Grand Rapids Public Museum benefits from Robertson's training as attorney



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Dale Robertson, the President and CEO of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, has never worked for a law firm nor set out his shingle for a traditional practice.

Yet he has not held a job where his legal training and expertise have failed to serve him and his organizations’ missions well.

“I think that one of the things that you get going through law school and reviewing cases is a sense of history,” Robertson says. “And I think that establishes a broader view/ Law school forces you to see both sides. That law training  helps you to be able to analyze and then extrapolate, see the core principles  from the past and apply them now.”

In Robertson’s case, attending law school meant taking night classes at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, after receiving his B.A. from the honors college at Michigan State University, James Madison College.
As he entered Cooley, he was already working as a Legislative Aide to State Senator James DeSana, who hails from downriver Detroit as does Robertson, a Wyandotte native.

“He had a rule, which is that he gave young people from his  district a chance to work in Lansing, but they had to pretty much move on within four to six years. So essentially the day I started I knew there was an end date, and I used that time to get a law degree,” Robinson says.

 His next career move was to the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, where he was an advocate at the state level for the business community.

This past Monday, Robertson was sporting a bow tie as a sartorial salute to Michigan Supreme Chief Justice Robert Young, who along with Justice Briget McCormack appeared at the Grand Rapids Economic Club luncheon that day. Robertson says he wears a bow tie once every couple of weeks anyway, “...but there’s a meaning to this. When I was at the Detroit Chamber, Dick Van Dusen, of Dickinson, Wright, Moon, Van Dusen and Freeman at the time, was a vice chair in government affairs. He said to me one day, ‘There’s a young partner at Dicksinson I think would be interesting to you as a lobbyist.’ So I went over and called on Bob Young, — he ended up chairing the labor law committee and was highly involved in workers’ comp reform,” Robertson explains.

Again in that position, Robertson’s legal knowledge was very helpful. “It allowed me to have a deeper involvement in the issues,” he says. “I mean, I could scratch out an amendment to a bill for legislators to look at, even though of course it all still had to go to legislative services. But my legal training, just the whole thought process, helped me.”

Those abilities continued to help Robertson in his next job, which was with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Initially serving as Vice President of Government Affairs operating at the state and federal levels,  Robertson moved into a Vice-President position after ten years. There he had responsibility for sales and marketing, relations with providers and customer, and training and education across the 53 counties that compose Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan’s West Michigan and Upper Peninsula operations.

“Blue Cross/Blue Shield was going through a reorganization. The company had established a call center in West Michigan, and when the executive running it retired, I had the opportunity offered to me. My wife [Sonja] is from Traverse City and she’d always wanted to live in West Michigan, so we moved here in 1999,” he says, adding, “Negotiations with the providers, the hospitals, it’s a matter of understanding the contract and the terms. of the contract. You’re working with legal staff... so my law degree helped again.”

He came to his current job at the Public Museum after serving on its board of trustees. He has also been on the executive committee and board of the previously-mentioned Econ Club and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, as well as the boards of Metro YMCA, Alliance for Health, Pine Rest Foundation, and Thomas M. Cooley Law School.  Robertson also serves on the Unity Committee to Honor Cesar E. Chavez.

Robertson talks with his hands in an expansive, descriptive way — he recalls someone coming up from behind him and pinning his arms down and notes with a laugh, “I really couldn’t talk” — and nowhere is that more evident than when he talks about the museum.

“At our core we’re an educational institution, so when we bring in traveling exhibits they resonate with that, for example the King Tut exhibit. When I started there weren’t even 60,000 people through the doors, and now we’re averaging close to 200,000,” Robinson says.

Something that excites Robinson is the museum’s focus on providing opportunities for students who learn in a variety of ways. The new sixth through twelfth grade Museum School, which opened with sixth-graders in Sept. 2015, is a broad partnership between the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Grand Valley State University’s College of Education, Kendall College of Art and Design, the City of Grand Rapids (which sitll owns the museum), Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc., and the Grand Rapids Public Schools, within which it will be a Center of Innovation.

The Immerse Program brings other school classes in for a week of   varied educational opportunities, using the museum’s resources.

“We have just amazing artifacts, many of which were literally taken with a promise that they would be used for some noble purpose. Most of the collections you can either touch or touch with gloves.

“What we’re trying to do here is speak to how a student’s learning style works. I’m a bit of a kinetic learner, and tactile. For me to hold something  is important. That came into my mind recently when I was looking at our coral collection from the Philippines that are 100 years old, and at Petoskey stones. You know, they’re coral too. So, here’s coral in this hand and a Petoskey stone in this hand.... that just connects me to it in a way that enhances my learning,” he explains.

Another area important to Robertson is accessibility for all. Though museum entry is low-cost, it may still be prohibitive for some. So, as is no secret, the museum and John Ball Zoo are exploring asking for a millage. The question would be on the November ballot, and if it passes, money would be put toward underwriting museum admissions for those with low or no income.

“When the museum was built it was designed to be all one level, street level, designed in a way to look like a department store, so it was welcoming to all. Being able to analyze that and extrapolate the core principles, having that kind of discipline, is just another way that my law training has helped.

“I would argue that having a law degree is a ticket to many different things. Not all lawyers are litigators like you see on TV,” Robinson says.

He and wife Sonja live in Grand Rapids and have four children

ranging in age from mid-teens to mid-twenties.