When I drove past him that busy morning, rushing to get to my destination, he smiled and waved at me. I looked around, figuring he’d mistaken me for someone else, and kept driving without returning the gesture. About a week later I again drove that route on Southern Avenue, past the University of Memphis (UofM), and- again- he smiled and waved at me. This time I waved back and soon enough looked forward to our exchange of waves and smiles whenever I was in that area. In fact, though we did not know each other, it felt as though we were friends and his genuine joy in seeing me when he did lifted my spirits every time. I was so moved by this crossing guard’s showing of kindness to a complete stranger (me) that I planned to write about him. Soon.
That “soon” kept getting postponed and finally, a few weeks ago, I shared with Andrew Bartolotta (cityCURRENT’s Communications Manager) that this week I was going to write about my favorite crossing guard ever and, in fact, I was going to make a special trip to Southern Avenue so he and I could chat.
“Wait, you know he passed away, right?” Andrew responded.
In the conversation that followed, during which I shifted between feelings of sadness and regret, I laughed several times in utter disbelief doing my darndest to not break down; I literally did laugh so that I wouldn’t cry.
Robert E. Jones, known as “Mr. Bob” to UofM’s students, passed away on August 28, 2017, from cancer. I had seen him during a commute not long before; he gave no indication that anything was wrong in his life. There wasn’t even a hint that he was engaged in one of life’s most serious battles as we exchanged our usual waves and smiles which were a welcomed distraction to the irritation I’d begun to feel as the railroad crossing gates descended, which meant I’d probably be late for my appointment. What a selfless person he was, to brighten my day and the days of so many others who passed him regularly, while in private he was fighting such a brutal fight. What a selfish person I had been to always be in such a hurry so as to never actually stop and say “thank you” to Mr. Bob for making me smile even when I didn’t feel like it. My procrastination has now given way to regret as I think of all the things I should have said to him but now never can. Not in this lifetime, at least.
During one of my weekly Target visits a few months back I ran into Dr. Justin Lawhead, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs at Uof M. Excitedly, I shared with him the same details about Mr. Bob I would subsequently share with Andrew: he was a person our city needed to know and I was going to write about all the reasons why. Dr. Lawhead responded approvingly and said that Mr. Bob was the essence of all that is good in Memphis. I remember his words distinctly because of the absolute certainty with which he spoke them. I realize now, more than ever, how right Dr. Lawhead was. Even in his physical absence, Mr. Bob’s beautifully contagious spirit still brings about smiles; I see them every time he and his work are mentioned.
I haven’t driven on Southern Avenue since learning of Mr. Bob’s passing and am not sure when I will again. I’m not yet ready to approach that particular intersection; to look over and not see him standing there, holding a stop sign with one hand and waving with the other. We never got to have our chat in person but if I could say anything to Mr. Bob right now it would be:
“Thank you for giving so much to everyone around you, for being a friend to complete strangers from every walk of life. I am so sorry we never got the chance to stand at the crosswalk together and exchange a few laughs, or that I had the opportunity to hear about some of your most valuable life lessons. Nonetheless, you’ve taught me a great deal and I am so grateful our paths crossed. You will always be one of my favorite Memphians, ever. Rest well, Mr. Bob, and know that you have left behind a legacy well worth smiling about.
photo credit: Elizabeth Broughton via Twitter