By Nick Diamantides
The light and love that characterized Velma Robinett’s life will never die. She was in turn a farmer’s daughter, devoted wife and mother, grandmother, businesswoman and matriarch, but what people remember most about her is her kindness and compassion.
“My grandma had three things that she believed in,” said Mike Robinett, who now lives in Cypress. “The first one was the Lord, the second was her family, and the third one was her country. She loved America.”
Mike said that Velma was a teacher, a mentor and a best friend to everyone in her family. He noted that early in their lives she taught her children and grandchildren how to handle finances. “When we were little kids, she taught us how to make change for dollar bills and how to write checks,” he said, explaining that under her supervision the children played “store,” a game that taught them financial management.
Velma also taught the children the value of work. “We would work in her yard, and she would pay us a penny a snail,” he said. “Then we would go around the corner and spend 25 cents on candy.”
Mike and Velma’s other grandchildren spent many Saturday nights at her house, where she gave them a sense of worth by making them contributing members of the family. “She taught us how to cook, how to clean and how to buy food for the family,” he said, noting that his grandmother made sure all the children knew they were loved and they were important members of the clan.
Mike noted that his grandfather, Clifford, died in 1984 and from that time on, Velma was the undisputed head of the family.
He added that she was also very involved in church groups and community service organizations. “She did a lot of things for the veterans,” he said. “She also provided help to women’s shelters and animal shelters, and donated reusable items to schools.”
Velma grew up on her family’s farm and dairy, but by the time she was an adult, the land had become a collection of industrial and commercial parcels that the family leased to various businesses.
More than 20 years ago, when officials of the City of Signal Hill were planning on the development of the Signal Hill Auto Center, they decided to place part of it on land owned by the Robinett trust. Mike said that Velma originally opposed that plan for two reasons: she didn’t want big business pushing out the small businesses that were leasing land from the family, and she didn’t want the family to be forced to sell the land through the process of eminent domain. “She was more concerned for her family and her tenants than she was about the city,” he said. “It was never about money.” He noted that Velma had not raised the rent on her tenants for decades.
City Attorney Dave Aleshire noted that Velma had become the trustee for the Robinett trust. “She had a tremendous sense of responsibility and wanted to maintain (the land) as income property for the future generations,” he said. “When we started into our acquisition program for the auto center, all the dealers wanted to be owners of property, so we started off on the path of condemning all the property.”
Aleshire noted that Velma was strongly opposed to that plan and attended many council meetings asking the city to not force the family to sell the land. “One night in particular, her opposition was so heartfelt that the council went into a closed session,” he said. He explained that at that point the council changed its collective mind and decided to ask Velma if she was open to leasing the land.
Velma said she would agree to long-term leases. City officials then asked the dealers if they would agree to that instead of owning the land. “It turned out that, bit by bit, all these things worked out,” Aleshire said. “(Eventually) she came around from grudging support to actually seeing that this was a great thing for the city and would also get the property cleaned up.”
Signal Hill City Councilman Mike Noll said he knew her for more than 20 years. “She was a dynamic woman,” he said. “She had a goal to keep the property in her family and at first she was not in favor of us doing much with the land.” He added that once Velma saw the quality of the development that was planned, she became an enthusiastic supporter of the auto center. “I’ll never forget the time when we were doing the groundbreaking for the Mercedes dealership, and she was there with her shovel and her hardhat,” he said. “She was a delightful lady.”
Aleshire added that she was a very important part of the history of the city.
“What Rose Kennedy was to the Kennedy family, Grandma was to the Robinett family,” Mike said. “She was a matriarch, a leader, and a very kind, generous, caring, helpful woman.”
Velma’s story is also in Who’s Who in Signal Hill, a book available for viewing in Signal Hill City Hall. Velma passed away in her North Long Beach home on Jan. 12, 2010, about five months shy of her hundredth birthday.