-and-son sporting goods retail empire. “I’m a third-generation retailer, and I couldn’t have wished for a better mentor than my dad to help me with understanding the retail world and the culture that is needed to run a company,” Parks Robinson says. “It was great learning from my dad and growing with him. It was always a friendship and partnership.”

As a tribute to his father, Parks Robinson and his family started the Big Bill Foundation (named after the late Robinson patriarch)—a nonprofit organization that awards scholarships to cancer survivors who are on their way to college. Watching his father battle leukemia inspired Parks Robinson to launch the effort, he says. “We participate in a lot of community runs and events with Fit2Run, and our proceeds from our races go to scholarships for these awesome kids,” Parks Robinson says. “It is something that makes us very proud as a family—to hand out these scholarships—and to honor the memory of my dad and our family.”

That memory is steeped in tradition. Will Robinson Jr. has beautiful recollections of his parents taking him to St. Joseph Catholic Church on Sundays. He even officiated as his parents renewed their vows at Notre-Dame Cathedral in France on their 40th wedding anniversary. “My parents are very Christian-based, so church is very important to us. And, to my mom, attendance on Sunday at church was not optional,” Will Robinson Jr. says. “My dad and mom passed on this love of Bradenton, and that was also why I ran for the Legislature, to make sure our legacy (and my home community) is well-represented in Tallahassee.”

Robinson Preserve undoubtedly represents that legacy in Manatee County. “That was one of the greatest things my dad said he accomplished,” Parks Robinson says. The Robinsons have remained in this stretch of Florida for a reason. It will always be their home. And every corner of it is imbued with nostalgia and natural beauty.“This area is very special to me. It has a small-town feel in a somewhat modern city,” Will Robinson Jr. says. “It’s a place where I can go into a restaurant and know several people, but it also has enormous beauty in our beaches, parks and preserves. It’s a very special jewel in Florida.” —A. Weingarten