My earliest memory is of my maternal grandfather driving me to school in his little red pickup truck. Listening to oldies on the radio, Bob would keep the beat on his steering wheel while faintly singing along.
It was a near-daily routine filled with stories of his childhood, grandpa jokes and observations about what Tucson used to look like when he first moved here. My favorite part was always changing gears with the stick shift—it made me feel bigger than I was, somehow more important. We ate mints on the way home and joked about his beard.
As a family with young and hard-working parents, we spent a lot of time with my grandparents before and after school, and spent most of our lives all under one roof. While some have considered it an unorthodox household, that’s just our family.
Every family has a head of household, and ours was Bob.
He went by many names: Bob, Bobert, Bobby, Bob-O, Robert, Old Man—but he was born Robert Leverette Burtch on May 16, 1928, in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The third of four boys, his mother was a teacher, and his father a boat builder. Around the time he was 9, the family moved to the Thousand Islands, where he spent the majority of his childhood.
Bob met his second wife, my grandmother Carole, in 1967 when he was the director of rehabilitation services at Coney Island Hospital. To make a long story short, they married in 1973 and my mom was born the following year. They had moved to Tucson by September 1975.
My first memories of Bob, those car rides to elementary school, come into the picture some 25 years later. As an 8 year old, those trips never meant much to me, I was often more concerned with the newest Pokémon, a skateboarder or an animated movie, but as an adult it’s easy to see that moments like those were Bob’s way of connecting with his grandchildren. I would rattle on endlessly about things he knew little to nothing about, though his kind reverence to my topics of conversation made me feel like he cared deeply about my colorful sprites and fanciful imaginations.
Bob was around for everything: My little league games, my brother’s football tournaments, birthdays, holidays, afternoons at the pool. The old man loved to be with his family. And while he never often said “I love you,” the feeling was apparent in everything that he did.
I learned a lot from that old Marine. He taught me bits of Morse code as a child (he served in the Korea era in communications), how to properly cheer—and lament—your sports teams, how to tell a horrible joke and still make people laugh.
But most importantly, in his own way, he taught me how to be a man.
He never intended it, I’m sure, but I always looked up to Bob. His quiet demeanor, his ability to carry any burden without complaint, was something I admired as a young boy. As a teenager lost in the woes of puberty, I looked to Bob’s calm composure through severe arthritis and other medical issues.
Come dinner time, he was always ready to tell a story or share in the laughter.
Though he faced great struggles in his final years before he died at age 88 on Aug. 14, 2016, Bob rarely let it show. He was more likely to joke about the way his movement was limited due to metal plates and pins in his body than to let on that he was in any kind of discomfort. Even the day before he slipped into a coma, he was more than happy to fist bump me and told me to have a good night. He was always sure to make sure everyone else was OK before he was.
For that, and many other reasons, Bob is my hero. I can still hear his voice in the back of my head when I think about it hard enough. Shortly after he passed, I had a white cowboy hat tattooed on my left arm to remind me of him. He never was a cowboy, he just liked the hat.