He had one of those double names like Jim James or Joan Jones. Dr. Robert E. Roberts was simply Bob Roberts to every soul lucky enough to cross his path. He was Dr. Bob the dentist, a race car driver, and a stunt pilot.
When I met him a couple decades ago, he was Bob Roberts, the founder and leader of Project Return, the only prison rehab program in the country funded by the Department of Justice. He had brought to Sturgeon Lake a half dozen ex-cons fresh out of one of our nation’s most brutal prisons. They were mostly African-Americans who had served their time in Angola State Penitentiary in the state of Louisiana. Bob had started a program that paired recently released prisoners with mentors who were also ex-cons. They helped the parolees blend back into society. You can learn all about this program in Bob’s book called, “My Soul said to Me.”
Every year I would spend an adventure-filled week in the Minnesota woods with Bob and his Project Return friends. The program’s small recidivism rate kept his program running until a few years ago when America began its path toward de-funding social programs. Project Return was one of those terminated.
That was the beginning of some hard times for Bob. He had recently lost his wife, Rosie, to cancer. Rosie was a sweet southern belle who was Harry Connick’s legal secretary and a family friend. Harry the elder was the New Orleans DA and the father to singer/actor Harry Connick Jr. Bob had a lot of friends in New Orleans and all over the country and a whole lot of people knew Bob. Soon Bob would need his friends.
Although Bob was in deep grief from his losses, we all knew him as a brave man who had stared down adversity before. Twenty years ago, he was sent home with a large inoperable brain tumor. His doctor told him to get his affairs in order. Instead, Bob went to a cave in New Mexico with my friend and teacher, a very powerful Mayan medicine man. A month later, Bob returned to his doctor for tests. The doctors were astounded by the results. The tumor was gone.
Last spring, Bob notified his Minnesota friends that he wouldn’t be coming to camp this year. He had a deadly form of cancer and once again was sent home to die. This time, Bob took a different path. He went to the Bahamas instead. For the next six months he was treated by doctors through an experimental vitamin therapy. Soon Bob had recovered enough to return to his home in New Orleans and began yet another new chapter in his life.
Last week, he heard from an old friend that an essay he had written five years ago had been chosen for publication in a popular online magazine. Two hours later, Bob was cruising down Interstate Highway 10 when he had a seizure. Eyewitnesses stated that he was speeding and driving erratically. He was aware enough to take the exit and try to get off the highway. Unfortunately, he rear-ended a Toyota, spun his car around and crashed into a concrete bridge abutment.
In a normal year, I would have just recently seen Bob up at Camp Miller. But this wasn’t a normal year with a normal ending. Bob died instantly. The pain was over for him, but not for all his friends and family he left behind.
A few days later, a friend of Bob’s posted this amazingly prophetic poem he had written almost exactly four years before Bob died. He had never shared the poem with anyone, including Bob.
When Bob was young he
flew his aerobatic airplane.
Spinning, spiraling, diving down.
Down, down into the air
just above the people there.
Bob says when pilots
point their plane into the
low sun, the strobe
of the propeller
can move the brain
to full-blown seizure.
Bob has ejected.
His plane now is the open chute
hovering over the new-mown hay.
His family looks aloft and says,
"Oh, joy! Bob is coming home."
Will Winter October 8, 2009