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In Arlington's Civic Life, One Less Voice

Robert Atkins died Monday, apparently of natural causes, friends say. He was 68.

Robert Atkins died Monday at age 68. Screen grab from the May 21, 2013, Arlington County Board meeting.
Robert Atkins died Monday at age 68. Screen grab from the May 21, 2013, Arlington County Board meeting.

Arlington County has one less voice in its civic life.

Friends of Robert Atkins on Thursday were making final arrangements for the late civic and community activist and were in the process of planning a memorial service.

Atkins, a fixture at Arlington County Board and other public meetings for years, died early Monday at his home from what appeared to be natural causes, friends said.

He was 68.

"Bob was a complex person. He was an outgoing person. He had a good moral character. He knew right from wrong. And he was a champion for people who were in need — whether that was people who needed medical services who couldn't get them, or in need of food or shelter," Atkins' friend, Suzanne Sundburg, told Patch in a brief phone interview.

"He was very civically engaged. He was probably the best citizen Arlington County has ever had."

'Occupy Reality'

Atkins perhaps was in the public eye most when he was in front of the Arlington County Board — and he was in front of them a lot. County Clerk Hope Halleck told ARLnow.com, which first reported Atkins' death, that he attended every board meeting since 1995 until this year.

"Good evening, Mr. Chairman, members of the board," Atkins would always begin. He was often critical of local elected officials, a stalwart advocate for increased transparency and fiscal responsibility. He would sometimes start his brief speeches with a reference to a book or a movie or the latest political controversy, waiting patiently — sometimes for hours — for his two, three or five minutes at the podium.

In March 2012, for instance, Atkins suggested board members “get a digital rectal exam and cardiac stress test” before raising tax rates, invoking rhetoric out of Richmond about mandatory ultrasounds before abortions.

During this year's budget process — after a so-called "super stop" on Columbia Pike for buses and, eventually, a streetcar drew national attention because of its $1 million price tag — Atkins told elected officials they could pay for increased needs for child care, nurses, housing and food assistance "by not building one gold-plated bus stop on Columbia Pike."

"It is time for this board to Occupy Reality," Atkins said in May 2013. "Fund them, not vanity projects. Do not throw the poor and needy children under the gold-plated wheels of the trolley."

'He Served Us'

Despite his sometimes hyperbolic arguments, though, Atkins was a very private person, Sundburg wrote in an email. He rarely talked about himself, she stated, and he loved Suduko and the many cats he had as pets over the years.

Atkins founded the Stonewall Jackson Civic Association, which today is known as the Bluemont Civic Association. He was president of the group from 1993 to 1996 and served with Sundburg and two others as a delegate to the Arlington County Civic Federation until the time of his death.

"Bob was a dear friend. He was a friend and a good man. … And he represented Bluemont very well," George Rovder, current president of the Bluemont Civic Association, told Patch in a phone interview.

"He served us. He was always willing to help, volunteer, do things. I personally appreciate what he did for fiscal responsibility for Arlington County, sort of a watchdog. I didn't always agree with the way he did it, but I know he had firm beliefs, and he held true. And he had his heart in the right place. I'm really going to miss him."

Atkins served on a number of civic federation committees, and he was treasurer of the Arlington County Republican Committee from 2000 to 2012.

Larry Mayer, who worked with Atkins on the civic federation, said the depth of Atkins' knowledge about Arlington County operations was often misunderstood. Friends and colleagues took notice when Arlington County Board members would sometimes leave the room during Atkins' comments or fail to address his concerns afterward.

"…A better approach would have been to make sure it was followed up by staff and offering him thanks! Fortunately, most staff when they got to know him realized he has a pertinent point and tried to address it where they had the power to do so," Mayer told Patch in an email.

'Thank You'

Atkins often cited examples of what he called "waste, fraud and abuse" when addressing local elected officials. He would usually end his talks with, "There are problems. They need to be corrected. Thank you."

Despite his party affiliation, friends said he supported elected officials across a broad spectrum of political beliefs. Mayer noted that progressives, in particular, seemed surprised by some of his views: "They almost without exception admired his penchant for efficiency and making the best use of every dollar dedicated to a program."

Atkins lobbied the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond on behalf of HIV/AIDS patients. He was a founding member of VORA, or Virginia Organizations Responding to AIDS. That nonprofit lists Atkins as its first donor and cites this statement by him on its website: "Having beliefs is fine, but they must be backed up by commitment of both time and money. VORA is not some abstract entity — it is the sum of our individual efforts. We must be active and visible in the community.”

Atkins is survived by his 90-year-old mother, Julia Atkins, who still lives in upstate New York, many cousins, his beloved cat Gypsy, and legions of friends, according to Sundburg's email. He was predeceased by his father, who was also named Robert, and his brother Ronald.

Because Atkins shared the same name as his father, his family called him by his middle name, Gary.

Hawa Coulibaly December 12, 2013 at 08:44 PM
May he rest in peace.
Barbin December 13, 2013 at 08:08 AM
Robert Atkins had a big heart for what was best for Arlington. My recollection having lived in "his part" of Arlington in the 70s and 80s was that he was an activist even then. A man of ideas. He will be missed by those of us who care what happens in our County.
Allen Blume December 19, 2013 at 12:56 PM
I had the distinct pleasure of working with Bob during many volunteer orientation and training sessions with Juliette Marchioli, Arlington County's Medical Reserve Corps coordinator. He was always outspoken, readily understood, and while I didn't share his penchant for "Board Bashing" he still provided a useful perspective when the local "pols" started doing business the "Arlington Way." Given Arlington's solid blue nature, I liked hearing from a rational and thoughtful member of the "other" party. He was one of a kind, and his voice will be sorely missed.

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