What I never knew about him, however, was that he seems to have been exempted from the normal laws of aging. Two months ago, I ran into him at a dinner party at a restaurant in the Detroit suburbs. Just before dessert, he said he had to drive home.
He had to be in court in the morning. Nothing wrong with that, except that home was two-hundred and fifty miles away, in Suttons Bay, north of Traverse City. Dean Robb, by the way, is eighty-six years old. Naturally he made it, won his case, and spent the afternoon putting the finishing touches on the autobiography he wrote with his son Matthew. That book, “Dean Robb: An Unlikely Radical” lands in the bookstores this week. It is, simply, fascinating.
Since Robb thinks nothing of driving across the state at night, you probably won’t be too surprised to learn that his son Matt is only twenty-five. “From a pretty early age, I started to get the feeling my Dad was a little different,” he says. For one thing everybody thought he was his grandpa. For another, he had the most incredible stories.
Last year, Dean had an attack of congestive heart failure, and Matt, a champion college golfer, suddenly realized dad wouldn’t be around forever. So he prodded him to work with him on a book.
Unlikely Radical is the result. It’s an accurate title. Robb was, in fact, a nice Presbyterian boy who grew up on an Illinois farm without electricity in a town aptly named Lost Prairie. But his life was changed by his experience in the Navy, during World War II, when he saw how unfairly blacks were treated. He ended up in Detroit, going to law school at Wayne State. One day, the dean called Dean in.
“You are a talented young man, but there is no future in law for radicals. You have to get along with the power structure,” he was warned. Dean thanked him warmly, and ignored his advice.
Nor did he ever regret it. He spent his early years defending people like the legendary George Crockett and Coleman Young, and winning cases giving workers their rights. In 1971 in what he calls the “first of my many midlife crises,” he started wondering whether he was really a country farm boy or a radical city lawyer.
“So at the age of forty-seven” he said, “I decided it was time to be both.” He bought an old farm in Leelanau County, and started defending hippies. After his wife left him, he married a woman thirty years younger, ran for the Michigan Supreme Court, lost, and kept up the good fight, and he doesn’t mean to stop.
What’s the moral of the story? Matt, who himself has now decided to go to law school says that often, “the most practical ideas can be the most radical.” What does he hope people take away from his father’s story? His answer was a bit surprising. “I hope you learn something meaningful about yourself,” he says. “I know I did.”