Bob Philbrook is as vibrant, confident, and energetic as anyone you’ll ever meet. He also happens to have gotten polio when he was six months old, an event that has shaped his life in many ways. As a preteen he had several operations that stunted his growth—he stands only about 4’11". Now he spends some of his time in a wheelchair, due to post-polio syndrome.
Though he describes himself as a "70-year-old victim of polio," his story is not one of victimhood but of victory, intelligence, warmth, humor, activism, and faith. His faith developed early. "I discovered God as a child, when I was kept alone, away from other children. The only person I could talk to was God. And I just knew, I just simply knew, that not only was there a God but that God paid attention to me, despite
the miserable physical and lonely state I was in. My vision of God being there was so strong that it sort of gave me permission to do anything I wanted to do. That was my world."
He left institutional care to enter regular high school as a sophomore. The following year, "the kids wanted to elect me president of the class" but were forbidden to do so by the principal because Bob was short of credits to have junior status. He experienced this rebuff as being "segregated into a separate kind of life," which strengthened his resolve to graduate with his class. "I went to summer school and then took five courses the next year. I graduated in three years with 17 credits (only 16 were needed)—they had to give me a diploma."
Facing obstacles as challenges is a pattern throughout Bob’s life and career. His father was an alcoholic; he and Bob’s mother separated when Bob was nine years old. His mother had albinism, was very fair-skinned, nearly blind, and quite sickly. To glimpse Bob’s early life, see the movie Cider House Rules, which he says "is the story of my growing up years. I spent brief periods at home with my mother, but I had very little experience of being held or taken care of by her over a sustained period of time." Bob says his mother "is the one person I admire most profoundly. After I graduated from high school, one morning I came into the front room and found my bags sitting by the front door. I said, ‘What’s that all about?’ My mother said, ‘Today’s the day you’re leaving.’ She knew I would never succeed in life if I hung around taking care of her—I had to go out in the world and make it on my own."
In Bob’s youth, it was a given that people with handicaps should learn a trade. He decided on watchmaking, finished the 18-month training course in a year, and went to work "in a ritzy jewelry store in Portland, Maine," where he worked for ten years.
"During my time there, I learned to fly airplanes. I met an instructor who said, ‘Yes, I’ll teach you how to fly.’ As we headed out over the water, he said, ‘This island has a road down there; sometimes we practice emergency landings there.’ When I steered back toward the airport and got over the mainland, he shut off the engine and said, ‘Now what would you do?’ I turned back out to the ocean and headed right for that island; I lined up on the little roadway and just before I touched down, he gave it the power, leaned over the seat, and said, ‘I could make a pilot out of you!’ That was the beginning of a great friendship.
"I loved flying. I flew to do search and rescue work with the Civil Air Patrol. It was exciting for me—I was 25 years old and having the time of my life. I flew for about 15 years, accumulating about 1,000 hours of flying time."
Eventually he bought his own jewelry store, which he enjoyed because he "needed to do something else besides fixing watches. I’d done it well and I wanted to do more."
Bob is a family man. He reflects on becoming a husband and father. "About the time I bought my store, I got married—my wife, Sandy, had four children at the time. That was quite a step for me, becoming an instant father. The youngest was 18 months and the oldest 11 years. It was a challenge for me! And I’m very pleased with what I did. The four of them have similarities because of their heritage—they’re totally, totally different people from the two children my wife and I have. I love all of my kids; each one is unique, and I just have an incredible investment in them.
"Most of my adult life, my real calling has been community organizing. I made a friendship with a fellow who escaped from a French monastery and came to America—to do something useful. He came rushing into my store one day and said, ‘There’s an ad in the paper for community organizers. Let’s apply!’ So we did, and each got hired. I closed my store and began my career. In time, I formed a welfare rights organization that still exists today—still has meetings every month, after 30 years."
During his long and successful career, he did rural organizing, was a counselor for high-risk kids, became a spokesperson for the homeless, and eventually helped organize a homeless shelter network that still functions well. After more then 30 years, he still works with a "coalition of folks in Maine to bring about good social legislation—an incredible, well-run organization." At one point, University of Maine hired him to develop programs and courses—"paraprofessional training for people who worked in agencies to learn the language of the poor." It was so successful that the state bought the program from the university.
About the time Bob started community organizing, he met Quakers. "After I learned watchmaking in Waltham, Massachusetts, the people had wanted me to stay, but the city was full of watchmakers—there was no job for me. When they found me a job at Raytheon, I said, ‘You’ll never get me to build guidance systems for missiles!’ Even in my youth, I knew you just don’t make things that kill people.
"When I became a community organizer, one of my jobs was a draft counselor. I worked with strange people who were also doing draft counseling and they all knew each other—Quakers. Needing to find out more my wife and I took our family to the Quaker meetinghouse. There were the six of us and seven of them. Not being smart enough to know that we were putting a real strain on these folks, we kept coming."
Bob resisted joining Quakers for many years, even though he was a faithful attender and participant. It became "a big deal for yearly meeting. I said, ‘There are lots of people who are not members but working just as hard, are just as loyal as people who are members. If they choose not to be members, so what? They’re still Quakers.’ Taking a strong, clear stand helped me win. But the yearly meeting won, too—nonmembers were recognized as well as members at all kinds of meetings. "Then somebody said, ‘We really need you on American Friends Service Committee.’ I said, ‘You have to join to do that,
don’t you?’ ‘Yeah.’ So I joined. I had made my point.
"Virtually everybody in my meeting [Portland, Maine] is really socially active. The meeting supports me as a released Friend through a fund to which many members contribute. I could never do what I need to do without that support. It lets me maintain our house and travel to meetings, many thousands of miles each month. Most of my life is tying together all of the different organizations that are supposed to be helping the poor, letting them know what poor people really want.
"Part of what keeps me going is humor. I just love it! For about 11 years I was a suicide prevention counselor. One day I talked a guy into my car who was trying to jump off a bridge. It was February, a miserable, stinking night, sleet, rain, and everything all mixed up together. I said, ‘We’ve got to get you to the hospital to get looked at.’ He finally caved in, saying, ‘I’d rather be dead, but if you say so.’ As we were going through the entranceway to the hospital, my crutch went out from under me and I went down into the slush. A nurse saw me flopping around and said, ‘Sir, can I help you?’ I said, ‘No, no, it’s him who needs help.’ I pointed up to the guy. He’s looking down at me. She looks at me. She looks at him. She says, ‘Sure it is!’
"I accept that I can fail in earthly terms, but I have no picture of what failure is in the global perspective. I just go through life thinking, ‘I can do anything.’ If I play any kind of religious role, it is to keep religion relevant to the rest of society and the future. I believe that practicing my faith adds relevance to religion. I do what I do simply because I love doing it. It’s fun. I find life fun."
Bob Philbrook tells the truth.