A View from the Hill: Bob Saunders wouldn’t approve of this column

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It takes a lot of web surfing to find anything about my old friend and journalism colleague Robert M. Saunders. I mean Bob.

I’m not surprised, because Bob was not a man who sought attention, although he got it anyway for the rock-solid journalism he practiced over a long, distinguished career in Maine as a newspaper reporter and editor.

Bob died last Friday of cancer at age 75. He wouldn’t want his last months to be characterized as a valiant fight or a battle. For Bob, cancer was another project to which he would devote himself with characteristic hard work, curiosity, and humor. 

Bob and I worked together at the Journal Tribune in Biddeford, a paper that itself expired a year ago after 135 years of continuous publication. Bob spent most of his career at the paper in several of its iterations, much of it in “the Sanford office,” although we journalists liked to call it a “bureau.”

I must have first met Bob when I worked at a rival paper, The Sanford Star, in the late 1970s. We started working together in the early ‘80s when I joined the Journal Tribune as a reporter, but I didn’t see Bob much because I worked in the “Biddeford office.” I don’t even remember the point at which we became friends, but we did. 

Kind of an odd couple, really.

I had a big ego and craved recognition; Bob was humble and didn’t much care about what people thought of him. I liked to dress up; Bob was happiest in an old oxford shirt, a very baggy, worn sweater, beat-up baseball hat he had found somewhere, and wrinkled khakis. I was kind of lazy; Bob worked too hard.

That hard work was particularly evident in his editorials, which were deeply researched,  carefully reasoned, and beautifully written. “His editorials sang,” said another colleague, Mo Mehlsak, who is my editor here.

Another colleague who worked with Bob, Bernie Wideman, put it simply: “He was a good man and an excellent editorialist.”

A good man who always tried to be a better man. As our friendship deepened, we talked a lot about life’s challenges. One summer, Bob took a month’s vacation and spent it painting his house in Sanford.

When I dropped by to check his progress, he would put down his paintbrush and we would go into the kitchen and eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on white bread while sorting out the problems in our lives. Just the act of laying them out on the table seemed to make life more bearable.

Later, when Bob found himself in need of a place to live, he moved in for a while with my wife, Mary, and me. I don’t remember if I invited him or he asked, but we took him in.

Bob Saunders (Courtesy Maine Press Association)

Bob would spend his evenings throwing the tennis ball for our dog. Then we might have a glass of bourbon together and yak. We knew a lot about each other’s challenges, but I’m not sure if anyone knew how close we’d become.

After a month or two, Bob found an apartment and, eventually, a new life. I left the paper to teach at the University of New Hampshire and suggested to the publisher that Bob take over my duties as managing editor. I never intended to come back, and while several colleagues picked up on that, Bob did not.

He called one night a few weeks ago when he was sick and said he had something he wanted to read to me. It was from his acceptance speech upon induction into the Maine Press Association Hall of Fame in 2006. In it, he said something like, “Sandy left and never came back.” He wanted me to know that.

“You thought I would?” I asked. He never doubted it. I’m not sure he ever wanted to get into management and perhaps he thought I’d hoodwinked him. Of course, he was damned good at it and earned the enduring love and respect of his staff, who he fiercely protected from the incompetent out-of-staters who bought the paper.

Bob left journalism and became a handyman for hire. He was just as proud of that as he was of all his years in journalism. He told me he was amazed that he could fix things for people, and he loved it. He had a house in Kittery Point and a new wife, Avis.

After Bob got sick, they moved to a double-wide in Portsmouth to make things easier for Avis. Bob’s lung cancer spread to his brain. He had a motorized wheelchair and showed off the drink holder. A talented musician and songwriter, he began gathering his work during steroid-fueled sessions and planned on making a new recording. He was invigorated by the work, even as he faded.

On two occasions, he hijacked the car for a little joyriding. He knew he shouldn’t have, but he wasn’t sorry, he told me on the phone. He also told me how much he loved his evenings on the deck with a bourbon and ginger, a habit he got into when he lived with us, he said.

A couple of short calls followed, but they weren’t easy. Just talking became exhausting for him.

And then he died.

I regret the many years that we were out of touch. But I treasure those last few phone calls, when the circle was closed.

So here’s a bourbon and ginger toast to you, Bob. You lived a meaningful life. You will be missed.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.

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