Benjamin C. Robbs, 85, of Camden, a wounded Korean War veteran and longtime union business agent, died at his home Wednesday, Sept. 25, of natural causes.
Mr. Robbs, who lived in the Victor building, had suffered from declining health in recent years, said his son Brian.
His life was a colorful journey. He boxed as an amateur. He became a licensed cosmetologist and managed a beauty salon in South Philadelphia.
As a union official, he was glad-handed at election time by the region’s most prominent politicians.
For many years, Mr. Robbs didn’t say much, if anything, about his military service, his son recalled.
But he recently revisited that time of his life for Camden County as part of the national Veterans History Project.
He was 16 when he dropped out of high school to enlist in the Army in 1951. He was sent to basic training at Fort Campbell in Kentucky and served in a segregated unit when he was shipped to Korea, where he fought for 10 months and was injured in a mortar attack. He was awarded the Korean Service Medal with Bronze Star.
“People say so little about the black Army because they were segregated,” Mr. Robbs said in an Inquirer article last year. “We were treated unfairly. They didn’t consider us human. It was bad.”
On Wednesday, Camden County Freeholder Melinda Kane issued a statement on his passing:
“On behalf of the entire Freeholder Board, I offer my heartfelt condolences to the Robbs family. Benjamin was a hero who served his country and who became a beloved figure within his community late in life. Despite all of the obstacles Benjamin had faced, he radiated positive energy and was a friend to all who met him. He will be sincerely missed by this community, though his impact will continue to live on.”
Mr. Robbs was born in Gaffney, S.C. When he was still a toddler, his mother relocated the family to Philadelphia.
When he returned home to Philadelphia from the Korean War, he pursued his passion for boxing.
He fought as Benjamin Cortez, choosing the name because he believed Cortez meant conqueror, said his son Brian.
Mr. Robbs’ career was cut short when he was badly beaten in a televised match, his son said. It happened to be the first time his mother attended one of his fights.
During those early years, Mr. Robbs became a licensed cosmetologist and ran a beauty shop in South Philadelphia, “whether to keep up his pompadour or meet more ladies, we’ll never know for sure,” his family wrote.
In the late 1950s he went to work for Brentwoods Sportswear as a janitor and worked his way up in the company. He became a shop steward and then a business agent with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. He held that position for 21 years.
Moving on, he worked briefly as a workplace inspector before starting a second career with the State of New Jersey working with the unemployed.
In 1964, he married Margie Brisbon, and they had two sons. The couple got divorced in 1992.
He converted to Islam in the 1950s and among fellow Muslims, he was known as Ibraheim Saladine. With his family and coworkers, he was known as Ben or Bennie.
“Ben was known to have a love of fine cars, mostly Lincolns; sharp clothes, he was a regular at Boyds; watching boxing, both live and on TV; and, of course, he sure did love the ladies,” his family wrote.
Mr. Robbs moved to the Victor building in Camden around 2010 and became a fixture, sitting by the fireplace in the lobby to greet and chat with other residents, staff, and visitors.
Mr. Robbs is survived by his two sons, Adam and Brian; four grandchildren; and by Margie Brisbon, his former wife.
Services will be Friday, Oct. 4, at T.L. Hutton Funeral Services, 869 Beverly Rd., Burlington.
The viewing will be from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Muslim prayer will be from 10:30 to 11. Reflections will be from 11 to 11:30.