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Stewards of Kleinstuck Preserve
2100 Stearns Avenue
Kalamazoo, MI 49008
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Life Story / Obituary
Robert William Kaufman was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to Andrew and Helen (Ohring) Kaufman on December 23, 1923, the youngest of three sons. While his father owned and operated a men’s clothing store, his mother ran the home. Although his parents faced many challenges providing for a family through the Great Depression, it is not clear that Bob ever felt many of those hardships. He often shared many fond memories of this period. He was a part of what he called the “10th Street Gang” - a group of neighborhood boys who played baseball and other sports on the streets until their neighbor would call the police, and they would all quickly scatter. We didn’t learn until later that Bob was only about 5, and the oldest member of this “gang” about 12. He talked about eating piles of fresh sweet corn for lunch – joyous to him at the time, but likely a money-saving strategy by his mom. He began delivering papers from about age 10 – this he described as an adventure, not as a hardship or necessity given his family’s hard times. Indeed, he described with some pride about how he figured out how to make his operation more efficient (using a wagon), expanding his route, and finally saving enough money to clinch the purchase of the century: a new bike. His love of sports and the outdoors also grew during this time. With the local rivers and lakes freezing over in the winter, he and his buddies would take their skates and play hockey, becoming the 1939 Junior League Champs of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin! (Helmets? Who needs helmets?).
It was also during these early years that Bob’s lifelong passion for tennis was born. Somebody in his youth showed him what a tennis racket was and how to use it. He learned quickly – he won his first tournament at 14, and kept winning them throughout his life, including winning a US Tennis Association Gold Ball at the age of 80. At the time, his children probably did not fully appreciate this accomplishment. Turns out it is a *really* hard trophy to win. Turns out someone did an entire documentary on how hard it is to win this trophy. A loss to the movie world that Bob was not the star protagonist.
After graduating from high school, Bob began his academic career at Oshkosh State Teacher’s College in Wisconsin. Seeing his two older brothers drafted into WWII service, he decided it would be strategic to enlist into officer’s training before they had a chance to draft him. He joined the V-12 Navy College Training Program with the intent to help in the war. He was sent to Lawrence College – not too far from Fond du Lac – for training. He went on for further training – this time at Columbia University in New York City. Not shy about taking advantage of every free offer for those in military service, his scrap books from this time are replete with Broadway playbills, dance tickets, and invitations to parties in the Hamptons. We are sure he also had solid and serious military training in logistics. His military responsibilities included directing material to the efforts against Japan in the Pacific Ocean Theater during WWII. He was on his way to Japan on a LST when the war ended.
Using the GI Bill, Bob continued his college career, this time at the University of Wisconsin. He clearly enjoyed the college life as a tennis player and Fraternity member. He also excelled academically. He realized quite quickly that while his Bachelor’s degree provided secure and stable employment as a high school teacher in rural Wisconsin, he didn’t much like it. He enrolled in a Ph.D. program at American University in Washington.
After the war, Bob joined the Navy Reserves, for which he had to conduct occasional 2-week training sessions. He requested training on the East coast. The Navy decided he should go to Cheyenne, Wyoming, apparently to train in the vast oceans found there. His application arrived on the desk of Ellen Anders, a recent college graduate, who was working at the Navy Adjutant’s Office. His hometown caught her eye. She asked him if he knew her college friend, Norma, who was also from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He did know Norma in fact. The rest is a 7-decade-long adventure.
The relationship between Bob and Ellen grew – over a long distance. He was in Washington DC, she remained in Cheyenne, working to help with her mother’s household expenses. As they exchanged letters and the occasional phone calls (at $3.00/minute!), and at some point even contemplated marriage, Ellen’s mother made it quite clear: no wedding until Bob was employed. The promise of a distant doctoral degree was not enough. Fair enough. Bob found a job at a shirt factory, and in 1953, he and Ellen married.
As Bob completed the requirements for his PhD in 1959, he was offered a faculty position at Western Michigan University in the Political Science Department. He and Ellen, with 6-week-old baby Marianne, moved to West Michigan and made Kalamazoo their home. They welcomed two more daughters into their family, Julie and Carol. Bob and Ellen, lifelong members of St. Augustine parish, raised their girls in the Catholic church and provided them a Catholic education through high school. Bob passed along his love for the outdoors and sports to his daughters. He loved teaching them to ski, skate, and play tennis. His pride in each of their high school tennis careers was immeasurable and often celebrated with a traditional post-match chocolate malt.
Bob believed that dinner was special family time that should be devoted to sharing our days. He thought his family should experience French dining aesthetics daily, including dinner music, a candle, and a table cloth. The table was also where the family gathered to play poker over the years, a long-standing tradition of Bob’s family. Bob and Ellen raised their girls in a world of academia surrounded by books, and lively conversation about politics, the environment, and tennis.
Bob instilled a strong work ethic and taught his girls to pay attention to details. He taught them a deep appreciation for the arts; he loved classical music, Joan Baez, Gregorian Chants, and attending theatre productions and symphony with his family. His family in Fond du Lac also continued to feature prominently in family life, with many visits to enjoy Wisconsin bratwurst, beer, and maybe some horseless polo (croquet). Bob taught by example the values of generosity and kindness. While he held his daughters to high expectations, he also supported them in their endeavors. An advocate for women in the workforce, he did his best to help his daughter get a job delivering papers with the Kalamazoo Gazette, as he had done at that age. The paper insisted that the job was not for a girl. (What?)
Bob possessed an adventuresome spirit. As a result, the family enjoyed many trips centered on the great outdoors, traveling to beautiful places like the Grand Canyon, the Badlands, and the Redwood forest. Through these experiences, Bob provided opportunities for his daughters to develop a deep reverence for nature. When the girls were growing up, the family would pack the station wagon for the 2-day road trip to visit Ellen’s family in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where they would camp, hike, and go crawdad fishing, but most importantly, play tennis. Bob would try to find the best tennis players in town and match them against his girls. He and his girls schooled those Cheyenne boys.
Once the girls were grown, Bob and Ellen treasured the time with Julie and Sarah, her daughter, who stayed local, but also continued to travel, often to Denver where Marianne and Carol had settled with their families. They also took several memorable trips abroad, including Ireland, where Ellen’s grandmother grew up, Italy, South Africa, and Alaska. With a genuine interest in people, Bob made friends wherever he went. It never took long for Bob to inspire a smile. Whether conversing with a committed curmudgeon or fellow optimist, Bob’s presence brightened the day.
Bob served his community in many ways. During his tenure at Western as a professor, he served as Director of the Institute of Public Affairs, was the founder and Director of the Environmental Studies Program, and taught Political Science courses until his retirement in 1995. He greatly enjoyed knowing he had helped young people identify and follow their dreams. Along with teaching, his work at WMU centered on community partnership and development, especially around environmental issues, and in 1985, he received the University Distinguished Service award.
Spending time with family was Bob’s greatest joy. Whether gathering around the table for a favorite meal or attending his grandchildren’s special events, Bob wanted to know every detail. He and Ellen were dedicated to assuring the best for their grandchildren, including frequent trips to watch horse shows, choir recitals, soccer games, tennis matches, and theatre performances.
Robert W. Kaufman died November 25, 2019, in the comfort of his home. Members of his family include his wife of 66 years, Ellen; 3 daughters, Marianne Lizza-Irwin (Key Irwin), Julie Kaufman, and Carol Kaufman (Tom Heese), grandchildren Sarah Meyers, Mallory Gross (JP), Caitlin Lizza, and Lucia Heese, and nieces Jane McGovern (John), Christine Corlett, and Rita Tinberg (Warren) and their families. Mass of Christian Burial, celebrated Friday, November 29th, 10AM at St. Augustine Cathedral will be preceded by recitation of the Rosary at 9:30AM. Burial at Ft. Custer National Cemetery will follow the Mass. Please visit Bob’s personal web page at www.BetzlerLifeStory.com, where you can read about his life, archive a favorite memory or photo and sign his online guestbook. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Stewards of Kleinstuck Preserve, Ministry with Community or Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan.