Robert Lee Dillard was a Black man in love
Anybody who ever met Robert Dillard was absolutely awestruck by how much he loved his wife. He was a man in love, and he showed it in every way possible.
Most of the staff at the MSR had never met Robert, but most knew that he and publisher Tracey Williams-Dillard had something special.
“I waited a long time to find that man. I loved that man and he loved me,” said Williams-Dillard. “He was the love of my life.” And judging from his actions, she was the love of his.
“I love the way he treated you” is what one longtime friend said to Williams-Dillard. This was echoed by many throughout the remembrance and celebration of Dillard’s life held after his virtual January 2 memorial service, which was attended by over 400 people.
Not only did he love his wife, he also embraced all those who were near and dear to him. “He tried to do right by everybody, and he loved everybody” is how Robert Dillard’s wife of only 11 years described her husband, who departed this life on December 19, one of the over 300,000 who have succumbed to COVID-19.
Tracey even now tells the story of how they met with a sparkle in her eyes. According to Williams-Dillard, she had her eye on someone else and was looking for that other person one evening at the former Arnellia’s nightclub in St. Paul. She had held an event there earlier and decided to stay and see a show that evening.
Serendipity intervened and Dillard asked if he could join her at her table. She temporarily left to find the man she had her eye on, so to speak, but eventually found she couldn’t take her eyes off Robert.
They married in 2009.
Dillard’s relatives and friends described him as friendly and sometimes a gruff bear, but he made everyone feel welcome and appreciated. He was the quintessential family man, embracing his new wife’s family. He even met the approval of his mother-in-law Norma Williams, who lived with the couple.
Dillard was from a small town in Mississippi, one of those places that was so obscure and far removed that the old people used to say it was so far back in in the woods that they had to have sunshine pumped to them.
He carried the small town with him to the big city and was a country boy at heart.
His daughter and his sister-in-law called his dressing into question. “He seemed like a really nice guy,” Tina Schief, Tracey’s sister, said upon her initial meeting of Dillard. “But Tracey, you gonna have to do something about his shoes.”
Friends and relatives who attended his memorial and remembrance services commented on his cooking prowess. He loved to cook and grill, and many said his barbeque was second to none. Fishing was one of his passions—he and his wife and others would twice yearly go fishing with KMOJ radio personality Q-Bear and Tina and John Schief. He held his own at the card table, and when you got caught failing to make a bid he would remind you that you came out limping.
“He taught me the meaning of the word hospitality. He knew how to make you feel welcome,” said his longtime friend and fishing buddy John Schief
Spirituality was an important aspect of his life as he played a central role in his Jehovah’s Witness congregation. Fellow Witnesses said he took his service quite seriously.
“Daddy would watch Lifetime because he didn’t like blood and gore. He was a grouchy teddy bear,” said daughter Juanita Holmes. “Daddy changed my life,” she said, explaining that her father moved her from Illinois to the Twin Cities. She said he moved them in order to “give us [sisters] a fighting chance. He gave us something different.”
The Twin Cities Black community owes Robert a debt of gratitude, because when the MSR struggled he worked two jobs to make sure that Williams-Dillard was able to keep the doors to the newspaper open by denying herself a salary.
Last year we lost a lot of good people. Robert Lee Dillard was one of them.
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.