PETERBOROUGH — As he lay in a hospital bed for three days, the calls for Bob McQuillen came in from across the country. There were calls from former students and musicians who knew McQuillen as a mentor, teacher and musician. Above all, they knew him as a friend.
McQuillen, a former police chief, teacher and legendary musician, was surrounded by dozens of friends and visitors in his room at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester. At age 90, he had suffered a massive stroke while eating dinner at Brady’s Restaurant in Peterborough Sunday night.
He was active up to the last moment, having driven himself to Brady’s in his truck that night.
McQuillen was at Catholic Medical Center from Sunday afternoon until he passed away Tuesday at about 3:40 p.m. His former wife, Priscilla Jean McQuillen, died on the same day 29 years ago, according to his close friend Donald R. Primrose.
McQuillen is survived by two of his three children, Dan and Becky, as well as countless friends. A third child, Bill, passed away a few years ago, according to Primrose.
In the hospital room, it was difficult to tell if he was aware, according to friends. But there were some glimmers of recognition, glimmers that came most often when someone played music for him.
In addition to the friends who sat by his bedside, McQuillen received phone calls from those who couldn’t be with him. According to Primrose, one of the many calls he received was from a woman on a mountaintop in Montana, who played a waltz she wrote for McQuillen on her banjo.
Another woman called from Juneau, Alaska, to thank McQuillen for writing a tune for her, Primrose said.
When the news of McQuillen’s death broke, a Facebook group page made to remember him was full of people sharing memories of a man more commonly known as “Mac” or “Mr. Mac.”
Whether they knew him as a teacher, mentor or musician, all had a story to share.
“When you met Bob, he made you feel like you were the most important person,” said Steve Zakon-Anderson, a contra dance caller at the Peterborough Town House and a good friend of McQuillen.
“He just had that warmth for people, that’s what a lot of people remember from the first time you met him,” Zakon-Anderson added. “That heart he had was open to everybody.”
McQuillen was born in Newtonville, Mass., and his family moved to this area when he was a child. He attended Keene State College after a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1943 to 1946.
He served overseas during World War II, and came back to the Monadnock Region after a tour of the South Pacific. He served in the Marines again in 1951, serving in Korea and in the U.S.
After returning to the region, he soon became a regular at local contra dances, often going to Ralph Page’s Saturday night square dances in Peterborough.
McQuillen even met his wife, Priscilla Ann, at the Peterborough hall. Zakon-Anderson said that years later, McQuillen would point out the exact place in the hall where he first met “Prissie.”
McQuillen learned to play the accordion and eventually, the piano. He soon became an ever-present figure playing in the band at contra dances, easily recognizable by many people who attended the dances.
At the same time, McQuillen began teaching industrial arts, including machine shop and woodworking, first at Peterborough High School, continuing when the school became Conval Regional High School.
Many students respected him for his ease to command authority, according to former school officials. His experience as a former Marine came in handy when it came to keeping unruly high school kids quiet.
“He had an exceptional rapport with students and their respect as a teacher,” said former Conval principal Byron Niederhelman. “They identified with Bob because he was very outgoing and direct.”
Former Conval school officials remembered McQuillan having an uncanny knack for one thing in particular: keeping the kids in the cafeteria quiet.
Niederhelman said he remembered McQuillen’s famous cry of “Heeeeeyah!” to quiet students down.
In an email, former Conval English teacher Michael O’Leary remembered the time he once escorted an official around the building who was evaluating the school for its recertification. At one point, O’Leary showed the official the school cafeteria, which was also being used as a study hall.
“There were probably 50 or 60 students there, but no teacher,” he recalled. “Wondering why they were all so quiet, he asked me the cause. Before I could answer, a rather tough-looking student said, ‘Sshh, don’t wake up Mr. Mac!’ He then pointed to where Mac was sleeping on a bench. The evaluator looked at Mac and then around the cafeteria. He then marked ‘very effective’ on his sheet.”
Former Conval teacher Jill T. Lawler said McQuillen was a constant presence at high school events such as plays, concerts and sporting events.
“He would also stand up at athletic events,” Lawler said. “He was very patriotic and would lead the Pledge of Allegiance and make a little speech about sportsmanship before the game would start, because Conval fans are notoriously rowdy.”
Lawler was the school’s yearbook adviser for years and said she couldn’t count how many classes dedicated their yearbooks to Mr. Mac.
Throughout the years, McQuillen was well known for his accordion and piano playing at contra dances, as well as a piano teacher for students across the area.
“The contra dance community is a pretty tight community, very supportive,” said Primrose. “He held it together a long time.”
In 1973, McQuillen wrote his first tune in honor of Scotty O’Neil, a former student who died tragically. From 1973 up until he passed away, McQuillen wrote and published about 1,500 tunes, according to Primrose.
Every song was named for a person or thing important to McQuillen.
“There’s a story behind every single one of them,” said Primrose.
In 2002, McQuillen was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. But McQuillen always shrugged off praise, said Zakon-Anderson, instead choosing to honor the people he played with.
“It’s hard to fathom that we don’t have him anymore,” Zakon-Anderson said. “We have 1,200 tunes and six gazillion memories.”
“He was absolutely one of a kind,” he added. “There will never be another Mr. Mac.”