Meet Bob “Papa” Shea

Bob Shea, our beloved friend, passed away on January 1, 2010. This profile of Bob ran in March 2009, and he really enjoiyed it. Bob made a difference for so many — he will be missed, and he is well remembered. You can read his eulogy HERE

by Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter, and the Boston City Paper, March 2009

{Note: After Bob Shea read the advance copy of this column before it was published, he said, “Thanks for the advance copy, what a job you did on my life, I could almost like the guy you wrote about… God’s blessings. Yours in friendship, Bob.”}

He is a gentleman and a gentle man. He is gregarious and friendly, speaks in a slightly raspy voice, has a surprising sense of humor, and a sharp wit. He is a shameless flirt, generous in the extreme, seemingly knows everyone in town personally, is a friend to hundreds of people, and is one of the best people I know. I love the man.

His name is Bob Shea.

I met Bob when he called me a decade ago to tell me Susan had won the Grange’s “Citizen of the year” award. At the ceremony, I met this remarkable man and instantly liked him. He is no-nonsense but amiable, generous, and downright silly sometimes. He knows the history and people of Foxboro well and can share stories of decades ago as easily as he catches up on current news. And everyone seems to love the guy!

A devoted family man, he has five children, nine grandchildren and seven great grandchildren, both here in Foxboro and his other home in Ocala, Florida.

He’s lived a rich and interesting life. Robert Vincent Shay was born August 9, 1927 in Rosedale New York, and has a great love for his original home town, a place he describes as, “As near perfect a town as I have seen in all my travels.”

He continues, “We were lucky to grow up and spend our childhood in a friendly little town, with warm loving parents, and wonderful neighbors.”

Rosedale was home to many children Bob’s age, and he recalls days of stick ball, shooting marbles, roller skating, hide & seek, two wheelers, and scooters. He fondly remembers the penny candy at Rodman’s Candy Store. The Sunrise drive-in. Picking tomatoes for twelve cents a bushel at Hoeffners. Cooperman’s Drug Store with the soda fountain.

“We grew up in an international environment; at supper time you could walk down the street and catch the aroma of every nationality cooking in the kitchen. Everyone’s house was a safe house for children, and hardly anyone locked their doors.”

His stories are a tapestry of names and events from long ago, of a much more innocent time and friendlier people. Bob speaks of all the senior citizens living with their families — no one went to a rest home back then — and the multigenerational families under one roof. Everyone knew everyone.

He reminisces about the town baseball team, the Rosedale Americans, managed for a time by his father, Patrick. He recalls P.S. 138 and the teachers back then, and the boy with polio who showed tremendous determination and learned to walk with a limp. he remembers Rosedale High School and agricultural college.

And with a touch of melancholy, he speaks of the friends who returned from World War II with terrible injuries and wounds, and those who died fighting overseas.

Bob also served his country in the U.S. Army during that war, and many of his stories revolve around those extraordinary years. One such tale takes place in a small town called White Fish, Montana. His troop train had arrived in White Fish for a stop-over and crew rotation. The train would be there for several hours, so Bob disembarked and found a little place on the side of the road to get a bite to eat.

“Hey Soldier!” the friendly crowd greeted him as he entered. They welcomed him, and the owner immediately told his staff to get the young man in uniform something to eat, and then invited the girls to dance with him. They assured him they would let him know when the train’s relief crew arrived, so he wouldn’t be AWOL.

Another story. One morning after the war ended, Bob was in California. He’d missed the trolley that would take him to his base, so he set out on foot and tried to hitch a ride.

As he made his way down the road, a car slowed and a good looking man and woman called out, “Hey, soldier, where are you going?” Bob explained where he was headed, and the gentlemen beckoned him to get into the car. They had a wonderful ride and a lively conversation, he was invited to stop at the driver’s ranch in the Berkley Hills on his next pass, and ride the horses. At his destination Bob thanked the driver, whose name happened to be Clark Gable.

Or the time he was in the McClure Hotel in West Virginia, where Jimmy Stewart and Ann Baxter were in town filming a movie called Fool’s Parade. The only hotel available during this location shoot was the one that Bob was staying at. So Bob came down for his six a.m. breakfast in the morning and there’s Jimmy Stewart.

And typical Bob, he approached Jimmy and asked, “What the hell are you doing here?” Bob told me that Jimmy was just as nice in person as he was in the movies, and he said Ann Baxter was absolutely lovely without her makeup. The whole crew was there, apparently. All were friendly.

Then there was the time he was in New York — Bob and the family lived in Brooklyn for many years and ran various businesses, including his own restaurant. Well, one day he was in Brooklyn, and stopped for a bite to eat. He gave the waitress his signature line, “What’s a beautiful babe like you doing in a dump like this?” (He still uses that line, by the way). Bob recalled this girl had a lot of “moxie.” The waitress said, “Oh, I’m not going to be here much longer, I’m going to Hollywood, I’m going to be staying with my uncle — I’m going to be a star. I’m going to be a singer.”

Her name? Barbara Streisand.

He’s met Bob Hope. Jayne Mansfield at the Christmas show at Thule Air Base in Greenland in 1961, and countless other luminaries. He was at the original Woodstock and took a great photo of a cow with tepee, tent and baby clothes hanging on a bush.

In the early years of his marriage, he supported the family by working near the North Pole at a base where the outside temperatures were often over 40 below zero. An excellent electrician, he impressed his Danish colleagues, who told him they liked the way he
cursed.

Closer to the present, Bob has made his home in Foxboro since June 1972, which he says reminded him a lot of Rosedale. He worked for many years as a judge at the horse race track.

Bob loved Foxboro and made it his mission to help the community. He’s been past master of the Grange, and an active member until that fine organization disbanded.

Bob was also one of the originators of the Foxboro Farm Stand for the needy. He was twice president of the Elder Gram — the predecessor to what later became the Council on Aging. He has assisted the Knights of Columbus repeatedly with their Tootsie Roll drive. He’s helped scare people at the Jaycee haunted house and would arrive early to build a fire in the dining hall so the Jaycees would be warm after working in the cold October nights.

Bob created a program that brought gladiolas to the elderly. He’s is a member of the American Legion Post 93, Knights of Columbus #6063, Saint Alban’s Masonic Lodge A.F. & A.M (his family says he is a 32nd degree Mason), and Saint Mary’s Church, and the Shriners. He was a driving force in the “Save our Sports” program that helped raise $40,000 for the Ahern School. Each Christmas Eve, he and another friend would bring poinsettias to the widows in Foxboro. Even this past Christmas (2009) Bob drove to Foxboro Common to thank the Jaycees who were putting up the Christmas decorations.

He has walked with the legends in this town — Whitey Vanden Boom. Vin Igo. Jerry Rodman. Lorraine and Stanley Garland. His devotion to serving Foxboro — and any other community where he’s lived — is the stuff of legend. He has made a huge difference in this town and others.

In 1988, Bob sent out a letter to every Rosedale resident he remembered, suggesting a get-together he called “the Rosedale Roundup.” Thanks to his efforts, hundreds of people gathered on Long Island for an event Bob described as “a love in.” The reunion was so successful — and each successive year drew more participants — that Bob turned over the reunion responsibilities to a full committee! The Rosedale Roundup tradition continues.

He remained very close to his mother, Margaret, who passed away just a few years ago at age 99.

One Founder’s Day, he took a beautiful picture of the Normandy Farms Float, framed it, and presented it to them the same day. He does that a lot for people he knows.

His family took him to the Bahamas a few years ago. Before the trip, Bob went to Wal-Mart and bought bags of new clothes, not for himself, but for the needy, which he donated as soon as got off the ship.

In 2000, he embarked on a cross-country trip in his RV and sent us post cards from Mount Rushmore and other fascinating parts of America.

On that trip, he told us that upcoming months-long journey, rather than sticking with the usual tourist spots and highways, he planned a leisurely, round-a-bout trip that not only took him to see his family and the Rosedale reunion, but through the South Dakota reservations, Mount Rushmore, Flathead Lake, the Oregon Trail, the Badlands, and of course, a little town in Montana called White Fish. He even planned to pan for gold, and added, “With the price of gas I better find some very big nuggets.”

He also got to know the people at each of his stops, to seek out other Grange members and Knights of Columbus along the way, as well as taking the opportunity to talk to people across the nation.

Everywhere he goes, he touches people’s life for the better.

Father Steve Madden and Bob Shea 2009
Father Steve Madden and Bob Shea 9/2009

On a visit back here last year he went to Mass at Saint Mary’s and said people were surrounding him to talk. And he mentioned one Foxboro family that invited him for dinner and made homemade rhubarb pie. He visited another family and out runs a woman to embrace him. “Papa Shea! Papa Shea!” He smiled and said, “Oh, my gosh, you were so little when I last left.”

Throughout the years, Bob has become much more than a friend to me and my wife Susan. Susan considers him like a father to her. Susan says, “Bob is one of God’s Angels who walk among us. He helps everyone, prays for everyone and will always go out of his way to bring a smile to everyone he meets. Every time we talk with him, we learn something more interesting about him, or about something wonderful that he did or was part of for others. He has lived a selfless life dedicated to giving and making life better for others.”

And while so many Ocalans and Foxborians are extended family to him, he speaks with such genuine affection and love for his children and for his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. He knows all their names and all their birthdays. He carries all their pictures. And he’s just such a doting, loving man.

And the history at the command! Drive down any street and Bob will point out where someone lived, and what they were like. Another street is where there used to be a great breakfast place, or where you could get a good hamburger, or where the fire was, or where so-and-so got married. He is a walking encyclopedia of those days.

When Bob reviewed this piece, he asked me to include the following, which I’d intended to leave out to protect his privacy. You see, now in his 80s, Bob moves a little slower, and is fighting invasive cancer. He is fighting this disease with the same determination and spirit that he has applied throughout his life, and hasn’t lost an iota of his wit, sharp mind, or generosity.

In his trademark style, Bob even quipped, “Nice obit!” when he first read it this week. But that’s just Bob being Bob. His illness wasn’t the genesis for this column; I’ve actually been working on this piece for months, fine-tuning it here and there whenever I spoke with him. But the timing is perfect to ask all of you to please pray for him that he will make a full recovery. His condition is serious, but with his usual determination, Bob says he will beat this.

We need people like Bob in this world.

I’ve often said that growing older is the same for all of us — and people do not become useless as they do so. They can be a great source of knowledge and friendship, and all they ask is a little of your time. There is no finer example of this than Bob “Papa” Shea, a man I love so very much, a man who is the epitome of whom Tom Brokaw calls the “Greatest Generation.”

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