Junior Achievement Hall of Fame Laureate 2018 Chuck Robinson
By Tasha Anderson
Image courtesy of Junior Achievement of Alaska
Charles "Chuck" Robinson.
Robinson’s daughter, Robin, describes her father as “intelligent, dedicated, and hardworking,” adding that he was a born leader and team builder that valued loyalty and was generous “on all levels.” His son Bret also spoke of Robinson’s work ethic, saying, “That’s why he was so well respected; nothing was handed to him,” he started from the bottom and worked his way to the top.
Robinson was born in 1933 in Salem, Arkansas; Robin says, “His family had very little and life was not easy. From a very early age he worked to support his mom, brother, and two sisters.” Beyond his family, Robinson served his country as a communications specialist in the Korean War.
Building an Industry
Tom Jenson, who worked with Robinson for twenty years, says Robinson’s experience as an Army signal technician was his first step into the communications industry: “He worked his way up as a technician to become a manager.” In 1969, when RCA purchased what was then called the Alaska Communications System from the military, Robinson went to work at the company, newly-named Alascom, where he worked his way up from a technician to being the vice president of operations. “That title meant that Chuck was in charge of overseeing the entire operation of the company statewide.” As part of the purchase agreement, RCA committed to providing telecommunications services to every Alaska location with a permanent population of more than twenty-five people, “so from the very beginning, that was a heck of a challenge,” Jensen says, as that amounted to more than 250 rural locations ranging from Barrow to Ketchikan to Little Diomede Island.
When the trans-Alaska pipeline was under construction, Robinson led Alascom as the company installed a microwave communication system that spanned the state from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez and “provided voice, data, and all the electronics required to handle each and every one of the pumping stations along the route,” he says. “Because Alaska was so vast—that was an 800-mile private line system—Alascom put in a backup satellite system so that, if the microwave system for any reason failed, we could go immediately to the satellites to back it up and make it work. That was done more than forty-five years ago… and that basic backbone microwave system is still in operation, backed up by satellite and now also by fiber optics,” Jensen says.
In 1979 RCA sold the company to Pacific Telecom, headquartered in Portland, Oregon. Robinson was brought in to the Pacific Telecom team as president, CEO, and chairman of the board. The Alaska telecommunications network and services continued to expand: “Chuck was in charge of the company that installed, over the next several years, more than 250 to 300 small satellite earth stations in rural locations that provided not only long distance communications but also provided television communication,” Jensen says.
It was under Robinson’s guidance that telecommunications in Alaska developed to provide transportable satellite earth stations that could be loaded into an aircraft and set up anywhere and were used when the Exxon Valdez ran aground and in various military operations, including Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia and Operation Just Cause in Panama. Robinson was at the helm as cellular phones and the Internet services entered the market causing disruption to the telephony market and changing forever how people communicate. His daughter Robin says, “He created his own opportunities by perseverance, dedication, and a strong desire to succeed. He was a self-made man who surrounded himself with dedicated, loyal, and talented personnel.”
This was particularly evident in 1995, when Pacific Telephone sold Alascom to AT&T; this time Robinson didn’t go with the company. He worked in the industry for about another year before endeavoring to form his own business. Jensen says, “He and some of his telecommunications associates went to the Lower 48, raised more than $700 million in investment capital, came back to Alaska, and established the company that we now know as Alaska Communications Systems [ACS],” with Robinson again at the head of the company as president and CEO. “He ran ACS up here, expanding and improving in all areas, until his retirement in 2003.”
Robin says that Robinson’s legacy was “modernizing telecommunications throughout Alaska (especially bringing services to rural Alaska), such as the launch of Alaska's first telecommunications satellite, the first fiber optic connection between Alaska and the Lower 48, and his role in the first direct undersea fiber optic cable between the United States and Japan.” His other career and personal achievements included his appointment to the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee under several US presidents and honorary degrees from both the University of Alaska and Alaska Pacific University.
Outside the Spotlight
Although Robinson was the public head of a $200 million to $300 million corporation, his preferred role was outside of the limelight. Son Bret says Robinson “would’ve been humbled by this honor.” Jensen says, “Robinson was not the guy that would stand up in front of a crowd and make a speech… he believed if people wanted to know about the company, let them talk to the people that were making the company work. It’s interesting when you consider a fellow who was running those kinds of assets and had that kind of business expertise, one of his best days would be if he could walk through a building and not be recognized.”
Jensen continues with an example: “I was with him one day when it happened; we walked through an Anchorage telephone facility building where we had just installed a several-million-dollar new piece of equipment, and they were having an open house where they were showing it off. As we walked through, several of the people that were running the event said, ‘Well hi Tom, nice to see you, glad that you could make it today, and who's that with you?’ And there was this huge smile on [Robinson’s] face because he was anonymous. The answer to the question was he's the guy that paid for this; he's the guy that runs the company.”
In another incident, at the ceremony in Fairbanks when Robinson was awarded his honorary degree from the University of Alaska, Jensen had to search the room twice, only to find Robinson standing behind a plant. “He was just the kind of individual that didn’t want the headlines,” Jensen says. “He was a leader who led, but wasn’t looking for the glory. The first time I met [Robinson], he said, ‘Whenever you have a request for someone to show up and speak to the media, just remember it isn’t me,” Jensen laughs. “And that lasted the entire time I knew him; from that point on I was his director of public affairs, and I can count probably on one hand the number of times Chuck actually made a public appearance.”
Robin says his personal legacy is “children who loved him very much and will pass down his story and ‘stories’ to their children.”
“We’ve very proud of his accomplishments,” Bret says.
While Robinson was invested in his family, he also supported other youth within his sphere of influence. Robin says, “Dad was a strong believer and supporter of higher education, whether it was a traditional college or technical school. Both personally and professionally [Robinson encouraged youth] through generous donations and contributions to higher education, nonprofit organizations, youth groups, and mentoring programs.”
Jensen says that part of his responsibilities was to manage donations and contributions made by the telecommunications company, which in some years amounted to about $3 million. While Jensen managed the philanthropic endeavors, he emphasizes that Robinson had to approve both the amounts of funding and the organization receiving the funds. “We underwrote countless baseball teams, little league teams, pony league teams, basketball teams, soccer teams,” and other community organizations. “Our basic philosophy was that we made our money here, and we were strictly an Alaska company, so we had no problem with putting some of it back into the community, supporting the people who supported us.”
People mattered to Robinson. Jensen says he built relationships working in rural Alaska in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s: “Years later, in the ‘90s, he’d get off a plane in say, Kotzebue, and walk down the street and ten people would know him on a first name basis, and they’re people he met thirty or forty years ago. The friends that he made coming up, the friends that he made from the time he first got here, they were his friends for life.”
Jensen concludes: “I’m seventy-five years old, and I’ve met a lot of people in my life, but he is one of the top three or four that was truly unique… At [Robinson’s] memorial service, Donn Wonnell, who was his attorney and general counsel for more than thirty years, was asked to speak, and he said Chuck Robinson was a man of considerable accomplishment, but he also inspired loyalty. He was somebody that earned your trust because of who he was and what he did. You were pleased to say, ‘This is my friend.’ He was a guy that could make you laugh, he had a sense of humor, and ‘[his passing] is the first time ever that he's made me sad.’ I think about myself—if somebody could say something that nice about me when I’m gone, I’d consider my life successful.”