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Sidney Robbins, a former Navy commander and construction company owner, dies at age 95

Obit photos for Sidney Robbins.  Chicago Sun-Times

Obit photos for Sidney Robbins. Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: October 25, 2012 6:16AM

Sidney Robbins was a commander with one of the U.S. Navy’s original Underwater Demolition Teams in World War II who later started a construction company in Chicago and built numerous post-war homes, shopping centers and high-rises, including the Water Tower Place.

Many years later, Mr. Robbins, a widower at the time, made news headlines when he decided to tie the knot again at age 90.

“We wanted to spend the rest of our lives together,” said his bride, Victoria Bumagin. “We had a wonderful almost six years.”

On Aug. 25, Mr. Robbins died of cardiac involvement at a rehab center in Florida. He was about two weeks shy of turning 96 and had been splitting residence between Florida and Northbrook.

He was born Sidney Rabinowitz on Sept. 11, 1916, in Chicago to Jewish immigrant parents from Russia. His dad, a carpenter and contractor, and mother, a homemaker, struggled financially during the Great Depression but they still made education a priority for their children. Mr. Robbins, who changed his last name when he was 21, graduated from the Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) with a degree in civil engineering.

In 1943, he took a commission in the Navy Seabees engineering corps and later volunteered for a new unit — the UDTs, the precursor to the Navy SEALs — in response to a call for men “physically able, good swimmers and preferably single.”

Dubbed the “Naked Warriors” and the “frogmen,” Mr. Robbins and his fellow officers performed reconnaissance missions on enemy beaches in the South Pacific with hardly any more gear than a bathing suit and face mask.

“They would have bombs in the water and bombs on the beach to deter troops, and these men were literally swimming into the beaches and defusing bombs, and then they’d go and scout out the land,” said Mr. Robbins’ daughter, Ruth.

He was involved in the invasion of Saipan, Tinian, Peleliu and Okinawa and later became the commanding officer of UDT 7. In 1944, he was awarded the Silver Star.

“I would say to myself, ‘If I ever get out of this alive and well, I’ll be thankful forever and will consider the rest of my life given to me,’” Mr. Robbins wrote later in his memoir, “Good to be Alive.”

In 1945, Mr. Robbins met his first wife, Lois, and within 24 hours the two decided they would get married. They lived in Skokie as Mr. Robbins launched his construction career and eventually moved to Highland Park, in a home that Mr. Robbins built.

Mr. Robbins and his father set up S.N. Robbins Construction, which merged with various companies over the years. He erected thousands of homes around the Chicago area, many for veterans returning from the war, and was involved in the construction of the Water Tower Place and 900 N. Michigan Ave.

“We’d drive through the city, and he’d say, ‘I built that and I built that,’” Bumagin said. “Almost every other block has some kind of imprint from Sidney Robbins.”

He also constructed movie theaters, industrial parks, apartments and shopping malls, including Hawthorn Center in Vernon Hills.

“He was very well-regarded,” said his friend, Louis Kahnweiler. “He had a varied career.”

A father of four, Mr. Robbins led Cub Scouts and enjoyed skiing, playing handball and horseback riding through the North Shore forest preserves. He was an excellent sailor who participated in a number of races, including the annual Chicago-to-Mackinac Island race and, more recently, a race across the Gulf of Mexico.

“He was a man who worked very hard and played very hard,” his daughter said. “He and my mother and their friends would be hootin’ and hollerin’ in the basement and get together for dancing.”

He and his friends also held regular discussion groups covering a broad range of subjects, from Chinese ivory carvings to nuclear fission.

That’s how he first came to know Bumagin. Mr. Robbins and his wife had been good friends with Bumagin and her husband for more than 30 years. Then in 2000, both of their spouses died.

“We started to spend a lot of time together, and it just grew,” said Bumagin, who was 83 when she wed Mr. Robbins in 2006.

“My life with him was full of laughter and joy,” she added.

Mr. Robbins, in fact, was known for his good sense of humor and repertoire of jokes.

“After a while I got to know them so well, I started to number them,” Bumagin said. “I’d say, ‘Oh, I know this one. This one is number 337,’ and we would crack up laughing.”

Mr. Robbins is also survived by his sons, Richard, David and Neal; nine grandchildren; and four stepdaughters and their families.

His burial in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is scheduled for Dec. 21. A memorial will be held Oct. 21 in Florida.

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