Remembering Bob Compton

Bob Compton

Bob Compton was a public-spirited friend of the League who recently died at 100 years. Bob was a slender, cheery, friendly and modest man who would drop in at the League office to pick up voter registration forms. He would distribute these forms both to the boxes that the League maintained around town and to other places where people congregated. I first became aware of Bob’s spontaneous volunteer work when the League office was on University Avenue on the second floor of the Andronicos grocery store; I would also see him from time to time after the League moved to our current San Pablo Avenue office. Because of his outstanding volunteer work, the League gave him a certificate of appreciation in the early 2000’s.

Bob and I were old acquaintances from the 1960’s on; when we first met he was an administrator at International House, organizing events for I-House residents and students who hung out at I house. Many of the foreign students who lived and congregated at I-House became his friends. Through them, Bob met many other UC students, including my husband, Peter Bickel then a grad student in the Statistics Department at UCB. Kay Wehner was an early member of his circle of Berkeley friends. Peter and I got to know Kay because she had worked as a secretary for Professor Jerzy Neyman, the founder of the UC Statistics Department. Neyman had made it possible for her to support her two young sons and study for a teaching credential at the same time. He gave her permission to take home one of the department IBM typewriters and type for him at home in the evenings—after she had put her toddlers to bed. Kay had many friends in the Stat Department.

In a recent visit with Kay, now approaching her own 100th birthday, she recalled Bob and their warm friendship. She first met Bob through a mutual friend right after the war. During the war, he and a friend had served in the Air Force, the friend as a tail gunner and Bob as a radio operator. Bob had rented an apartment on the Northside of campus and threw parties every weekend. When he met Kay, he invited her to come to his parties. She said that people at these parties would drink, have fun and sometimes do rather crazy things. She also observed that she had realized after some years of close friendship that Bob was gay.

After doing a variety of different jobs. Bob got an undergraduate social work degree at UC Berkeley and returned later for a social work master’s degree. He worked at Langley-Porter Psychiatric Hospital in San Francisco and later lived in New York City and also work with psychiatric patients. He traveled widely, including 3 months in India and loved vacationing in Key West, Florida. [See article cited below for details.]

Eventually, he settled back in Berkeley and took the administrative job at I-House, arranging very interesting programs, such as classical Indian music, and other activities. This is when Peter and I met him. Kay recalls that, after some time, Bob decided that he wanted to return to helping people with more serious physical and emotional problems. He went to work at the Veterans Administration in San Francisco. He continued to lead an active social life and maintain his Berkeley friendships well into his 90’s, even when he needed to use a walker to get around.

In his advanced old age he seems to have had a stroke. He couldn’t swallow and needed to be fed through a tube to his stomach and couldn’t use his right arm. He was at the Elmwood nursing home for years and died there. Public spirited to the end, Bob Compton donated his body to the UCSF Medical School, so he had no burial nor, so far, any memorial service. He has outlived his family and all but a few friends.

I suggest you read a wonderful portrait of Bob at 94 and his relationship with an Ashby Village volunteer Mary Lucas McDonald. Based on an interview with Bob. “A Fine Pair of Pals” by Cynthia Bix with great photographs by Nancy Rubin from the Ashby Village newsletter.

–Nancy Bickel, Past President LWVBAE

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