Working to put themselves through college, Les, ’77, and Melanie, ’84, (Oquist) Robbins wanted to ease some of the financial burdens for accounting students at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln through a scholarship fund. After successful careers, four children and many entrepreneurial adventures, they established a family foundation to help students and give back to the community.
“I remember struggling to make ends meet while working my way through college. Hopefully, our financial support lessens the time students need to work so they can focus more on their studies. That’s why we continue to support students for five years (including those pursuing the Master of Public Accountancy) with our scholarships,” Les said. “Giving back and helping people has always been important to us.”
A seventh-grade teacher helped him realize his strong math skills while solving problems on a chalkboard. At about the same time, he found a brochure about a certified public accountant (CPA) helping clients with their books and finances, and “a light came on” as he discovered his career.
“My dad was a World War II veteran who was infected with malaria and determined to be 100% disabled, so he received a monthly pension. My mom was a beautician working out of the house,” Les said. “Their income was enough to get by but not enough to get ahead. In those days, if you wanted a car, clothes and spending money, you had to work for it.
At age 13, the Lincoln Journal Star let him develop his entrepreneurial skills and featured his successful newspaper route, which allowed him to save more than $300. He continued to work while attending Lincoln Southeast High School.
“I never considered going anywhere else other than Nebraska. The university made a huge impression on me at a very young age. I sold 7-Up at basketball games in the old coliseum and climbed the chain link fence on the south side of the stadium to sneak into football games. I was a part of the campus environment on game days, and I wanted to return to become a CPA,” Les said.
When his parents divorced his senior year, he decided to live at home while attending college. About three weeks into his first year at Nebraska, he took three tests the same day.
“I hadn’t adjusted to studying, and I got three Ds and thought I was going to flunk out. That motivated me to get with it,” he said. “I was kind of shy, lacking self-esteem back then and not involved much on campus. I sometimes questioned whether I belonged there.”
He stayed to “soak up the knowledge,” especially in tax courses taught by O.J. Anderson, a popular professor. Les found him entertaining because “he would discuss a tax case and bring it to life” and showed how tax professionals were needed.
In December of his sophomore year, his mom died of a heart attack. Les was 20 with two years of college left.
“My siblings and I decided to stay together in the family house. This thrust me into the role of brother/parent for my four younger siblings: Roger, who was 19 at the time; Alicia, 17; Beverly, 15; and Frank, 10,” said Les, who went to court to win custody of his siblings. “It was a difficult and trying time. Without the generous help and support – financially, spiritually and emotionally – from many families and friends, we probably would not have made it.”
Uncertain about his future during his last semester of college, Les interviewed with CPA Bill Strain for a staff accountant position. Les remembers thinking, “How will I spend all of that money?” when he earned a salary of $950 a month.
“Bill took a chance on me, referring to me as a late bloomer, which I was and is still totally true. His friendship and mentoring made a big impact on my career. God only knows how different my life would be without that initial job,” Les said.
Les often visited his bank, which was catty-corner to his office. On one of his trips through the City Bank drive-through, he noticed a teller named Melanie. In time, he worked up the courage to ask her out for a first date at Tico’s.
“That’s when I knew Melanie was the one for me. We were married a year later, November 12, 1983,” Les said. “The most important decision you will ever make is who you marry. I was lucky and have been blessed to have Melanie at my side through this remarkable journey.”
From Osceola, Nebraska, Melanie followed her two siblings to the university. She lived off-campus and worked 30-plus hours a week as a teller. She took a break from school to work at the bank in Osceola for more than a year, and then returned to earn her degree in education and family resources.
“I was happy to be able to experience the big city in contrast to my rural background. I learned life lessons during my college years – being organized, timely, resourceful and financially responsible,” she said. “Accounting and financial responsibility are such important keys to success in any career and daily life.”
The couple moved to Omaha, and Les joined a three-year-old firm, which later became Lutz, and Melanie worked at United of Omaha. Les became the first non-founder to make partner three years later, and in 1992 moved to Darst & Associates.
"I left public accounting and transitioned into entrepreneurial adventures in 1998. They included raw land real estate development, constructing and managing buildings, assisted living communities, a truck stop, self-storage, a hog finishing operation, offices and warehouses. It’s been an exciting run," he said.
Les added how developing a 25-acre public improvement infrastructure project located in Knoxville, Iowa, including their first assisted living community, residential lots and a 55-plus condo area, led to expanding to three additional towns where they built assisted living communities. He found the work meaningful and rewarding.
When they sold all the assisted living communities in 2011, they established the Robbins Family Charitable Foundation with a goal of helping the community. Their four children also serve on the foundation board – Laura LeBlanc, ’10, Nic, John and Andrew – along with their spouses.
“It’s a legacy thing. We meet, and each of us has a vote on what to fund. At a certain age, our grandchildren will be part of the board as well,” he said, referring to their nine grandchildren, aged four months to 11 – Eleni. Dylan, Calen, Reagan, Austin, Selene, Mila, Owen and Joanna.
The Robbins both take great pride in working together as a family to give back to their community.
“We enjoy investing in our future generations. Hopefully, by helping with scholarship funds, students can participate in additional career-building activities on campus and in the business world. It’s great that there are so many networking and internship opportunities now available,” said Melanie.
Published: May 4, 2023
Bree Havlet Awarded Robbins Scholarship
Bree Havlet was selected to received one of the scholarships from Les and Melanie Robbins. A sophomore accounting major from Lincoln Southeast High School, she shared about her journey.
Why did you choose accounting?
“I have always been intrigued with all that is involved in taxes. A family friend does the taxes for my parents, grandparents and other family members. He developed a wonderful rapport with our family. I hope to become a certified public accountant for a business.”
How does the scholarship impact you?
“Their scholarship helps immensely with my tuition for classes and also provides funding for summer classes, books and parking. I am thankful to Les and Melanie and all who help students achieve their dreams. Thank you so much for helping me on my journey!”