It was a small private funeral at the Holy Name Catholic Church in Redlands on Monday morning. Humble and unassuming. The deceased was Ernest Z. Robles, who died of heart failure on September 5 at the age of 92.
His son and grandson pushed their patriarch’s coffin onto the altar and the ensemble played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Nearby is a 1980s photo of Robles, smiling in a suit and tie, with a mustache. There’s another photo in the memorial show: Robles, dressed in a navy blue uniform, was about to fight in the Korean War as a young man.
Friends and family — among them five children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren — packed the front row seats of the church. There were eulogies praising the kindness of Robles, his love of road trips and Friday family nights at home with pizza and champagne while everyone was playing pool.
After Holy Communion, Dora, his wife of 68 years, tearfully signed her husband’s name on the parish memorial book, which lists all the believers who have died over the decades.
Like most of the others, it was a funeral until at the end, Mike Chavez took the podium.
He is a professor of sociology at Riverside Community College, executive director of the Inland Empire Labor Council, and Robles’ godson.
“If that’s my wish,” Chavez said, his voice pulled slightly, “we could fill a couple of stadiums today with people” whose lives were changed by his godfather.
In 1975, Robles created the Hispanic Scholarship Fund by taking a $30,000 mortgage on his home to help Latino students pay for college.
Today, the Gardena-based nonprofit is a charity.
It has awarded more than $700 million ($33 million last year alone) to tens of thousands of students. Companies from Procter & Gamble to Anheuser-Busch, Ralph Lauren to Lowe’s, and celebrities from Cheech Marin to Gloria Estefan have backed the fund. Its alumni span medical and legal fields, corporate suites, Capitol Hill, education, and more.
“To borrow a phrase from Lin-Manuel Miranda, people are in the room where this happens right now,” said Fidel Vargas, president and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund since 2013.
The son of Mexican immigrants received a scholarship from Roberts for a personal letter of congratulations while attending Harvard Business School in the 1990s.
“He didn’t want the spotlight. He didn’t want anyone to thank him. He just wanted to make a difference,” Vargas said. He was the mayor of Baldwin Park at the age of 26.
Another Hispanic Scholarship Fund recipient? Me, when I attended Orange Coast College in the late 1990s.
The amount wasn’t much – $500 or $1000, I don’t remember. But it just happened when I needed it. This money helped pay for my courses and textbooks and put me on the path I am today. It was accompanied by a letter from Robles cheering on my achievements while reminding me that my journey had only just begun.
I arrived at his funeral early, expecting a huge crowd.
“I bet he’ll know you,” said Ernest’s son Thomas Robles. Before the service began, we stood outside the holy name of Jesus, waiting for the crowd to arrive. they do not. Maybe Redlands went too far. Maybe the 11am service on Monday was too early.
Maybe not enough people know about Ernest Z. Robles—even those he helped.
“He just knew everyone and their stories,” Thomas continued. “‘Oh, you went to college. You became a doctor. He helped change the world. He didn’t sign for Paris [Accords], but he does make a difference. “
Robles was born in 1931 in the border town of Pittelville, Arizona. He moved with his family to the riverside community of Arlington when he was four years old and got on a watermelon truck.
He attended segregated schools, then fought in the Korean War, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1960, Robles began a career in public education in the Inland Empire, from counselor to English as a Second Language consultant, to athletic coach, teacher, and finally, principal of Casablanca Elementary School In Riverside, one of the last segregated schools in Southern California when it closed in 1967. Even then, he would give out $50 scholarships to students.
A doctoral dissertation on Casablanca Elementary School won him the attention of the predecessor of the U.S. Department of Education, which hired him to travel the South and issued a court order ordering the school district to desegregate.
“Dad will tell us how he’s going to cross the South, but he’ll never stay in town,” said Ernest Robles Jr., laughing. “He would give those schools legal papers and leave. But by doing so, he became more convinced that education was the path to success for minorities.”
His father eventually became an assistant district administrator for equal educational opportunity for the federal government. That’s when Robles realized that Latinos were grossly underrepresented in higher education and their numbers were growing, which led him to create the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.
“The minimum goal of any society is to be able to enable the population of any race to reach their full potential[and]in government, in business…and in all these aspects of society in proportion to their numbers,” He told The Times in 1991. “Hispanic simply doesn’t exist.”
The nonprofit started with one bedroom at the Robles’ house and grew to more rooms until the children asked their father to rent an office. He’s a fundraising novice, and executives often advise him to ask for more money next time. Within a decade, companies came to the Hispanic Scholarship Fund to ask how they could help.
Ernest Jr. remembers his father being on the road most of the time until his retirement in 1998 — not just corporate boards and visits to the White House to meet Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Hillary Clinton, There are also small towns in the Midwest and Northeast that congratulate winners in person or serve as keynote speakers at small group banquets.
“He lived to hear how the Hispanic Scholarship Fund changed lives,” Ernest Jr. said before telling a story that impressed him.
“One day I was training staff at a hotel and a gentleman came in and started checking in and saw my name. He asked: ‘Do you know Ernest Robles? ” “Yes, that’s my dad.” “‘Really?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Wow.’
“Then he fell silent,” continued Ernest Jr. “Six of my staff were watching. I saw his eyes were wet and his voice was shaking. Then he finally spoke again and said, ‘I’m a doctor because of him.'”
There was no such story at Robles’ funeral. Instead, Father Eric Esparza urged everyone present to remember the excellent work done by Roberts, citing Paul’s second letter to Timothy in the New Testament, in particular the A passage: “I compete well; I have finished; I have kept my faith. From now on, the crown of righteousness awaits me.”
“The light that Ernest has always been on has been given to all of you,” Father Esparza declared. “Don’t give up, don’t get discouraged, but share that light with others.”
Mass ends. An American flag hangs on Robles’ coffin. The motorcycle guards outside stood at attention. A small convoy followed the hearse to Robles’ final resting place.
On the steps of the Holy Name, Anthony Dyer and Frank Roberts Martinez watch. They are the grandnephew and nephew of Robles, respectively.
“He was someone our whole family told us to respect,” Dyer said. “As long as my uncle comes out, my uncle will cut the newspaper.”
“He set the bar very high for all of us,” Robles Martinez said. “He’s like walking love.”