Joseph Robert Jr.
Joseph Robert Jr.
The Dec. 14 Mass of Christian Burial at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle for Washington businessman and philanthropist Joseph E. Robert Jr. was celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and the mourners included noted government, military and business leaders and entertainers. And as his casket was carried down the cathedral steps after the Mass, Robert was saluted by an honor guard of 20 Junior ROTC members from his alma mater, St. John's College High School.

Robert, 59, died Dec. 7 of a form of brain cancer. A Washington native who grew up in Silver Spring, Robert was the founder and executive chairman of J.E. Robert Companies, a leading private commercial real estate investment and asset management firm. Eight days before his death, Robert was inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame. His biography in the program for his Funeral Mass noted that Robert in his lifetime "raised nearly a billion dollars for children and education."

"Joseph Robert fought the good fight,"said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop emeritus of Washington who gave the homily at Robert's Funeral Mass. Cardinal McCarrick noted that during Robert's battle with cancer, he never gave up, and he always trusted in the Lord. "Throughout his life, Joe Robert was always sure of God's presence," Cardinal McCarrick said.

Friends who offered tributes before the Mass praised Robert for the courage and grace he displayed during his illness, noting that he never complained or displayed fear or self-pity. They noted that he described his three year cancer battle as "the best years of his life." Cardinal McCarrick said that Robert lived his last days and weeks as he had lived his adult life, with an "heroic sense that he could still do more for others."

As a young man, Robert was an amateur boxer, and the holy card for his Funeral Mass included this quote from 1 Timothy 1:18-19: "You fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience." In 1990, Robert founded and served as chairman of Fight For Children, a Washington-based philanthropic organization whose mission is to create, promote and invest in kindergarten through 12th grade education opportunities that prepare children for college and the workplace, and to provide quality health care options for youth. Since FFC's inception, it has raised $310 million. Robert chaired a $300 million campaign for the Children's National Medical Center.

"For many of us, Joe Robert was the icon for caring for the children of the poor," Cardinal McCarrick said in his homily, and he said the philanthropist, was moved by his love of God and love of neighbor to work tirelessly to expand educational opportunities for poor children, becoming their "special friend" and advocate.

Robert worked behind the scenes with Cardinal McCarrick and other community leaders to establish the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a federal scholarship program which since its launch in 2004 has enabled thousands of District children from the city's poorest neighborhoods to attend the school of their choice. In recent years, Robert remained a vocal champion of the program, and one day just after receiving a cancer treatment, he spoke at a rally urging the program's re-authorization. His Funeral Mass program noted that, in addition to his immediate family members, Robert is also survived by "the countless thousands of disadvantaged children whose lives his caring and generosity touched."

Among those offering tributes to Robert before the Mass was Ambassador Luis Moreno, the former ambassador of Colombia to the United States, who noted Robert's humble beginnings. "In my view, he was the personification of the American dream. But to him, he wanted that dream for all Americans."

Cardinal Wuerl in a statement after Robert's death on Dec. 7 praised him as a man of faith and a man of action who championed educational opportunities for children.

"Joe was an enthusiastic advocate for Catholic education, and as chairman of the Washington Scholarship Fund, he worked tirelessly to ensure that students from low-income families have the opportunity to attend non-public schools through the Washington Opportunity Scholarship Program.  His philanthropic generosity benefited countless children," the cardinal said. "Over the years of working with Joe, I came to appreciate his deep concern for young people, their education and their opportunities for the future.  I also came to recognize the important role his faith and the Church played in his life, particularly as he faced his final illness."

The mourners at Robert's Mass of Christian Burial included Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; current District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray and his two immediate predecessors as D.C. mayor, Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams; and retired Gen. Colin Powell, the former U.S. Secretary of State. Before the Mass, rhythm and blues singer Patti Austin sang, "Gone Too Soon" and a soulful version of Ave Maria in Robert's honor. R&B singer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds said Robert "inspired me to want to be a better person," and he performed a song, "Hey Joe," based on Robert's letters to his two sons, Joseph Robert III and Luke Robert, who offered eulogies to their father after Communion.

Among Robert's close friends offering tributes before the Mass was James Kimsey, the founding CEO and chairman emeritus of America Online, who is also an alumnus and benefactor of St. John's College High School. Both men provided major support to St. John's James V. Kimsey Science and Technology Center.

In October, Robert received the 2011 St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award from the National Catholic Educational Association in recognition of his support of and service to Catholic education. Robert's appearance at the NCEA dinner in Washington drew a standing ovation. At that dinner, Kimsey praised his friend for "his indomitable spirit, (and his) will to live, and live productively."

A 1970 graduate of St. John's, Robert donated $1 million for a science wing there that is named in his honor. In an interview before the Funeral Mass, Jeffrey Mancabelli, the president of St. John's, said that Robert was a man who not only supported good causes financially, but he became "passionately engaged" in them, and reflected the Christian Brothers' ideals of leadership and service. "It's one thing we continually stress, your success is meaningless unless it's concerned with the welfare of others," Mancabelli said.

At St. John's a plaque on the wall of the Robert Science Hall notes that Joseph Robert through his generosity had made it possible "for future generations of St. John's students to have the best quality science facilities and curriculum." Robert's living legacy at his alma mater is experienced each school day at St. John's, as students attend science classes in the three classrooms and perform experiments in the two biology and two chemistry labs and in the physics lab in the Robert Science Hall. "Our students are really lucky they have such state-of-the-art equipment to work with," said Emily Boyer, the science department chair at St. John's.

St. John's Cadets served as ushers at Robert's Mass of Christian Burial.

Joseph Robert Jr. was also known for his support for those serving in the military, and he financed and produced a welcome home concert that was broadcast to 880,00 servicemen and women worldwide. In honor of his service to military families, he was named an honorary Marine. His son and namesake, Joseph Robert III, served in the Marine Corps in Iraq. At the Funeral Mass, Cardinal McCarrick praised Joseph Robert Jr. as a man who was "Catholic and American to the core," who deeply loved his church and his country. At the end of the Mass, Joseph Robert III and another pallbearer, retired Gen. James Jones, the former National Security Advisor, unfurled a flag that had flown over a military base in Fallujah, Iraq, and laid it upon his casket.

In his eulogy to his father, Joseph Robert II praised him as "an amazing man.. (who) lived an amazing life," and as someone who believed "more should be done for the children of the world." His younger brother Luke Robert also praised their father, saying, "I'm happy to have known him. He was a great man. Dad loved everyone, most of all children."

Cardinal Wuerl in his closing remarks praised Joseph Robert as a man of "faith, hope and love," and said those were the gifts and the legacy he left for his family members and friends.

That point was echoed in a later interview with Msgr. John Enzler, the president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington and a close friend of Robert who brought him Communion many times in recent years. "He was a man of real faith... He really tried to live his faith as best as he could," Msgr. Enzler said.

The last page of the Mass program included a quote from Robert, who once said that a fighter who "can no longer throw his jab with the same speed or his punch with the same power, throws his heart instead."

In addition to his two sons, Joseph Robert Jr. is survived by his parents, Aimee Lou and Joseph Robert Sr.; by his three sisters, Christine, Cynthia and Janice; by a brother, Thomas; and by nephews Thomas, Jeffrey, Jon, Travis and Alexander; and by a niece, Colleen.