Robert Corbin, who escaped a Nazi prisoner of war camp and went on to serve 24 years in the Ohio House of Representatives, died Friday. He was 90.
In the Ohio House, Corbin was known for his plaid pants, wide array of colorful blazers, love of golf and moderate Republican politics.
“He was a moderate. Even when (Democrat) Vern (Riffe) was the speaker, Bob was able to thrive under that regime – even in the minority. He got along with people … He was just kind of one of the soldiers of the party,” said Lee Leonard, who was a long-time Statehouse reporter. “He certainly wasn’t like the ones they have there today. He wanted to solve problems. He wasn’t one to get up on his high horse and talk about inflammatory social issues.”
Corbin told the Dayton Daily News in 2002: “Well, I’ve always felt you govern from the middle. The farther you get to the edge of the philosophy, the harder it is to govern.”
Former Ohio House Speaker JoAnn Davidson, a Republican, described Corbin as a dependable, hard-working legislator who spoke bluntly and held strong views but still got along with everyone. Even after disagreeing with her on some issue, he pledged support, Davidson said. “Most of all, which is missing now, he was a team player. He believed in the team,” she said.
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Former Gov. Bob Taft, who served with Corbin in the Ohio House, agreed.
“He was outspoken but very pragmatic about getting good legislation done for the people of Ohio,” Taft said. “He was always willing to put the big picture ahead of his own personal interest and make government work and solve problems.”
Corbin had a reputation as a the unofficial leader of the Miami Valley legislative delegation and a lawmaker who dealt an even hand, regardless of party. He brokered a $32 million settlement between Dayton schools and the state to end the federal court-ordered desegregation busing.
Although he wasn’t one to talk much publicly about his POW experience, the story was so dramatic that it was told again and again in the Statehouse, Leonard said.
Corbin was a second lieutenant and an artillery field officer in the U.S Army’s 84th Division in November 1944 when he was captured by German soldiers. “The gray dawn made it hard to see, and we ended up in the wrong pillbox. I then heard a German soldier say ‘hands ooop, come out.’ I thought he was going to shoot me so I pointed my .45 at him and he shot at me. The bullet only ripped my shirt sleeve,” Corbin told the Dayton Daily News in 2000, during one of the rare times when he talked about the experience.
Corbin was taken from camp to camp and ran into a high school classmate at one prison. The classmate was allowed to send a Christmas card home and he included word that Corbin was alive — news that reached Corbin’s mother.
The Nazis marched the POWs for 42 days back toward the Baltic Sea and into Germany, covering 350 miles. Corbin lost 25 pounds and nearly died of dysentery. In southwest Bavaria, Gen. George Patton’s troops tried to free the POWs. During a botched attempt to rescue the POWs, Corbin escaped along with two other officers and spent the next nine days crawling through the dense forest to freedom in March 1945.
“It was the most meaningful experience of my life. It was the worst experience of my life,” Corbin recalled.
Corbin used the experience as the basis of a novel he published in 2011, “Captured! The POW Saga of Frank Battle.”
Corbin returned home from World War II to study at Otterbein College and begin a career in business, starting out as a buyer for Rike’s in 1949 and later buying Foodcraft Management Corp in Dayton. He first ran for the Ohio House in 1976 and served consecutively until being forced out by term limits in 2000. He ended his legislative career by serving as chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee.
Corbin lived in Washington Twp. for 45 years before moving to Bethany Lutheran Village in Centerville in 2002. He served on the Centerville City Council from 2002 to 2006.
He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Ede, and their daughters Carol Wilcox and Lynn Corbin.
Carol Corbin described her father as a generous, busy and loving father who had a great sense of humor. “He tried very hard to make sure we didn’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted said Corbin was a good legislator and an even better man.
“The thing about Bob for me is he was always so supportive and always had a kind word, which is rare in a world of politics where everyone wants to give their opinions and snipe,” Husted said. “He was just a great guy.”
A memorial service open to the public will be held at 11 a.m. Monday Feb. 25 at Normandy United Methodist Church, 450 W. Alex-Bell Rd., Centerville.