Obituary: Janis Robins, chemist, inventor, civic leader

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2013 - 7:04 PM

At 19, Janis Robins fled Latvia with his family, escaping the Soviet-backed regime’s efforts to send hundreds of thousands of Latvians to forced labor camps in Siberia. They survived a harrowing boat ride across the Baltic Sea in 1944 and settled in a refugee camp in Germany.

Five years later, when World War II was over, they immigrated to the United States, where Janis Robins became a chemist, working for companies including 3M and registering more than 50 patents. Still, he was a humble man who spoke most often not of his own successes, but of his work to preserve the Latvian culture.

Robins, bestowed in 2005 with a three-star Medal of Honor from the president of Latvia for his contributions, died Dec. 14 of heart problems. The St. Paul resident was 88.

“For decades, the Latvian-Americans were trying to preserve the Latvian culture that they feared was being slowly eradicated under Soviet rule,” said a daughter, Daina Robins of Michigan.

“On the one hand, obviously my father was very assimilated, having gone here to school and working for years. But on the other hand, my parents’ social, civic and religious life was the Latvian-American community.”

His boyhood had been in Latvia’s capital city, Riga. In Germany, he finished high school and studied chemistry at a university. He fell in love with Brigita, who stayed in another camp with her family.

In 1949, when he was 24, a church in Tacoma, Wash., sponsored his family’s immigration. Janis helped Brigita’s family immigrate in 1950. The couple married and had four daughters and a son, Maris, who died at age 5 in 1962 after getting measles.

Robins completed his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle and became an analytical chemistry professor at Macalester College in St. Paul.

He then went to work for Ashland specialty chemicals company, where he invented a method in which a gas was injected into sand coated with resin. That rapidly cured the resin without baking it and allowed the sand to be used as molds for car parts and other structures, said Kent Tarbutton, a fellow 3M scientist.

“He was in Who’s Who in America based on his accomplishment in phenolic resin chemistry” while at Ashland, said Tarbutton, who called Robins “a surrogate father.”

About 90 percent of the world’s iron foundries use technology that he created, a rapid hardening process, according to one book in which his work is noted.

Maplewood-based 3M recruited Robins from Ashland. At 3M, he developed a variety of catalyst chemistries for curing epoxies, Tarbutton said. Robins left 3M to work at Archer Daniels Midland but returned to 3M.

Daina Robins and her sister Baiba Olinger of Minneapolis said their dad loved to help Latvian athletes and musicians, including those wanting to come to the United States.

He organized volleyball and basketball games for Latvian-Americans, as well as educational exchanges and concerts. He was president of the Latvian-American Lutheran Evangelical Church of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“He enjoyed it, but he also had a huge sense of conviction or civic responsibility, so he also thought it has to be done, and if nobody else was going to do it, he would do it,” Daina said. “But he would do it with a joyful heart.”

Olinger described her dad’s lifelong philosophy: “Nothing defeats you. Whatever hardships you have, you rise above. You carry on.”

Other survivors include wife Brigita; two more daughters, Laila and Zaiga Robins, and two grandchildren.

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