Robbie Billingsley loved to talk.
Ms. Billingsley's piercing voice and verbal acuity were vital assets in her perpetual endeavor to champion the underdog. So it was a cruel irony when ALS robbed her of her speech.
The vocal community activist, lawyer and self-described "character" died Friday after a two-year battle with ALS -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease a progressive and, inevitably, fatal condition. She was 61.
Born Roberta Lee Cook in Detroit, she grew up on a farm outside Ithaca in a community where, she said, "being a Democrat was considered subversive," and hers was a decidedly politically progressive family.
Life became even tougher for her when her father, George, a Communist Party organizer, was arrested for handing out fliers, Ms. Billingsley said in an August Buffalo News profile on her and her struggles with ALS.
"They called me 'Commie Cook,' " she said, with a laugh. "Of course, I had a chip on my shoulder -- I was always getting into fights."
That combative spirit later served her well as a lawyer and advocate for others.
Ms. Billingsley was a founding member of the Western New York Peace Center and moved permanently to Buffalo in 1970, working for the University at Buffalo at E.J. Meyer Memorial Hospital.
She married and raised two children alone after her husband left. Following the deaths of both her mother in 1983 and a young daughter in 1984, Ms. Billingsley -- who had taken college classes since 1964 without getting a single degree -- earned her juris doctorate from UB Law School.
She was admitted to the bar in 1989 and wound up taking assigned cases in family law and criminal court.
City Judge Michael L. Broderick has called her "one of the last of a disappearing breed . . . of attorneys who weren't afraid to voice a plea even though she understood the chances of success were slim, sometimes non-existent."
Ms. Billingsley spent 40 years as a Buffalo community activist. According to the Aug. 8 profile, "Her forceful personality, amiable demeanor and verbal adeptness became her trademarks. In the courtroom, or on the steps of City Hall, she was devoted to helping people in need, whether representing them in court for free or challenging the Buffalo assessor to tax homes in her East Side neighborhood fairly."
Ms. Billingsley was a board member of Fillmore-Leroy Area Residents (FLARE).
She is survived by a son, Joshua Billingsley-Cooke, and four brothers, Patrick Cooke, David Cook, Mark Cook and Dan Cook.
Her funeral will be at 10 a.m. Saturday in Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, 695 Elmwood Ave.