Local Obituaries

Community leader Ted Robinson said he helped rescue John F. Kennedy during World War II

Theodore “Ted” M. Robinson
Theodore “Ted” M. Robinson Photo provided by family

Ted Robinson was a force behind numerous community projects in the Sacramento area for more than 50 years, but many people know him best as the guy who said he helped rescue John F. Kennedy after the future president’s PT 109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer during World War II.

Mr. Robinson told the tale of his experiences in a Toastmaster speech in the 1960s, and it proved so popular that he went on to deliver it hundreds of times to community groups over the ensuing decades. After one his bosses at Pacific Bell heard the speech, Mr. Robinson was tapped to head the telephone company’s Sacramento-area speakers bureau, recalled his daughter Sandra Bryer Keane.

Mr. Robinson died Oct. 11 at his Arden Oaks home of kidney failure. He was 96.

In his speeches, Mr. Robinson said he was aboard a PT boat that helped rescue Lt. John F. Kennedy and his crew in August 1943. Robinson later turned his story into a book, “Water in My Veins: the Pauper who Helped Save a President.”

The official Navy account of the rescue doesn’t mention Robinson. The boat that rescued Kennedy, PT 157, was skippered by William Liebenow. Robinson’s daughter Bryer Keane said her father actually was the skipper of a different boat, PT 118, but responded to a call for volunteers to serve on the boat that rescued Kennedy and his crewmates.

In 2010, he donated to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., a wooden cane that he had loaned to Kennedy when Kennedy was recovering from back injuries. The donation included a photograph he took of Kennedy leaning against the cane. Mr. Robinson used to take the cane with him when he was delivering his speech “J.F.K. as Skipper of PT 109, An Eyewitness Account.”

“I have not changed that speech one iota since that Toastmaster speech,” Mr. Robinson said in a 1996 interview with The Sacramento Bee. “The only thing that changed is Kennedy became famous.”

Mr. Robinson said he had three other speeches that were better than the Kennedy speech, “but people just want to hear about celebrities.”

In his later years, Mr. Robinson wrote an autobiography, “Water in My Veins: The Pauper Who Helped Save a President.”

I have not changed that speech one iota since that Toastmaster speech. The only thing that changed is Kennedy became famous.

Ted Robinson, in 1996 interview with The Sacramento Bee

Theodore M. Robinson was born Aug. 14, 1919, in Seattle, Wash., and moved as an infant to Flushing, N.Y. His father, Wendell Robinson, vice president of a steamship company, died of influenza in 1920.

“He left enough life insurance to pay off the house,” Bryer Keane said.

Ted Robinson and his brother Jack were raised by their widowed mother, Lillian Oelkers Robinson, and their grandparents. Bryer Keane said her father was a great storyteller, and his “grandpa stories” were among his favorites.

Mr. Robinson graduated from Duke University with a degree in business and worked for a bank before joining the Navy. His uncle had a boat when Mr. Robinson was growing up, and it was his small-boat experience that earned him the PT boat assignment. He later commanded a tank landing ship, LST1062, in Okinawa, his daughter said.

Mr. Robinson met Carolyn “Lynne” Bryer while on leave in Newport, R.I. They were married after the war and moved to California. Mr. Robinson accepted a job with Pacific Bell as a long-range planning engineer and was transferred to Sacramento.

He fell in love with parks. It became an important part of his life to develop parks for people to grow up in.

Sandra Bryer Keane, recalling father’s passion for parks

He served for many years on the Sacramento County Recreation and Park Commission, and was instrumental in seeing that part of the former Mather Air Force Base was converted to Mather Regional Park. Bryer Keane said her father’s passion for parks stemmed from his youth. The park across the street from his home in Flushing was the place where he and his friends gathered.

“He fell in love with parks,” Bryer Keane said. “It became an important part of his life to develop parks for people to grow up in.”

Mr. Robinson also was active with the Sacramento Tree Foundation. He and his wife were honored by Sacramento County with the Robinson Memorial Grove, located near the children’s area at Mather Regional Park, Bryer Keane said.

As president of the Sacramento Suburban Kiwanis, Mr. Robinson helped establish the Kiwanis Family House at UC Davis Medical Center. “He was down there hammering nails and laying tile,” recalled his daughter.

The house provides temporary housing for families of patients who must travel long distances to receive treatment at UC Davis Medical Center or Shriners Hospital for Children Northern California.

Bryer Keane described her father as a man with a big heart. “He would see a family standing out in the rain in downtown Sacramento and give them a ride home because they were getting wet waiting for a bus,” she said.

He also was a man of great energy. His daughter noted that he skied until he was 89 years old and played tennis until he was 93.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Robinson is survived by three daughters, Bryer Keane of Grass Valley, Pamela English of Novato and Debora Robinson, of Newport Beach; and a grandson.

A memorial service for Mr. Robinson will be held at 2 p.m. Nov. 20 at Sierra Arden United Church of Christ, 890 Morse Ave., Sacramento, followed by a reception. The service will be preceded by a private burial with full military honors.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Mr. Robinson’s memory may be made to the Kiwanis Family House at UC Davis Medical Center.

Cathy Locke: 916-321-5287, @lockecathy