Good afternoon, I’m John Rothgeb, Phyllis Schenkkan’s oldest son or Schenkkan brother 7 of 9 but who is counting? Pete mentioned this the other day that it’s sometimes jokingly asked how many Schenkkan brothers there really are? Tullos is usually counted as fifth since he probably spent more time at the Schenkkan house than at his own. Then there is Masami, #6, adopted by Bob and Jean when he was a UT exchange student. My brother is stuck as #8 and my good friend, Hugh, who was pretty much adopted not long after Phyllis and Bob were married may be #9. There are probably more, so I apologize to you all in advance, but I mention it because I think it says a lot about Bob. It didn’t matter why you got adopted, he made time and had a big enough heart to make all sorts of people feel like sons or daughters. If you too have a Bob Schenkkan adoption story, please share it with us in a bit.
I first got to know Bob around 1989 when my mother started to date again. Bob and Phyllis shared the recent loss of a spouse and even though he was quite a bit older, they had a lot of fun. He, more than others, could appreciate so many of the things; art, theater, culture, politics, her cooking which are important to her but I didn’t think a lot about him until the summer of 1990. Mom then told me that Bob had asked her to marry him and she mentioned that, at age 72, he was first going to go bow hunting Elk in Colorado with Dirk and friends. I thought a minute and said, “If he comes back from that, he has my blessing”. I look back on that as my lucky day because it changed my family’s and my life for the better.
I owe Bob a lot for convincing Phyllis to quit teaching so they could travel. He found a way for her to be both independent and secure not working so they could go have a lots of fun seeing the world. Thanks Bob.
Bob was certainly many faceted and brought so much to Phyllis’s life but also to mine. Because of Bob I’ve gotten to go to world premiers in Seattle & Broadway openings in NYC, I get to visit family in San Francisco, Seattle and New York. I got to visit and dine with Masami and Yoshi in Tokyo and got some home cooking and TLC in London from the Papps after being on the road for weeks. I enjoyed amazing 80th and 90th birthday parties, many wonderful meals and I not only got to live vicariously through Bob & Phyllis’s travels but I was inspired to have many travel adventures myself.
It didn’t take long for me to think enough of Bob that I wanted to do something special for him. I recalled his stories about dinner with an Italian count in Piedmont and the little restaurant across Washington D.C. where he had Osso Bucco and Barolo. One birthday, about my 40th, I decided it would be nice to recreate those meals. Hugh and Phyllis cooked, I brought one of my prized Barolo’s and we opened and old one of Bob’s. The Osso Bucco was transcendant, my Barolo was excellent, if a bit young, and Bob’s ’72 was magnificent, if a bit faded. The beaming smile on Bob’s face all evening in his chair at the head of the table said it all. That and the conversation were the greatest gifts. He did love a great party, fine food and good wine.
He made me a better person in his quiet, thoughtful way, but I hope he’d say I made him a bit better too. Bob and I agreed on many things, but not initially on the death penalty and we debated it for years. As we watched McNeil-Lehrer, later the News Hour, he with his bourbon and me with scotch we would discuss it. Finally, one evening after the DNA revelations in Illinois and other states came out he turned to me before I could say anything and said, “I’ve changed my mind. I think you were right about the death penalty”. It was a rare triumph to win an debate with Bob, but to me it is remarkable because even in his 80′s Bob was thoughtful and flexible enough, in the face of new facts, to change his mind. I too aspire to remain flexible in mind like Bob when I’m 80.
I was once lucky enough to share an afternooon with Bob and Nocky Willet, his chief engineer at KLRU, in Nockie’s quilting room at the ranch. I got to record the session while he and Nockie reminisced about getting KLRU & KUT going. I can’t forget Nockie saying to Bob, “I didn’t tell you this at the time, but you probably didn’t want to know” about how he helped his technicians get extra work with regional stations to supplement their University pay so they’d stay at KLRN. Bob’s eyes twinkled while he shook his head and chuckled.
Finally, just the other day I spoke with Mike at Two-Day, Bob’s auto body guy. When I told him the news, he said he loved Bob because he felt like an equal with Bob. Mike remembered when Bob first brought him his red Sterling. He told Bob he could fix it for him as long as he could get parts. Bob just took him at his word and brought it to him each time it needed a fix. He had that effect on people be they students, auto painters, Italian counts or University presidents. Bob always listened and he made people feel their own value.