Column: He helped thousands of Latino students like me. Do they remember him?

It was a small, intimate funeral at the small, intimate Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Redlands on Monday morning. Modest, modest. The deceased was Ernest Z. Robles, who died of heart failure on September 5 at the age of 92.

His sons and grandson rolled their patriarch’s coffin down the aisle while an ensemble performed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Nearby was a 1980s photo of Robles in a suit and tie, mustache and a smile. On the memorial program was another photo: Robles in his navy dress blues as a young man about to go to war in Korea.

Friends and family members—including five children, eight grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren—filled the front pews. There were eulogies praising Robles for his kindness, his love of road trips and for having Friday family nights at home with pizza and champagne while everyone was playing pool.

After communion, Dora, his 68-year-old wife, tearfully wrote her husband’s name in the parish’s memorial book, which lists all the faithful who have died over the decades.

It was a funeral like most, right up to the end when Mike Chavez took the podium.

He’s a sociology professor at Riverside Community College, executive director of the Inland Empire Labor Council – and Robles’ godson.

“If it had been my wish,” Chavez said with a slight twitch in his voice, “we could have filled several stadiums today with people” whose lives were changed by his godfather.

In 1975, Robles established the Hispanic Scholarship Fund by mortgageing his home for $30,000 to help Latino students fund college.

Today, the Gardena-based nonprofit is a philanthropic powerhouse.

It has awarded over $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 are backing the fund, along with celebrities from Cheech Marin to Gloria Estefan. Its graduates fill the medical and legal fields, corporate suites, Capitol Hill, education and beyond.

“To take a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda, people are in the room right now where it’s happening,” said Fidel Vargas, president and executive director of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund since 2013.

The son of Mexican immigrants received a scholarship with personal congratulations from Robles while attending Harvard Business School in the 1990s.

“He didn’t want to be in the spotlight. He didn’t want anyone to thank him. He just wanted to make a difference,” said Vargas, who was mayor of Baldwin Park when he was just 26 years old.

Another Hispanic Scholarship Fund Winner? Me when I attended Orange Coast College in the late 1990s.

The amount wasn’t much – $500 or $1,000, I can’t remember. But it came just when I needed it. The money helped pay for my courses and textbooks and got me on the path to where I am today. It came with a letter from Robles hailing my achievements and reminding me that my journey was just beginning.

I got to his funeral early and expected a crowded crowd.

“I bet he would have known you,” said Thomas Robles, Ernest’s son. We stood before the Holy Name of Jesus before the service began and waited for the crowds to come. They didn’t. Maybe Redlands was too far away. Perhaps an 11 a.m. service on a Monday was too early.

Perhaps not enough people knew about Ernest Z. Robles – not even those he helped.

“He just knew everyone and their history,” Thomas continued. “‘Oh, you were in junior college. You became a doctor.” He helped change the world. He didn’t sign the Paris [Accords]but he made a difference.”

People hug at the funeral of Ernest Z. Robles

Friends comfort family members during the funeral service for Ernest Z. Robles, 92, founder of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Robles was born in 1931 in the small frontier town of Pirtleville, Arizona. When he was four, his family moved to the Riverside neighborhood of Arlington, where he hitchhiked in a watermelon truck.

He attended segregated schools, then fought in the Korean War and earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1960, Robles began a career in public education in the Inland Empire that took him from counselor to English as a Second Language advisor to athletic trainer, teacher and eventually principal of Casa Blanca Elementary in Riverside — one of the last segregated schools in Southern California when it closed in 1967. Even then he awarded scholarships of 50 US dollars to his students.

A doctoral thesis on Casa Blanca Elementary brought him to the attention of the forerunner of the US Department of Education, who hired him to travel the South delivering court orders asking school districts to desegregate.

“Father told us how he would move through the South, but he would never stay in the cities,” said Ernest Robles Jr., laughing. “He would give those schools the legal papers and get out. But it made him believe even more that education was the path to success for minorities.”

His father eventually became Deputy State Administrator for Equal Educational Opportunities for the federal government. It was at this point that Robles realized that Latinos were woefully underrepresented in higher education at a time when their numbers were increasing, leading him to establish the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

“The minimum goal of any society is for its population of every ethnicity to reach its maximum potential (and) be representative in government, in business … and in all those facets of society in proportion to their numbers,” he told The Times in the year 1991. “Hispanics Just Aren’t Around.”

The nonprofit organization started in a bedroom in the Robles home and then grew into other rooms until the kids asked their father to rent an office. He was such a fundraising novice that executives frequently suggested that he ask for more money next time. Within a decade, businesses came to the Hispanic Scholarship Fund asking how they could help.

Ernest Jr. recalled that until his retirement in 1998, his father was away most of the time — not only to boardrooms and visits to the White House to meet with Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and Hillary Clinton, but also in small towns in the Midwest and Northeast to personally congratulate winners or to serve as keynote speakers at banquets for smaller groups.

“He lived to hear how the Hispanic Scholarship Fund had changed lives,” Ernest Jr. said before sharing a story that stuck in his mind.

“One day I was training staff at a hotel and a gentleman walks in and starts checking in and sees my name. He asked, “Do you know Ernest Robles?” “Yes, that’s my father.” ‘For real?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Wow.’

“Then he fell silent,” Ernest Jr. continued. “My six employees are watching. I saw his eyes water, his voice trembling. And then he finally spoke again and said, ‘Because of him I’m a doctor.’”

Such stories were not told at Robles’ funeral. Instead, Father Erik Esparza urged all present to remember the fine work Robles had done, quoting Paul’s 2nd Epistle to Timothy in the New Testament, particularly the passage which reads: “I have fought well; I finished the race; I kept the faith. From now on the crown of justice awaits me.”

“The light that Ernest kept bright has been given to you all,” announced Father Esparza. “Don’t give up, don’t get discouraged, but share this light with others.”

Pallbearers carry the coffin of Ernest Z. Robles.

Thomas Robles Jr., right, helps carry the coffin of his grandfather Ernest Z. Robles after the funeral service at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Redlands.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The fair ended. Roble’s coffin was wrapped in an American flag. Outside, a motorcycle guard stood at attention. A small motorcade lined up to follow a hearse to Robles’ final resting place.

On the steps of Holy Name of Jesus, Anthony Dyer and Frank Robles Martinez watched. They were Robles’ grandnephew and nephew respectively.

“He was the person that our entire family told us to look up to,” Dyer said. “My uncles cut out the newspaper every time my great-uncle came out.”

“He set the bar high for all of us,” Robles Martinez said. “He was like a walking love.” Column: He helped thousands of Latino students like me. Do they remember him?

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