As I mentioned recently, my uncle Bob Greenbaum passed away in January. This past weekend friends and family came together to celebrate his life. We heard from friends, family members, and activists who had worked with him during his many years with the Northeast Ohio Sierra Club and many other organizations.
We heard about how his love of nature, animals, friends, and family was infectious. We heard about how he formed a community and sparked conversations wherever he went. And we heard about how he spread joy… and not a little frustration.
While I miss him a great deal, I’m glad that he was part of my life for more than 4 decades.
I had the honor of saying a few words in remembrance:
I grew up thinking of Bob Greenbaum as Uncle Bobby…
We weren’t related by blood, but the Greenbaums grew up on the same street as my mother and father, and I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t around. He was one of my closest family members… whether we were actually related or not.
I didn’t get to know Bonnie and Richard until I was an adult, and now I think of them as family too… But Uncle Bobby was always around when I was growing up… and looking back, I think he played a big part in the person I’ve become.
There were little things: like as a teenager, I’m not sure I would have tried to convince my family to recycle if it hadn’t been for Uncle Bobby.
But in bigger ways, I think I learned what it meant to fight for social justice from him.
I never went on a protest with Uncle Bobby, and never saw him give a speech in public. But he was always telling stories about his protests against incinerators or nuclear power… and about publicity stunts that he hoped would get people to pay attention.
And I would repeat some of those stories to friends… so much so that decades later when I mentioned Uncle Bobby to a childhood friend, he said “oh yeah, your Greenpeace Uncle!”
Uncle Bobby could talk your ear off telling those stories… or talking about something he’d read and how it gave him an idea for what to do next.
But he was also a great listener, and we could talk for hours about anything at all.
He was a natural storyteller… and knew how to tell a story that would grab your attention… and that would make you think. It didn’t matter if he was talking about an encounter with a politician or about some crazy friend or family member — who might be in the room right now… you probably know who you are.
And I think that stuck with me throughout my life — the power of stories to help us make sense of the world…. And to help change it.
It’s part of what led me to a career in journalism…. And boy, was Uncle Bobby excited to talk about my work during the year I spent reporting on environmental news!
I didn’t really think about the connection between the stories he told me as a child… and the stories I wound up telling for a living until recently… but I think I learned how powerful stories can be from Uncle Bobby.
We would talk for hours… when I was a kid, when I was a teenager, and when I was an adult. And honestly, at this point I can’t remember most of the things we talked about. But I’ll always remember how it felt to talk to Uncle Bobby.
He was interested in hearing what you had to say, and had a smile that would light up his face when he was happy or amused. And for someone who spent so much time fighting against injustice, he did smile a lot.
Maybe it’s easier to keep fighting against the things that make you angry if you can also stay amused.
I miss his smile… and his laugh… and the sound of his voice.
I moved away from Cleveland more than 20 years ago… but I would see Uncle Bobby whenever I came back to visit. And he came to my college graduation in Chicago in 19-98. And when Farrah and I got married in Philadelphia in 2006, he was there too. And I don’t think I’d ever seen him happier than he was that day… except maybe for when he was cuddling with his dogs, Woofgang and Grrrtrude.
Bob Greenbaum could be warm, affectionate, and fiercely loyal to the people in his life.
But he could also be stubborn, crotchety, and frankly, annoying. And that’s because once he got an idea he wouldn’t let it go… whether it was that you shouldn’t hire someone to fix your car because he’d do it for you… or that people working together could get the government or corporations to back down from policies that were hurting people… and hurting the environment.
I was rarely on the receiving end of his anger, but I could see how the same qualities that made him a strong fighter for justice could also make him a difficult person to be friends with. And maybe that’s why it’s always been easier to think of Uncle Bobby as family than as a family friend. Because he was a constant in my life and in my parents’ lives.
He was someone you could get mad at or annoyed with, but you knew that it wouldn’t affect your relationship. He was just telling you where he stood on some topic… and he’d KEEP telling you where he stood on that topic whether you wanted to hear it or not.
Bob Greenbaum left us earlier this year. But he’s also still with us. When I think of him I’ll always remember his joy, his passion for the environment and social justice, and his willingness to keep fighting against great odds. I’ll remember the way he looked after friends and family, even as his own health deteriorated.
And I’ll try to live my life a little better… fight a little harder for what’s right, and be a better listener… and storyteller… and truth-teller because of what I learned from Uncle Bobby.