At Greater Union Baptist Church on Friday morning, hundreds of community members filled the sanctuary to honor the life of Debra Kawee Robinson. Tributes of humor, sorrow, love, admiration and awe built on each other as friends and family said goodbye.
Born Debra Kawee Goff, the lifelong Oklahoma native left a larger-than-life legacy on the world around her.
Affectionately known as Kawee, Debra graduated from Bixby High School before attending Langston University. There, she met her “forever love”, Gregory Robinson, Sr.
On campus, Debra and Greg became an unstoppable force. They championed community initiatives and pioneered student organizing efforts on their campus. Together, they created and launched the Student Involvement Association, building a legacy and lifelong friends along the way.
A brilliant a pioneering accountant, Debra helped launch the Tulsa chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants. Meticulous and purposeful in her work, she fought to create opportunities for other aspiring young, Black accountants. Alongside her business partner Ambrose Sims, Debra launched a corporate sponsorship program aimed at providing scholarships and job opportunities.
Over the course of more than a decade, those efforts raised more than $1 million and found jobs for over 500 young, Black accountants.
Debra Robinson’s inspiring career was cut short, however, when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
The disease progresses rapidly, and doctors’ prognosis for Debra was grim. But Debra’s strength, faith and abiding love for her family spurred her forward.
As she valiantly battled the disease while raising her two sons, Setlah and Gregory II, the Robinson family faced another tragedy. Gregory Robinson, Sr. passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Now a single mother fighting a debilitating illness while caring for her two children, Debra could have easily succumb to sorrow.
Instead, she summoned an almost superhuman strength that displayed itself purely as love.
Family and friends reflect on Debra’s profound impact on their life
At her celebration of life on Friday, nearly every person who took to the podium reflected on her other-worldly love and strength.
Thelma Chichester, who befriended Debra during their time at Langston, spoke about the “gifts of love” Debra gave.
Chichester recalled how Debra welcomed her into the Robinson family for school breaks and holidays. She recalls feeling at home among Debra’s loved ones.
“Kawee was a quiet soul,” Chichester said, “and while her love was private it nevertheless was big.”
As Debra’s disease progressed, it became increasingly difficult for her to walk, and later move, and later eat on her own. But this subtraction of Debra’s physical abilities, her niece Natalie Sims reminder mourners, did nothing to diminish her spirit.
“It’s easy to look at the limitations she had on her body and to render her life as a tragedy,” Sims remarked. “That’s not the case.”
“Life has to be more than what we can visit or where we can walk or what we can do. It’s about the spirit. It’s about love.”
Sims, an artist, talked about the ways in which Debra was a conduit for her own creativity. Sims said Debra “always made room” for her to express herself authentically.
“It’s one thing to be alive, it’s another thing to live with intention, and that’s what Aunt Kawee did.”
Debra’s son, Greg Robinson II delivered a passionate and profound eulogy for his mother
In a stirring eulogy to his mother, Greg Robinson, II described his mother as a “warrior”, who endured every ounce of pain she faced in order to “make sure her sons were okay”.
Robinson opened his remarks with a reference to Scripture, remarking that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
Often, this verse is used in reference to death. But, Robinson said, with his mother this was different. It was impossible to make sense of her presence and her peace and her love that just seemed larger than life.
“Mama was just too big,” he said, remember a conversation with his brother Setlah. “And she was because mama got the gift of being absent from the body in life.”
“She got the gift of being present with the Lord in life,” Robinson excalimed.
“So when you touched her, when you felt her, when you talked to her and you couldn’t understand what it was, she was with the Lord then. She’s been with the Lord the whole time.
If there is one thing the enormity of Debra’s love should teach us, Robinson said, it’s that we cannot simply focus on being loved.
We must, as Debra did every day, focus instead “on being love.”