I saw my neighbor Joanna on Monday at the Kroger. She was glancing down at a grocery list, mumbling to herself and weeping softly. So I knew Bob Gross had died.
We spoke briefly, cried a little and exchanged hugs. She went off to look for sunflower seeds for the bereavement dish she was fixing for the family, and I came home to think and write about my neighbor Bob, who died Monday, April 20. He’d been suffering with cancer, and had been in hospice care for the past few weeks. He was 83 years old.
As I write this, I am watching from my second floor office window while a tree crew hired by Georgia Power grimly grinds away with a chainsaw at a towering old sweetgum in my backyard neighbor’s yard. That sweet gum has been on life support for some time now too. Only the topmost limbs bloom these days, and it’s leaning precariously close to the power lines. We had a big storm here in my neighborhood last Monday, and the high winds toppled a huge red oak, which in turn fell on my friend’s pecan tree, which then pulled down a utility pole containing a transformer. Half the neighborhood was without power for two days. So Susie, my neighbor, and the power company, decided it would be prudent to take the old sweet gum down before it falls down. Susie is a die-hard gardener, preservationist and bona-fide tree hugger, but even she had to admit that those prickly sweet gum-balls are a nuisance and an annoyance, and that she’d always feared the tree would fall down one night and kill somebody. So the tree man has been sawing away all afternoon, working his way down the trunk from the topmost limbs. Every so often, I hear him shout a warning to the workers down on the ground, and then I hear a loud thud. And when I look up, there is a little bit less tree back there.
Susie says they are going to leave about 15 or 20 feet of sweetgum trunk in the ground. She plans to plant a Lady Banks rose on the trunk, and nail a purple martin house to the top, and then the old tree will have twining green branches, pale yellow flowers, and hopefully, a new life full of birdsong and woodpeckers.
Our neighbor Bob is gone now, leaving behind Rutledge, his still stylish and beautiful wife of 58 years, along with four children and five grandchildren, and a community of what must be hundreds and hundreds who will mourn his passing. The good folks of Avondale Estates will, in particular, miss our neighbor.
Bob was mayor here, from 1969 to 1974. An engineer by training, he was famous in city annals for his minute attention to every detail having to do with civic governance, scrutinizing and questioning every line item on the tiny town’s municipal budget. His daughter Kimberly told me that she and her siblings were teenagers when their father was mayor. So their mother warned them that if they got into trouble, they would face not only the wrath of their daddy, but the full force of the law — meaning the Avondale Estates police department, headed by the also legendary late police chief Dewey Brown. “Mayors from other little towns around here would call if they got a speeding ticket in Avondale, and they’d ask Daddy to see if they could get them out of paying the ticket, but Daddy never would do it for them, and he wouldn’t have done it for us, either,” Kimberly said.
Although Bob left office in the seventies, he continued to be active in community affairs, serving, without pay on various city committees, including our town’s downtown development authority. Even after he was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually take his life, he never lost interest in his community. I can see him now, standing erect at the back of a crowded council chamber as recently as a year ago, glowering at a small group of council members who were too mired in indecision and doubt to do the right thing for the city. Bob, by all accounts, was never afraid to take a stand, however unpopular.
Feeling the loss just as deeply as Bob Gross’s constitutents are his former golfing buddies. When two of his closest friends’ sons took up golf as pre-teens, Bob folded them into his foursome, matching them stroke for stroke and hole for hole. “We called him Gritty Gross,” said Marshall Murphey, who remembers playing with Bob from the age of twelve. “And he called us ‘the lads.’ And when he’d beat us younger guys, he’d tell us ‘old age and treachery will always defeat youth and agility.’ “
“We’d go down to his beach house on Jekyll Island,” Marshall said, “and it would be July, and over 100 degrees, and we’d play no less than 36 holes of golf, and he’d always want to play more. One summer day, he’d just finished working a half day at his farm, and we went by and picked him up at the house and he went out and played another half day. It didn’t matter how hot it was, whether it was raining or snowing or what. That’s what he wanted to do.”
Despite his golfing prowess, Bob Gross was a notoriously shabby dresser on the greens. Every year for Christmas and birthdays, family members would gift him with expensive new gear, but he’d always revert to his old faithfuls. “You can’t imagine what he looked like,” Marshall said. “It would be the heat of the summer, and he’d wear these old World War II plaid wool pants, and the nastiest shirts you can imagine. It all looked like it came from the Salvation Army. And his golf shoes! He played in these white New Balance golf shoes for the last ten years of his life. Nobody even knew New Balance made golf shoes.”
Frank Jones, another of his golf buddies, remembered a group golf outing in the Georgia mountains several years ago. “We’d played golf all day Friday and Saturday, and we were on the way home on Sunday when we pulled up alongside Bob and Rutledge on the way back. He asked us where we were going, and we told him we were going to play another 18, so he jumped out of their car and into ours. Rutledge had to drive on home alone,” Frank said with a chuckle.
Clearly, Rutledge adored the man, who could, as all men will, test her patience after all those years of marriage. “I always quote Lady Churchill, who, when asked if she ever considered divorcing her famously difficult husband said ‘divorce, never. Murder, maybe.’ ” Rutledge was smiling through the tears when she said this last.
They will bury Bob Gross on Friday. Already the cars are lining the curb in front of the family homestead. The kitchen counters are lined with hams and baked goods, and an old friend was on the porch earlier in the week, slipping cheery red flowers into a pot that went unplanted through Bob’s last illness. All the children are home, and the grandchildren are coming in too.
The city flags are flying at half-mast. I can just barely see them from my second-floor perch down the street from Bob’s house, where there is just a little bit less tree today, but where, because Bob Gross cared, there is still a lively, green, life-filled community to mourn his loss.