In Memory of Bob Hanks Eulogy for Bob Hanks 22 April, 2002 by John Pinschmidt
8 June, 1935 -- 13 April, 2002
To condense the impact of a man's life and death into 10 or 12 minutes is impossible. But these inadequate words must suffice. They are the best a close friend can manage in this time of grief for our Patch community. We've taken an awful hit, haven't we?
Bob Hanks and I went way back---to the week we were both hired by Dodds at the same school in England in 1971, a generation ago. Transfers separated, then reunited us. Starting about 10 years ago, we gradually became special friends.
Our relationship was completely founded on deep discussions of the world's great literature, films, and life's metaphysical and philosophical issues.
Yeah, right. Bob hated most literature, rarely saw a film, and the main philosophical question he wanted to explore was how, in comparison to Charles Darwin, Shakespeare bites. I taught English; he taught Biology. I was a normal height; he was way too tall. He was mostly bald, and I, obviously, have hair. We were an odd couple. Well, actually, Bob was the odd one.
Each tried to undermine the other's program. He blatantly stole my bust of William Shakespeare and locked it in his glass trophy case outside his room. He placed poor Will in a supine position, prostrate in front of Darwin. It was humiliating. In retribution, I didn't exactly discourage the activities of a subversive student group, the Anti-Darwin League. They would furtively take things from his room and leave ransom notes. Of course, the best prize was "Big Bertha," there on the table. It's the Super-Soaker Water-Blaster cannon I gave him 20 years ago, on his 70th birthday.
Our birthdays were big deals. Every summer in "Holy Ireland" I'd ransack the stationery stores to find the most disgustingly suggestive, vulgar cards. I'd give them to him on his next birthday, June 8. It was a long wait, but worth it. I knew I'd really gotten to him when he'd collapse into a fit of convulsive laughter and grab for his asthma inhaler. The really raunchy cards were presented privately, but I'd always have one that was a bit less risqué to give him in front of his first-hour class. One had two scantily clad, voluptuous babes on the front, in tiger skins, surrounded by high jungle vegetation. Over the picture it said, "Hey, Stud! Bambi and Suzie have something they want you to do!" Inside: "Mow their lawn." I'd share some of the other cards, but I don't want to be forced to retire just yet.
Bob would return the favor. This January, on my 35th birthday... (Hey, what's funny about that? If any of my students are laughing, your grade's going down.) Anyway, Bob had his first-hour class come to sing "Happy Birthday"---and present me a large bouquet---of dead flowers and leaves. (Yes, everything withered under Bob's malignant touch---except for his dear wife, Maureen.) But I was ready for him: I yelled, "Those flowers look like they need water!" and I pulled Big Bertha from under my lectern and blasted him out of the room.
They were great times. The foundation for our relationship was that we made each other laugh. Life is so tough---humor, raunchy or otherwise, helps. Of course, Bob made it a great part of his daily teaching routine too. Senior Robert Birkette said it best-----"Through the year I had to deal with rubber bands being shot at me, my notebook being thrown out the window, him foaming at the mouth, and especially Big Bertha. He was a little kid, trapped in a man's body."
Bob was a mass of contradictions, many of which were known only to those of us who were lucky enough to know him well.
He taught Biology and was a walking encyclopedia of the Life Sciences, but also he knew more history than many History teachers.
He was the most extraordinary educator, with a love for and an astonishing command of his subject, and he had a deep, personal involvement with his students. Yet he never sought recognition. If there ever were a candidate for "Dodds Teacher of the Year," Bob should have been it. He simply could not be persuaded to apply.
Largely perhaps due to the influence of his hero, Charles Darwin, he didn't believe in God. He once said, "It's like this: we come into this world, those of us who have children contribute to the gene pool, and then we die. There is no afterlife."
Yet he read scores of books on religion. He regularly visited monasteries and medieval pilgrimage sites all across Europe, and he loved and collected antique Russian icons.
Last week and today student after student commented movingly on Bob's strengths. He was so supreme that he seemed to blow the rest of us out of the water; merely excellent teachers seemed to recede to black and white in comparison to his Technicolor/Wide-Screen/Dolby Surround-Sound presence. Remember his booming voice? He was so much larger than life.
Pat Cosby said it best when she called him "The heart of the school." He was. Though his physical heart stopped 9 days ago, his symbolic heart will never cease, as it had already been given to thousands of students and adults before his passing, and we were forever changed by it. And this is important: we must not let the tragedy of how he died replace the wonder of how he lived.
This intensely public, high-profile heart of the school had depths, complexities which were hidden to all but a few adults, and that is why his untimely end was so completely inexplicable and shocking for almost everyone. Many teachers and students thought he was the last person likely to come to such an end. And many felt betrayed, even angry that it happened, here, in the school on an April evening, the fruit trees starting to blossom, the birds singing...
Bob's wife Maureen, often a very private person, has given me permission to reveal several aspects of Bob's life. Her two children, Joanne and Christopher, agreed to share this.
Bob was an only child. A few years ago, at age 81, Bob's father died, at his own hand too. It happened late the same day Bob's mother passed away after a long, wasting illness. Bob had already experienced periodic bouts of depression. And, you should be aware that Bob was one of the most stubborn men I have ever known---he absolutely refused to seek outside assistance for what troubled him. This pattern must stop here.
Shakespeare said, "There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face." Indeed, we can never plumb the depths of someone's mind or soul. Bob's untimely, awful end will remain an enigma, even to those who knew him best.
Now, I address this especially to his beloved students: we cannot know why he did it. But it was not personal. None of us had a chance to prevent it or to say goodbye before he left us. We must come to terms with this extraordinary man's final act. He loved his students and his profession. He was a perfectionist, and often worked 16-hour days, and came in to school seven days a week. On his own terms, he lived in this school, and he died in this school. As overwhelmingly tragic as this was, it was also for him, somehow, fitting.
If such a seemingly senseless act shocks us into examining our own lives, good can come from this. It was a final lesson, as boldly presented as his classes, which he kept working endlessly to improve. We must dedicate ourselves to Bob Hanks' quest for excellence, but not set the bar too high. In times of need, we must seek solace and comfort. Life is so relentless, so difficult: please, reach out to others.
I close now with a short work by the Czech poet, Vladimir Holan, 1905 -- 1980, translated by George Theiner.
Is it true that after this life of ours
we shall one day be awakened by a
terrifying clamor of trumpets?
Forgive me, God,
but I console myself that the beginning
and resurrection of all of us dead
will simply be announced
by the crowing of a cock
After that we will remain
lying down a while
The first to get up
will be mother
We'll hear her, quietly
laying the fire, quietly putting
the kettle on the stove and
cosily taking the teapot out of the cupboard.
We'll be home once more.
Bob, I do hope you got it wrong. I hope your brilliant, restless spirit still lodges somewhere, not only in our hearts. That way, you know how much you were loved here.