HR Manager Looks for Life’s Positives
Aug 23, 2017
If anyone understands the true meaning of resilience, it’s Shell Puget Sound Refinery’s HR Manager Robin Yates. Despite major life obstacles that included his parents’ alcoholism, foster care, a cancer diagnosis and the tragic loss of his son, Yates refused to give up.
Robin was born in Pampa, TX, and his parents divorced when he was five years old. Shortly afterward, he moved to Oklahoma with his mom and older brother. His mom later remarried, and both his mom and stepfather struggled with alcoholism. His stepfather worked for the pipeline, and they moved frequently – by the time Robin was 13, he had moved 26 times. He never started and finished a grade in the same school until he reached high school.
On Valentine’s Day in 1974, 12-year-old Robin woke up to find his mother laying down beside him and didn’t hear her breathing. Fearing the worst, he immediately dialed 911. As he waited for the police, Robin reflected upon his own path, as he had already developed the initial stages of regular drinking, smoking and fighting.
He knew he had two choices – he could end up just like his mother, who died from alcohol poisoning at age 36, or choose a different path. He chose the latter, and ever since then, his life has become an example of what it means to fight back against some of life’s toughest obstacles yet somehow finding a way to remain resilient and optimistic about what lies ahead.
Robin currently serves as the Human Resources (HR) Manager at Shell’s Puget Sound Refinery (PSR) in Anacortes, WA and has worked for Shell for 25 years.
Mom’s death marks turning point
“It [mom’s death] was definitely a turning point for me,” he said. “That moment changed the course of my life forever.”
Following the death of his mom and knowing that he needed to remove himself from the unhealthy environment, Robin moved to Nebraska to live with his grandmother. He later moved in with his father, but that didn’t last long before he moved back in with his grandmother. He had an aunt who lived in Bellingham, WA, and he and his grandmother relocated to the area when Robin was 13 to be near her. They were extremely impoverished, and his grandmother died about a year later from heart attack – leaving Robin without a stable home.
His neighbors (a young couple in their early 20’s) later took him in, and the man of the house introduced Robin to the world of classic cars. That sparked an interest in what now represents Robin’s biggest passion.
After a few months of living with his neighbors, he moved in with his older brother for a brief period before finally choosing to put himself in the foster care system at age 16.
Finding true love
Robin met his wife, Leslie, shortly afterward when they were in high school. They pulled up next to each other back in a day when kids “cruised” the streets in their cars showing off to each other. Robin said it was love at first sight – at least for him!
Leslie also works at PSR on the finance team, and they have been married for 36 years. They tied the knot two days after high school graduation and have been inseparable ever since.
“No other girl I dated appreciated cars like I did…until I met Leslie,” said Robin. “She’s my rock, best friend and an incredible partner.”
Robin credits a lot of his success to his wife. “She’s the yin to my yang. I have the big ideas, and she brings them to life. She’s the perfect balance, and she gave me the best gift I could ever ask for – my son.”
Career path takes Robin around the country – and overseas
Robin wanted to become the first person in his family to go to college, but the only way he could afford it was to join the military. He took the U.S. Air Force test and started a day job in logistics at a U.S. Air Force base near Tacoma, WA.
“Leslie and I were as poor as church mice during that time,” he said. “We lived in an apartment with two pieces of furniture donated by our neighbor’s father.”
Robin then received a job opportunity in England providing support for A-10 ‘Warthog’ fighters. While they lived in England, Robin and Leslie welcomed their son Gage to the world, and Robin completed his bachelor’s degree in business. Robin was then stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base as the base transitioned B-52s for B-1B bombers.
In 1989, Robin left the U.S. Air Force and became a contractor in the finance department at PSR back when the site was still a Texaco facility. He became a full-time employee in 1992.
Since then, Robin has worked in several locations for Shell in addition to PSR, including refineries, catalyst and chemical plants in Martinez, CA, Port Arthur, TX, Port Allen, LA and Geismar, LA. He also made the untraditional transition from finance to HR. Soon after joining the HR team, Robin completed a master’s degree in human resources.
Yates family loses son
On Dec. 1, 2006, tragedy struck. Robin and Leslie were taking care of minor errands when Leslie received a call from a police officer. Moments later, the policeman and a grief officer shared the horrific news in person that Leslie and Robin’s son Gage had taken his own life at age 21.
“I don’t know why this happened since we never saw Gage exhibit any signs of distress or depression. He appeared to be one of the happiest people around,” said Robin. “We were in a total fog and completely paralyzed at first, but we had to find a way to come together and move forward.”
He went on to say, “We were very numb for a long time. We did a lot of crying, and every vehicle we drove in had a box of tissues in it…everything reminded us of him.”
Robin now has a ‘Gage tattoo’ on his left arm and carries his son’s spirit with him daily with his love for classic cars and racing. He and Gage spent countless hours fixing up cars during his childhood, and Robin bought father-son Camaro project cars for them to work on. On occasion, PSR employees see Robin driving two different classic Camaros to work.
Gage’s memory lives on
In honor of Gage’s passion for cars, Robin and Leslie fund several automotive scholarships. The scholarships are known as the “Gage Yates Memorial Scholarships,” and they’re designated for students at Bellingham Technical College in Bellingham, WA. Their investment in these scholarships has since turned into an endowment that will live on forever. Robin and Leslie leveraged Shell’s HERO (Helping Employees Reach Out) employee giving campaign’s double match program to maximize their annual contributions – and they continue to do so every year.
In addition, there’s a memorial bench in Fairhaven, WA near where Robin and Leslie live that has an engraving honoring Gage. On a regular basis, Robin and Leslie visit the bench and always leave an ice-cold bottle of Mountain Dew – Gage’s favorite drink.
Cancer diagnosis sparks no fear
In early 2014, Robin received the news that he had prostate cancer. Three days later, he was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He immediately sought treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to address the first issue.
The treatment was successful, but he still faces the challenge of Parkinson’s disease. This illness has garnered national media attention in recent years due to the advocacy of actor Michael J. Fox and the late boxer Muhammad Ali, who both battled the disease.
Parkinson's disease is a chronic and progressive movement disorder, and symptoms worsen over time. There is currently no cure for the disease, and the only treatment involves frequent exercise, ongoing medication and/or surgery to help keep the symptoms at bay.
About 1 million people in the U.S. have the disease, but the cause is unknown. As time passes, simple movements become increasingly difficult or impossible, and energy levels continue to wane.
When Robin received the Parkinson’s diagnosis, he refused to give up or feel defeated. “I knew I would do everything in my power to live a normal life. I had already gone through the worst experience imaginable when we lost our son. Nothing comes remotely close to losing a child.”
Parkinson’s disease will continue to impact Robin as he sometimes struggles with activities that many of us take for granted. “My arm makes odd movements on its own sometimes or starts shaking by itself, writing is very difficult, and fine motor skills such as eating, turning a key in the door or using a computer mouse can be challenging,” he said.
Embrace what you have
But in typical Robin fashion, he always finds a positive.
“The shining moment through this is that my martinis will be shaken and not stirred! Now, I just have to start enjoying the taste of martinis!” he said with a laugh.
Despite his optimistic outlook, Robin admits that this is one of the toughest physical challenges he has faced. He finds that proper rest, exercise, diet and a positive attitude work best for him.
What keeps him going? He loves working at PSR and feels extremely fortunate to have the role of HR Manager.
“There’s nothing better than giving someone a job,” he said. “Jobs have such a powerful impact on families and the local community, and I love watching people grow and progress over time. I get to interact with so many people I’d never meet otherwise.”
Robin is a self-declared introvert working in a role that requires him to be extroverted all the time. This has forced him to embrace a level of compassion he never could have imagined.
“It’s important to realize that everybody has a story, and mine is no better or no worse than anyone else’s,” he said. “I always consider what’s going on in someone’s life that I might not know about, and I try to never make assumptions. You just don’t know what type of battle someone is facing at any point in time.”
Don’t hold back
Due to his lack of stability as a child, Robin views PSR as his second family and one that has supported him through some very dark times.
“I’ve always had a strong support network here, and I am fortunate to have such incredible colleagues,” he said.
When asked about the importance of resilience in his life both professionally and personally, he said, “You cannot change the challenges life brings us, but you control how you react. Parkinson’s makes me feel less than optimal at times, but I have work to do and people who depend on me. You have to keep pushing – life is about accepting the challenges, helping others and facing your fears,” he said.
He paused before adding, “When I die, I want to have truly lived life. So far, I’ve survived two airplane crashes, had a few scars and broken bones, a wonderful son, a fantastic wife and zero regrets. When I pass, I’ll know that I’ve left it all on the table and didn’t hold anything back.”
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