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.