Raised by a single mom, Robert Sanchez of Joliet became a mentor to many – Shaw Local

Jimmy Martinez of Joliet credits community advocate Robert Sanchez with saving his life.

Martinez said he spent a lot of time on the streets as a teen and teetered at the brink of expulsion from Joliet Central High School when Robert, a Joliet Central alumnus and security guard at the school, intervened.

“He told me, ‘Since you like to fight, why don’t you come to my karate class and take your aggression out there?’ Martinez said. “And I started going to the classes and actually liked karate.”

Martinez said he also took boxing classes at the same East side location. Some of Martinez’s cousins ​​took lessons, too. The classes spurred a lifelong interest and a lifetime friendship for Martinez, he said.

“Robert actually became more of a mentor to me,” Martinez said. “I didn’t really have a dad around, and he actually guided me through a lot…he was not just my karate instructor. He was my guide.”

Martinez said Robert’s influence kept him in school and out of prison. Robert became a “father figure” to Martinez’s cousins ​​and other young men and kept them occupied and off the streets.

Robert was 64 when he died April 10, 2021. But Martinez will try to continue his legacy of supporting others.

“I love the man,” Martinez said. “You know, it’s kind of sad he’s not here no more. Even through the years, as we let time go by, we still kept in touch. We definitely should treasure those people who are special in our lives – and definitely learn to guide others in trouble as we were, to pass that knowledge onto others and to help people get out of trouble.”

‘He really called for change in the community’

A third-degree black belt in karate, Robert was a karate instructor with the former Sanchez School of Karate at the Spanish Community Center in Joliet and a former student of the late Ozzie Mitchell ,Robert’s daughter Amy Sanchez of Joliet said.

Mitchell was executive director of the Peter Claver Center in Joliet and a long-time martial arts instructor.

But Robert was also a devoted family man and staunch community advocate. Amy said Robert was the nephew of the World War II hero Sator Sanchez. Sator died on his second tour in Italy, according to a 2009 Herald-News story.

Nothing irked Robert more than to see garbage and broken glass in the Collins Street neighborhood, especially near Sator’s statue (“He always had flags flying over Uncle Sator Sanchez,” Amy said) and the nearby Hartman Recreation Center, Amy said.

“Sometimes the park would get very bad and he’d get very frustrated,” Amy said. “So he’d call the park district and come out to the neighborhood council meeting and shake his fist…He really called for change in the community.”

Robert Sanchez of Joliet was a karate teacher, third-degree black belt in karate, community advocate and staunch family man.

In fact, the Collins St Neighborhood Council held its clean-up day in May in honor of Robert.

“He was not a perfect man by any means,” Amy said. “But he worked hard.”

As a coach, Robert was often the loudest person in the stands at youth sports, cheering everyone on with his “larger than life personality,” Amy said. In fact, being loud was how Robert showed he cared. Amy said Robert often told his children, “I yell because I love you” and “You didn’t come with a rule book.”

“We were raised by a man that was just amazing and rough around the edges at the same time,” Amy said. “We’re grateful for what we learned. Good, bad, indifferent: he was there.”

Robert Sanchez of Joliet was a karate teacher, third-degree black belt in karate, community advocate and staunch family man.  He is pictured on the set of the Oprah Winfrey show during a commercial break in 1991, giving his daughter Amy Sanchez a pep talk.  In 1989, Amy was lying on a couch watching TV when a bullet tore through her family's home and lodged in her brain above her right ear.  She's since worked to improve Joliet's East side.

Robert himself never knew his father, Amy said. He grew up in the Fairmont neighborhood where his late mother Henrietta worked as a translator for the Illinois Department of Employment Security, Amy said.

A “sickly child,” Robert, at age 6, was treated at a sanatorium for tuberculosis, Amy said. In his later years, Robert battled congestive heart failure, she said. When Robert had a full liver transplant in 2008 for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, Amy said his doctor told him, “You have nine lives.”

Nevertheless, Robert always understood “the big picture” in life and loved others very intentionally, Robert’s grandson Isaiah Sanchez of Joliet said.

That meant, “He wanted to make sure you knew he loved you specifically and he was looking out for you specifically,” Isaiah said.

He recalled playing for the Joliet Ravens football team, with Robert cheering for the kids who didn’t have family in the stands.

“He didn’t have that support and knew what it was like to go without it,” Isaiah said, later adding. “He always made time to take that extra effort to try to help people, to treat people in a selfless way whenever he could.”

‘Remember these moments’

Robert made “little moments” special by engaging in activities together: sitting down to dinner, taking car rides, taking “hordes” of family photos and making chili dogs, Isaiah said.

Isaiah said that, as a child, he didn’t understand chili dogs were easy and inexpensive to prepare. He just recalled enjoying them at the dinner table with his grandfather sitting there, watching his grandchildren enjoy chili dogs and laughing and joking with them.

“He made us aware of how something so small and seemingly so simple can be a family bonding moment,” Isaiah said, later adding, “He would say, ‘I hope you guys always remember these moments. Because when I’m gone, that’s all we’ll have are the memories.’”

Robert Sanchez of Joliet was a karate teacher, third-degree black belt in karate, community advocate and staunch family man.  He is pictured with grandsons Isaiah Sanchez and Alfonso Sanchez.

Robert, also a former coach for youth football, high school football and women’s softball, his obituary said, believed in the value of athletic competition, as long as athletes competed against themselves, Isaiah said.

“It was more about proving you can be better than you were,” Isaiah said.

Isaiah said he tries to apply that competitive mindset today, the “mental toughness and fortitude” that fosters self-improvement.

“I think that’s what’s most important,” he said.

• To feature someone in “An Extraordinary Life,” contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or dunland@shawmedia.com,

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