Marilyn Hoskin has been Dean of the College of Liberal Arts since 1995. Her association with Bob covered the years in which he served as chair of the Geography Department, and involved continuous work to maintain and improve the Department’s programs at UNH.
I am honored to be able to speak in proud remembrance of Bob LeBlanc. I share with all who had the good fortune to know Bob an immeasurable sense of loss and an imperfectly defined ability to respond. Although words often fail us because they are truly inadequate expressions of how we feel, in reality, words are what we academics do, so please permit me to speak as a citizen of the University in fond recognition of an exquisite colleague. Let me speak for the literally thousands of students Bob touched in ways we are only now beginning to comprehend, and let me speak for scores of faculty and staff who had the privilege of working with a genuinely collegial colleague. And I can’t help but want to speak for the many people whose pets have had the luxury of dedicated care from the remarkable veterinarian of the family. We share a loss that is enormous.
Others have known Bob for upwards of 30 years in all the roles he played as a teacher, scholar, and willing participant in the life of the University. I knew him for a much shorter time, but it did not take long to understand the kind of person he was. He was in many ways an ideal, the kind of faculty member who did what he did because he loved both his discipline and the sense of discovery that it could mean to students of all ages. I knew he was a popular and effective teacher from the first round of student evaluations I saw in 1995, but I didn’t fully appreciate how extensive his influence was until I began to read the tributes from students who had him ten, twenty, even thirty years ago. Let me encourage you to visit the website, which has grown more than Topsy in the last week; it offers only a glimpse of their sentiments, but it is itself a stunning portrait of a man who took the academic hand of thousands of students and helped them become curious about the world and committed to making themselves international citizens. Their words are the highest kind of honor our world of teaching and scholarship knows:
“…he inspired me to be better than I thought I could be…”
“…he opened my eyes to the world.”
“…no matter how many students were waiting or how late it was, he made time for me.”
“…he made me think in ways I hadn’t even dreamed I could think.”
Or, my personal favorite:
“I know he is a good professor and all that, but he is so much more.”
For all faculty who would be thrilled with just the “good professor and all that” part, we know how very significant these tributes are.
Bob was a kinetic figure, continuously planning new initiatives that would increase interest in Geography, or constructing trips that would make him better able to engage students in a world they would stretch to explore. As chair of his department, he was tenacious in representing its interests and compelling in the case he would make for consideration of its needs. But he was always – always – attentive to the larger picture of University goals. His world, I have to think, was the bigger picture, and I will always be enormously grateful for the perspective he brought to me and others.
Bob did not use retirement as a vehicle to distance himself from either work, or study, or obligation. He remained a presence for the University in ways we depend upon to continue the links between students, faculty, and the communities around us. His place in the University, in Durham, and in the professional circles of geography and international travel was timeless and constant, and the choices he followed in academic life and retirement remain a model from which all of us can learn. The University was a big part of Bob’s life, and the University is a much better place for that fact. If when we who have not retired can someday claim some fraction of the accomplishment and sense of place in our community that Bob achieved in his, we should be very, very proud.
Bill Wallace shared over forty years of association with Bob. As a faculty member in Geography since 1957, Bill knew him as a student, colleague, and friend. Bill served as chair until he retired in 1997.
Our Long Association
My first contact with Bob came in the spring of 1959 when he was a student in my course on the Geography of Anglo America. Evidently, his interest in geography survived the experience, for he received the grade of ‘A’’; this in a time when an ‘A’ was a mark of distinction, not an entitlement.
Bob joined me as the second geography faculty member at UNH in 1963, and we worked together to establish and develop the program in the University. And so we were colleagues for and friends for 38 years. As we all know, these two terms are not necessarily synonyms.
I recall that when Bob was under consideration for the job I phoned my friend John Borchert, who was one of Bob’s mentors at the University of Minnesota, and asked him for his evaluation. In those distant days, the opinions of those whom you knew were more important than the letters of recommendation. John said, “Bob is a good person to have around.” John was right.
Bob and I had adjoining offices for most of the years that we spent together. The door connecting these offices was almost always open. Nearly every morning we would discuss the condition of the world. Bob, who was an early riser and a devout reader of The Boston Globe, had usually got through the paper before I came in.
Over those many years, we discussed:
John F. Kennedy’s assassination
LBJ’s Great Society programs
The Civil Rights Movement
The war in Viet Nam
Richard Nixon and Détente
Richard Nixon and Watergate
Jimmy Carter and the Iran Hostage Crisis
Reagan and the Conservative Revolution
Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal
The Gulf War
Clinton – a new democrat
Clinton and a new level of sexuality in the White House
The appointment of George Bush II
In our profession we shared many commonalities. Our interest in geography derived from an interest in places and landscapes and how they developed. We eschewed the ‘quantitative revolution’. We spoke the same language as we worked in economic, cultural, and historical geography.
We attended more than 50 professional meetings together. In geography, there are regional meetings in the fall and national meetings in the spring. So we traveled many thousands of miles and many days together, from St. Johns in Newfoundland to San Diego and from Seattle to Miami and dozens of places in between. Bob was always a good companion, accepting the frustrations of travel with good humor and always jovial at the cocktail hour that marked the end of the day.
Bob’s Personal History
Bob was born on October 28, 1930 in a French neighborhood in Nashua. Both of his parents were French and his education began in Catholic schools in which the language of instruction was French. But Bob early desired to move into a larger world. He did not want to spend his life as a French-Canadian on the south side of Nashua. So he insisted on entering public schools and graduated from Nashua High School in 1949. He told me that as a boy he often rode his bicycle to the railroad station to see the train from Montreal come in. In the 1930’s, this was Nashua’s most direct contact with the outside world, and it was also his link to his ancestral homeland. We should recall that the railroad was open to Montreal by 1850 and that the French, unlike other immigrants, came by train, not by boat or wagon.
After graduation in 1949, Bob enlisted in the Air Force, which offered a ticket to adventure and far places. In the following four years, he traveled all over the United States, as well as to Puerto Rico, Greenland, and most important, to England. Bob fell in love with England, becoming a Franco-American Anglophile – a rare species, indeed! Bob returned to England many times in the years that followed, most recently this past March when he spent ten days in London. He and Andi had planned to walk in Cornwall, but the hoof and mouth disease diverted him to the streets of his favorite city.
Bob was discharged from the Air Force in 1953 and entered the University of New Hampshire in September of that year. At the University, he came under the influence of Donald H. Chapman, a greatly respected glacial geologist, and decided to major in geology. He took time out from his studies to work on a glacial research team in Norway and later spent the winter of 1957-1958 on an ice island in the Arctic as a research assistant with the Air Force Cambridge Research Center. Evidently this experience exhausted his interest in geology in general and the polar region in particular, for he then changed his major to history and never returned to the arctic. Thus, when Bob graduated in June of 1959 he had studied geology, history, and geography.
He entered the graduate program in geography at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1959. This was a fortunate choice because Minnesota was then emerging as one of the best departments in the country. Fred Lukermann became his mentor and Bob began his work in historical geography. He did well. He was named a Tozer Foundation Fellow in 1962 and won the first Ralph H. Brown Prize for the best publication by a University of Minnesota Graduate Student in Geography in 1963.
LeBlanc’s master’s degree thesis was on the Acadian migrations and his doctoral dissertation was on the development of manufacturing in New England in the nineteenth century. These two themes were to characterize his work. For the first twenty years he worked in historical geography and then he returned to his roots and concentrated on Canadian studies. In these years he was active in Franco-American affairs, working with the New Hampshire Council for the Humanities and the Franco-American Cultural Center in Manchester. Bob was also active in professional organizations. He was the founder of the Eastern Historical Geography Association and was also deeply involved in the New England-St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society, serving as Secretary, Vice-President, and then President in 1975. He received the Distinguished Service Award of this organization in 1988.
Bob as a person
But we are here to remember Bob as a person…
Generous…to a fault. Always very hospitable, even when he was an instructor and poor as a church mouse. Often when we were at professional meetings with several people around the dinner table, the Yankees and other Calvinists were hard at work trying to determine who should pay for what. Bob would put a few extra dollars on the table so that we could be on our way.
Open…Bob was one of the least devious persons that I have known. He would not have been a good poker player because he always put all of his cards on the table.
Friendly…Bob was a true ecumenicist. He once told me that he wanted to embrace everyone. The size of this gathering confirms that.
Helpful…Bob was always willing to do more than his share and wanted to help everyone.
Optimistic…Unlike me, Bob did not accept Murphy’s Law – if anything can go wrong, it will. His view was that things will come right. The world needs optimists. They are right about 80% of the time.
Youthful in spirit…Bob never lost the enthusiasm of youth. He retained a zest for life and adventure. I cannot imagine him growing old.
Details…not Bob’s strong point. He focused on the big picture, not the fine print. I recall a conversation in his office a few days before he and Andi were to be married. He was talking to Bob Adams about plans for the wedding. Finally, Adams said, “By the way, where is this wedding to take place?” LeBlanc replied, “At your house, of course.” Adams said, “Hell, we just moved in. We don’t have any furniture and the house is torn apart.” At that point, I said, “Why not at our house?” Which is what we did. And it seems to have worked, for they lived happily ever after.
Bob’s departure was a great loss to all of us. But we should take some comfort in the knowledge that he was doing what he liked when he died; riding a plane to a geography meeting…This time it was UAL flight 175 to Los Angeles, California.
Robert Adams was a faculty colleague of Bob LeBlanc, as professor in the Geography Department for twenty-seven years. He retired in 1994.
One of Bob's Great Loves:
I've been honored to say a few words about one of Bob's great loves -- the love of food and all that surrounded it.
For most of us, food is something we eat when we're hungry and, if we have time, to occasionally enjoy. For Bob, food was an ever-present passion -- something to be researched and studied, something to be cooked with thoughtful expertise, something to be savored in the eating, something to be shared with others.
I'd like to share with you some of my memories of "dinner at the LeBlanc's" -- events that many of us have been part of and events that Bob truly cherished.
Bob absolutely loved to cook, but I never regarded him as a cook. To me, a cook is someone who reads a recipe, faithfully follows the directions and "cooks" it. I'm a cook and it's largely a brainless process, devoid of imagination and creativity. To the best of my knowledge, Bob never faithfully followed any recipe -- certainly never more than once. He loved to read them, but following was another matter. Spurred by his knowledge of food and his imagination and creativity, he was always tinkering with recipes. I'm not talking about recipes from Joe's Diner and Take-Out here, I'm talking about the recipes of Childs, Beard, Prudhomme and other eminent chefs. No one was immune from his tinkering and his tinkerings always turned out exquisitely.
To me Bob was a chef -- someone with an intimate knowledge of the materials, tools, and techniques of the trade, complemented by a creative imagination. He was a culinary artist. When the LeBlanc's had dinner parties, everyone loved to watch Bob do his thing. It all looked so easy, so simple. At least when I was there, there were no open recipe books, no timers, no measuring cups and spoons. Bob didn't cook in standard units of measurement, he cooked in piles, bunches, handfuls, pinches and splashes. While simultaneously cooking two or three dishes, he would sip his martini and be engaged in conversation with everyone there. Occasionally he would turn away to check, give a stir, or add something. It looked almost haphazard, but it wasn't -- it was precise and practiced. He knew exactly what he was doing.
For a period of something like 15-20 years, this all took place in a tiny galley kitchen with a 4-foot-wide aisle. Sufficient in size for the chef but not for the chef, his wife, and all the guests. Nevertheless that's where everyone gathered. To say it was crowded is an understatement. In order to move you had to twist and squirm your way. Needless to say strangers didn't remain strangers for long at the LeBlanc's!
Once the preparation was finished, the sharing part of the meal began. Andy prepared the table with beautiful place settings she had dragged home from some far corner of the globe, often over the protestations of Bob. And the candles were lit. There were always candles. Lots of candles. Candles in the candelabra over the table. Candles on the table and candles on all the flat surfaces around the table. It was like dining in a forest fire.
Then the wine was brought to the table. There was always wine. Lots of wine. Bob was also a student of wines, but not in the usual sense. Bob didn't study the world's great vineyards, wines and vintages, he was a student of "best buy" wines. Unlike with his cooking, when it came to wine, quantity seemed to have the edge over quality. A $50 bottle of superb wine was understandably out of the question; Bob wisely preferred five $10 bottles of good wine, or, even better, ten bottles of $5 wine. It didn't matter; it was always good.
The food was presented and we'd fall quiet as we savored the wonderful dishes Bob had prepared. But soon the traditional table conversation would begin to build. There was always conversation. Lots of conversation. Bob served as moderator, pot-stirrer, trouble-maker and referee. The word "lively" doesn't do justice to those conversations. I don't think any one word could. They ranged from philosophical to trivial, from intense to casual, from rational to off-the-wall, from hilarious to tearful -- all in one evening. They were wonderful and they went on and on until someone said, "my God, it's 1:00 a.m." But those conversations didn't evaporate when you left; they stayed with you for days and weeks. Unfortunately, for me that often meant that I had days and weeks to repeatedly wonder "what in the world possessed me to say what I did that incited the riot." Eventually, I'd just blame it on the $5 wine.
Bob loved every moment of those evenings -- the cooking, the food, the wine, the conversation; he must have, because he and Andy kept hosting them over and over and over again through the years.
As many of you know that tiny galley kitchen has been replaced by a room designed by Bob and Andy that was recently added to their home. It is not a kitchen, not a dining room, not a sitting or gathering room. It is all of those things. It's a magnificent room. It's a celebration room -- a room in which to celebrate food, to celebrate family and friends, and now, a room in which to celebrate Bob and the things that were dear to him.
Bob and Andy:
I've thought about Bob a lot over the past 10 days, as we all have -- about what he believed in, about what he stood for, about what he liked and disliked, about his admirable qualities -- in sum, about who he was. However, my mind, rather than focusing upon Bob, keeps evoking thoughts and images of Bob and Andy. But upon reflection, that's as it should be, for that's as it was -- they were part of each other.
I'm reminded of a poem by the noted TV journalist, Jack Perkins. The poem is included in a book entitled ACADIA where, in verse and photographs of his own, he pays homage to Acadia National Park. The poem is accompanied by a photograph of a pond that is held, as if cradled, by the surrounding hills, but the hills, in turn, are held by the pond, in their reflection upon its surface.
The poem is titled, "A Pond, A Marriage."
At Bubble Pond, the hills contain the lake, as Nature wills.
But look again: the waters of the lake contain the hills.
I think this mutuality is what a marriage is:
No longer hers as only hers, or his as only his.
Instead, once man and woman as husband and wife are bound,
From then on, each contains the other;
In each, the other is found.
Today and in the days ahead, as we remember Bob and honor him for who he was, we would do well to be mindful of who Andy is -- for in her, much of the essence of Bob remains with us.
Alasdair Drysdale is currently professor and chair of the UNH Geography Department. He has worked with Bob for all of his twenty-five years at the University.
Baudelaire observed that the cat explores his habitat before he sleeps.
When Bob was a little boy growing up in Nashua, he once left a note for his mother saying: “I’ve gone to see the ocean.” This eight-year-old left the house and peddled off on his bike, undaunted by distance and whatever obstacles lay in his path to adventure. In spirit, the Bob I knew for twenty-five years was very much the same person to the end, retaining a passionate curiosity about the world beyond his doorstep, exploring, and above all celebrating, its varied physical and cultural terrain. Throughout his rich life, Bob found immense joy in discovering places and in observing the ways in which different cultures shape and give character to the unique landscapes they inhabit. Bob deciphered human and natural landscapes in much the same way that the rest of us read books, caressing their surfaces with his eyes, looking for meaning, discovering connections, and finding pleasure and delighting in their magical and intimate surprises. He marveled at this magnificent, variegated mosaic that is our collective home, poking around the back roads of rural Mississippi, the monasteries of Tibet, the bogs of the Canadian Arctic, the game reserves of Botswana, and the vegetable markets of Morocco, no less than the mill towns of New England. Bob was no ordinary traveler: when he visited London, he didn’t waste his time going to all the usual haunts—he explored the immigrant Bangladeshi neighborhoods of the East End. When he visited large cities, he would sometimes take a subway to the end of the line and walk back to the center, cutting exploration transects through their diverse neighborhoods. Bob wanted to see everything with his own eyes. Asking him for advice about where to visit before taking a trip could be quite perilous, unless you were prepared to do a lot of walking.
To be sure, some of Bob’s peripatetic curiosity was a characteristic of his chosen, or perhaps I should say ordained, profession: geography. Once, he told me, he clambered up a hill overlooking St. John’s, Newfoundland, looking for the best place to take a picture of the harbor, no doubt to show his students the importance of its site or to illustrate some other concept. At the summit he bumped into someone else, similarly attired and doing exactly the same thing. They both looked at each other with raised eyebrows and inquired, simultaneously, “Geographer?”
But Bob’s wanderlust and intrepid explorations went far beyond those of most of his colleagues. Let me tell you some of the places where Bob traveled in the last decade of his life, sometimes by himself, often with Andi, and frequently escorting Interhostel groups: Switzerland, France, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Greece, Britain, the Czech Republic, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, Morocco, Peru, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Mexico, Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Turkey. And I’m sure this is not a complete list. He was scheduled to depart for Argentina this Tuesday, The last time I saw him, we hunched over a large map of India, which he planned to visit in January, and talked with excitement about his itinerary. Travel was one of Bob’s great passions, and one of the bases for my close friendship with him. I often teased him because he usually planned three or four trips ahead, not one as most of us do. After I became a parent a few years ago and reconciled myself to a more sedentary existence, I urged him on vicariously and enviously. His desk always had at least three or four neat piles of guidebooks for different countries, not to mention stacks of maps. His bookshelves heaved under the weight of all his travel books. Bob embraced the Internet enthusiastically in the past couple of years. Guess what he used it for? On the side of his filing cabinet is taped a faded list of the 800 numbers of all the major airlines (although I suspect that he probably had them memorized). So complex were Bob’s travel plans that occasionally even he was confused about them. Earlier this year he and Andi planned a trip to England to walk in Cornwall. Meanwhile he impulsively bought tickets to Rome. When he received them, he realized to his chagrin that he had booked two entirely different trips for the same dates—not an error that most of us are ever likely to make. He loved to cook meals inspired by his travels, sometimes in the process burning off the roof of my gentle mouth, which is more accustomed to the, how shall I put this, discrete flavors of Scottish haute cuisine.
Shortly after Bob’s death, I came across this verse in the Qur’an:
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other."
Bob more than kept his part of the bargain, devoting his life to knowing the nations and tribes of the world. For over thirty-five years he shared that encyclopedic knowledge in the classroom and on fieldtrips with thousands of students, immeasurably enriching and expanding their world. Why are there Indians traders in Trinidad, or Yemenis working on the boats of the Great Lakes? Bob knew, and he cared why. Why are the British Isles so wet, and coastal Peru so dry? Bob knew, because that is the kind of thing he thought was important. Which alphabet is used in Azerbaijan or Pakistan, and what languages do Afghans speak? Bob knew, and he believed we should too. What are the grievances of some Muslims and many Arabs against our government? Bob knew, because he always tried to understand. It fills me with such grief and sorrow that this remarkable, gentle, and curious man, who devoted his life to knowing and understanding the nations and tribes of the world, should be silenced by those who did not even try.
May all of us, like you, dear friend, explore our habitats before we sleep.
Bob, thank you for twenty-five years of wonderful friendship. I will miss you dearly.
Julien Olivier knew Bob through his work with the American Canadian French Cultural Commission.
Bob Le Blanc was from Nashua, N.H. His were hard working people who had migrated from Canada. Bob was a Franco-American of Acadian descent, folks who had settled in the Canadian Maritimes in the 17th century, pioneered there, known persecution and exile. Acadians are a hardy lot. So was Bob.
When he left Nashua, he was of the minority of Franco-Americans of his generation who went to college. Even fewer sought, as he did, degrees in secular institutions. Today, that course is normal for Franco-Americans, but Bob was a forerunner.
Yet he never forgot his origins. Bob’s French heritage was, for him, both a personal and a professional passion.
Bob traced the Le Blanc genealogy, and he tried to understand what made Franco-Americans tick. Professor Le Blanc’s maps of the Acadian deportations helped many to visualize those tragic 18th century events. His articles on the deportation, published in both Canada and the United States, shed light on that atrocity. His research into his Franco-American roots led to publication on such topics as colonization, repatriation and the Québec education of the Franco-American elite. So many apparently esoteric subjects; but, for persons seeking to understand their heritage, very important ones.
In the late 1970s, Bob participated in a statewide lecture series sponsored by the New Hampshire Humanities Council. The topic was Franco-Americans in New Hampshire. Given his specialty, Bob’s lecture focused on immigration patterns. One of the stops in this series was Nashua; the venue was the nursing home in which Bob’s mother was a resident. That series gave birth to the N.H. Humanities Council Resource Center; and Bob’s presentation, entitled “The French-Canadian Migration to New England,” is still listed.
Bob was an incorporator of the Franco-American Centre in Manchester and could often be found doing research in the Centre’s library and archives. As directed by then-UNH President Dale Nitzschke, he initiated the Franco-American Club on this campus. He was a member of the Franco-American Historical Society and was instrumental in organizing the only meeting of that group ever held on the UNH campus, a bilingual event necessitating equipment for simultaneous interpretation.
Because he valued knowledge more than the conventional norms of academia, Professor Le Blanc sought information and advice where it could be found, whether in traditional sources of research or directly from the people whose culture and history he sought to understand. He spoke to colleagues around the world, but he also called on the American Canadian Genealogical Society in Manchester and even phoned me on occasion to verify a reference, get an opinion or check out a fact.
It is fitting that Andrea and the family, in remembrance of their husband, father and brother, have established the Robert G. Le Blanc Memorial Fund at the UNH Foundation. This fund will be used to establish a scholarship for students of French-Canadian descent. Bob, the kid from Nashua, would have liked that.
Tim Clark became part of the LeBlanc circle of friends after taking his cat to the veterinary clinic of Bob’s wife, Andrea. He established a long friendship, which, coupled with his presence as a major figure in the culture of New England, made him a perfect choice to serve as host of the memorial ceremony. After formal and informal tributes had been completed, Tim closed the service with the following poem, which he found to be particularly appropriate to the occasion.
From "After the Storm" by Billy Collins
I am thinking about the dinner party,
the long table, dark bottles of Merlot,
the odd duck and Brussels sprouts,
and how, after midnight,
with all of us sprawled on the couch and floor,
the power suddenly went out
leaving us to feel our way around
in the tenth-century darkness
until we found and lit a stash of candles
then drew the circle of ourselves a little tighter
in this softer hula of lights
that gleamed in mirrors and on rims of glasses
while the shutters banged and the rain lashed down.
A sweet nut of memory --
but the part that sends me whirring
in little ovals of wonder,
as the leftover clouds break apart
and the sun brightly stripes these walls,
is the part that came later,
hours after we had each carried a candle
up the shadowy staircase and gone to bed.
It was three, maybe four in the morning
when the power surged back on,
and, as if a bookmark
had been inserted into the party
when the lamps went dark,
now all the lights downstairs flared again,
and from the stereo speakers
up through the heat register
into our bedroom and our sleep
blared the sound of Jimmy Reed
singing "Baby What You Want Me to Do"
just where he had left off.
Tom Carter grew up with Bob’s children and has remained a close family friend.
You'll forgive me if I don't make eye contact with all two million of you….
Hi. I'm Tom Carter, one of the many whom Bob LeBlanc welcomed into the warmth of his home and family over the years. I had the uncommon good fortune to grow up in Lee within a mile of that home, and to know Bob through my relationship with his son Kjell, my oddest friend -- excuse me, oldest friend. Well, I guess both are accurate . . .
Because I have spent countless hours there, I was asked to share a few words about what Bob was like at home. Describing Bob is a daunting task, and I hope I can measure up.
I would arrive at Bob and Andrea's home in a variety of ways -- by bicycle, a lift from my parents or a brother, the occasional walk. But my favorite way was to get a ride from Durham with Bob himself. Often, after enduring an impossibly rigorous academic day at Oyster River High School, Kjell and I would unwind for a few hours in downtown Durham, staying out of trouble, of course. Sometimes we would meet Bob at what was then the Shop 'n Save -- now the Durham Marketplace -- where he would happily shop for the dinner groceries. I think Bob shopped for groceries more often than any person alive. He just had to have fresh produce.
Other times, Kjell and I would descend on Bob's office in James Hall at about 5 o'clock. He would greet us with his genuine smile that you couldn't help but return. Sitting in his office, brimmed over with books, magazines, maps and papers, Bob had the aura not of toil, but of immersion in a favorite hobby. Even so, content with the day's accomplishments, he would look forward to heading home. He gave you hope that you too would find your calling and weave it seamlessly into the rest of your life.
It's hard not to remember the Volkswagen Dasher station wagon he often drove us in. It was a diesel, and in the bitter cold, you just prayed he could manage to start it. With characteristic patience, he always did. I think he liked that car because it lasted forever and got something like three hundred miles to the gallon.
Bob was famously frugal. I'm sure he circled the globe at least once on the money he saved on fuel.
In large part, I blame those rides home for my addiction to National Public Radio. Not only was Bob always listening to it, he did so at an unspeakable volume. And I mean literally -- Kjell and I could not speak to each other. Bob's imperfect hearing had him blasting "All Things Considered" like other people blast rock quarries. So you would sit, and listen, and your ears would ring with new knowledge of the world. Even when he wasn't talking, that's what being with Bob was like.
At home, Bob continued his routines with a clamor of music, a gin and tonic, and a cyclone of kitchen activity. The small kitchen was the center of the LeBlanc home, and somehow he managed to navigate its confines, dodge the family and friends drawn there like magnets, and keep the dogs and cats from getting underfoot. To him being the family cook was not a chore, it was recreation and passion. He was a masterful chef, and it was always a treat for me to be invited to his table. Dinner guests were the rule rather than the exception. Often, Bob had little notice that various friends of Kjell and Nissa would be staying for dinner; yet, he could stretch any meal to accommodate us all. He would do this without resentment or complaint. In fact, he often customized meals to suit our individual palates, and kept a list of salad preferences posted on the refrigerator. It was special to make Bob's salad list. He was also unafraid to experiment with food, and I have heard from his daughter Nissa and his wife Andi that on rare occasions this resulted in unappetizing dishes. Bob good-naturedly referred to these as "gaggers." I never gagged at his table myself, and refuse to believe it possible.
Some of my fondest memories are of the inspired conversations at Bob's table, a place where time seemed to stand still. The topics, like Bob himself, ranged near and far, and all were welcome to participate. He loved to teach what he knew, but perhaps his favorite thing was to ask questions of people. If you students of his think his essay tests were hard, you should have tried the oral exams at his dinner table! He sometimes had this way of turning towards you, leaning back in his chair, stroking his beard thoughtfully, and then, with eyes sparkling as they met yours, composing his query. His questions were never meant to embarrass, harass, or allow him to display his own vast knowledge. He just wanted to know more, not only empirically, but from your perspective. He might ask me something like: "Tom, what was it like being stationed in western Germany in the years immediately after the wall came down and the country reunified?" The thought would occur to me then to head for the bathroom. He wouldn't accept the answer "Uh, it was OK"; his curiosity would always draw out more knowledge than you thought you had, and you were always better for the exploration. Often, though, his questions were personal, simple and open-ended, as in: "How are your parents?" He listened to these answers just as intently, because Bob was a man who loved both people and peoples.
These scenes have repeated themselves in my life over and over again through the years, but, sadly, with less frequency as time, distance, careers, and other obligations intervened. One tradition that has endured is the annual Holiday Smorgasbord, an event that looms large in the landscape of my life, and one I know will continue in his honor. I hope to be there again, with Bob's wife Andi, his sons Kjell, John and Paul, his daughters Nissa and Carolyn. There is so much of Bob in all of them, he will be there too.
Eliot Shepard has been a long-time family friend.
I knew Bob as the father of my friends Kjell and Nissa Youngren, and
as a neighbor on Snell Road.
To my chagrin I never had the opportunity to travel with Bob, or to attend a class of his, or to cook properly with him. What I did get to do was to spend a great deal of time hanging around his house, making trouble with his son and making eyes at his daughter. I did get a few meals out of the deal as well.
As the father of my best friend, I learned about Bob in small increments over many years. One of my earliest recollections, probably from my first visit to Kjell's house, was that here was a person whose interest in life and perspectives extended so far as to actually necessitate the reading of Canadian news magazines. My own home didn't lack in worldliness, but this discovery put me on my back foot. Clearly this was a person who would demand certain things. In a corner of my ten-year-old mind I might have considered bolting then and there. But there was probably a good smell coming from the stove
and I was well hooked. This was Bob's way.
From the beginning Andi and Bob did indeed feel comfortable displaying a vigorous curiosity about their son's friend. Some evenings Bob was the provocateur who would joyfully interrogate me on my adventures and my newest methods for making life difficult for myself. When he was especially focused, his voice would crack and go into its high register. Typically, this was not a good sign. At these times I believe a small light-bulb behind his eyes would turn on to make them actually twinkle, very much amplifying both his resemblance to Santa and mine to an awkward elf.
Eventually though, we came to be on more even footing. I began to find myself more and more interested in experiencing other places and in cooking dinners of my own (but not in classical music -- I did have to draw the line somewhere.) I clearly remember the first time I realized that Bob was asking me a question only because he wanted to hear my answer, and what's more, my advice.
I was of course growing up. A shocking thing to have happen, but also the time when I first looked with some objectivity at the adults around, primarily to try and decide which parts of each to steal. I began to see Bob as a person who stockpiled experiences not because they satisfied him, but because they increased his appetite for even more experience. I saw the generosity of him and his entire family to me at a time when mine was subject to other forces. I saw a person who would always speak thoughtfully, but not so carefully as to miss his chance. I saw the pure love he had for his wife, his children, his life, at home and away. I saw a man who had practiced hard and
was good at being himself.
I have had many wonderful people in my life, and I have probably plagiarized my identity, or the identity I'd like to have, from all of them. If he noticed, I hope Bob didn't mind being one of the people from whom I took.
Many nights of my life I have been like a bird looking for dinner and possibly a gin and tonic or two in the neighbor's nest. Every member of the Youngren and LeBlanc families moved over to let me into their circle, and I am grateful to all of them for the room. But especially to Bob and Andi, who made it plain that they liked watching me grow up and liked helping me do it. It is a terrific thing to give someone and I thank them both for it.