Bob Western

Thursday, September 2, 2021
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Bob Western possessed countless qualities that his family admired. He was smart, funny and could tell a good story. He was our example of a father, faithful husband, friend, brother, neighbor, and grandpa. He was always the one who showed up to help and he stuck around until the end. He taught us how to be resourceful and never see anything at face value. There was always some way to get something done better and for a couple bucks cheaper. And usually lots cheaper than just a couple of dollars.

Bob was from a generation that hadn’t yet invented cynicism. We watched as he always looked at every person in front of him as a friend; someone he could teach something to, or learn something from. His friendships stretched from his home state of Washington to the far off Marshall Islands where he and mom taught kids, and then to schools in Montana and always to unique places like the Hutterite colony south of Lodge Grass where he picked up tanker trucks full of milk for the Laurel Creamery and where we hunted pheasants and talked to nice people who lived differently than we did.

Bob’s story started on a fall day in 1936. Born Robert Edward Western, he was the son of Robert Henry and Leone Western; named for his dad and his grandpa Ed. We can only imagine that he was a child born in high gear, because he never slowed down for one minute throughout his whole life. It’s hard to sum up a man’s life in a few words, but here goes. Bob grew up on a farm. He had a horse named Topper and milked cows in the earliest hours of morning. He taught his sister Amber to drive. His buddies Glenn, Jim, Terry, Fred and Augie knew their red haired friend as Robin. He was often called out of class to fix a school bus whenever the principal at Fife High School needed a mechanic. He received a teaching degree from Western Washington College of Education (now WWU). It is easy to picture Bob Western walking around campus wearing a shirt that said WESTERN.

Bob watched his own father work on the Milwaukee Railroad, and decided to try it too. He worked summers and weekends and time off during his college years as a brakeman on the Milwaukee. His stories of those times were undoubtedly some of his fondest. He talked about working on logging trains in the snow covered Washington mountains. One Thanksgiving morning he was working on a speeding locomotive that crashed into a large boulder that had fallen onto the tracks. We are looking at his uniform hat now as we write these words.

How does a guy who loved railroading end up spending his life as an elementary school teacher and a principal? It’s a good question. Bob’s train yard days were at the very end of the passenger train era. He said that he saw it coming, so he moved on. No one is exactly sure why education caught his eye. Bob took his teaching degree to Southern California, and it must have taken a while for him to warm up to being called “Mr. Western” by his large classes of 5th and 6th graders. It is also there that he met a new teacher from Montana named Sandy Freeberg. The legend goes that he was helping a friend move, and that friend was also friends with mom. It pays to help others, because the two teachers were soon married in Billings in the spring of 1963. Those black and white pictures of that day are lovely. They show a beautiful bride, surrounded by friends and family, many who now live on in memory. And there he was; dressed up and looking squarely into the lens of life that would soon take that freshly married couple off into adventures near and far.

Back briefly to California, and then onto the tiny map dots in the Marshall Islands of Majuro and Kwajalein, where they spent six years teaching kids in the remoteness of the South Pacific. Do a search for those island names and try to picture a time before the internet and cell phones, where most news of the world arrived on a boat. Bob and Sandy taught and scuba dived on ships sunk in World War II and made lifelong friends. Bob took classes for a summer in Japan, and they got to see a lot of Asia. Years later, Bob wrote a children’s book about his time in the islands.

As that chapter of life ended, Bob and Sandy spent a short time in Bozeman where he got a master’s degree in education at Montana State. He put that to use right away, with a job in Absarokee where he served as principal and 5th grade teacher. Montana was now home for good. A few years later, Bob got a job in Laurel, where they built a house next to a park. That is where they raised their two sons, Greg and Matt.

Bob was a busy guy to say the least. He was the principal at West Elementary School and for a time at South School as well. His students remember him as the principal with a full sized arcade game in his office. He helped with Little League, was a member of Rotary and was on the city park board. He wrote grants and got buses to take kids (his own included) to Billings for swimming lessons on Saturday mornings. He was a Boy Scout leader, and volunteered for various jobs at the Methodist church. He drove semis full of milk and grain trucks, and even occasionally hauled cows for friends on weekends. His sons often accompanied Dad on his truck driving adventures.

There were family trips; most of the time with Bob pulling a trailer. He, Mom, two boys and always a black and white Springer Spaniel dog: first Tigger, then Sadie and finally Winnie. We went camping throughout Montana at places like Greenough Lake by Red Lodge, and Woodbine near Absarokee. There were longer trips to California and Minnesota and Washington and the Black Hills. And the granddaddy trip of all time was six weeks in an old blue Suburban, towing a trailer to Alaska. Bob talked about that trip for years and the 8300 miles we spent together. We saw it all, including him casting a line into a small creek that was flowing by our campground and catching a massive King salmon. It took him hours to land that fish, and it was a heroic battle. We just recently watched the slides again, of that trip. At this point it’s hard to say if any of our Alaska memories are really our own or are now the commentary from the many times he told the story.

Later in life Bob decided that he really wanted to learn to fly. He bought a small, green Cessna airplane, and would tell anyone who would listen, that his plane cost less than a new Suburban. He took lessons, got his pilot’s license and had lots of adventures flying around Montana, down to Wyoming, over to Minnesota, and up to Canada. He enjoyed flying for many years. He volunteered for numerous terms on the Laurel airport board, and helped with Aviation Week in the Laurel schools.

Bob loved his time as principal at West School. He felt like the folks he worked with were family and that each student needed a great place to learn. Upon retirement, Bob promptly jumped back in and served for four years as the principal at the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch; another chance to help kids. After he finally retired from being a principal, he was always driving; buses mostly, spending weeks away in the summers hauling crews of firefighters from the Crow Reservation across many states. He was especially proud of the friendships he made with the Crow men and women he worked with. He fondly told the story many times of driving a group of tribal members across the country to be part of a presidential inauguration.

Bob eventually acquired the title that seemed to suit him best, Grandpa Bob. Greg married Pam. Matt married Becky. And between them, Grandpa Bob and Grandma Sandy ended up with eight grandkids: Nathan, Olivia, Andrew, Erika, Emma, Josiah, Owen, and James. Recently they picked up a new one, when Julie married Nathan. He loved his duties as Grandpa, cooking his famous pancake breakfasts, making sledding trails, setting up bb gun ranges, feeding ice cream to one and all, playing across the street at Kiwanis park, taking the canoe down to South Pond, and on and on. He loved it when the grandkids would pack into his house for Christmas or in the summer. We all ended up calling him Grandpa Bob.

Mom and Dad, who recently celebrated 58 years together, lived for near half-a-hundred years, in the same house, in the same town. There wasn’t a day that passed by without someone who went to West School or South School in Laurel coming up to him, and saying, “Hi Mr. Western. You were my principal. Do you remember me?” He always smiled and talked for a bit, and walked away happier. He would say to mom, “They know me!” We did know him. Each of us had the good fortune to cross paths with Bob Western. He was a good man, with an extraordinary life. No one packed more memorable moments into 84 short years. The last few years were a little harder, as Alzheimer’s began to take away his memories. Now we are obligated to hold onto those memories. More than that, we are now the bearers of his legacy, his example, and of course his ability to never do things in exactly the same way as everybody else. These things that we learned from him we will do our best to carry forward.

Bob’s life led up to this moment, and now we are forced to say farewell. We are comforted in the hope that eternity is real, and that Jesus says, “I have gone to prepare a place for you.” We obviously wish there had been more time, but we also know that he lived out his life as only he could; curious, full of humor and always going 100 miles an hour. We are grateful for every day we had with him.

Robert. Bob. Robin. Mr. Western. Dad. Grandpa Bob.

A memorial service to celebrate Bob’s life is scheduled for Friday, September 3rd at 2 p.m. at the Laurel United Methodist Church. Memorials in his name can be made to the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch (https://www.ybgr.org/donate) or the Kiwanis Park Kid’s Kingdom Playground Fund (https://www.laurelcommunity.org/kids-kingdom). We want to thank everyone who took care of his medical needs including the Alzheimer’s staff at Billings Clinic, SCL Hospital staff, Home Helpers Home Care, and everyone at Morningstar Senior Living.

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