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James Robbins, 65; helped build Cox into cable giant

James Robbins had run Cox Communications for all but the first two of his 22 years at the company. James Robbins had run Cox Communications for all but the first two of his 22 years at the company. (ASSOCIATED PRESS/file 1999)

ATLANTA - James O. Robbins, who guided Cox Communications through two decades of rapid change in telecommunications, died Wednesday after battling cancer. He was 65.

A former news editor at WBZ-TV in Boston, Mr. Robbins had run Cox Communications - one of the nation's largest providers of cable, phone, and Internet - for all but the first two of his 22 years at the company. He retired in 2005 and was living in Westport, Mass.

During his time at the top, Cox Communications quadrupled in size, branching into new markets and new services.

"Jim was a giant in the cable industry," said Sam Williams, president of the metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. "He built Cox Communications into a nationally prominent telecommunications company that helped establish Atlanta as a leading city for telecommunications."

Mr. Robbins was an enthusiastic adviser and contributor to a host of companies, schools, and organizations. After retirement, he was elected to the board of Cox Enterprises, which controls Cox Communications and owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He was also known as a family man. Married for 37 years and the father of three daughters, Mr. Robbins always seemed conscious that other employees also had families, said Ellen East, a Cox Communications vice president.

Early in her 12 years of working for Mr. Robbins, East said, he hastily postponed a meeting after discovering that it conflicted with her son's first baseball game. "He said, 'We'll do this tomorrow. Never choose work over family.' "

In an increasingly cutthroat business world, he still focused on the people, she said.

"As the company really started to grow in the mid-1990s, he was really bothered that we were hiring a lot of people and he didn't know all of them," East said.

Mr. Robbins oversaw the rollout of a fiber-optics network, which vastly improved the capacity of the company. Also, he was emphatic about improving customer service, East said.

Many employees gathered yesterday morning outside the corporate offices to honor Mr. Robbins. A more formal memorial service for employees will be held in a few weeks.

Jimmy Hayes, president and chief operating officer of Cox Enterprises, worked for Mr. Robbins at Cox Communications for 16 years. He was chief financial officer in 1995, when the company went public - a move that he said proved to be essential.

"We could not have acquired Times-Mirror cable without going public," Hayes said. "Jim recognized that Times-Mirror was a great fit for us."

In the road show that led up to the stock sale, Hayes got a broader view of his boss.

"When we traveled, we always ran into people who knew Jim. There was no one in my life I've known who had more friends than Jim Robbins," he said.

On a trip to Tokyo to brief investors, Mr. Robbins heard that one of his daughters was dealing with leaky pipes in her new apartment - in Boulder, Colo. "He jumps on a plane, flies to Boulder to help her, and meets us in Portland, Ore., on Sunday," Hayes said.

Brian Roberts, chief executive of Comcast Corp., said Mr. Robbins was an energetic competitor and a good friend.

"He just did everything right," Roberts said. "There is a hole in my heart today."

Roberts last saw Mr. Robbins just after Labor Day at a Massachusetts golfing and socializing session attended by a group of longtime friends. Mr. Robbins had recently undergone brain surgery and was between radiation treatments, he said.

"He couldn't play, but he gave us a lesson in courage," Roberts said. "How to handle the last chapter with grace and dignity. No self-pity."

Before arriving in Atlanta, Mr. Robbins was an executive at Viacom Communications, Viacom Cable, and Continental Cablevision of Ohio.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Robbins served two tours of duty with the Navy in Vietnam. During the second tour, he became a public affairs officer and began reading the news over the public announcing system to his mates on a destroyer in the Mekong Valley.

"Ever since I was in college, maybe even high school, I was fascinated with the media and I really thought I wanted to be the next Walter Cronkite," he said in an oral history for a cable industry publication.

After returning, he earned a master's in business degree at Harvard University.

While still a student, he began working on a morning show called "New England Today" for WBZ. After graduating, he stayed at WBZ and eventually became the managing news editor in the early 1970s.

"I was always wanting to go on the air," he said in the oral history, "and they said to me, 'Look, this is the fifth market in the country, Jim. You're nuts. You want to go on the air, go on up to Burlington, Vermont or Lebanon, New Hampshire or something like that, a little small market and maybe you can do the weather on weekends to get started.' "

Instead, he joined the emerging cable industry, working as a general manager for Montachusett Cable Television, serving the area around Gardner and Fitchburg.

Several years ago, Mr. Robbins was named president of the board that runs St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, where he had attended high school.

Bill Matthews, headmaster of the school when Mr. Robbins was board president, had played on soccer and hockey teams with him when both were at St. Paul's.

"He was a remarkable leader with the qualities of character, integrity, openness, and honesty," Matthews said. "He empowered others, he inspired others to do the important work that needed to be done. He was a modest, thoughtful guy. He was a personal friend, as well as my boss."

Mr. Robbins leaves his wife, Debby; three daughters Jane Brooks Robbins, Payson Robbins Murray, and Hilary Robbins Thomas; a brother, E. Brooks; and a sister, Barbara R. Anderson.

Memorial services are scheduled to be held at 3 p.m. on Oct. 20 at Trinity Church in Boston and at 11 a.m. Oct. 27 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

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