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Robert James "Bob" Blair, 97, of Chester, died peacefully and on his terms with family nearby on March 21 at his longtime home on Straits Road, one house down the road from where he was born on May 12, 1922. He was the youngest of six children and the only surviving boy born to Scottish immigrants Robert and Isabella (Dalgity) Blair.
He was predeceased by his wife Millie in 2016 after almost 70 years of marriage, and by his beloved son Bob in 2018, as well as his sisters Isabelle Johnson, Elizabeth Henry, Margaret Breslin, and Dorothea Standish, and his infant brother, also named Robert. "Papa" is survived by his daughter Laurie Blair who made her home with him and took care of him for the last 10 months; he also leaves two grandsons and a great-grandson, Robert Blair and wife Kris Pollock of Chester and their son Robert "Burt" Blair, and Russell Blair and fiancée Carla Anderson of Manchester, in addition to a daughter-in-law, Rosemary, sister-in-law Carol Zuppe, brother-in-law John Zuppe, and many nieces and nephews. He was especially close to his niece Peggy Breslin.
Bob was a 1940 graduate of Chester High School where he was president of his Senior class and enjoyed cross-country running. He was a decorated veteran of the Army Air Corps, 376th Heavy Bombardment Group in World War II and saw action as a top turret gunner in the European Theater. He also spent time in many stateside bases, traveling America by troop train, and attended the University of Arkansas, where he got in trouble during a radiology lecture by asking the instructor why your head sometimes hurts when you eat ice cream. (The professor was a doctor and Bob thought he might know. This was typical.)
Upon returning from the service, Bob married Millie in 1946 and began building an annex onto the home on Pleasant Street which his father bought when Bob was 6 months old and where he was raised (by that time owned by his eldest sister and her husband). Upon completion, he and Millie moved in and raised their own children there and the house stayed in the family continuously for 96 years. In 1965 Bob and his wife and children moved into the old (1702) Leet farmhouse on Straits Road. There was much renovation needed, including pointing up the foundation in the cellar which Bob typically did in his underclothes to save on washing (Millie's suggestion).
Bob knew a lot about some things and a little about everything. Sometimes when he re-wired an outlet the switch was upside down, but it worked. Like his father, Bob had a bright green thumb and could almost make a shrub grow by looking at it. By now, after several years as a car salesman and a stint with a pal running a short-order restaurant in downtown Chester called the "Al-a-Bob", Bob was a real estate agent and enjoyed the challenge and creativity of finding the right home for the right people. He was proud to have been able to bring Judge Constance Baker Motley to town and they became fast friends. Long before Oliver on Green Acres, Bob was known to mow the lawn in his Harris tweed jacket and shingle the roof in suit and tie. (In fact this was his trademark.)
He was a member of the United Church of Chester where he was baptized, attended Sunday school, and was a former treasurer. In 1967 Bob was approached to run for Chester First Selectman and agreed. He was elected to office and subsequently served 22 years (11 terms). He loved the job (the politics, not so much!) During his tenure he worked hard to apply his inventiveness and vision to the many things the town needed during those years: a new firehouse, a new town garage, restoration of the old Meeting House, the library parking lot, North Quarter Park, and improvements to Cedar Lake, among others, all while keeping a low tax base.
At various times Bob belonged to the Pattaconk Fish and Game Club, was a Rotarian, was a Master Mason at Solar Lodge No. 131, was agent of town-owned cemeteries, served on the Zoning Board, was chief of police and chairman of the board of Fire Commissioners, and along with the Delaneys, founded the Chester Historical Society and was there to cut the ribbon when it opened its museum.
After retiring in 1989, Bob got a little bored and applied for a local job at a family-owned company, Paulson Training Programs. There he worked part-time doing everything from inventory, dubbing tapes, shipping and receiving, mowing the lawn and decorating for Christmas, and occasionally nodding off in a corner while studying The Wall Street Journal. In the blink of an eye, 22 more years went by and Bob finally retired for good at age 91.
Bob was a talented guitar player who had taught himself after receiving a guitar as a gift from his sister at age 12. He carried a guitar all through his service days (playing in some sketchy honky-tonks at times) and continued on to play out in small bands. As children, we would often fall asleep to the soft tones of "Jamaica Farewell" or "Wabash Cannonball" as he strummed in the living room. He appreciated all types of music, and if you caught him watching a performer on TV, it could be anyone from Johnny Cash to Ozzy Osbourne.
He was a prolific writer and a voracious reader, and he loved to bake, often deciding to make a coffee cake at 10 p.m. (Really, his life was basically a combination of James Thurber and The Far Side.) He loved nothing more than teaching us, his children, everything from how to ride a two-wheel bike to putting screws in soap to make them easier to use to looking a person in the eye when you shake their hand to which tree was shagbark. He and his grandson Robert went on many a bike ride through the state forest where they talked of old Native American legends and found ancient foundations to explore, and he'd read for hours to his grandson Russell who loved to drape himself over Papa like a blanket. Unsurprisingly, Robert inherited his passion for local history and Russell his talent for writing.
He loved to find junky pieces of furniture and refinish them beautifully. He also loved thunderstorms, old trucks, ice cream, giving people nicknames, puttering in his woodshed, a hot cup of tea, his wife's homemade Italian meatballs, fishing trips to Maine with his brother-in-law Frank, where the only access was by seaplane, every animal you could imagine, taking his young son to New York by train and then to Yankee Stadium by subway, Sunday trips to the dump with his young daughter ("Can I shift, Dad? Can I?!"), good shoes, practical jokes, and carving propellers out of scrap wood.
He smelled distinctly of Old Spice and Revelation pipe tobacco. He was strong, brave, curious, intelligent, funny, handsome, stubborn, caring, and honest: truly one of a kind. While steeped in diplomacy and rarely prone to knee-jerk reactions, he nonetheless maintained a spontaneity and marched to the beat of a different drummer. Whoever you were, whatever you needed, he had time and counsel for you; he could so easily "walk with Kings nor lose the common touch."
If you wish to honor Bob's life, please love your pets as always, stand up for animal rights, donate your time or money to a local rescue organization, or adopt a stray and give it a loving forever home. Bob loved his family, his friends, and his town; for that, we are all lucky. Services will be held at a later date.