Robert Vernon “Bob” Curtis passed away Jan. 15, 2020 at his home in Ferndale, Washington. He was 89. Bob is survived by his three sisters, Barbara Scribner of Ferndale; Jean Norton of Spokane Valley; and Arlene Colombo of Spring Hill, Florida. He is also survived by his three sons and their spouses: Bill and his wife Leona, of Stanwood; Bart and his wife Shelley of Orcas Island; and Bret and his wife Diane of Port Angeles. Bob was also a grandfather of 10: Patty (Chris) Nesbitt; Billy, Shannon, Becky, Katie (Jeff) Spinner; Bobby, Lindsay (Jason) Gross; Holly (Kelly) Henderson; Jamie (Kyle) Christensen; and Lauren (Tyler) Burke; and he was a great-grandfather of nine. They are: Clayton; Shaye; Joshua; Bryn; Tiara; Tawney; Roy; Alisha; and Will.
Bob was born May 31, 1930 in Marysville, Washington, to Vernon and Gladys Curtis. Just over a year later, his parents moved the family to Orcas Island where young Bobby would attend Orcas School and eventually graduate from Orcas Island High School in 1948. Coming from a tightknit community as they did, he remained life-long friends with several of his schoolmates.
He joined the U.S. Army after graduation and a brief flirtation (or maybe fantasy) that summer with professional baseball. He served proudly as an infantryman and tanker from 1949 until 1952, during the Korean War.
Upon his discharge, Sergeant Curtis returned to Orcas Island where he fortuitously met his future wife, Patty, at a Rebecca Lodge-sponsored “picnic basket/date” auction. Bob had to borrow five dollars from a buddy when the bidding on one specific picnic basket broke his budget, climbing all the way to 17 dollars. But his persistence and the loan paid off when he was the highest bidder and got the picnic basket and a date with Patty Lehmann, its sponsor. Evidently it was 17 bucks well spent because they married in 1955 and stayed happily married until Pat’s passing in 1977.
Through the mid-fifties, between scratching out a living on the island and starting a family, Bob continued his GI Bill education at Western Washington University, where he ultimately earned a degree in physical education and a K-12 general teaching certificate. He’d be licensed to teach anything to anybody! And sure enough, that’s what he did at Orcas schools where he landed his first job starting in the fall of 1958. For the next 27 years, Bob taught and coached hundreds of Orcas kids of all ages. One year his assignment was sixth grade, the next, juniors and seniors; yet another it was seventh and eighth-graders. He filled many roles in the classroom over the years, but his day wasn’t done after the dismissal bell. Once class let out, he’d put on a whistle and coach the Vikings football, basketball, baseball or track and field teams, depending on the season. In those days, it was not uncommon for him to travel with and coach both a JV and a varsity basketball team, stay Friday and Saturday night somewhere off-island, then come home Sunday afternoon, all the while having to drive the team bus! Eventually, the coaching duties were spread among more staff members as the school district modernized, but Bob continued to coach one sport or another throughout his career.
As an avocation, Bob was also an accomplished gardener and he and Pat owned and operated Anniversary Greenhouse and Nursery in the 1970s. In a keen business decision, it was agreed that Pat would handle the storefront retail while Bob ran the growing operation behind the scenes.
In an unusual twist then—particularly if you knew his thoroughly non-cosmopolitan nature—the next stop in Bob’s career after Orcas found him in San Vito, Italy, teaching and coaching at a U.S. Department of Defense dependent school. Fittingly, perhaps, his last seat on a team bench was coaching an under-manned, hybrid, freshman-jv-varsity basketball squad from tiny San Vito Air Station. (The wins and losses from that season were never discussed.) He finally called it a career after a seven-year hitch with DODDS, and he and his wife at the time, Sandy Ritchie, returned to Washington and settled in Ferndale. It was there that he began a second “career” as a groundskeeper with the Ferndale Parks Department. He loved the work, but unfortunately, as a seasonal hire he got let go when the budget got tight. It wasn’t long, though, until he took on the care of the city of Ferndale’s hanging baskets, which was to be his last paid gig, and one he took great care and pride in. All his considerable gardening knowledge and wisdom was brought to bear on those hanging baskets, and it showed.
Of course at his passing, Bob had long since hung up his whistle and gym shoes, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t been coaching. The difference was that for several years his X’s and O’s were all done from the vantage point of a La-Z-Boy recliner pointed at a 36 inch Samsung. He was no longer courtside, but he was still very much involved. Bob was a sports guy to the core and loved to compete. All the team games, golf, Gin Rummy, you name it. Line ‘em up, he was ready. Right up until the end there weren’t many ballgames involving the University of Washington or the Seattle Mariners that didn’t get broken down and analyzed pretty thoroughly. Pitch selection; play-calling; recruiting; it all got scrutinized.
Somehow, though, he didn’t use up all that scrutiny on intercollegiate athletics and big-league baseball. Amazingly, he always seemed to have plenty more for his beloved republic and its political machinations, whether it was at the federal, state or local level. Bob was quite politically “engaged,” we’ll say, and if you talked with him very much you’d eventually get an opinion on one policy issue or another. And more often than not, they were strongly, sometimes even tenaciously, held. Marianne Zener, one of those long-time friends of his and wife for a time, no doubt heard a great many of them throughout their time together.
On a political spectrum, Bob would jokingly say that as a young man he was a Truman Democrat, but as he aged, (whatever that meant) he inexorably drifted toward the Republican camp and the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Bob was an unabashed cold warrior and was convinced of the correctness of the United States’ position as the defender of the free world. Put simply: Bob Curtis was a traditional patriot in every sense of the word—proud of his country, proud of our democratic institutions, and proud of his service on their behalf. He was a member of the American Legion Post 93 on Orcas Island for 66 years.
As a final reflection then, think about this: “Everywhere he went he would light up the room with his presence.” Ever hear that in an obituary? Well, you won’t here. That wasn’t Bob. He neither sought that nor saw the value in it. In his own pithy way he would have asked: “Why would I want to do that? There’s already enough light in the room.” That was Bob. Oh, make no mistake, he was engaging, and he was what we call a people person — friendly, kind, ready with a wisecrack and interested in what you were up to. But the last thing he wanted was to “light up the room with his presence,” to somehow be bigger than he was, or represent something he wasn’t. His unassuming personality wouldn’t allow it. When all is said and done, you could write a million words devoted to his memory, but in the end, it boils down to this: Bob Curtis was a one of a kind, straight up, authentic guy. He worked, loved, competed and lived his own way—no more, no less. And it was that special, unique way of his that didn’t necessarily light up the room but rather shed little bits of light in a lot of places that have impacted many of us over the years, and maybe, if we were lucky, helped us along the way. In some of us, they will glow long after he’s gone. Thanks for that, Dad. We’ll miss you.
A burial will be held at 12:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 1 at the Woodlawn Cemetery. A reception will follow at the American Legion.