Remembering Bob Carter, 20 years later

Paul Sturm

“It was 20 years ago today,” iconic musician/composer Paul McCartney of The Beatles wrote in late 1966 or early 1967 as he began the eponymous song of the group’s landmark album, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

For numerous persons still residing in Chillicothe and a few now scattered elsewhere who were either full-time or ad hoc staff members of the Constitution-Tribune on an otherwise non-remarkable Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2001, those words have poignancy and sadness this day, not the mirthful playfulness of McCartney’s imaginary band leader.

Although, due to this past summers relocation of the paper's offices, no longer only feet from where  he labored  amid the laughter and love he sparked among co-workers, the spirit of the late Bob Carter lives on through a mini-memorial in the Constitution-Tribune's new offices. Displayed alongside the framed portrait of him commissioned by one of his countless friends are his iconic vehicle license plate, a Chillicothe High School football Hornets helmet clock given to him by legendary coach Bob Fairchild, one of the Calvin Klein-knockoff Chillicothe Hornets cloth coats Carter sold in the late 1990s, and one of the "egg" drawings he frequently doodled while killing time or awaiting inspiration for his next story. Also seen in the photo taken Thursday is a small Christmas tree, fitting since Carter brought thousands - young and old - great joy and merriment with his for-hire personal appearances as Santa Claus.

Twenty years ago this afternoon, the C-T “band” was in no mood to play. One of its senior members – one might say its drumbeat, its rhythm section  – would make no more music with them.

While on a trip as part of a part-time job he’d taken to help a Chillicothe business seeking aid troubled youth, “Bullet” Bob Carter, the paper’s sports editor and more for the previous 28 years, had died tragically in a traffic crash and fire near Jamesport, word came to the C-T’s offices late that afternoon.

He was 52 years old.

Bob Carter

Nearly a New Year’s baby in 1949, he arrived to Chillicotheans Roger and Loretta Reba Wallace Carter the day after. He’d attend St. Columban Catholic Church’s St. Joseph Academy before graduating from Chillicothe High School in 1967.

An extended journey into post-secondary education that began at Trenton Junior College found him at Northeast Missouri State Teacher’s College six years later when, as then-sports editor Charles “Chuck” Haney prepared to shift into the city news editor’s post, he accepted the invitation to fill the paper’s sports reporter vacancy.

Thus began a remarkable and remarkably-wide-reaching career in sports journalism that, at its premature conclusion, had left him with friends and associates in media, coaching, and more across the state.

The depth and breadth of those associations – more truly friendships – led to honorary recognitions from local, area, and statewide entities both during his life and posthumously, capped by his induction into both the Missouri High School Football Coaches Association and Missouri Basketball Coaches Association halls of fame.

Carter Fan Club art.

While beloved by a wide swath of the Chillicothe community and beyond – whether through his work, his moonlighting as Santa Claus during the holiday season (and a merry old elf he was), his personal generosity of time and treasure, or simply his engaging, often-self-deprecating witty personality, his untimely death left – for many – a still-unfilled void in the daily lives of his former colleagues at the Constitution-Tribune.

While some have since joined him in passing on, on this 2-decades anniversary of “Bobby’s” passing, multiple former co-workers are taking time today to remember their lost friend.

The following are either their full or capsulized thoughts and memories of those relationships and what their time with him meant to them then and still now.

Connie Jones, whose retirement a couple of years ago ended over four decades with the C-T, including all of Carter’s tenure, writes, “What a big story to tell – he loved us all. Bobby was our guru on food, sports, people and places.

“In his life – seemingly cut short to us – he experienced more than we will ever know. The guy that always had time- paper delivery, helping throughout the office, excellent speller, answering election-night phone lines, ringing the bell at Christmas – with no hesitation, he was always there.

“When we would hear the ole oak chair scoot back from Bobby’s desk, we always knew he was in action.

How many times did he bring snacks, not only for himself, but everyone in the office? Always so gracious to the young and old.  Santa to our son Gabe and to our granddaughter Harlie on her first birthday.

“From our Monday night football game viewings – when Bobby always planned the supper menu – to his many tales from his weekend sports trips. A lifelong friend – during our high school days in the late ’60s when Bobby spoke alongside Gov. (Warren) Hearnes to when he was working on his area basketball tab, we will always remember our dear friend – our brother.

“Whenever we were in need, Bobby was always there. What an ambassador to life!”

Second-longest to Jones in sharing “the Carter years” and one of the paper’s only three remaining employees, Jenetta Cranmer reminisces, “If you talk to people who knew Bob Carter, you will hear repeatedly how generous he was, but that isn’t the best part of the story.

“He was not a wealthy man financially (working for a newspaper is not a get-rich type of job). Bob never wanted accolades, very few people knew who or what he gave. He supported sports like no other. He was there – covering their games, donating trophies, paying a player’s fees, sending food to the coaches and officials at tournaments. Never once did he tell people that he had taken care of these things.”

She recalls his feigning ignorance as either a source of humor or self-deprecation.

“If you did not really know Bob, you would not realize how very intelligent he was. He would use the wrong words in sentences or mispronounce them (mostly to get a rise out of long-time editor/publisher Chuck Haney), but the word would be close enough to what he really should have said, that you knew what he meant. It always made me giggle.

“… Bob would always say, ‘They says’ – he blamed or gave credit to “they” a lot! It was another one of those things that drove Chuck crazy and I am sure that’s why he used it so much. Bobby would never reveal who ‘they’ were.”

As with most of his co-workers, the most-lasting memory is his personal warmth and sincere caring.

“He loved people and, when he loved you, you knew it. He came to my rescue on many occasions,” she confides. “Bob had a heart of gold, but didn’t do emotional. If an emergency came up after hours, he would call everyone in the office and send those people to the co-worker that needed support.

“I do not think I have ever met a person with such a wide variety of friends. He did not see all those cubicles the rest of the world puts us all in. Those friends were from all over and from every walk of life. If you had met Bob, you were his friend. He had an infectious personality that just drew people in.

“If only we could all be more like Bob Carter, to go through life making those people around us smile, but get the job done at the same time. I often think, ‘I could sure use some Bob Carter right about now!’ Then I realize, I can; I just have to bring up some random memory of Bob and I smile every time. Sometimes I laugh out loud. He still heals my heart!

“We have a painted portrait of Carter hanging in our front office – it was given to us after Bob’s death. (At our former location) I would walk past that picture several times a day and, every third or fourth time, I would trip! Nothing there. Floor as flat as could be! I swear it was Bob; I could hear him giggling every time!”

Dian Dilley, whose children’s high school sports careers Carter chronicled while she also served as the newsroom’s proofreader and obituaries/community news typist, recalls Carter’s crude, yet rapid-fire and accurate typing skill: “I never knew anyone that could type so fast with only two fingers!”

She adds, regarding an additional duty she took on, “Bob served as Santa Claus around town for a number of years. It was my job to keep his commitments on my calendar and then remind him of upcoming appearances.

“One day, I heard a noise behind me. Bob was getting dressed right behind me! There he stood, in his underwear, transforming into Santa! You never knew what he was going to do or say. He kept me on my toes.”

She recalls, “He was really just a big softie. If anyone needed money, he would give them all he had, and often did. For all his “bluster,” he had a big heart and a lot of people took advantage of that.”

Writes Rod Dixon, former sales manager and later publisher of the paper, “Bobby had a larger-than-life personality and was truly always a joy to be around. And although he liked to joke around and have fun, one of the things that I admired most about Bob was his passion for Chillicothe High School sports and his desire to always promote the positive in every sport and every kid that participated in that particular sport.

The impact he had through his sports stories and coverage of Chillicothe High School athletics over the years is really hard to put into words. I had the privilege to sit back and watch as many athletes and parents alike would offer words of thanks and appreciation to Bobby for not only his work at the newspaper, but also for him personally putting forth the extra effort to support the kids of our community. …

“He … was also one of the most positive people you could ever want to be around. The interactions he had with fellow employees (which all became not only his friend, but also family to Bobby) was priceless. Some of the conversations he and Chuck (Haney) would have still makes me laugh today!

“Finally, as all of us that really knew Bobby remember, he was a very giving person. And, as the saying goes, the more you give, the more you will receive in life and, even though Bobby died at a much-too-young age, I can’t imagine knowing anyone else who has made such a positive impact on so many other lives.

“Thank you, Bobby, for making a positive impact on my life. I will always remember you.”

“Butch” Shaffer, a few years older than Bob, became affiliated with the C-T as a free-lance photographer largely through Carter’s advocacy and has remained an invaluable contributor to the  paper’s coverage of sports and other events ever since.

“Bobby was a great friend and he was a great supporter of my photography,” the retired local businessman remembers.

“Twenty years ago, I was shocked when Paul called to tell me the news about Bobby.”

As with most Carter acquaintances, Shaffer has his own unique anecdote about his friend.

“Anyone that knew Bobby knew that he loved to eat,” he begins. “Any time Bobby was about to go on a road trip, he would call ahead to the newspaper in the community he was traveling to and ask for recommendations for a good place to eat.

“One night in particular we were traveling to Milan to cover the Milan and Braymer football game. Bobby called the Milan Standard and asked where the best place to eat was. They told him to go to Gympie’s, because they had great spaghetti and great hamburgers.

“So we went there before the game and Bob ordered a spaghetti dinner with salad and all of the trimmings. Then he added, ‘I hear your hamburgers are really good. Could you also bring me a cheeseburger and fries?

“Finally, after ordering all of that great food, he asked the waiter to bring some artificial sweetener for his tea. The waiter just laughed and shook his head and brought the sweetener.

“Bobby was so much fun to be with and his humor was unlike anyone I ever knew. (Former C-T reporter/writer/photographer/publisher) Bill Plummer always wanted to write a book about Bobby and his wit. Had Bill written the book, it would have been on the best-seller list.”

Ironically, Plummer had died at age 86 only 18 days before Carter’s death.

“I reflect on the changes in my life during the last 20 years and I wish my children - now 19 and 17 (years of age) - could have had the opportunity to meet him,” shares Catherine Stortz-Ripley, former news editor.

“… Bobby loved people and loved to see them happy wherever they were – whether at work, a high school sporting event, playing Santa Claus and delivering meals to inmates in the county jail, or visiting with residents in nursing homes. He was a big-hearted guy who knew no stranger. It didn’t matter to him if they were young, old, rich, poor, married, single, law-abiding or had criminal past. He made them feel valued and appreciated.

“Bobby had an outstanding work ethic. … That enthusiasm and commitment to excellence was contagious and a blessing to have in the workplace.

“… His quick wit was a gift that would get you laughing, rolling your eyes and shaking your head. … Bill Plummer or Chuck Haney … knew what to say to get a comical response from Bobby. When Bobby returned from a farm after taking a picture of a cow, Bill asked him if he saw the udder. “No, Bill, there was only one!” Bobby replied.

“Around that time,” Stortz-Ripley adds, “we’d had some turnover in the press room with new employees. When one of the newer press guys cut his finger, Chuck asked Bobby, a member of the newspaper’s safety committee, if OSHA knew.

“Is that his wife?” Bobby asked. “No,” said Chuck.

Then, appearing confused, Bobby responded: “I don’t know half the people who work back in the press room.”

She continues, “Living above the newspaper office for six years was convenient… sometimes, too convenient. When the C-T got the first Macintosh (computers) for the newsroom, Bobby often called me late at night to help him save his sports stories or find the stories he had just typed. Sometimes, he’d simply shout through the office ceiling from his desk (my apartment was directly above the newsroom) until I came to his rescue.

“… From what I knew of Bobby, he was satisfied with life. He was kind, funny and always made people feel important. He cared about people and he knew people cared about him.

“There’s no doubt the world would be a better place if there were more Bob Carters.”

Reflects former C-T photographer/reporter Laura Schuler, Carter’s newsroom neighbor the last four years of his life, “What can you say about Bob?

“He loved Chillicothe sports, his hometown, and good food. It was never boring working alongside him. To this day, he was the fastest two-fingered typist I've ever seen and he was one of those personalities that you will never forget.”

With a short, final phrase, Schuler unknowingly provided a summation of the thoughts and reflections of not only Carter’s former co-workers, but all of his friends and acquaintances, both local and across the region and state, as well as many he might have met only once.

“Bob was one of a kind.”