Robert Potts Sr. | Obituaries

FLORENCE – Robert Leslie Potts, Sr., passed away peacefully at home in Florence, Alabama on October 28, 2022, surrounded by his family, including his faithful English Setter, Knox.

Even after a long dance with cancer, in which he was the main partner, he maintained his indomitable spirit and sense of humor. Robert cherished all the things that comprised his abundantly enjoyable later life: spending good times with his family and many friends, preparing his church and community for the future, swimming for his health, and above all, hunting, fishing, and enjoying God’s creation—all with boundless energy and in the company of his large network of friends.

Robert was born on January 30, 1944 and raised in Florence, Alabama. He attended Coffee High School, graduating in 1962. His love for the community, especially his affection for his Coffee High classmates, was clear when he gathered for his 60th class reunion a few weeks ago. That was his last social event.

In his youth, Robert developed a strong desire to experience the wider world. While studying at Southern Adventist University, he sailed across the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary to spend his second year at Newbold College outside London. There he met a cohort of international friends, including one particularly nice Swede.

He quickly proposed to Irene Johansson and they married in 1965 in her hometown of Nyhyttan, Sweden. With Irene’s support and deep patience, he began his professional career by entering the University of Alabama Law School and clerking for a beloved federal judge. and earning a Master of Laws degree from Harvard University. He excelled academically and maintained an unmatched work ethic that established his success and reputation. He diligently prepared everyone for every task, pursuit, and challenge for the rest of his life.

He returned from Boston to Florence in 1971 to join his father in law practice in the family partnership of Potts & Young, eventually running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1976. His intention was to influence public policy, and he landed as general counsel of the University of Alabama System in 1984 at the age of 39. From there, his love of learning and incredible energy for impacting the lives of young people led him to the University of North Alabama Chair in 1990, the chancellorship of the state of North Dakota. Commission on Higher Education in 2004 and the presidency of Arkansas State University Jonesboro in 2006. He retired in 2011 as interim president of the Arkansas State University System. What he valued most in his career was his service to these public institutions, of which he was an ardent lifelong champion.

Robert Potts rarely passed up an opportunity to meet a new friend and could do so in any setting. He was a constant learner, thought leader and instigator of action. During his life he volunteered for many organizations, institutions and informal coalitions. He was particularly pleased with his involvement in higher education groups, the Bar Association, Bar Examiners, law school accreditation, serving as a trustee of two HBCUs, and longtime membership in the NAACP. Those close to him are extremely proud of his legacy of leadership, commitment and lifelong inability to sit on the sidelines.

In retirement, he focused on increasing the collective success of communities in the Shoals area, running a small business, and providing a vibrant First Presbyterian Church. He continued to mentor students and young professionals, write articles, establish foundations, cultivate philanthropy, beautify school campuses, invest in racial equity, and deepen his relationships with his family and dear friends. He positively impacted the individuals and communities in which he served both professionally and in retirement. Robert created opportunities for others to excel, achieve and transform.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Irene Elisabeth Potts; daughter, Julie Anna Potts (Parks Shackelford); a son, Robert Leslie Potts, Jr. (Holly); grandchildren, Olivia, Ella and Duke Shackelford and Claire and Anna Leslie Potts; siblings Myra Yeates (Dr. John), Emily O’Toole, Nancy Potts (John McAndrew) and Frank B. Potts (Amy); siblings Lars Frank, Siv Gustavsson, Marianne Gunnarsson and Henry Groth (Anqi) and beloved nieces; nephews; great nieces; and great nephews.

He is preceded in death by his parents, Frank Vines and Ruth Butler Potts; his aunt and uncle, James Amos and Mary Frances Potts Wilbanks.

In lieu of flowers, Robert requested that all memorial contributions be directed to the First Presbyterian Church of Florence 3rd Century Fund, the University of North Alabama Foundation or a charity of one’s choice.

The family is deeply grateful for the care and support provided by Hospice of North Alabama and Home Place.

A liturgy giving thanks to God for the life and ministry of Robert Potts will be celebrated on Friday, November 18, 2022 at 1 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in Florence.

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