Robert Rymer, a Tennessee native who brought his Southern charm to raise countless dollars for a variety of causes across the country, died Nov. 13 in the Key West home he loved, with his partner of 37 years, John Teets, by his side. He had been in treatment for bone marrow cancer since April, but complications finally took his life at age 67.
Born in Cleveland, Tenn., he was the son of Robert Sr. and Mary Elizabeth Hoyle Rymer, both deceased, and the third child after his sister, Malinda Rymer Grosz, of Ocala, Florida and his brother, J. Hoyle Rymer, who died earlier this year. Other survivors include his sister-in-law Sharon Spence Rymer of Key West and DeLeon Springs, Fla., and five nephews and a niece, as well as their children and many close cousins.
Robert was a graduate of the Tennessee Military Institute, where he earned All Mid-South honors in football and wrestling, and Rollins College. An Army veteran, he was also a Silver Life Master in American Contract Bridge League ratings.
After college, he went into banking in Cleveland, where he began charitable work with the American Heart Association and Junior Achievement.
Seeking greener pastures, he moved to Chicago in 1975, where he opened an import-export business. That business eventually became his signature gift store Robert's on North Halsted Street, opened in its early days of the busy retail and entertainment district's redevelopment. Later, he opened on Walton Street and after a successful Gold Coast run, closed that business when the building was demolished for the site of Bloomingdale's. Then he joined his friend Stevie Ball to operate a custom carpeting showroom in the Merchandise Mart that counted Hyatt Hotels and United Airlines among its customers.
In 1990, he and Stevie co-chaired the first major benefit for Chicago House, then a struggling AIDS-service agency, bringing Mayor Richard M. Daley to his first black-tie event for such an organization. Given his business acumen, Robert made sure he found the right underwriters for the benefit so every dollar raised went directly to clients. In subsequent years, his service on the agency's board helped move Chicago House into the black, providing care for hundreds of men, women, children and families affected by HIV.
He charmed his way into his adopted city's social scene, and at one point a Chicago Magazine cover story named Robert and John among the city's most interesting couples: "Smart AND nice."
The two met in 1977 and clicked instantly. At the time, John was working for The Chicago Sun-Times and came out by introducing Robert as his significant other. Co-workers were wonderfully accepting, but the law was another matter. The two finally were able to marry in 2014 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington with their friends Ben Keyser and Ken Cagle, also of Cleveland, taking vows at their side.
They retired to Holly Hill, the former Bowater estate near Cleveland, in 1994 and quickly started raising money for charities ranging from the Cleveland Public Library to the Museum Center at 5ive Points. Seeing the need for rural HIV services and awareness, he helped found Nancy's House, and he and John used Holly Hill as the venue for a series of events that kept the agency alive with private support until it gained United Way certification. An eager and graceful host, he also made Holly Hill the scene of countless dinners, receptions and parties for family and friends. Restoring the estate's gardens became a full-time delight.
Avid travelers, the couple circled the world, from safaris to tortoise-watching in the Galapagos and long road trips throughout Europe. They began visiting Key West in the '90s, and finally renovated a cottage in Old Town, where they settled a decade ago.
On the island, Robert's charitable impulses turned mostly to Equality Florida, working to secure equal rights for all throughout the state, and the South Florida Symphony Orchestra, which dedicated its season-opening concert to his memory the day after he died.
There will be no services, and informal gatherings to celebrate his life will be announced at later dates. Those wishing to remember him are asked to give to the Cleveland Library's Leah F. Hoyle Fund, founded in his grandmother's memory, at 795 Church Street NE, Cleveland 37312; or, in Key West, to the Xena Fund or Sister Season.