Thursday, August 26, 2010
All in the Family: Robert Ellsworth Brobst
During his childhood, Robert was a member of a Boy Scout troop, enjoyed riding the pony, and helped with a family egg business, dressing hens. He took piano lessons, played the chimes, and later in his life, enjoyed the chord organ. At one time he also played around with the ukelin, but no one in the family ever really learned to play this unusual instrument. Robert used to swim, until he became disoriented while turning somersaults in the pool and became frightened of the water afterward.
Robert’s best friend was Curty Babcock and the two of them used to drive to school in Robert’s Model-A Ford. Helen Marie Heffner, who later became his wife, says, “He and Curty used to go flying by my sister, Leona and me, as we walked to school, both rain and shine. His mother wouldn’t let Robert drive with anyone else in the car, except Curty.”
Like many of the boys of his time, before the danger of smoking was known, Robert wanted to smoke a cigarette. He was sitting on an old mattress not far from the kitchen. When Winona saw the smoke, she thought Robert and the mattress had caught on fire. She rushed from the house with the first thing she grabbed—a pot of beans, which she poured on his to put out the fire. Unfortunately for Robert, the beans were hot and left a scar about the size of two spread hands on his shoulder and back, a scar that remained there the rest of his life.
Robert knew Helen Heffner not only because she lived a block away, but also because he had a crush on her cousin, Roberta Shaw, whom he once thought he would marry. Their staring contest was legendary in Helen and Leona’s family story treasury. Helen thought for many years that Robert had only married her because he couldn’t have either Roberta or Leona, but Robert always tried to assure his this simply wasn’t so. It was always the young girl with the dark brown hair and big blue eyes who caught his attention, and that’s why he married her.
Robert worked at Johns-Mansville when he graduated from high school, then during WWII worked at Greer Steel, but he loved business. He and his brother Eugene first opened Brobst Photo Plant in a building they constructed next to the Brobst home on Roe Avenue. Robert and Helen lived in an apartment above the plant until 1953 when they moved to 305 Pennsylvania Avenue. Robert had already opened Brobst Photo Supplies on Canal Street, hoping to make a go of the business on his own in a more convenient location.
He loved music and had a beautiful tenor voice, and often said that when he grew up, he wanted “to be Al Jolson,” the singer he enjoyed seeing at the talking movies. Robert also loved whistling and once recorded himself on a vinyl platter he labeled “Whistlitis.” By the end of the record, he said he thought he was going to die until he had some water to “whet-his-whistle!” He loved movies and TV programs, especially westerns, enjoying the films of John Wayne and anything on TV that was about the Wild West. Each week he would watch Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and Bonanza, as part of his regular TV-faire.
Robert was a tease and played jokes, like when he answered the phone “Joe’s Pizza Parlor,” fooling Chuckie Lee Pittman into thinking he had a wrong number. He had crazy nicknames for people, including calling me “loose ends,” because he said I had some!
Robert could write both upside down and backwards. He couldn’t go to work in the morning until he had a cup of coffee and finished both the crossword puzzle and the crypto-quote in the newspaper.
Late in his career, Robert designed and built an enlarging camera then ran a printing press, printing Memorial Cards for local funeral homes. He also had wood and metal lathes in the shop to use on various projects. Prior to his death in May 1980, he built a new shop behind his home and ran the family business from his own back yard.
Robert suffered from complications related to emphysema and died of a blood clot which moved from his leg to his heart. The whole town seemed to come out for his funeral. All those years in business had left Robert Brobst a friend to everyone, and everyone was his friend.