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A Reflection on the Life of Robert Ridgway Bishop




Bob Bishop died in his sleep days ago. The memorial service for him was at the Class of 1944 Chapel at the Episcopal Academy. Speakers for the occasion included his sons, Benjamin and Stephen, his grandson, John, his close classmate at EA, Morrison Heckscher, Chair of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and his younger brother, Bailey. All brought a unique perspective to elucidate the many dimensions of Bob. Bob was a graduate of EA, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, served in the Peace Corps, and attended the graduate school of education at Harvard.


Bob served in many different positions at EA including a one-year term as Head of School when Jay Crawford was on sabbatical. First and foremost, Bob was a teacher. He made a difference in the lives of several decades of students. He was one of the people who interviewed me for the position of Chaplain at the school. I counted him among my friends.


He is among the kindest people I have ever met and with whom I worked on a daily basis. Sally, his wife, was from Ireland. Bob loved the Irish people. He and family enjoyed making trips to there. He appeared on one late August day in my office after a visit to Ireland with a scroll. He always smiled when he gave gifts to others. Since his life was a gift, he smiled often. When I unrolled the poster, it was a scroll with the words Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level, a book he wrote after he received the Nobel Prize. Heaney was born in Northern Ireland and was a Nobel Prize winning poet who died in 2013. I would later learn that he wrote about Irish events and evoked the Irish rural life in his poetry. He taught at universities at Belfast, Dublin, Harvard, and Oxford.


I had the scroll framed and hung in my office over my desk where I viewed it for years.


Bob’s teaching passion was all things that would come under the aegis of the English Department. I knew of Seamus Heaney but was not very familiar with his works so I assumed that the level in Spirit Level was akin to different levels of experience found in Dante’s Inferno,

which describes the levels of Hell. Later I would learn that the level in the title referred to a carpenter’s level used to find the horizontal and vertical balance used in building anything such as a house or a life. When I was building our house on the Chesapeake, a neighbor presented me with a four-foot level with the words, “You can’t build a house without this.”


So why so much time in this blog about Heaney? First, Bob loved Heaney’s work. Spirit Level has much to say about balance, equilibrium, or karma. That was the key to Bob’s personality and his relationships with others. As students and I experienced him, you didn’t have to worry about who was going to arrive to teach class that day. Balance and a steady nature were what made him tick. If he had a bad day, that never affected who showed up for class or a meeting. He never let a difficult problem throw him off balance for he learned that balance and, inverting the words of T. S. Eliot, was “the center that had to hold.” That is not to say that he was without passion for he had it in abundance. Helping people in any way that he could as well as his excitement about learning were passionate places for him. He loved soccer and squash as well. He played both at Princeton.


Bob lived the golden rule which is the one rule that is endorsed by all world religions. I would encourage those of you who knew Bob that you can honor him by changing the words just a bit. Instead of do unto others as you would want others to do unto you, use a suggestion that I came across recently to word it as follows: “Do unto others as Bob Bishop (or your model of a life well lived) did unto you.” Then list such things that Bob did for you like:


Always displayed kindness


Serious about literature but always saw a spiritual or religious connection


If a student keeps failing to get the assigned paper in, don’t say, “That’s it. You’re done.” Give them a new due date.


Find something fascinating about a book or poem


Add your experiences with him that you would like to act on with others.


Bob’s younger brother, Baily, got to the heart of the matter in seven words that I think are the last word going to the heart of Bob’s character when he said, “I have never met anyone more decent.”

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