Bob Wilber’s laugh, kind of a cackle, really, was unmistakable. It slowly rose up through his throat and came out in sharp, high-pitched breaths — heh, heh — but not rapid-fire. It was a genuine laugh from a genuine man, who always called ‘em as he saw ‘em.
The Monadnock Region lost an icon last week with the passing of Wilber, 78, the former program director of the Keene Recreation Department and so much more.
He had depth — brusque and argumentative, thoughtful and benevolent, always with a strong opinion, be it politics, sports or whatever moved him. And that was just while holding court over breakfast at McDonald’s. Although he split much of his retirement years in Florida, Virginia and Maine, his soul was always in Keene.
His family wrote in his obituary that he died in Portland, Maine, of complications caused by his “abnormally large heart.” How apropos. It said his final hours were spent in the arms of his loving wife, Martha. Teenage sweethearts, Bob and Martha were married for 59 years, soulmates for life. Even in his last hours, he teased and befriended the nurses at Maine Medical Center. An emphasis on the teasing, no doubt. I’ll bet they loved him and cried alongside his family.
Wilber enriched Keene. He got things done.
Oh, sure, he would chide and needle along the way, that booming voice in my ear from my early days at The Sentinel three decades ago. I probably didn’t like him very much, at first. When we made a mistake in the sports department, he called us on it. He loved to tangle. He was sharp-witted and no-nonsense, and you had better bring a cogent argument or he would chew you up.
As time passed, our friendship tightened. Our conversations deepened. He and Martha eventually bounced between several states in retirement, spending time with their five kids and loads of grandkids and great-grandkids. He’d regularly dial me up at the office, ask what in darnation is going on with Keene High basketball, or whatever local teams and coaches were making news. Then he’d likely rail about it, and off we’d go. Wilber’s morality, his sense of right and wrong, was unyielding.
An avowed New York Mets fan — heaven help the sports crew if the newspaper he was reading didn’t have the Mets box score in those days — Wilber was a lifelong sports enthusiast. He played three sports at Keene High, and spent much of his adult life coaching, umpiring, refereeing, organizing and indulging in his baseball card collection. I laugh out loud reading some old clips of his men’s softball umpiring days. He didn’t take any guff.
“I can make a bad call and not hear a word,” whereas another ump may have tomato seeds thrown at him, Wilber said in a 1982 interview. “But I think you have to demand that kind of respect.” In other words, the article says, if a player challenged him impolitely, he could be “one mean umpire.”
Wilber may have been ornery on the field, but put him in front of a microphone, and he was downright droll as “Doctor Softball” on WKBK radio. Back in the heyday of recreational softball in Keene — when there were more than 100 teams — Wilber would read the scores of the previous night’s games. Eventually, partly to entertain himself, he added nicknames to the teams and players, inserting his sardonic wit. He knew the personalities on the field, and, though I never heard one of his reports, I can only imagine.
While he didn’t suffer fools on the diamond, his big heart galvanized local youth sports programs. As the 20-year program director at the Rec Department, it was all about participation. He didn’t care who won and who lost, not at that level. It was about competition and fair play. Coaches in the youth ranks who didn’t abide by those ground rules weren’t coaches in Keene for long.
“The most important thing is that we give these opportunities to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have them, and it makes me happy to know that will continue after I leave,” Wilber said upon his retirement in 2004. “I think these days kids are taught too much that winning is the only thing. My goal has been pretty simple: You have to keep ’em busy, keep ’em involved, and have a good time.”
If you volunteered to coach, you were especially in good stead. “There are the ones who, even after their kids are done, say, ‘If you still need a coach, I’ll take a team.’ Those are the sweetest words I can hear,” he said. And Special Olympics was especially dear to Wilber, who coached and celebrated the local Olympians for years. He bought lots of pizza.
Wilber also knew his way around City Hall, serving as a city councilor for several years in the 1980s. Opinionated? You bet. Many of those yellowed newspaper clips about City Council meetings include phrases like this: “He’s known for his predominantly fiscally conservative views and often lively speeches.”
He was a big supporter of the Keene Swamp Bats and made it to several games a year. People would congregate to his usual seat behind the backstop, just to the left of home plate.
This summer, it’s been quiet, his seat empty. Nobody complains that they can’t find a Mets box score. The phone isn’t ringing.
The bulletproof panels are designed to withstand multiple rounds from a handgun — and two of this season’s bestsellers are emblazoned with Disney princesses and Avengers superheroes.
“Here’s our demographic: parents with kids,” said Steve Naremore, founder of TuffyPacks, a Houston-based company that sells bulletproof backpack inserts. “It’s a real morbid niche.”
And a growing one: Sales have increased every year since 2016.
This is America in 2019, where mass shootings have become so commonplace that consumers are buying bulletproof backpacks, clipboards, even three-ring binder inserts, that they hope will protect them from gunfire. Retailers across the country say they have seen growing demand for bullet-resistant products for children — as well as for doctors, teachers, flight attendants and taxi drivers — giving rise to an industry of ballistic goods for everyday Americans, though there is little evidence the products are actually effective.
For the first time, Office Max and Office Depot have included bulletproof backpacks among their back-to-school offerings, while online retailers are marketing bulletproof whiteboards, chair cushions and kids’ puffer vests that tap into a growing sense of fear and helplessness.
“So many of the things we’re investing in today, whether it’s smart-home technology or protective backpacks, are about safety and security,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for the market research firm NPD Group. “Every time we have one of these incidents, it’s a reminder of how just how vulnerable we are.”
As a result, bulletproof products have become a booming business that picks up every time a large-scale shooting rattles the nation. This month, gunmen in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, killed at least 31 people and injured dozens more with military-style rifles.
Within hours, Leatherback Gear, which sells backpacks that convert into bulletproof vests, saw a 12-fold increase in sales. “It was all hands on deck all weekend,” said Brad de Geus, who founded the company with his brother three years ago. “Everybody’s fielding calls and emails.”
The company’s backpacks — named simply “civilian one” and “tactical one” — were designed by active-duty law enforcement officers and sell for $330 to $400. Demand has been so high, de Geus said, that the Costa Mesa, California, company is in the process of releasing two new styles, including a sporty model for $280 and a smaller-sized children’s bag for $100.
“It’s just like having a fire extinguisher or using a seat belt,” he said. “These are personal devices for life-threatening situations. It’s as simple as that.”
Naremore, of TuffyPacks, began making backpack inserts three years ago after his daughter, a fourth-grade teacher in Dallas, told him about active-shooter drills at her school. About 95 percent of his business, he said, comes from parents.
He recently pulled branded inserts with Disney princesses, Marvel superheroes and Harry Potter decals from his site after Disney demanded he stop selling products with its characters on them. Naremore says he was using licensed fabric for those items, but “there’s a stigma anytime you have ‘bullets’ and ‘kids’ in the same sentence.”
After months of deliberation, Raquel Donahue bought a bullet-resistant backpack insert for her 6-year-old son. She and her son’s father, an Iraq War veteran, began discussing the idea last March after eight students and two teachers were killed in a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, less than 50 miles from their home. After a mass shooting in El Paso on Aug. 3 left 22 people dead, they decided it was time.
“We know it’s not a magical device, but he’s starting first grade and we want to feel a little better about putting him on a school bus each day,” said Donahue, 38, a librarian at Prairie View A&M University near Houston. “What we really need is gun reform. But our lawmakers are not moving at the speed parents need them to, so this is the best we can do.”
She went online and paid $75 for a ballistic insert that her son’s grandmother will sew into his JanSport backpack.
Then came the hard part: Explaining the decision to her son. She told him that if a gunman came to his school, he could hold his backpack in front of his body for protection.
“But what if they shoot my hand?” he asked.
“I said, that would hurt a lot,” Donahue recalled. “But it’s better than them shooting you in the head or the heart.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Yes,” he finally agreed. “If I get shot in my hand, at least I won’t die.”
Sales have been steadily rising at Guard Dog Security in Sanford, Florida, which introduced its first ballistic backpack in 2013. This year it introduced a smaller version, that starts at $99 and is sold online by Walmart and Home Depot. It comes in hot pink and teal, and weighs 20 ounces, roughly the same as a water bottle.
“The primary goal was to make it lightweight for schoolchildren,” said Yasir Sheikh, the company’s president. “We’ve already sold out a few times this year.”
The company’s products — like virtually every bulletproof backpack on the market — are advertised as meeting “Ballistic Level IIIA” standards, which means they can withstand bullets from handguns and revolvers. They do not, however, guard against military-style variations such as the ones used in El Paso and Dayton. Furthermore, the products — which often are tested independently by the companies selling them — are not vetted by the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the Justice Department that certifies body armor for law enforcement officers.
The institute “has never tested nor certified ballistic items, such as backpacks, blankets, or briefcases,” Kelly Laco, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said in a statement.
Academics who study mass shootings say there is little, if any, proof that bullet-resistant products make children safer. Instead, they say, schools and lawmakers should focus on preventing gun violence by banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“This is pure marketing to exploit fear,” said Matthew Mayer, a professor at Rutgers University whose research focuses on school violence prevention. “We have no evidence that these things work. They’re giving kids and their parents a false sense of security.”
Mass shootings, he added, “are fluid, rapidly developing, unpredictable events.” The chances that a child would have such a backpack handy at precisely the right moment — and quickly calibrate the shooter’s position and the bullets’ potential trajectory to position backpack — is “something so beyond reality that it’s just not logical.”
Even so, demand for such products continues to grow. Though analysts do not have hard numbers yet, they estimate the market for bulletproof consumer gear is in the tens of millions of dollars. School security, meanwhile, has ballooned into a $2.7 billion- a-year business.
For years, the bulk of George Tunis’s business came from the U.S. government and military. His company, Hardwire, created armor for bridges, police cars and tactical vehicles used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 20 children, Tunis — a father himself — shifted his focus.
“Sandy Hook was when we realized we had to put the armor inside,” Tunis said. “No matter how fast the police get there, it’s not enough. The people inside are the first responders. We’ve got to give them something.”
He began making whiteboards that double as bullet-resistant shields, which he has installed at thousands of schools, hospitals, apartment buildings and restaurants. His clients include the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Seacrets, a popular nightclub and bar in Ocean City, where two-dozen bulletproof shields masquerade as vodka and rum ads.
“John Drury, a truck driver in Cincinnati, decided to buy his 16-year-old son a ballistic backpack insert after the Dayton shooting, which occurred 30 miles from his home.
“These are scary times,” the 49-year-old said, adding that he thinks lawmakers should focus on mental health issues, not gun control. “But this backpack — well, it brings me a little peace of mind.”
SWANZEY — For several miles south of Keene, the Ashuelot Rail Trail is a smooth dirt-and-crushed-stone path through the woods. Then, somewhere around West Swanzey, the trail gets rougher. In some stretches, rocks, grass or sand make for a jarring bike ride.
But it won’t be that way forever.
Earlier this year, Swanzey received a six-figure grant to improve that part of the Ashuelot Rail Trail, as well as the section of the Cheshire Rail Trail that passes through town.
The project will convert almost seven miles of unimproved trail in Swanzey to groomed paths that will be easier for cyclists and pedestrians to use. A cyclist will then be able to travel on improved bike paths from the center of Keene through Swanzey to the Marlborough or Winchester town line.
“We think they’re important recreational and transportation assets in the town and the region,” Swanzey Town Administrator Michael T. Branley said of the two trails.
The town’s next step is to hire an engineering consultant to begin design work, Branley said. Construction is scheduled to begin around 2025, due to how the grant funding mechanism works, but Branley said it might be possible to start sooner if the town is ready before that.
The trails hearken back to the area’s railroad history. Eleven separate railroads once crisscrossed the Monadnock Region, and Keene was a railroad hub, with hundreds employed in the industry.
Two of those lines were the Ashuelot Railroad and the Cheshire Railroad. Their tracks are gone, but the corridors remain as rail trails.
The 21½-mile Ashuelot Rail Trail runs along the river of the same name, starting in Keene, meandering southwest through Swanzey and Winchester, and then swooping over to end in Hinsdale.
The Cheshire Rail Trail cuts diagonally through the county. Its 33-mile length connects Walpole in the northwest to Fitzwilliam in the southeast, and includes stretches in Keene and Swanzey.
Both trails have miles of unimproved sections in Swanzey and other communities. Though passable, they are often “little better than an overgrown path through the woods” and may deter users who don’t have mountain bikes or lack the skills to navigate the bumpier terrain, according to Swanzey’s 2018 grant application for the improvement project.
“Making these upgrades will allow enhanced pedestrian and bicycle traffic to use both of these trails for commuting and recreation,” the town wrote in the application.
The application notes that the Swanzey section of the Cheshire Rail Trail follows Route 12, and could become a viable way for people to travel between Marlborough and Keene without cars. An improved Ashuelot Rail Trail, according to the application, could better connect the Stratton Free Library, Cutler Elementary School, certain businesses on Route 10 and various housing units.
The grant money comes from the Transportation Alternatives Program — federal funding administered by state governments. The N.H. Department of Transportation announced in January that it would award Swanzey $600,000, to be combined with a $150,000 local contribution for a total estimated project cost of $750,000.
Branley said the actual contributions from both the state and the town will be somewhat higher, to reflect inflation between now and the construction date. He put the expected budget at $815,000.
The town is working on fundraising to help offset the cost of the project, Branley said. A volunteer Rail Trails Advisory Committee is assisting town officials in those efforts.
The proposed work involves removing brush and vegetation to improve safety and widen the trails; addressing drainage issues; and replacing the surface with crushed stone, similar to the improved portion of the Ashuelot Rail Trail south of Keene. That surface would be firmer and more consistent than the existing dirt and grass tracks.
“The trail we have now is great in a lot of ways,” said Henry Underwood, a planner and GIS specialist with the Southwest Regional Planning Commission in Keene. “But if you think about, I don’t know, maybe wanting to pass two abreast, or for people who don’t have a mountain bike, folks who can’t get around that well, it’s not adequate in a lot of ways.”
Underwood is working on a separate planning effort called Plan for Ashuelot Rail Trail. Its advisory committee includes representatives from communities along the trail and other local organizations. He said the goal is to coordinate with various stakeholders and develop a vision for the trail, including priorities for improvements and resources to achieve that.
The Swanzey project is its own thing. But Branley hopes it will spur further improvements to the trails. The grant application says the Swanzey project would “build momentum” for improvements in other towns.
“We think that’s more likely if we’ve got it improved up to their borders,” Branley said.
Three mosquito batches collected recently in Pelham have tested positive for the Eastern equine encephalitis virus, marking this year’s first such confirmation in New Hampshire, the state’s health department announced Tuesday afternoon.
“Identification of the EEE virus in mosquitoes in New Hampshire is an important reminder that mosquito bites can transmit a number of potentially serious viral infections in our communities,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan said in a news release.
A spokesman wrote in an email this morning that two mosquito species tested positive for EEE in the batches: Culiseta melanura, a bird-biter, and Coquillettidia perturbans, which bites both birds and mammals. A batch includes up to 50 mosquitoes, he wrote, and the agency doesn’t know which individual bugs tested positive.
“People need to take steps to prevent mosquito bites,” Chan said in the release, “including avoiding being outdoors at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active,” as well as wearing mosquito repellent and protective clothing. Chan also advised people to get rid of standing water, where mosquitoes breed, near their homes.
State health officials advise people to use insect repellent with DEET (up to 30 percent), picaridin, para-menthane-diol or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
Tuesday’s announcement comes on the heels of last week’s news that an adult resident of Kingston had tested positive for both Jamestown Canyon virus, which is spread by infected mosquitoes, and Powassan virus, which is spread by infected ticks.
No one in New Hampshire has tested positive for the EEE virus — which can cause fatal illness in cases involving the central nervous system — since it was confirmed in three people in 2014, according to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts health officials recently reported that state’s first human case since 2013. The man is older than 60 and from southern Plymouth County, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.