Sam, Robert the Bob
He was the ninth child—one died in infancy. Just after Sam Larson was born Sam’s mother died. His dad couldn’t handle such a brood; he decided to jettison some for adoption. Charles and Gladys Holderbaum had lost a son almost the same age as Sam. They adopted the boy at 18 months old. The very first thing they did was legally change Sam’s name: Robert Sam Holderbaum.
For the rest of their years, the former Sam was “Robert.” The boy can remember when, as a teenager, a friend would call him. Mom would beam widely as she handed over the black, dial phone receiver--and announce--“It’s ‘for Bob.’ “
They later adopted a second son, three years younger than Robert, but John not a biological sibling. John would later be killed in the rice paddies of Viet Nam. He was, however, award the Bronze Star for bravery.
Both of Robert’s parents were barbers, plying their craft in the small shop attached to the Holderbaum house. There was a magazine rack in the barber shop. It played a key role in Robert’s life. Dad stocked it with a variety of publications including true crime magazines. Robert picked up a taste he’s savored ever since.
Dad was a full-time barber and a part-time, ordained minister, a fire-and-brimstone kind of preacher. This may be the most important legacy the parents left to the son. “Brother Holderbaum” founded an inter-racial church. Both Bob and John associated, from an early age, with families of other races. Bob has reflected on that extensively in the intervening years.
Robert to Bob
While his parents never changed, Robert easily became “Bob” to friends and teachers.
Like most kids, at least in that era, Bob had several weekly chores. Among them was serving as the family’s milk man. There was a dairy about 200 yards from the Holderbaum abode so several days a week, Bob took the wire carrier and go for milk—in real bottles.
Bob was also charged with shining dad’s dress shoes—one pair brown, one pair black. That served him well when he reached the military.
Three other jobs served Bob well as a teenager. He hawked papers on a street corner in downtown Kalamazoo. The shy guy would yell like in the old movies: “Paper! Paper! Gayyyy-zette!” Bob later worked as a page at the public library. That left him a profound supporter and frequent user of public libraries. Bob is a voracious reader and visits the library no less than biweekly. Finally, Bob worked as a caddy at the local country club. His willingness to walk not one but two rounds of doubles on Sundays—and he worked into the fall when other caddies had quit—earned him special recognition at the annual caddies banquet.
During high school Bob spent his own (earned) money to buy a guitar and take guitar lessons. He plays and sings to the present day. Mirroring John Denver’s explanation in his documentaries, Bob was a real “wall flower” and being a “singer” gave him instant “status.” He was the member of a fine folk trio in high school; he was also a member of the school’s robed choir.
Bob spent a year on the debate team. His debate partner, Tom, also part of the folk trio, became Bob’s friend-for-life, until Tom died in 2011. It was a friendship—more like a “brothership”—which lasted for 50 years. They often completed each other’s sentences.
Neil Diamond’s autobiographic words in the song, “Brooklyn Roads,” tell of how his mother went to school and the teacher always said Neil could do better—if he’d just apply himself. That describes Bob all the way through school. With mediocre grades (hence no prayer of a scholarship) and his parents’ lower-middle class status, college was not in Bob’s purview as he graduated high school at 17.
Bob opted to join the U.S. Air Force. He filled a trophy rack with awards from air force talent contests—both solo and group music efforts. Bob also excelled in his career field, accounting. He scored in the 95th percentile on the critical-to-promotion accounting skill exam. While in high school, Bob wanted (but mom wouldn’t allow it) to buy a banjo. Once in the service, he bought a long-neck 5-string banjo and spent years teaching himself to play. And, proudly, Bob still plays that 50-year-old banjo.
Bob left the air force about the time John was killed in the war. Bob dealt—for a long time—with the why-him-not-me syndrome. Bob also pursued, consecutively, two educational tracks.
In an attempt to find a career that didn’t require a college degree, Bob completed, with honors, a course in radio announcing. One major lessoned learned there and continued for decades: Read at least two news publications a week (not including the daily newspaper) to keep up on current affairs. In the short run, Bob used his already-sharp writing skills—and his grasp of current events—to write (for money) the “news commentaries” required frequently of every student.
Bob then took on college. He majored in political science and seemed to have two minors: Communications and being part of the anti-war movement. He wrote a politically-oriented column for the Western Herald, at Western Michigan University. While moving across the political spectrum at the speed of light, Bob served as president for a major political party’s student branch. He departed W.M.U. with B.A. and M.A. degrees.
With his best friend Tom (mentioned above), Bob became interested in magic. He performed as mentalist, Mr. E. for a couple of years. And, not surprisingly he (1) served as president of the local magic club and (2) began a habit that’d follow him through life. He wrote meeting minutes and, while covering all the necessary things that happened, Bob spiced them up with humor. Since then many groups have asked Bob to serve as secretary.
Bob filled employment gaps with jobs that required hard work. He did stints in both a paper-making factory and in a large G.M. parts-producing plant. The job at the later was lifting heavy door assemblies for eight hours. It was incredibly monotonous work. Bob often woke up during the night shuttling door parts. He also gained a profound appreciation for those who do highly repetitive work. Bob left that job thinking he’d probably have become a self-destructive alcoholic had he continued.
For a couple of years, Bob wrote radio and TV advertising copy for a local mom-and-pop company—until the company went down financially.
The decade was more or less a watershed time for Bob. The year 1980 found hm working at the Goodwill Industries in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He voluntarily (his own time) wrote regular newsletters for his colleagues. It was comprised of original comedy and parodies of current events.
The opportunity came to move down the road about 20 miles to Battle Creek and take a “writing job.” There Bob honed his writing skills. He edited the employee newspaper, took photos, wrote promotional copy. He was elected president of the employee association (about 400 employees). During this time Bob and his former wife separated, then divorced.
He volunteered: first for United Way committees—both inside the company and for the Battle Creek United Way. It was on the latter United Way’s P.R. committee that Bob met his future bride. He also became involved with the Goodwill in Battle Creek.
Bob ran for public office while still living in Kalamazoo (city commission) but was unsuccessful. He moved to Battle Creek and ran for Congress, again missing the top spot. In ’86 he ran for, and won, a seat on the Battle Creek city commission.
In February 1985 Bob married his now-wife-of-38-years, Linda. In May 1985 Wayne Watson, brother of his former wife who was also gay, was murdered. Decades later, when Bob learned about it he wrote Trestle of Death: Murder Unpunished.
In 1984 or 1985 Bob joined the board of directors at the Goodwill Industries in Battle Creek. A year later his fellow board members tapped him to lead the organization. That was the beginning of a 22-year stint. Bob seriously “grew” the organization. He helped it win recognition—awards like best not-for-profit organization in town. He was an officer of, and yes, minute-writer for the state organization of Goodwills.
Bob’s interest in folk music piqued with a song, “Sinking of the Reuben James,” written by Woody Guthrie in 1941. “The Roob,” an American naval destroyer, became the first naval ship sunk in what was yet to become World War II. A German torpedo sent the ship—and most of its crew—to the ocean bottom October 31, 1941—five weeks before Pearl Harbor. Unlike an obligatory term paper assignment in school, Bob simply began researching. He visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (while in town for a Goodwill conference) and visited the Washington Naval Shipyard. Bob contacted survivors of the sinking. The end product was a lengthy-but-never-published book manuscript. Bob never intended for it to be published; he simply wanted to document what happened.
Talk, talk, talk
The year 1990 found Bob establishing a weekly, one-hour, LIVE call-in talk show on the local public access channel. You could count the weeks missed in the five years the show ran on the fingers of one hand.
About that same time, Bob put on several solo concerts at a small theater in downtown Battle Creek. Bob has a unique voice. It’s a Roy Orbison-type voice. In fact, Bob likes to do Roy’s songs—and he can sing baritone/bass, ala the late Tennessee Ernie Ford. In fact, in private, Bob loves to sing along, with “power harmony” groups (Statler Brothers or the Oakridge Boys) where he can pick a part, or sing along with Frankie Valli or the melodies on the Bee Gees’ great songs.
In 2012, Bob recorded a C D. Every song had at least one harmony part—most had two or even three harmony parts. The songs also had guitar or banjo accompaniment.
A contrasting situation is that Bob’s speaking voice is something that he can, at will, speak in a baritone or bass voice. He once was Santa Claus at a Goodwill store and, on another occasion, he was Santa for the Rotary Club. His “Ho! Ho! Ho!” is quite authentic-sounding.
Baby the rain must fall
The late-Glenn Yarbrough brought us that great song. In both 2009 and 2015, Bob was diagnosed with cancer. Two totally different cancers—each was caught during an annual physical. Not hard to guess who’s a staunch proponent of annual physicals, is it? And, both situations were fully resolved. It’s been nearly 10 years since the first, prostate cancer. It’s been well over three years since the second cancer was licked.
Another kind of public services (albeit not quite as voluntary) is that Bob’s had jury duty several times—in two different counties. The role of jurors plays a part in Trestle of Death: Murder Unpublished. Bob’s experience gave him a much better appreciation for handling that aspect of the book.
In 2017 Bob’s former wife died. It was her death that led to the finding of her extensive files on her brother’s death. Those files inspired Bob to write Trestle of Death: Murder Unpunished.
Very vein person
The subject is once again public service. The American Red Cross says that each pint of blood donated saves three lives. In February 2019, Bob will donate his usual: “Double reds.” That’s the equivalent of two pints and will put Bob at the 19-gallon level. (And, there are donations from Bob’s military time and other instances that aren’t even counted in that total.
Bob has membership pending with the International Association of Crime Writers.
The thumb nail sketch
This is but the thumb nail sketch of Bob Holderbaum. Reviewing his life one finds several recurring themes: writing, leadership, creativity, public service, excellence, public speaking and entertainment.
And, yes, there were some things Bob might have done or done differently. Unfortunately, we’ve just run out of time. Some other day, perhaps!
Trestle Of Death - Murder Unpunished