Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Person of the Week

Nearly 100, Bob Hart Reflects on His Remarkable Life

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From flying C-47s in World War II to keeping his pool game sharp today, Madison’s Bob Hart, 99, is a remarkable man who has lived a remarkable life. Photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Source

From flying C-47s in World War II to keeping his pool game sharp today, Madison’s Bob Hart, 99, is a remarkable man who has lived a remarkable life. (Photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Source)

Madison native Bob Hart is turning 100 in November, a fact that astounds even him.

“I’m very surprised that I lasted this long,” he says with a bit of humor in his voice.

Longevity comes with some sobering facts, too. His doctor, dentist, and lawyer are gone (“I had to find new ones,” he says), as are his old friends.

“I’m outliving people,” he says matter-of-factly.

But Bob has made new friends at Evergreen Woods in Branford, where he has lived for almost five years, and at many restaurants around the area, especially Nick’s Place in Madison where he has lunch several times a week.

During a recent interview, Bob was looking forward to an upcoming visit from his son, Richard, who is in his 70s and lives in Rhode Island. Bob also has a half-sister, Lois, who is 14 years younger and lives in Maine.

Bob’s wife, Marie, passed away about 10 years ago, Bob says, and his brother, Kenneth, died in 2006 at age 82.

Bob’s family moved to the East River section of Madison from New Haven when he was 10, and he graduated high school in 1940. He attended UConn as an engineering major and joined the ROTC, which was mandatory at the time for male freshmen and sophomores, Bob says.

Called to Duty

Bob recalls, “After the two years, if you wanted to continue in the military, you had to take a mental and physical test. While I was taking the physical test, I asked the doctor at the college if I could pass a flying physical. He said, ‘I don’t see why not.’

“If I stayed in the military at the college, I would end up as a second lieutenant in the infantry, and I didn’t want that,” he notes. “So, I got this information from the doctor and the next day I went into Hartford and joined the Aviation Cadets.”

That would allow Bob to finish his two years and then enter the Army Air Corps.

But fate had other plans.

“Well, in late August [of 1942] I’m getting ready to go back for my junior year and I get a telegram from President Roosevelt saying, ‘We want you,’” Bob recalls with a chuckle. “So instead of going back to college, I reported to the military and then started going through the procedures to get ready to do pilot training.”

He started that in September 1942 and was on track to become a fighter pilot.

When the group graduated flight training, they were sent to Texas to learn how to fly a C-47, a military transport aircraft.

“We were all kind of disappointed because we wanted to fly a fighter,” Bob admits, “but in retrospect it was the best thing that could have happened to us. Because if I had become a fighter pilot, I was taking a chance of getting shot down by the German fighters. That was a possibility. Flying the C-47, we didn’t have that problem, and I got to love flying the C-47. Great airplane to fly. I am one of the few people to say I enjoyed World War II because I was doing what I wanted to do.”

Bob adds that he was always interested in flying and used to make model airplanes when he was a kid.

‘Flying Truck Drivers’

For his service Bob was awarded an Air Medal, and maybe some other awards, but he doesn’t remember.

“I might have had something else; I don’t remember what it is. It didn’t amount to much to me,” he said with a chuckle. “I was happy doing what I was doing. I flew an airplane, a C-47, and went into the [Normandy] invasion at nighttime towing a glider. Then after that, our main business was transporting anything that they wanted the soldiers to have—food, ammunition, anything that they required—and myself and a few others were flying truck drivers, really, hauling all of these supplies to France for the troops.”

His cargo was mostly for the troops, he says, “although I did fly a planeload of five-gallon Jerry cans full of gasoline within 20 miles of General Patton. We got within 20 miles of him and unloaded the plane into the pile of gas tanks that the other planes had also brought in. So, I was a flying truck driver and I enjoyed every minute of it. I loved flying and [it was] worth being shot at [when] we were behind the lines.”

A Lifetime of Love

After about two months stationed in England at an airport just outside of Oxford, Bob met a beautiful woman. He had gotten a week’s leave and decided to take a train to London to see the sights.

“I went to a place called Marble Arch,” he says. “That’s where they had the guys standing on soapboxes talking. Some of them were interesting to listen to, some of them were nuts, but it was the only place in England where you had free speech. Across the street from Marble Arch is Hyde Park, and so after about 15 minutes of listening to these people, I decided to go into Hyde Park and look at that…I walked by a bench and there was a young lady sitting there reading a book. I looked at her and she was gorgeous, just gorgeous.”

He walked about 10 feet past her when something compelled him to turn around and sit down next to her. She threatened to call the police.

“I said, ‘Oh no, don’t do that. I’m sitting over here; I’m not bothering you. I just wanted to talk to you for a moment,’ and so we chatted and made a date for the next day and that was the girl I ultimately married.”

Marie was Spanish.

“Besides being very pretty,” Bob says fondly, “she had this lovely accent.”

Marie was born and lived with her mother and sister in the city of San Sebastian on the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain.

In 1936, the Spanish Civil War was raging, and Franco’s forces were just outside ready to invade the city. Marie’s mother sent her two teen daughters to southwestern England to save them from the Spanish soldiers. The girls never heard from their mother again and presumed she had been shot. When the sisters got older and could fend for themselves, Bob says, they moved to London, “And that’s where I met her.”

They dated, the war ended, and Bob proposed. The military told him he had 90 points and needed to go home. He offered to do any type of work to stay with Marie. He got shipped home. He vowed to come back for her. After some difficulty, he finally made his way back to England about four months later. They got married and moved to Bob’s hometown of Madison as husband and wife.

“She was the only girl I ever went out with,” Bob says.

By his account, Marie fit right in to the Madison social scene. They joined the Winter Club and the Beach Club.

“She said, ‘I was walking by the Beach Club and I’m looking in, and I want to be looking out!’” Bob says. “So, she arranged for three friends to invite her in. She was very active, very well liked, and she did a lot of good things for me.”

A Degree and a Career

Marie encouraged Bob to finish the college education World War II had interrupted. He was originally in the UConn Class of 1944 but eventually earned his degree in mechanical engineering in 1948.

“I wanted to work near Madison, so I drew a 30-mile-diameter circle around Madison [on a map] and said, ‘I’m going to try to get a job in that area.’”

Pond’s Extract Company just over the border in Clinton, which produced the cold cream, vanishing cream, lipstick, and other beauty products with which many are familiar, hired Bob as its first engineer. He worked closely with a master mechanic to design conveyor belts and other machinery.

He says, “We used to fill two-ounce jars of cold cream at 120 jars a minute, so you had to have special belt conveyors to transfer the jars from the filling machine to the capping machine to the labeling machine and so forth.”

Pond’s merged with the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company in 1955, and Bob worried about his future when he saw Pond’s managers getting laid off. He asked about it and couldn’t get a good answer, he says.

Not to worry. A printing company based out of Chicago, R.R. Donnelley & Sons, opened a new facility in Old Saybrook printing Life and Time magazines for New England. They needed an engineer. Bob applied and a company VP invited him in for a chat.

“He was the kind of guy that had his desk absolutely clean of paper except one file—my file—on the desk,” Bob says.

The VP invited him to visit the press room.

“These huge machines were printing Life magazine and then a smaller printing machine was printing Time magazine,” Bob recalls.

He watched the printers for a bit and told the VP, “These are great machines. I don’t know anything about printing, but…gears and chains and sprockets are what I know.”

He got a job managing the machine shop, maintaining the presses.

Eventually he oversaw the engineering department, then the byproducts department, which processed scrap from the bindery and the press room. He worked there for 13 years until printing began to dwindle. Bob kept track and was starting to see the writing on the wall. Layoffs came, including his own. The manager of his division approached him one Friday with six months’ severance.

But Bob was ready, and he had a side gig he could parlay into a full-time job. He had already passed the test to become a land surveyor, so he started his own business in 1975. Then he passed the test to become a licensed engineer. Now he could survey the properties and design their septic systems. His company was quite successful, he says, and he worked until he was about 80 years old. He’s been retired now for about 20 years.

Relaxing After a Life Well-Lived

These days, Bob frequently enjoys lunch, which usually involves bacon, at Nick’s Place in Madison.

“I go there Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday,” he says.

On Mondays, he orders grilled cheese and bacon on whole wheat. On Saturdays, he orders French toast and bacon.

“I bring my own maple syrup,” he says.

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, Bob can often be found at the Westbrook Senior Center winning at pool.

“That keeps me pretty busy,” he says, “We have this group of seniors that meet and they’re good pool players, so you have to be on your toes to win games. Sometimes I’m hot and I do a good job. The last time I played, I won the first five games that I played. I was doing quite well. Then somebody beat me, but then I won more games and lost some, but I can hold my own pretty well. They’re all seniors, but they’re younger. There’s nobody that is 99 years old that is playing pool.”


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