AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE
ROBERT G. BROOKS
Died May 14, 2008
"Extraordinary Life" looks back each Sunday on someone whose life made a difference.” The Hartford Courant, September 21, 2008. Copyright © 2008.
Willing To Help Others, Even When Cancer Called
Bob Brooks didn't take long to settle into a community and start to make a difference. He willingly shared his skills with anyone who could use them. He grew up in LeRoy, N.Y., a small town outside of Rochester, where his father sold office products and his mother raised him and his four siblings. As a boy, he loved figuring out how things worked and spent hours taking them apart and fixing anything that broke. He enjoyed listening to his father's old 78 rpm records, in particular Tommy Dorsey, and in high school, he took up the trombone, which he continued to play with joy throughout his life. He became an Eagle Scout; his major project was constructing bridges out of knotted ropes, a talent he later shared with his son's Boy Scout troop.
He attended Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, where he majored in geology and played the trombone in a dance band. Later, a career counselor advised him not to include the music credentials in his résumé, for fear a potential employer might get the wrong idea. While in college, he met Martha Beebe, a fellow student, whom he married in 1969. They had one son.
Brooks enlisted in the Army in 1967 and was assigned to a supply job, overseeing inventories and spare parts. After a year at Fort Lee, Va., he was sent to Tan Son Nhut, an air base in Vietnam, where he served in the quartermaster corps and was responsible for helicopter parts. Years later, after he developed lymphoma, the Veterans Administration concluded that the disease had its origins in the Agent Orange he handled in Vietnam.
While Brooks was in the Army, he learned how to use computers, which formed the basis of his later career. After he was discharged, he realized that while he loved geology, he didn't want the kind of career that awaited most geologists. "He didn't want to work for oil companies," said his sister, Meredith Brooks. "He didn't see a place for himself in a big corporation."
Brooks remained in Virginia, where he had been first stationed in the Army, and started off as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman and also sold Fuller brushes. He worked as a parts manager for a lawn and garden wholesaler, where he could sell kerosene heaters faster than the store could stock them. He also worked in the back room, expanding the store's use of computers. He taught himself how to program the machines, and began working for computer stores, then for an architectural services company producing three-dimensional drawings on a computer. The programs were new, and Brooks became adept at taking blueprints and transforming them.
In Richmond, Va., where Brooks and his wife lived, he and his next-door neighbor began raising bees. He had six or seven hives and became president of the local beekeepers association.
In 2000, Brooks' mother-in-law became ill and the couple moved to Connecticut, and moved into her house in Talcottville, a village in the town of Vernon. It was an old factory village that retained the school, church and workers' housing built under the supervision of the Talcott brothers, who owned the textile mill in the mid-1850s.
Brooks worked as a computer consultant, but after a work-related fall in 2001 in which he fractured his knee in 15 places, he found it hard to work full time. Instead, he spent his time combining his computer skills with his hobbies.
He continued playing the trombone, and after he moved to Connecticut, began looking for bands where he could play. He joined the Sphinx Shriner band, which travels around in an open school bus and performs in parades and concerts. He volunteered to design a website not only for that band, but another that would include all the concert bands he could find in Connecticut.
He researched several dozen bands, found vintage pictures of former band players and did the painstaking work necessary to keep the site (www.ct-bands.com) updated with the dates of performances, practice times and band leaders.
"What he did for the website is phenomenal," said Molly Welch of the Farmington Valley Band. Besides the trombone, Brooks loved the banjo and all types of folk music, especially blue grass.
Through his wife's interest in Talcottville, he became active in its historical association as it gathered strength to try to battle car dealerships that were threatening to turn acres of land into parking lots. He designed a website for the group, and later became its president.
He researched the history and culture of the village to make the website interesting, and illustrated it with pictures from old books and photo albums. After the town of Vernon received a grant to post signs giving information about Talcottville, Brooks provided text and background information about the former mills and their workers. "He was so engaged in all of this," said Jennifer Gaudet, a former president of the organization. "He had become the quintessential Mr. Talcottville; Just a neat guy."
In 2006, Brooks was diagnosed with lymphoma, and after being treated with chemotherapy, he had trouble sleeping. The Rockville Shelter was looking for volunteers to staff the place at night, so he volunteered to help on weekends. He later worked there for several months.
"He had a humility about him," said his brother, Scott Brooks. "He would serve and think of other people's needs."
"'Do unto others.' That was his life," said Brooks' son, Gordon. "He made the best ... out of how he treated people."