December 17, 2014
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Enriching the lives of so many
HIS MANY ADMIRERS: An estimated 1,000 people including these former students turned out to wish Robert Shapiro well in his retirement at a party held in June, 2007.

On impulse I turned into Garden City. It was back in July and I hadn’t seen Bob or Audrey Shapiro for some time. I thought I might find them home.

I could have called, after all I had Bob’s cell number programmed in my phone. But then, what would I have said? “Just in the neighborhood, mind if I stop over?”

That would be awkward. Would appearing at their back door be any better?

I gave up questioning myself when I spotted Bob’s black Subaru Legacy in his drive. Bob has driven Legacys for as long as I remember. He switched to a Subaru Forester for a while, but he didn’t like the car and quickly traded it in. Maybe he liked Subarus so much because of how they handle in the snow.

Bob studied snow. More accurately, he graded snow like he might evaluate a performance or a book. When he was Warwick’s school superintendent, he was known for being out on the roads in the early hours of snowy days, checking out conditions before making the call whether schools would be open. He would contact the director of public works and pay close attention to the forecast. His morning forays – as early as 4 a.m. – would also include a call to the mayor. Closing school was never something Bob took lightly. He revered the power of education and how it could change lives. Maintaining the school routine, not skipping a beat, was a part of the process for him. But that was just a part of it, as I learned over the many years the Beacon covered him.

As I approached his house, I looked at my watch. It was mid-afternoon on a beautiful July day. I doubted I would be interrupting a meal. Audrey opened the door as soon as I entered the porch, almost as if she knew I was coming. Bob was seated at the kitchen table, looking out on their neat yard. The room was filled with sunlight. As always, he was animated, firing off questions about what I was up to and asking for my take on state and local events.

“Were you out on the bay this morning?” he asked, as if he had been waiting to find out.

That was one of Bob’s attributes – he cared.

We talked politics, municipal contracts [he had the details of the police and fire contracts, which shouldn’t have surprised me] and, naturally about his beloved Red Sox. He had the facts straight on the Red Sox, too, as dismal as they were.

I was curious to learn what books he was reading. Bob was a terrific reader, finishing one or two books a week. Sometime last spring I brought him the manuscript of Headwax, a “who-done-it” written by former Beacon Editor Zenon “Chris” Raabe. Chris sent the work for me to critique, but I was slow getting to it but I was interested to get Bob’s opinion and to get something back to Chris.

Audrey called a couple of weeks later. Bob had finished Headwax and he had the manuscript for me whenever I could stop in.

“You’re in it, you know?” he said. His eyes had a devilish twinkle. He knew he had my interest. I suspect I was experiencing a bit of what made him a good teacher.

“There’s a dog in it, too, that’s named Binky.” Bob loved dogs, although I don’t remember him ever having had one.

He had me. I lifted the box of loose-leaf sheets, vowing that I would get into it.

“And there’s a trick ending,” he added, to clinch my interest. Then he handed me a typewritten page. It was his “book report.” He had done his job, although I wasn’t expecting this.

Bob knew the value of assignments and completing tasks. As the vice president of the Rhode Island Academic Decathlon, and the board member who surely had the greatest network in the public school community, he was in frequent contact with high school principals and system superintendents to promote the event. The decathlon was an activity that he embraced soon after it was founded in 1983. He was principal of Toll Gate High at the time and could see the benefit of teams comprised of A, B and C students and recognizing achievement of teams as well as individuals. Toll Gate was one of the first schools to win the state event and compete in the nationals.

That year, the national was in San Francisco. Bob was there for moral support and to ensure the experience was enriching. The competition was important and he wanted the team prepared. He was also excited to have students meet kids from across the country and for them to discover San Francisco and a couple of days were added to the trip. Warwick returned with a couple of medals, but for Bob it was the enrichment that was the real reward.

Later, when it came to hosting the nationals, Bob advocated expanding the program to a three-day event, including a bay cruise – a great way to contain 350 kids and get them to meet each other. That was followed by tours of the Newport mansions and a “social” with a DJ and pizza. There had to be pizza; it was Bob’s favorite.

If there was food at an event, he was a sure to find it. He loved food safaris, as I thought of them. On occasions where there were platters of cheeses, crackers, dips, cut up vegetables and fruits, he would sample everything. At those events where hors d’oeuvres were passed around, he never passed up the opportunity.

“You never met an hors d’oeuvres you didn’t like,” I told him once. He loved the remark and would remind me of it whenever we crossed paths at fundraisers or banquets or many other public ceremonies. He went to them all.

He knew people everywhere and used those connections to make things happen. I remember him inquiring about our children and the colleges they were applying to. He took an immediate interest, even though our son Jack was graduating from Hendricken. When he learned Jack was wait-listed at Tufts, he told us just what to do and who to talk to. He sent a letter. Jack went to URI for a semester and then transferred to Tufts, as Bob recommended. Over the years, I’ve learned he similarly helped scores, if not hundreds, of other young people find the correct path to higher education.

On my July visit, I learned from Audrey that doctors were concerned about Bob’s heart and that he might be eligible for a life-saving procedure. If not, his time was limited. She filled in the details and promised to call. But, as dire as his condition was, Bob didn’t dwell on it. He put me at ease. I left feeling uplifted. Thinking back, I wonder how that is possible. Soon after the visit, Audrey called. Bob was eligible for the procedure and that was good news. Then came the news that Bob had passed.

On reflection, I can’t feel anything but enriched by knowing Bob. And I know I’m not alone.


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