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Robert A. Rovner, former Pennsylvania state senator, longtime lawyer, and radio talk-show host, dies at 77

As a state senator, he campaigned on a hardline stance on illegal drugs and mandatory sentences for gun crimes, and touted his work ethic as his trademark.

Sen. Rovner knew and worked with many politicians and celebrities over the course of his long career.
Sen. Rovner knew and worked with many politicians and celebrities over the course of his long career.Read moreJohn Slavin / JOHN SLAVIN

Robert A. Rovner, 77, of Philadelphia, a former “boy wonder” Pennsylvania state senator from the Sixth District, a longtime lawyer based in Bucks County, a radio talk-show host, and a fervent devotee of Temple University, died Wednesday, Sept. 8, of complications from myelodysplastic syndrome at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

A Republican state senator from 1971-74, the youngest ever at 27, Sen. Rovner was an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia under Arlen Specter from 1968-70. He was sworn in with Ed Rendell, the future district attorney and mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania.

He was chief executive officer of what is now the Rovner, Allen, Rovner, Zimmerman, Sigman & Schmidt law firm in Feasterville for half a century, an honorary lifetime trustee at Temple after serving on its board, and for a time host of a weekly radio talk show on several local stations.

He was president of his class as an undergraduate and law school student at Temple, and a delegate to several Republican national conventions in the 1970s.

He came close to returning to office several times. He lost to Democrat Craig Lewis in the 1974 state Senate race, lost a 1979 primary bid for a City Council at-large seat, failed to get the 1984 Republican nomination for state auditor general, and lost to Robert Borski in the 1986 third Congressional District. race.

In 2000, after becoming more moderate in his views, he ran as a Democrat and lost in the Pennsylvania primary for U.S. senator.

Despite the political setbacks, Sen. Rovner never became cynical. An effervescent conservative who often campaigned on a hard-line stance on illegal drugs and mandatory sentences for gun crimes, he touted his work ethic as his trademark. He became more moderate as he grew older.

“I have met 100 voters for every one that my opponent has met,” he said in a 1986 article in The Inquirer about Borski. “They’ve seen me at their supermarkets, at their synagogues, at their churches. But they haven’t seen him.”

Rendell said that despite his losses, Sen. Rovner had “a great, winning personality. He was a kind and caring person who worked for good causes. He had a great love for Temple, was a Temple man through and through.”

Sen. Rovner’s son Dan said his father thrived on meeting people, that politics and community involvement were in his blood, that helping others was his nature, and that he “lived his life like it was a campaign.”

Known for remembering everyone’s name, from the restaurant waitstaff to his friends’ children and pets, sending birthday cards to folks he’d met only once, consoling grieving relatives of those who had died, and helping young people find their first jobs, Sen. Rovner was called “larger than life” by many and the “Energizer bunny” by some for his boundless vitality.

Rendell tells the story of how, during his first inauguration as governor in 2003, he became cold and grumpy as the event-ending parade of county representatives passed by for his review. Finally, when the Philadelphia delegation came into view, he spied a grinning Sen. Rovner and Hooter, Temple’s owl mascot, leading the way arm in arm, “and I wasn’t cold and grumpy anymore,” he said.

Born Sept. 28, 1943, he grew up in a rowhouse in Northeast Philadelphia, graduated from Northeast High School, and was a Republican leader of Oxford Circle’s 54th Ward. His brother, Howard, 11 years younger, remembers horsing around as brothers do, and how Sen. Rovner got him his first job.

He met his first wife, Susan Cohen, at Temple. They were married for 25 years, and had sons Dan and Steven. Steven said he has been flooded with calls and notes from those who were touched by his father.

After a divorce, Sen. Rovner married Sherrie Savett. They divorced, and thereafter he spent his time with Hanna Monblatt, whom he called his “lady,” and they worked and traveled together.

Off the clock, he liked to play cards, listen to Phillies games on the radio, go to concerts of 1960s musical stars, and ride his bicycle on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. They called him the Mayor of the Boardwalk, and the Mayor of Rittenhouse, where he lived later in life.

“He was the mayor of everywhere,” Steven Rovner said.

His career was not without controversy.

In October 1974, a federal grand jury indicted Sen. Rovner on extortion and tax-fraud charges. He was accused of taking a $4,000 payment from two Feasterville car dealers who said they were trying to persuade him not to block a zoning change. He was acquitted of the extortion charge in December 1974, and the tax charges were dropped.

In the 1980s, he drew attention from the state Judicial Inquiry and Review Board for organizing bus trips to Atlantic City casinos for Bucks County district justices. Nothing public came of that review, and he defended them as harmless entertainment.

He was also criticized for collecting a $130,000 commission for helping a health insurance company get business from the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, and for defending Bill Cosby in 2014 after allegations of sexual assault were made public.

Rendell said those issues do not negate Sen. Rovner’s achievements and legacy.

“He was a fine lawyer who got excellent results for his clients,” Rendell said. “He had a great smile you could see miles away.”

Dan Rovner said his father was a mentor who taught him how to love family and friends, and help others.

“He was the best dad someone could have,” he said. “Of all his titles, the one he liked best was being called Pop-Pop Bob by his grandchildren.”

In addition to his sons, brother, former wives, and Monblatt, Sen. Rovner is survived by four grandchildren, a sister, and other relatives.

Services are Sunday, Sept. 12, at 9 a.m. at Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks funeral home, 310 Second Street Pike, Southampton. Pa. Interment is to be at Shalom Memorial Park, 25 Byberry Rd., Huntingdon Valley, Pa.

Donations in his name may be made to Northeast High School Alumni Foundation, 1601 Cottman Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19111 and Temple University School of Law, 1719 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19122.

Correction: This article was corrected to report that Sen. Rovner lost a congressional race in 1986 to Robert Borski, not a state senate race.