Bill Robertson, who rose from a Minnesota orphanage to become a powerful labor leader, was honored at a packed City Hall memorial service Saturday by political leaders, federal judges, clergymen and the owner of the Oakland Raiders -- who played in Los Angeles for a decade, in no small measure because of Robertson's efforts.
Robertson, who died on Dec. 9 at age 89, transformed the labor movement in Los Angeles when he took over the County Federation of Labor in 1975, by "making it part of the greater community" in a way that had not occurred before, said Stephen Reinhardt, a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals who was a friend of Robertson's for more than 40 years.
"For the first time, under his leadership, labor formed an alliance with the civil rights movement," he said.
Reinhardt said he was a young labor lawyer when he met Robertson, then president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 694 in the San Fernando Valley. "The union was no place for softies," Reinhardt said. "If you didn't play by the rules, you could end up dead in the desert."
Robertson navigated the tricky waters of that union and became "a major force in California," the judge said.
Tributes were offered by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; his predecessor James K. Hahn; Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles and Howard Berman of Valley Village; City Council President Eric Garcetti; county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke; Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge); and former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who is now Oakland's mayor.
Other speakers included the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray, former pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church; Michael R. Peevey, president of the state Public Utilities Commission; Reinhardt's 9th Circuit colleague Harry Pregerson; Ramona Ripston, chief executive of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California; Allan Kingston, chief executive of Century Housing; and Robertson's widow, Dresden Graham Robertson.
Those attending the service included former Dodger owner Peter O'Malley, a number of other officeholders and labor leaders, including Maria Elena Durazo, president of Unite Here Local 11 and widow of Robertson's successor, Miguel Contreras.
Working people, family and friends also listened attentively, some occasionally brushing away tears.
Waters, who said she met Robertson when he was aiding striking workers at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in the late 1960s, praised him for embracing the civil rights movement and becoming a key advisor to Tom Bradley, who became the city's first black mayor in 1973. "He helped bring the city together," Waters said.
Villaraigosa said Robertson, working with Bradley, played a major role in forging a new "social compact" in Los Angeles, holding that "as the city grew, the city prospered, the men and women who worked should prosper with it."
Three decades later, Villaraigosa said, the idea that "a great city has to be based on that kind of premise, that kind of social compact," still has resonance, and "that is the legacy of Bill Robertson."
Bradley appointed Robertson, who was executive secretary-treasurer of the labor federation from 1975 to 1993, to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission and the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission.
While serving on the Coliseum Commission, Robertson was the chief negotiator in the $6.7-million deal that brought the Raiders to Los Angeles. Robertson considered that one of his proudest achievements. He also was a member of the seven-member group Bradley picked to persuade the International Olympic Committee that Los Angeles could successfully host the 1984 Games.
On Saturday, Raider owner Al Davis, who is in ill health, sent a videotaped message from Oakland, where the team returned in 1995 after negotiations to reconfigure the Coliseum faltered.
"I first met Bill in 1980," when he was serving as Bradley's emissary in hopes of bringing the Raiders to Los Angeles. "You couldn't have a better missionary than Bill Robertson. We became great friends."
Shelby Jordan, a 6-foot-7, 280-pound tackle on the Raiders' 1984 Super Bowl championship team and now a businessman, said Robertson taught him a great deal about providing "service to others."
After Robertson stepped down as head of the labor federation in 1993, he joined the board of Century Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing lender. "From Day One" on the board, fellow board member Steve McDonald said, Robertson took a leadership role.
Kingston, Century Housing's president, said Robertson took great pride in the fact that 1,700 people had gotten better-paying jobs as a result of the organization's training programs.
"For Bill this was a labor of love and a love of labor, and the endeavor will be renamed "the Bill Robertson Community Training Program," Kingston said.
Born in St. Paul, Minn., Robertson lost both his parents when he was a child. He lived in an orphanage before going to live with an alcoholic uncle. Encouraged by an older brother, he became a voracious reader and especially loved the writing of Mark Twain and a fellow Minnesotan, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Robertson attended Marquette University in Milwaukee until he lost his football scholarship because of a knee injury. He remained an avid fan the rest of his life, a point highlighted at the start of Saturday's ceremony.
"Dresden said we had to start early so we could get home in time for the NFL playoffs," said Martin Ludlow, current head of the county labor federation.
Robertson's widow said he helped her overcome dyslexia. "Bill gave me the self-confidence so I could speak to a head of state or the mailman," she added.
"His life was sad and tragic at the beginning. Many people would come out of something like that and say they are going to make money. He thought, 'I am going to help people, help children who don't have a family, don't have a place to play.' "
Then she talked about how, in his final days, he was surrounded by family and friends, who visited him even though he did not always realize everything that was going on because he had Alzheimer's disease.
Nonetheless, she said, "the greatest gift anyone gave to me is that Bill was not alone at the end of his life."