My old friend and colleague Robert Bostrom died the other day. Until recently, when his knees gave out and he couldn’t get out much, he lived a rich and full life as a scholar, actor, singer and international traveler. I was honored to offer some recollections at his memorial service and I thought those of you who knew him might be interested in some of them.
By the time Bob arrived at the University of Kentucky he was already a well-recognized scholar. The Kentucky communication program, which is now ranked as one of the country’s premier programs, was barely started then, and his addition gave us a big shot in the arm as we started the long climb upward.
We were the young Turks then, who agreed on many things – from what our discipline ought to be to politics – and we became allies and good friends. It was the 1970’s, a somewhat crazy time in this country and we did our share of crazy things. I’m not going to go into that, but many of you have already heard several of Bob’s stories, some of which had my name mentioned in them.
If that is the case, I want to caution you that although Bob was a great storyteller, one of the things that made his stories so good was he didn’t always let truth get in the way. If it needed a little bending to make it a better story he was not above bending it. I tried to point that out to him a time or two but he seemed shocked that I would think there was anything wrong with his story.
In his youth, Bob spent summers on his uncle’s ranch in the sandhills of Nebraska. I think that may be where he learned some of his macho man façade, and maybe he learned some of it as a football player for Morningside College in his home town of Sioux City, Iowa. He also was not very big on political correctness, as some of you will recall, and he was one of those people who “suffered fools badly.”
But despite appearances, up close he was a kind, generous man. if you were one of his students who showed effort and some intelligence— he may well have become one of your favorite professors. He challenged you and you didn’t dare let him down.
Being his friend didn’t spare me from his barbs. Several years ago Bob and I conducted a memorial service for another friend and colleague, Bruce Westley. Bob carried out his part, which included reading from Ecclesiastes in that great booming voice of his, and then I presented what I thought was a good set of recollections of our friend. On the very last word, my voice betrayed emotion.
When it was over, Bob told me “You did a good job until the end and then you ruined it“
Behind the wheel of a car, he was the most impatient person I ever saw (although it has been pointed out to me that I was once like that). One day he was giving me a lift somewhere and as we were going through heavy traffic he was yelling at the drivers in front of him. “Get out of the way, you hillbilly. Go back to driving a jackass.” Fortunately, he didn’t stick his head out the window when he said that.
As a Kentuckian, I get a little sensitive about the word “hillbilly,” and I almost said something to him about somebody from the sandhills calling somebody else a hillbilly, but I didn’t. What I said was: “You’re getting yourself all agitated about something you don’t have any control of.” He said: “ I thought you were supposed to get things off your chest.”
I knew I’d probably lose his attention if I said more, but I told him “you shouldn’t get it on your chest in the first place. Just put on some music you like and treat this time as one to relax and enjoy.”
He thought about that for about two seconds and then went back to cursing the other drivers.
As I mentioned earlier, up close, Bob was a kind and generous man. He was especially generous with those who were lonely or in pain—graduate students far from home, the recently bereaved, the recently divorced and other lost souls. He invited them to his house on holidays for food, drink and good cheer and they left knowing that somebody cared about them.
People who met Bob remembered him. I’m sure many of you will recall Bob’s performancees in the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, which he played both in Lexington and at the Jenny Wiley theater in Prestonsburg.
He was a major presence on any stage. A few years ago, I met a retired faculty member Bob and I knew from our early days at the University. He didn’t remember me. But he asked about Bob.
This was an extraordinary man whom I was fortunate to know as a friend for 40 years–and there are many of us who will miss him.
Lewis Donohew retired from the University of Kentucky College of Communications in 1999 after nearly 35 years of service and having earned a national reputation as a communications scholar and researcher. Now down on his farm growing grapes and living close to the earth, he contemplates issues of the day from a lifetime of experience and a love of the land.