J. Robert ‘Bob’ Mathias – November 28th, 2009

I met with Bob at ‘Alpine Meadows’, his home a few miles south of Boonville on Hwy 128, and we were joined for part of our chat by his secretary, Nancy Wolf, who is helping him write his memoirs, several editions of which, covering various aspects of his life, are already in print.
Bob was born the oldest of four (one brother and two sisters, one of whom has passed) on June 4th 1921 in the mid-western town of Rochester, Indiana. His paternal forefathers were Swiss who, as an extended family of 33 people, had come over the States in 1849, settling amongst the Pennsylvania Dutch, one of whom his grandfather married. Five of the brothers, including Bob’s grandfather, moved further west and settled in Indiana where they acquired some land. “It was worthless. It was very cheap because it was in a swamp, and they struggled to get by.”
Bob’s father was born the youngest of ten and the whole family lived close by, on the edge of the swamp – “like a bunch of turtles.” During World War 1, his father was away but on returning he met and married a local girl of Scots/Irish descent by the name of Goldie Collins. “I guess she added a little spice to his life – as they usually do… It was very rural around there, with few roads, a one-room schoolhouse, and of course a church. We grew up with the church a big part of our life. Everyone did whatever they could to survive with livestock and crops of all kinds.”
At some point his father bought 160 acres with a house from one of his brothers in the nearby town of Burton. He also bought what was called a ‘milk Base’ or large dairy, and the family moved in. “That’s where I grew up and attended the local elementary school. I had not even heard of basketball but when I was seven or so, during the late 20’s Depression, the government introduced the Work Project Administration which created projects that put people to work, generally on bridges, roads etc. However, in our little community they decided to build a gymnasium! It went up right next to our little school, just ¼ mile from our house. So I was seven years old and already convinced that the Lord was alright. I watched them build it and then learned the game of basketball very quickly. I attended Rochester High in the ‘big town’ and I did very well. I liked school and was good at most subjects although my favorites were history, economics, life sciences, and P.E. of course – I played basketball at a high level for many years.”
Bob graduated in 1940 and attended Wabash College. Meanwhile, with World War 2 “rumbling on the horizon”, Bob had met and married the 20 year old, Lois Mercer. “She was footloose so I was afraid somebody else would grab her. We both thought we needed each other. I guess we were right as it lasted 67 years”… I fully intended to continue with school and my Daddy was encouraging me to do so but following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 I quit and signed up for the Army Air Force – I was going to snuff out some Japs. The whole country was in a frenzy and everyone was trying to join up.”
As there were so many applicants, along with many others, Bob’s service was initially deferred and he returned to school for a few months. Then he was called up to do some testing in physics, chemistry, and advanced math at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia. “Most of the people there went on to work in Intelligence but I still wanted to be a pilot and went to training school to be a B17 bomber pilot. Just when I thought I’d be soon called up to fly, a newspaper headline came out saying ‘55,000 new troops needed for the infantry.’ This was following the D-Day landings in Europe in the summer of 1944. I was now going to be a pee-on in the army with little or no training.”
Bob was assigned to the 106th Infantry Division and because of his schooling in biology and the need for medics he became one. “We crossed the Atlantic in the late summer of 1944. It was an inopportune time as we were immediately rushed into the fighting in the Ardennes and were completely inexperienced. On Dec 11th we were sent into the frontline and on Dec 16th Hitler launched a massive counter-attack in what became known as The Battle of the Bulge. They sent hundred’s of tanks and an army of 122,000 men against us and we were completely overrun. It was Hitler’s final thrust and for a time we were unable to deter him. It was a furious time of fighting.”
Bob was placed in a prisoner of war camp and then along with two other medics and an American Doctor, he was sent to help at a temporary hospital catering to about 700 seriously wounded soldiers from both sides. Eleven nuns were the only other workers there. “Conditions were terrible. It was bitterly cold, there was 4’ of snow was on the ground and we had few supplies. Those nuns did a wonderful job. After a few weeks the 82nd Airborne arrived and we were rescued. We had to leave the dying and wounded. Over the next few months I was sent to various hospitals around Western Europe, wherever they needed medics. There were some terrible places and I saw lots of suffering. I had heard during the battle that Lois was pregnant and in July 1945 I got a message from home that Lois had given birth to a baby boy, Conde, and the medical officer saw to it that I was soon allowed to go home.”
Just a couple of months later, Bob enrolled at DePauw University on the G.I. Bill, studying Economics and History and he graduated in 1947. He immediately got a job in Shipshewana, Indiana, teaching and coaching at the local school where most of the kids were Amish or Mennonite. “We became very well known for some great basketball teams at that school and this was in a State that is obsessed with its basketball of course. I went back there in 2008 for Bob Mathias Day – that was very special.”
Bob felt he could go higher in the educational system; he was somewhat ambitious if not overly so. He moved to his alma mater, Rochester High, and taught and coached very successfully there too. A second child had been born, Sheri, but Bob still had some time on his hands and missed the farming lifestyle he had grown up with. “I bought a farm from my Greta Aunt Susie who had not had any kids. It was a great success and some years later, around 1954, a guy from Chicago bought it from me and with the big profit I then bought another farm near to my Daddy’s place. With sheer hard work and good fortune we soon found ourselves well ahead with 500 bountiful acres, several hired hands, teaching a full load, and being a successful coach… I guess something had to give.”
Bob was gone six evenings a week and he was missing his family. “Two more kids had been born – Lucinda and Tim, and we had a lovely family life but I was away all the time and felt I was not seeing enough of them. We needed a complete break so I stopped coaching, leased the farm to the hands, and we moved to Delta, Colorado on the western slopes of the Rockies. I taught once again and did a little football coaching but I also became a sheep buyer and sent flocks back to Indiana where sheep had virtually disappeared. They were sent to the F.F.A. (Future Farmer’s of America) people who would breed them and soon sheep had returned to the State in numbers.”
While living in Colorado, the family took a trip to see the West and Lois particularly wanted to get to the Pacific. They set out with the four kids and a collie and crossed California to San Francisco, and then up through Santa Rosa and on to Cloverdale. “We thought it was getting better all the time. We asked about the ride to the coast and a guy told us it was a ‘weird road ahead.’ I wanted to turn back, we had been gone almost as long as we had originally planned, but Lois said, ‘What about the redwoods and the ocean?’ We thought about it and decided to see if there was any work out this way. It was just on a whim but I called the Mendocino School District Office in Ukiah and asked if they needed teachers anywhere around here. I was told there were two jobs – one in Covelo and one in Anderson Valley. Well Lois wanted to see the redwoods so we drove over the hills and into the Valley. It was not even in our thoughts a few days earlier but I took the job as teacher and coach.”
“We had to return to Delta to get our stuff and while we were there we got news that a tornado had hit our town back in Indiana. We had to go back there. The place was bad. One of our two houses was reduced to rubble, we had lost over 100 animals when the barns had collapsed, and the sizeable orchard had disappeared. We sorted it all out and came back to California, intending to give it a year. This was September 1957 and the Valley had sixteen working mills at the time, with the workers being mostly from Oklahoma and Arkansas – good hard-working folks that I could identify with. All our relatives and friends were back in the mid-west but the Valley was a hustling place and it worked out for us that first year. At that point I was offered the Superintendent of Schools job in this area. We had no plan to be permanent residents, we were still thinking of going back, but I was somewhat ambitious and to get such a job in Indiana would take me twenty years. On top of that the kids loved it here – we decided to stay.”
Bob and the family stuck around for ten years during which time they bought some property south of Boonville, where he continues to live, and all went very well. He was involved in the building of the new highs school, became immersed in many aspects of Valley life, and started the now famous ‘Redwood Classic’ high school basketball tournament. “That began in 1957 and I will be at the 52nd event this coming weekend. The Athletic department was down to the nubbins at that time and with the new gym going up I thought we should open it with a flourish and so we invited a bunch of schools to compete and it’s been going ever since.”
It was also during this time that Bob hired the infamous Jim Jones (of People’s Temple fame) to teach at the school. “Yes, I hired Jim Jones. Lois loved to invite the teachers over for dinner at various times, sometimes in couples, or just the single ones, and we had Jones over one evening with his family. It was a very nice evening with everyone swapping stories and jokes. His wife was a very nice lady and following the wonderful meal we sat around as Lois played the organ and we all sang hymns. It was a very nice evening. He had been the head of Adult Education in Ukiah and had come with a very good resume, glowing reviews, and was obviously a very bright guy. He did a very good job in that first year following his hiring. He taught my son Tim, who said Jones was the best softball coach he ever had. I guess I did not know about some of the stuff he was involved in down in San Francisco and when some of the other teachers attended his church in Ukiah they said, ‘he is a little different at his church than when he is at school.’ Then during his second year people started to question his behavior but by then I had left.” Bob then added, “He was from Indiana, he had to be a good guy I thought – I guess it doesn’t always work that way.”
However, “wonder-lust had returned in the mid-sixties” and, with their eldest, Conde, in college and Sheri married, Bob, Lois and the two younger kids moved to Brazil! “I had been thinking about working outside the country and had made several inquiries. I finally accepted a job as headmaster at The American School in Sao Paulo, where there was an American community of about 40,000 in a city of 10 million – a huge city, one of the world’s biggest and obviously a long way in every sense from Boonville! It was a dandy of a job and Sao Paulo was a great city, a financial, industrial, and cultural center, and we lived a fantastic life in excellent accommodations.”
Bob and the family almost made the decision to not return to the States at all at one point. “I had the opportunity to join a consortium with three very wealthy and influential guys down there. The plan was to buy 33,000 acres and several packing plants and then plant soybeans. The family was not sure of this as it would mean selling everything we had in the States and making a permanent commitment to being in Brazil. We had grandkids here and family in Indiana. I guess blood runs thick and our ties were too strong to break because we decided to come back. That company is huge today.”
On their return to California Bob became the Superintendent of Schools in Chowchilla in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where he stayed for five years, overseeing the building of new schools, before returning to the Valley for good in 1980. “I had a wonderful time in Chowchiila but I needed a break. We moved back into our home here and I took a break from the world for a year. Over that time I took thousands of potted trees and planted them on my property. Each morning I would go out with the dog and plant trees until noon. Then we’d break for lunch and I’d do the same in the afternoon, in all weathers. It felt great. I began to feel better and it gave me strength. I also now knew that this was our ‘home’.”
During that year Bob took the time to get his real estate license and in 1981 he founded Rancheria Realty based here in Anderson Valley. “That was pre-meditated since my Indiana days. The mills were going strong, the prices of property was still fair, it was a delightful place to live. Many people bought beautiful places during those early years at very decent prices.”
Over the ensuing years Bob was in the Valley’s American Legion branch and The Lions Club and being School Superintendent he was involved in many Valley activities and events. He also started the now defunct flight class at the school. “I have watched a myriad of different people come to the Valley. The Okies and Arkies in the 50’s, then in the 60’s came the hippies – a bewildered bunch of people, then the Free-Livers arrived – working hippies if you like, and then the Mexican community of course – dear people, disoriented people for a time, with few grounds to stand on”… Bob ran the realty office until 2001 when he had a stroke while walking up in the hills on his property. “I stopped working at that point and became a simple-minded soul. Tim took over the business – he became the broker and I became the Dodo. It got worse and worse and they tell me I had Alzheimer’s for two and a half years. I was in a black cloud. However, they have managed to stabilize it and I have slowly crept out of that hole.”
Lois passed away on September 26th, 2006 and in recent years Bob has spent most of his time dictating his memoirs to a secretary, at this time it’s Nancy Wolf – “a very good one too.” These cover various aspects of his life and some are on show at the A.V. museum and various stores. He also likes to visit many of the friends he has in the Valley. “Just to go and talk to them, ask them about their families. We humans like to connect with each other. It is important.”
I asked Bob for his responses to some Valley issues… The wineries? – “Well, first off let me say that I have made a lot of money because of them being here. I have never had enough to get drunk on wine although I do sip a little sometimes. The wineries were a godsend for the Valley at one time. After the decline in logging and the virtual disappearance of the sheep and fishing, nothing remained and the ‘glamorous romance’ between the wineries and the Valley started. Of course, for many of those capable of supporting themselves without the wineries they were not a welcome. The most prosperous are those who can do it in a big way and it has accelerated into a profession for the very wealthy. The smaller guys are more likely to fail and that’s too bad. In the long run it’s a good thing they are here and I am not adverse but in the end of course those with the most money will make the most’… The A.V.A. local newspaper? – “It is a most needed commodity in this remote little Valley but I hardly ever read it. Nancy reads these interviews to me most weeks and I like to hear about the people who live here, many of whom I know of course. Some stuff that has been written in the past has been harmful but I think it is better to say nothing more”…
The school system? – “By and large I think they have kept up with the times. I am gratified for the care that has been given and the improvements that have been made. I am no longer in any position to comment on the instruction but I do observe that the graduates do reasonably well in college. A small school in this location has many inhibiting factors working against it but I do think the administration has maintained the dignity of the A.V. school system but of course the negative comments are still going to be heard”…
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Bob, many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “That may be ‘consarnit’ – a word I got from my Dad which is a made up curse word and I use it rather than use bad words.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Life; hope…I see a new day each morning and question ‘how can you desert that?’ You have to get up and go, whatever troubles you may have. Each morning tells you that there is hope, that it has not all gone.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Negative people. As a little boy I always was aware of those who would mislead me or harm me in some way, particularly among those who would call themselves your friend. I was fortunate to have good role models in my parents.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “The singing of the birds.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Loud television commercials.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “ I don’t curse. I might say ‘Dang it’ or ‘Baloney’ or ‘Mutton head’ but that’s about it. ‘Consarnit’ is my favorite though.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “I used to do a lot of gardening but it got too big and I stopped. These days it would be writing my memoirs – the stories just roll out pretty easily. It is a gift I had no idea I had until just a few years ago.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “As a kid I wanted to be a lawyer but now I am not sorry I wasn’t… A philanthropist would have been marvelous. I think providing some real honest to goodness help for a large segment of people is a wonderful thing. If it is with your own money that is even better. Once I had a fair bit and wish I had made more so I could have given help to many more churches and local charities. My wife and I lead simple lives and did some of this with our money but now the grandkids and great grandkids are the limit generally.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “ A flag man on the highway.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “There have been lots of them. I have been a very fortunate and lucky guy. I found a wonderful wife, had great friends, and good jobs. Divine guidance has had an influence on my life. I have tried to do things right as far as I know. I am as bad, evil, and ornery as the next guy but I have had a guide.”

What was the saddest? – “ Well, I would have to say it was when my pony got her eye put out with a nail when I was a little boy. I was devastated and it took me a couple of years to completely get over that.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “ I guess I would say my self-discipline and my sense of soul and self-worth.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “This must be a mistake.”

Published in: on December 9, 2009 at 8:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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