My Dad, Robert Vincent Bird, was born on April 28, 1933, in Sterling, Colorado. He passed away of congestive heart failure, in his sleep, on July 20, 2010, at home in Riverside, California. He was a son, brother, husband, father, uncle, grandfather and a friend during his 77-plus years.
Those two dates, April 28, 1933 and July 20, 2010, now represent the bookends of the life he lived. But the dash in between those two events is a novel full of stories, sights, sounds, music, highs, lows, joys and pain, accomplishments and a few failures, profound breakthroughs, dramatic plot turns, epiphanies, lots of laughter and above all, love.
As a boy growing up in the midwest, little “Bobby” as folks back then knew him, had an abundant mop-head of curly white blond hair. (By the way, the hair stayed blond for nearly eight decades without the help of Grecian Formula – something at least one of his three sons can’t claim).
As the oldest of four children of Vince and Connie Bird who were career Foursquare pastor co-pilots in ministry, Bobby was both held to high standards and perhaps just a little spoiled as the apple of his father’s eye. He had all the interests of a typical boy growing up during the waning years of the Great Depression. He built a crystal radio set and loved tuning in radio broadcasts from places near and far under his covers at night. He had a paper route, sold flower seeds, had a love for debating people and a fascination about the world around him. Pastors’ kids have a peculiar set of pressures they live with. For the most part, he towed the line and didn’t get caught doing anything his Dad would have to apologize for from the pulpit. But he admitted later in life, that he occassionally donned a hooded jacket and snuck out to smoke a cigar, or to play cards, or to commit the worst of all infractions for pastor’s kid in those days – go to the movies. The first movie he snuck into: “Lassie.”
As Grandpa Bird moved around from church assignment to church assignment during those years – mostly in the state of Kansas – Dad and his younger siblings, Patricia, Dan and Connie, grew up in towns with names like Parsons, Burlington and Topeka where Dad finished his Junior year of high school before one more church assignment took the Bird family to Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was a tough move for Dad. He had really found himself at Topeka High where he played football and fell in love for the first time.
But in Kenosha, at Mary D. Bradford High School, his senior year was full. He was a clasmaate of Alan “The Horse” Ameche who later went onto win the Heisman trophy. And Dad’s singing and oratory skills blossomed as a member of the choir, drama club and debate team and he actually won a Wisconsin State debating title – an honor which earned him a trip to California and a national debate competition at Pepperdine University.
Not much later, he returned to Los Angeles to attend Life Bible College, where both of his parents had been members of the first graduating class. It was during his four years there that his interest and drama and debate resurfaced and he flirted with another idea. What if after Life Bible College he could attend USC’s film school? But that idea soon gave way to the call of following his father into the pastorate. And it also paled in comparison to a pretty, perky, confident young lady who sang in the Angeles Temple choir. Rachel Marian Benson was her name and she stole his heart. He proposed to her one month after they met following a date to the opera. She made him wait three terrifying days before saying “yes” and they were married three months later in a wedding extravaganza that could have rivaled any Hollywood nuptials.
The reason for the rush? Somebody had the bright idea that Bob and Rachel should piggyback their wedding along with the previously scheduled wedding of Dad’s younger sister, Pat, and her fiance, Dave Risser. And on January 29, 1956, the two couples tied the knot at Angeles Temple in a double ceremony. Because of the strong family connections of both the Bird and Risser clans to Foursquare, it was estimated that over 2,500 people attended the wedding. Countless thousands more witnessed the event by hearing it on radio. That’s right, their wedding was the Sunday night broadcast on KFSG.
After graduating from Life, Dad and Mom returned to the midwest where Dad received his first church assignment at the Foursquare Church of Galva, Illinois. The 30 members of the congregation gave him a warm welcome, and it was during his six months there that his first son was born. That would be me. But Dad struggled as a young pastor of a tiny church barely able to afford his salary. He said later that he felt perhaps he had misread his calling to be a pastor. And he soon resigned – a decision his own father struggled to accept at first, but later grew to understand.
Dad and Mom moved back to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where their second son, Patrick, was born, and Dad worked at American Motors and attended the University of Wisconsin for a few years. But once again, Dad felt an urging to go west.
During his debate and drama years, he had been told many times that he had a voice for radio. And in 1960, Dad and Mom moved back to Los Angeles with their two young sons. Dad enrolled at the Columbia School of Broadcasting, and by 1961 he had his first job in radio as an announcer for the Christian radio station, KHOF-FM (which you might now know as KKLA). And during the next dozen years, Dad served as a radio announcer and engineer at several other California radio stations, including back at the station that broadcast his wedding, KFSG, and then at KSBW in Salinas, and finally KRKD back in Los Angeles which eventually turned into KIIS-AM. During his time at KIIS, he spun soft rock, easy-listening records and was known by his on-air name, “Bob Bird, The Music Man.” He did voice-over work for numerous TV and radio commercials and even recorded his oldest son narrating Public Service Announcements for Smokey the Bear and US Savings Bonds that he then aired on the radio – bragging rights which won me many a bet from disbelieving neighborhood friends when they heard my voice come over the radio.
It was during that period that third son, Dennis, was born in 1965. And so was Dad’s love for the outdoors, and especially sailing. Some of his three sons’ best childhood memories were spent on the little 14-foot Lido sailboat Dad bought and captained in Los Angeles Harbor and every summer for two weeks on the pristine waters of Huntington Lake in the Sierra Nevadas. Combine that with camping and hiking and then later also sailing on three wheels on a dry lakebed, and you have the makings of some very cool vacations and weekend outings – which became magnets for all our boyhood pals, as well.
But by the early-1970s, Dad was growing restless in his work in radio. The constant turnover of personnel and the ratings-driven nature of the business began to eat at him. But he was also feeling a familiar tug on his soul that he needed to do something more meaningful with his life. And in 1977, he completed a B.A. degree in religious studies at Azusa Pacific University, followed by graduate work at Fuller Seminary and a M.A. in theology, also from APU. That training led him for the next two decades to dedicate his time and talents to hospital chaplaincy work, first at Whittier Hospital, then Kaiser Hospital of Los Angeles, and then finally for a dozen years at St. Joseph Hospital of Orange. He was certified in Clinical Pastoral Education, Mediation and grief counseling, and ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church – skills that aided and comforted thousands of hospital patients, their families and even the doctors and medical staff at each of the hospitals where he served.
The last time I checked, the mortality rate in America is… 100 percent. And we’re all headed for the hospital, Lord-willing later rather than sooner. And that was something Dad knew well, both personally in his own physical struggles, and on behalf of those he served. Providing comfort and care, a listening ear, and shoulders to cry on was work that brought him deep joy, standing alongside people and their loved ones at the most vulnerable time of their lives.
Dad continued to serve at St. Joseph’s until physically he was unable to keep up the demanding schedule at what he called “the building that never sleeps,” and he officially retired in 1999. But Dad was a lifelong learner. In fact, he really never left college. During his entire adult life, he read and studied and contemplated as if his life depended on it. He consumed knowledge and savored learning. His library was full of the books he read and the college courses he continued taking on video tape. Theology, psychology, autobiographies, historical fiction, thrillers – pretty much anything that would contribute to his understanding of himself, of others, of the world, of the human condition. He was reading a book reccommended to him by one of his grandsons the week of his death.
None of us would deny that his physical struggles defined a large part of Dad’s last decade. He was a man who survived speedbumps, dodged bullets and cheated death many times. He suffered from Diabetes from the age of 35 on. He survived a heart attack and a stroke, and not one, but two heart bypass operations. He was beating two types of cancer, and for the last year, life-saving dialysis served as his kidneys. He was described by one of his doctors as “the most complicated patient” he ever treated. And he faced the daily grind of his various maladies with grace and patience, without complaining.
Sure he had a few regrets. Don’t we all? And he had a bucket list… you know, those things you hope to accomplish before you “kick the bucket.” He would have loved to ride a motorcycle again. Mom made him promise never to ride again after he laid one down in the road early in their marriage and had a pin that held his ankle together. He would have loved to get out in a sailboat one more time. He would have loved to take a cross-country train trip. He would have loved to reach his 60th wedding anniversary with Mom. He would have loved to live to see his sons accomplish all their goals in life. He would have loved to live to see his grandkids get married and have children of their own.
You’ve heard the phrase, “don’t miss the forest for the trees.” But sometimes the opposite is also true. When you’re looking at the whole forest of a man’s life, it’s also easy to forget some of the trees. There are probably a few things you didn’t know about Robert Bird. For instance, how in 1968, he was on duty at KRKD when his colleague, reporter Andrew West, captured the now-famous audio tape of the assasination of Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel
Or how in the mid-1970s, he took a rag-tag group of boys, some of them troubled teens, and started an Explorer Scout troop to rehabilitate a 35-foot wooden sloop sailboat, and a delapidated 40-foot catamaran that were stored in a junkyard at the Alameda Naval Station. He led the troop in a rehab project that got the boats ocean-worthy again and in the process taught them how to sail.
Or how in the early 1980s, he was one of the first Chaplains to minister directly to AIDS patients, and how he ended up baptizing one young AIDS sufferer in the pool at USC County Medical Center because no church the area would allow him to use their baptismal for fear of spreading the virus – a story captured in the Los Angeles Times and Christianity Today magazine.
Or how in 2000, as an expert in grief counseling, he was recruited to be part of the Red Cross emergency team that ministered to the families of the 83 people who died in the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 that crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
Or how exposure to his work in radio provided the inspiration and nurture for my career in journalism and then film and television writing and production.
Or how in the last year, as a patient himself at the St. Joseph’s Dialisys Center, he continued working his hospital chaplain’s muscles with the nurses and patients there, and reached out to one man in particular who had just lost his wife and was struggling with his will to go on living himself.
They tell us in mathematics, that two-plus-two always equals four. But I believe when it comes to the math of human accomplishment, the total is always greater than the sum of its parts because the legacy of a life well-lived goes on forever. Dad’s legacy will keep growing, spreading, mushrooming in a geometric pattern for generations to come because he leaves behind a wife of 54 years who (I’m biased) could still be president of the United States. He leaves behind three sons who love their wives and are raising their children to love God and love others. He leaves behind 11 grandchildren who are not afraid to dream big dreams. And he leaves behind siblings, family members and friends who are better for having known him. And he leaves behind thousands of people we may never know whose lives he intersected at a time when they needed the comfort of a savior and Dad did his best to be that comfort for them.
And I’m pretty sure, in the early morning hours of July 20, when he passed through that veil between here and eternity, he got the “attaboy” that we all hope to get one day. Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.
Delivered at Robert Bird’s memorial service on August 14, 2010, at Florence Avenue Foursquare Church in Santa Fe Springs, CA