Working for a Great Society
Catherine Robb brings her famous family's spirit to a new generation
Published in 2005 Texas Rising Stars magazine
on June 21, 2005
Updated on February 28, 2017
Catherine Robb looks as if she’s just laid an egg.
Perched atop a vivid-blue exercise ball, the lithe attorney rolls gently back and forth behind a narrow dark-wood desk in her small office at the George & Brothers law firm in downtown Austin. A standard desk chair sits nearby, but Robb prefers the exercise ball.
“It’s good for your back, and it makes me sit up straight,” she explains. She stops rolling for a moment, perfectly balanced.
These days the 35-year-old strives for a similar sense of harmony in her overflowing professional and personal lives. She spends most weekdays in her 11th-floor law office, where she works as a contract attorney, handling civil and general business litigation for the firm. A few times a week she travels to another office just north of downtown on the University of Texas campus, in an imposing white travertine building named for her grandfather, the 36th president of the United States. There at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum she serves as chairperson of the Future Forum, an organization that encourages a new generation to become involved in the museum and come together to talk about issues that would have been important to the former president. And, when she’s not shuttling between George & Brothers and the LBJ Library, Robb serves on no fewer than five boards and volunteers her legal expertise at a local clinic and her time to the Austin branch of Reading Is Fundamental (RIF).
It is an impressive balancing act, and it’s taken a lot of reflection and tweaking to achieve what Robb still considers a work in progress. As she freely admits with a rueful laugh, “I’m not quite good at saying no.”
The bright afternoon sun of an early spring day pours through the narrow windows of Robb’s downtown office. Above her desk hang two diplomas, one from the University of Virginia, where she majored in history, and the other from the University of Texas, where she graduated from law school in 1998. Photographs of family and friends crowd the windowsills and the shelves of a small bookcase. An especially vibrant photo of her grandmother rests on a computer desk along the back wall. In it, a beaming Lady Bird Johnson gazes out from under a straw hat as she sits among a field of her beloved wildflowers.
References to her family pepper Robb’s animated conversation. Her new cell phone even has distinctive rings for each of her immediate family members: the “Eyes of Texas” for her mother Lynda, who attended UT; the University of Virginia fight song for her father, Charles Robb, a U.Va. law school alum and former governor of Virginia and United States senator; and musical rings for both of her sisters, who, like her parents, reside in Virginia. Although she never planned to remain in Austin after law school, Robb found herself tied to the city in part because it is home to her grandmother and her aunt, Luci Baines Johnson, and various cousins.
But even the high-energy, high-commitment Robb needs a rest now and then. In 2003, she decided she needed a break from her law career.
“I left because I was being pulled in too many directions,” explains Robb, who was struggling to balance her caseload with her board commitments and the Future Forum. “I just got to the point where I needed to sit down and figure out how I can do it all and feel as if I have a better handle on all of it.”
In the wake of that decision, Robb devoted herself to the Future Forum and indulged her love of travel (“I have terrible wanderlust”), visited friends and joined the Commission of 125 (125 being the number of years since the establishment of the University of Texas), a prestigious group of individuals who met for nearly two years in order to recommend how the University of Texas could best serve itself and others over the next 25 years. Of the more than 200 people who participated on the commission’s various committees, only a handful appear in the video that accompanied the final report to University of Texas President Larry Faulkner. Robb is one of these individuals.
“When she speaks,” says Bill Stotesbery, president and general manager of Austin’s public television station, “people listen. And that’s a very important thing.” Stotesbery says when he first met Robb, he was immediately impressed by what he calls her “powerful leadership presence.”
During Robb’s time away from practicing law, she sought advice from a few trusted mentors, including Judge Royal Furgeson, now a United States district judge for the Western District of Texas. “The question was, where did she go from there?” Furgeson recalls. “I just told her to be sure that she was clear about what she wanted to do.”
Furgeson was impressed by her “good spirit” when he hired her as one of his law clerks in 1998. But after she arrived at his office, he found himself waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Because she was the granddaughter of a president and the daughter of a governor and U.S. senator, I always kind of wondered if Catherine would ever pull rank,” laughs Furgeson. In the end, the joke was on him. As LBJ Library Director Betty Sue Flowers observes, “I can’t imagine how her grandfather would have wished for a better representative of the things he stood for because she’s always standing behind his ideas and not behind his name.”
The flat West Texas landscape of Midland (hometown of the current president and first lady) was a bit of a shock for a young woman raised amid the rolling hills and charming historic neighborhoods of Virginia. “It was sort of like being in Giant,” she laughs. “You have Elizabeth Taylor moving out from the East Coast to the farm country and she gets out to West Texas and … it’s very different.” But the year she spent in Midland clerking for Furgeson was instructive, and she credits him with more than a few life lessons. “He really wanted us to have a good experience, to really learn about practicing the law. And he also wanted to make sure you realized you could be a good lawyer and a good person. Your reputation really counted for a lot.”
Although Robb imagined she would return to Virginia after her clerkship, she instead moved back to Austin. Again, family played a role. She realized living in Austin would give her a unique opportunity to spend time with her grandmother, who by then was in her late 80s.
These days the two women have a standing Tuesday-night dinner date. Sometimes Robb will cook at home for Mrs. Johnson, inviting a few friends who she thinks will make interesting dinner companions. Other times, the pair will dine at favorite spots around Austin.
The former first lady knows all about the library program spearheaded by her fourth grandchild. She’s attended a few Future Forum events and even offered the LBJ Ranch in the Texas Hill Country as the site of a kick-off picnic.
“She always wants to know what’s going on, and I think she likes — I hope she likes — what we’re doing. I hope she likes the idea that we’re trying to nurture the library and also make sure that the library is a place that nurtures other people,” says Robb, who remembers childhood visits to the library, where she played with her mother’s dolls in the basement archives.
Today Robb presides over the Future Forum’s executive board and is immersed in its various events, which fall into three loosely defined clusters: public policy, cultural arts and a book club. A movie group is the newest addition. After Flowers took over as director in 2001, she had a series of conversations with Robb. “I wanted to engage young professionals in the work of the library,” she says, “which is not the same as just getting them to come to the library.”
“Catherine saw the vision immediately,” she says. “She saw that what her grandfather would have wanted, we thought, was to engage young people in being better citizens and being interested in public policy and taking on the responsibilities of good citizenship and community service. And boy, she’s an outstanding example.”
A few months ago Flowers asked Robb to make some remarks at a library event. Robb spoke with passion about the Future Forum and its bipartisan public policy panels featuring local, state and national candidates for public office. Flowers looked on as one guest encouraged Robb herself to become a candidate and the rest of the audience broke into enthusiastic applause.
The crowd’s reaction reminded Flowers of an observation she once shared with Mrs. Johnson. “‘Of all the people in your family, the one I think who has inherited in this generation the genes of your husband, that is to say, someone who would be just a marvelous candidate, is Catherine Robb.’ And Mrs. Johnson looked completely horrified.”
Robb responds in a similar fashion when pressed about her political aspirations. She has, she says firmly, no interest in running for office. She would rather devote her public service to the various organizations on whose boards she serves.
In the fall of 2004, with a new clarity about her life, she returned to her law firm in an “of counsel” capacity. She’s passionate about free speech issues, but she works on a variety of cases. “With litigation generally, it’s feast or famine. Being a contract attorney, it’s a little more so,” jokes Robb. Her colleagues tease her about the countless board meetings, but she claims to be getting better about saying no.
Last March, she combined two of her interests by hosting a RIF event celebrating the artwork of Dr. Seuss. Robb began volunteering with RIF last year, in honor of her mother’s 60th birthday, and the two share a love of Seuss’ books and whimsical art. A limited-edition replica of a fanciful Blue-Green Abelard, one of the lesser-known “secret art” pieces that Seuss crafted in the 1930s, is mounted on the wall behind her desk at George & Brothers. A gift from her mother and nicknamed Heloise (a literary nod to the French abbess and wife of philosopher Abelard), the bemused creature appears to watch over Robb as she toils at her desk. “She makes me smile,” says Robb.
So does a large bowl of candy parked on her desk. Robb admits to an active sweet tooth, but then gestures toward a work cabinet. “I have a V8 juice over there,” she says with a laugh.
“Balance is everything.”