This week of Thanksgiving has begun with sadness and an overabundance of gratitude for someone who has profoundly impacted my life.The following is the eulogy that I delivered today for a man that I loved dearly, for he asked me to find Joy…
Bob would be sorry to miss this. He told me that he loved having family nearby so that he “had people to argue with and torment”.
Thank you for being here to celebrate the life of this amazing man. The poet Rumi wrote:
Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes,
Because for those who love with heart and soul,
There is no such thing as separation.
My perspective on Bob is a bit unique. It was 4.5 years ago that I had the privilege of interviewing him for a cover story. I could not have imagined at that time, the impact that a nearly 90 year old man, who moved with a walker and had macular degeneration would have upon my life.
I love it when people surprise me and Bob was full of surprises: from the clarity of his beautiful blue eyes, his kind demeanor at his advanced age, the number of cats he cared for – which I am fairly certain exceeded the legal limit, his seemingly endless list of accomplishments, and most of all, his sense of humor.
Bob said he had more keepers than the zoo – with his daughter and her family living next door, and many friends and relatives who would come to visit him.
He told me:
“When you get to be my age, everyone thinks you’re senile – I say mess with people!” and “You’ve got to have fun in your old age, it’s awfully miserable if you don’t.”
His canned response to a question that he did not wish to answer was “I’ve tried that before and it’s a bit too spicy for me.”
Bob spoke and moved with intention. He was deliberate and precise, which were remnant characteristics of a man who was a perfectionist. I can only imagine how frustrating it was for him to first lose his vision, then lose his preferred methods of communication since his stroke. Yet in spite of these challenges, his sweet demeanor endured.
It’s comical to me that the term “survived” is chosen to represent those still living when one passes. Although in Bob’s case, “survived” must be an accurate description that his 3 children have a right to feel, having survived a perfectionist father.
Bob was blessed to have experienced many interesting and miraculous chapters in his life, a life that could not possibly be confined to one book, for his adventures could fill volumes.
Bob was born July 9, 1923. Bob’s childhood was a bit unique in that not many of his friends had a darkroom for developing in their bedroom. Bob’s parents, Frank and Jessie, indulged Bob by encouraging him to pursue his passions which included scouting (he was an Eagle Scout), he played multiple sports including tennis, and his love of photography – which was influenced by his father and would define his professional career.
Bob graduated from Arsenal Tech High School in 1941, at the age of 17, the war was imminent and Bob eagerly enlisted in the Navy that summer, for he wanted to be a pilot. But the Navy was after college grads to fill those coveted spots, so Bob enlisted in the ARMY, hoping to be part of the Air Corps. When he took the entrance exam, which is an IQ test, he scored 150. Maybe it was something about how he looked, maybe he made a smart ass comment, because he was asked to repeat the test. The second time he scored 151. His flight training unit was flushed into infantry, except Bob. Bob told me he was late for the meeting, but whatever the truth, he ultimately served in the US Army Signal Corps, training to be a professional photographer at Paramount Studios in NYC before being deployed to the Pacific, coming ashore in the 2nd wave on the beaches of Okinawa, Easter Sunday, 1945.
While he was proud to serve his country, he was reserved about sharing his adventures until later in his life – the first reason is that he was told not to speak of it, for he had been a spy. But Bob deeply felt the loss of those who did not return. He said they were the real heroes. Bob’s missions typically involved being behind enemy lines, which earned him a Bronze Star.
It’s funny to me that Bob claimed that he could throw a pistol with more accuracy than shoot it so he kept it wrapped and ready for inspections, using only his camera to “shoot”.
Bob’s sense of humor served him well, for humor was his coping mechanism that kept him alive. At the close of the war, as teams were sweeping caves on the island, a grenade was thrown at Bob’s feet, it turned out to be a dud. He commented, “what poor quality munitions”. He had observed the yellow picric acid, identifying the location of landmines on a nearby beach, and said, “better not go swimming at low tide”. He needed these moments of humor to help him cope with the uglier side of war, which he undoubtedly witnessed.
After he returned from the Pacific, he would become the first professional photographer Eli Lilly ever hired. He was a pioneer in the medical photography field, devising his own equipment to photograph lab slides at a pivotal time for drug companies, because the FDA pivoted to accept photographs in lieu of artists renderings.
Bob proudly shared that, for an insulin atrophy study, he “photographed more women’s behinds than pornographers”.
Sacrifices had to be made, all in the name of science.
Bob had said that it took him a long time to take decent photos of his children, since it was his job to focus in on scientific and biological imperfections, so once he stopped his compulsion for wanting to zero in on acne, he figured out how to take decent portraits.
I mentioned that he could throw a pistol with more accuracy – later in life he became an expert marksman and a hunter. He also pursued his passion for flying. He started flying almost immediately after returning home from the war.
Privately he told me that one time he was flying over Geist Reservoir looking for ideal fishing locations when a voice spoke to him, asking why he was flying alone when he had a beautiful family who loved him. He listened to that voice and gave up flying to spend more time with his wife Joanne and his children – entering into a new era-defining “survival”, as Bob and his two oldest children won archery championships in their age groups. True to form, Bob achieved professional status.
Bob knew how to keep busy. Everything in Bob’s life was a hobby; his job as a professional photographer was a hobby; flying, marksmanship, fishing, archery, and painting. He stayed childlike, exploring his passions. He became a HAM Radio operator, collecting postcards from people around the world, including King Hussein of Jordan. He also reached the pinnacle of leadership within his Masonic Lodge. He studied world religions, striving to understand other people and cultures through their religious beliefs. The phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none” didn’t apply. His name was Bob, not Jack, and he mastered them all.
In retirement, Bob and Joanne traveled, with one trip paid for by National Geographic Travel Magazine, with his photography taken on that trip serving as a cover shot for an issue. Together they took art lessons, creating many amazing paintings and crafts.
Fast forward a few years, It was April 29, 2013 when I went to see Bob for the 2nd time, under the guise of reading him the rough draft of the article I had written about him from my interview the week before. But Bob had a different agenda. He was a few months away from his 90th birthday. Retired, a widower, he was reflective of his 9 decades of life. As he took inventory, he had but one regret. He had one last shot, one last hope to wrap up a blessed, charmed life. He wanted to complete his final chapter with love and he asked for my help. That was day Bob asked me to find Joy.
I was overwhelmed by his courage. He had not spoken of Joy in 67 years.
There’s something special about a first love. While Bob and Joy were happily married for the majority of their lives to others, as God intended – they never forgot one another.
I found Joy thanks to Google and Joy’s daughter Beki’s obsession with genealogy, when I delivered an envelope the following evening to Bob as I took a car full of boys to soccer, and I simply said to him, I found Joy.
When he called Joy a couple days later, he said, “This is Bob Albright, Don’t hang up!”
Joy didn’t hear him clearly the first time, asking “Who is this?” and when he repeated his name, she had to sit down. This man was full of surprises.
Speaking of surprises, a surprise birthday party for Bob’s 90th was planned. Bob told me that his vision was better than they thought it was since he noticed the extra soda and chips being stashed about – but Bob was the one with the surprise. He had asked Joy to marry him and would announce their engagement at the party.
A question that took him 67 years to ask.
He said, “I don’t know how many days I have left…but whatever time I do have, I want to spend it with Joy.”
Their time together, while brief, was enough. It was a beautiful final chapter to an extraordinary life.
Bob and Joy joked that their relationship was all my fault, and I happily accept the blame.
Bob thanked me for one last miracle in his life, he thanked me for giving him the gift of Joy. But he’s the one who gave me – and all of us – the greatest gift, for he showed us what was possible. He showed us that you’re never too old for love.
With Bob Albright, living to age 94, becoming the oldest living Albright ever – a world record that I guarantee he hopes is broken by many in his family – Bob lived more than a dozen lives, for he lived – he really lived – through wonder, with humility, with courage, and with love.
To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to weep, and a time for joy, a time to mourn and a time to dance.
Bob would want us to dance.
Photos courtesy of Brenda Staples Photography