I first got to know Bob at a Semantics Workshop that I directed in 1981. Bob was a participant and wrote an article that was later published, called “Semantic aspects of some Waris predications.” Over the next several years I often saw Bob and we would chat about his work with the Waris. He had an interest in many subjects and disciplines, but I remember especially his attention to astronomy and his detailed knowledge about orchids.
Bob was a careful scholar—he already had a PhD in Chemistry before he joined SIL—and wrote an excellent paper. His work on the Waris language spanned several decades and culminated with the publication of the New Testament in that language. The people speaking Waris live in the West Sepik (Sandaun) Province of Papua New Guinea, but the language is also spoken in Papua (Indonesia), across the border from the area where Bob lived. There are at least 3,000 speakers of Waris in Papua New Guinea and probably a couple of thousand more in Indonesia.
According to Ethnologue (Ethnologue.com), Waris is a language still in vigorous use in most domains and has a literacy rate of around 20%. Bob lived at Imonda, where there was an airstrip, and where he had good fellowship and working relationships with the Catholic mission. He prepared literacy materials and prepared a grammar and dictionary of the language as well.
In a one week workshop at Amanab (south of the Waris) in 2002, Bob, as local language experat, assisted in a “storytelling workshop” that I organized and led. We would take a walk together each evening after classes were done. On one occasion we hiked to the area where SIL once had a small center and where Dorothy Graham, who had died in the village, was buried. Seeing her burial site—overgrown with trees and bush– was a sobering recollection of her life and contribution.
The next year (December 2003), in another one week “storytelling” workshop held at Hauna in the East Sepik Province, Bob was again the local language expert. And, again, he and I took walks together and discussed various subjects. Bob would point out facts to me about the local flora and fauna, subjects that he knew quite well. We would also discuss linguistics, translation, theology and cultural things—it was always a rewarding walk for me.
I learned today that Bob had died. He was living alone in Waxhaw and had been ill for some time. I remember him as a gentle man, in the true sense of the word, an encourager who was never ostentatious about his knowledge of linguistics or science. I’m thankful that I got to know him, even if I have not seen him for several years.
In PNG the SIL language teams have “support” teams and Jean Peters interacted with Bob for many years. She adds this additional insightful information on him:
“I first met Bob in 1971 at a singles -get together to welcome the singles who had just completed Jungle Camp. We discussed Books- Bob lent me Anton Chekhov & I let him Narnia- I think Bob got the better bargain. Being a great reader Bob was always looking for a book to read and as I was setttled at Ukarumpa I collected a good library. In his later year Bob found a lot of joy in the writing of John Owen the Puritan.
“Before Bob allocated with Geoff, among the Waris, he was always ready to accompany the single women on walks, and driving us on various outing. And all with good humour.
“Karl has summed up Bob the person, as I knew him. Did you know his Doctorate was in Chemistry & he worked with the US Navy blowing thing up!
“On his way home for his last furlough, Bob stayed with me and we were able to visit a retired Head of Kew Gardens, whom Jim Giblett had introduced him too. We took walks along the Canal, but even then he was not the walker he used to be. So it is good he is home with the Lord Jesus, and free from pain and disability.” Jean Peters, Bob’s support team for many years.