"He was a hoarder,” Robbins says. Robbins joined John Q. as his executive assistant in 1981 when the burgeoning mogul still worked out of a one-story building on South Glenstone Avenue. “I’ll tell you exactly how I landed the job,” she says. “We had mutual acquaintances, and I had worked for law firms as a legal secretary and had a lot of real estate background. Whenever he invited me and my former husband to ballgames, he and I would talk real estate.” Her background and business prowess earned Robbins the title of John Q.’s “half-assed attorney.”
The first week she was hired, John Q. was out of town on business. Robbins—who wasn’t afraid to take on her boss—took one look around the cluttered office and decided to make the most of John Q.’s absence. “There was crap everywhere, so I cleaned it out,” she says. When John Q. returned to a neatly organized office, Robbins says he nearly had a stroke. “I did that twice in the 24 years I was there, and he wanted to fire me both times.” It was a threat that fell on deaf ears. “I said no problem,” Robbins says. “Knock yourself out.”
As days passed, the piles reappeared, and Robbins stopped giving John Q. original documents. He’d stuff blueprints of new projects in every available drawer and cabinet, and his imposing wooden conference table in the middle of his office was so cluttered only one lone island of tabletop was left, and it’s where John Q. worked each day.
Much of the legacy—and legend—of John Q. centers around his almost manic work ethic. If he slept, it wasn’t much. He could be a taskmaster and would call partners to demand numbers and details at a moment’s notice. If you didn’t know the answer, you didn’t dare guess. Bill Killian, owner of Killian Construction Co., worked with John Q. as a contractor for more than 25 years, and the two were partners on a private jet. Killian was John Q.’s contractor on more than 35 projects including Chateau on the Lake, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Hammons Field, Hammons School of Architecture at Drury University and Highland Springs Country Club. “I learned early on that he demanded and expected people to be up-to-speed on projects,” Killian says. “If you didn’t know something, you’d better tell him that. But if you didn’t know, you’d better find out and get back to him.”
Few had the clout to say no to John Q., but Robbins could. “We teased a lot,” she says. “He had a nickname for me, and I had a nickname for him. One day he was doing business with one of his banker friends. They were of different political parties and would rant and rave about interest rates. I had a candy bar, it was an Oh Henry! bar, and I had heard 10 minutes of this crap. And finally I just held it up to him, and he just cracked up. So anytime I needed him to cut to the chase and stop being so full of himself, I’d say ‘Henry!’”
Not long after the Oh Henry! moment, Robbins got her own nickname when she overheard John Q. and one of his business partners talking about how they should hire a beautiful woman named Sally who happened to walk by them during their lunch meeting. “They were going on about how they needed to hire Sally,” Robbins remembers. “I’d heard enough of it. I said, ‘Good God. We don’t need someone else walking around here who looks pretty, we need somebody who can type!’” From that moment on, Robbins was Sally and John Q. was Henry. “When he signed his book to me, he put to Sally, love Henry,” Robbins says. “It was our deal, and it only belonged to us.”