Bob Abraham, the “Birdman of the Burgs” flew from this living world on May 28, 2017 on the wings of an osprey, surely seeking the next adventure with the same zest and childlike enthusiasm that characterized his mortal life.
He left his mark on his adopted community of Christiansburg literally, his thumbprint on the top sheet of uncountable printing jobs he produced at the Christiansburg Printing, the company he founded in 1957, and with the magnificent wildlife photos that adorn walls throughout the region today.
He grew up in the suburbs of New York, before his native Long Island was overwhelmed with development and still had truck farms and fishing villages to feed the metropolis. Bob was not good at sports, was an indifferent student, and was mostly solitary. Instead, he developed a passion for nature by watching birds at the nearby beaches, harbors, and swamps.
Reaching adulthood, he struggled to find his footing at colleges in upstate New York and Idaho. But he found a niche at VPI in Blacksburg, where he earned a degree in Forestry, which nurtured his passion for ornithology. He also met his lifelong companion, Doris Sara Tatarsky, who would accompany him for 66 years of marriage and become, as he often insisted, “my better half.”
The US Forest Service sent him to Oregon and Northern California, but when his children began to arrive, he and Doris moved back East, not to Long Island or her native Richmond, but to the New River Valley, where they bought a home they’d occupy for the next 60 years.
The demands of parenting his four kids, David, Michael, Richard, and Karen, fed his playful spirit. He attended every sandlot ballgame, Boy Scout meeting and camp-out, every bar mitzvah, graduation, and wedding, and continued to actively support my siblings and me and later his grandchildren in every endeavor and accomplishment until his fading days. He taught us that life is a blessing, something to be enjoyed.
Bob was an avid fisherman, and in his retirement he took up scuba diving, and in the process lost his zeal to catch them. He was always interested in photography, and with the advent of the new digital tools, it became his greatest passion. His artistic skill was best exercised by simply going out to where nature reigned, taking lots of photos, and keeping the best.
Bob never lost his youthful spirit and everyone he touched knew him to be enthusiastic, carefree, and passionate. His laughter came in massive, volcanic outbursts of unbridled, uninhibited joy. He never lost his childlike exuberance, and even in his retirement years, he’d leave decades-younger people in his wake on his nature walks. Dad and mom did retirement well, traveling the world and living a life of exploration, integrity, and respect for nature and people from all walks of life.
We buried him on a beautiful, hot day at the Memorial Gardens of Blacksburg. I will have many lasting memories from the day he was laid to rest:
• Rabbi Cathy Cohen of Temple Emanuel officiated. Knowing that Bob endured massive suffering the last years of his life, she said he had “87 great years and 2 awful years,” and encouraged us to focus on the former.
• I’d never been part of a police escorted funeral procession before. We drove slowly from the funeral home to the cemetery, and I was surprised not that the cars in our direction and at the intersections yielded to us, but on Blacksburg’s North Main, a busy four-lane road, even the cars in the opposite direction came to a full stop. I don’t think this is a legal requirement, but instead a culturally accepted way of honoring the dignity of the recently departed. I’m going to live in the fantasy that this type of thing doesn’t happen in every town and city across the nation and that maybe it was special this time, that all those drivers subliminally sensed it was Bob.
• Along with the rest of my family, I was surprised and gratified by the large crowd of friends who chose to be with us. I will remember my brother Rick’s words, “How does one measure the value of a life? If it’s by career success, or wealth gained, or accolades earned, Bob’s was unremarkable. But if it’s by living with honesty, and integrity, and respect for people of all origins, Bob will be judged much more kindly. If it’s by being a loving father, a devoted husband, a man who was always there for his family and his community, he will be near the top of the list. And finally, if it’s by being a truly authentic person, a man who lived without an ounce of pretense or guile or rancor, who found great joy in nature and people of all walks of life, Bob was a real champion.” I was so moved to see that when a man lives a life of authenticity and charity, people around him take notice and pay homage with their respect and appreciation.
I got a message from a friend who attended. She wrote, “It was a very inspiring service. I came home wanting to live life more intentionally. I need a t-shirt that says “Be like Bob”.”
I need one, too.
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.