Friday, March 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Attorney and writer John S. Robinson, 81

Seattle Times staff reporter

John S. Robinson, a lifelong bachelor who lawyered for his paycheck but wrote for his soul, died last week at the age of 81.

He was raised in the Denny-Blaine neighborhood in Seattle, the son of a state Supreme Court justice, and attended Garfield High School. He hobnobbed with old-money families — the Bullitts, Baillargeons and Bloedels — and became politically aligned with a generation of liberal Republicans.

Mr. Robinson volunteered for the Navy in World War II, becoming a Japanese-language translator and codebreaker.

Toward the war's end, as American ordnance rained on Japanese cities, he wrote a letter urging the bombers to spare the picturesque city of Nara, home to an eighth-century wooden monastery and a 53-foot-high image of Buddha. He recalled decades later in the Seattle Weekly that "this letter may have been the important act of my life."

He graduated from Yale Law School in 1949 and joined the firm that is now known as Preston Gates & Ellis. A few years later, he drafted documents to support the bond financing of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge.

In 1960 he left for what was supposed to be a three-month journey into Africa. Instead, he stayed three years and mailed travelogues to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

He was expelled from South Africa, after interviewing a tribal chief in the territory of South-West Africa, because the government believed he was a spy for the United Nations.

Mr. Robinson later worked for then state Attorney General Slade Gorton. In Olympia, he organized a coalition to fight development plans near The Evergreen State College at Cooper Point. He volunteered his legal services to preserve what is now the 153-acre Watershed Park.

Each morning, he went to the Spar Cafe, a favorite legislators' hangout, for conversation and a bowl of oatmeal. In 1980 he was campaign coordinator for independent attorney-general candidate John Miller.

He wrote long, amiable profiles for the Weekly, where he argued with editors to keep even a few words of his painstakingly crafted prose from being cut. Founding publisher David Brewster valued his erudition, his optimism and the trust interviewees placed in him.

At the same time, "there was an undercurrent of sadness in his writing, because the things he was writing about had been supplanted" by a coarser and gloomier political culture, Brewster said.

Mr. Robinson rarely cooked and seemed to subsist on oranges and hors d'oeuvres at parties, said his niece, Kathryn Robinson.

While very much a socialite, "at the same time he had a great deal of resentment for what Teddy Roosevelt called the 'malefactors of great wealth,' " said journalist and friend Mike Layton. The pair made birding trips to Grays Harbor County to admire the sandpipers and migrating dunlins.

Mr. Robinson died March 11 of heart failure. Shortly before that, his niece said, he asked in a barely perceptible voice: "Are we at war?"

"He was a citizen of the world and strongly cared about world affairs," she said.

Services will be held tomorrow at 2 p.m. at St. John's Episcopal Church, 114 20th Ave. S.E., Olympia. Donations may be made to the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, 1305 Fourth Ave., Suite 522, Seattle, WA 98101, or Olympia Parks, Arts and Recreation, 222 Columbia St. N.W., Olympia, WA 98501.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or


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