Robert L. McCabe, 86, son of the late Fay and Tom McCabe, passed on June 5th, 2022, at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford after a brief illness. Bob grew up in Irvington, New York, where the neighborhood boys swam in the Hudson River and lived to talk about it. Today that same town is populated by the rich and famous but in those days the kids grew up in modest houses; they lived through the Depression and a World War but the memories they would recall all their lives involved other kids—those lost loves, those ancient rivalries and sweet regrets that stay in the mind forever. Sometimes it felt as if Bob and his brother Tom never left Irvington.
Bob was the valedictorian of his class at Irvington High School but he was not a perfect student. His physics teacher tells the story of the day he gave a lecture on nuclear fusion and noticed Bob in the back of the room chatting with his girlfriend through the entire lecture. When the teacher finished his lecture, he said sternly—“OK, Mr. McCabe, tell me and the class about nuclear fusion.” To his astonishment, Bob repeated the entire lecture. “He even did a better job than I did!” his teacher recalled with a laugh.
Bob went on to graduate in physics from Union College in Schenectady, New York where he ran track and directed the glee club. He also met Marsha, his future wife, whose high school was across the street. After graduating, Bob took a job in industry but his heart was not in it. He returned to his old high school in Irvington and began teaching math and science, which he loved. These were the heady days of Sputnik when America feared the Russians would surpass the U.S. in math, science and space. The government began throwing money at teachers of STEM subjects and Bob won a fellowship to San Diego State University along with 50 teachers across the nation. He and Marsha married and they camped across the country, exploring national parks and running into a bear or two. It was in San Diego that Bob earned his master’s degree and realized his growing love of pure mathematics. The next year he began work at Boston University toward a Ph.D.
While grinding away on his doctorate, he began teaching at the old New Bedford and Fall River Technical Institutes which would merge and, in time, grow into a true university. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was sweeping many a young man off the streets and sending them into the jungles of Southeast Asia. Educating himself in the history and politics of Vietnam, Bob was appalled that the lives of so many people in both countries were being sacrificed. Outside of class, he became an avid anti-warrior, which was an unpopular position at the time. As one of the leading voices of the anti-war movement, he took on the hard work of organizing against the war. He and his friend, Gloria Clark, opened a draft counseling center to help young men consider their options, in the Quaker tradition. Though protesting is a constitutional right, the president of the university fired him and several colleagues. With Ph.D in hand, Bob quickly got a new teaching job in Hayward, California in the Bay area. Again, he and Marsha camped across the country, this time with their three young children—Caroline, Kathy, Robb, and their cat, Trig. In the end, he proved himself to be on the right side of history. The president was fired and Bob and others were invited to return with tenure. He always referred to this as his "sabbatical year."
Bob was hilarious, difficult, stubborn, brilliant, a little crazy and sometimes impossible. He read deeply in many subjects, including the history of math itself. In a single math lecture, his bedazzled students could travel through the worlds of art, music and literature. One summer, his daughter Kathy took his calculus class and said she was “swept away” by her new vision of Dad. Bob also loved the movies, especially anything with Sandra Bullock, and was often seen at Grateful Dead concerts. He became a fan of Kenny Richards’ tribute band, Pearly Baker. He dearly loved being with his children, whose friends called him “Doc.” Robb remembers, on occasion, when he came home from high school, he found his friends gathered around the Doc talking or watching Bruce Willis in “Moonlighting.” Robb would laugh, realizing his presence was not essential.
Bob was active in the civil rights movement and a supporter of the Coalition for Social Justice. He sang in the old New Bedford Community Chorus (now the Choral Society) and was a member of the First Unitarian Church. A lover of all animals and other creatures, he was known to evict an errant spider in the house by gently scooping him up and sending him outdoors. Over the years, he loved the family cats, especially Louie, Lana and Simba.
He ended up teaching for 40 years at UMassDartmouth, rarely missing a day of class. He always made time for students and had a reputation as a master teacher. He especially liked to play with infinity. He and the late Jim Kaput created a course called “math inquiry,” which grew and evolved over the years. Bob loved it. As one student, Timothy Diamantoni, explained, “ In this class, we struggled to reach a higher level of thinking and could actually feel ourselves reaching a place we’d never been. It was amazing.”
In his early 80s, Bob was hit by Alzheimer’s. He never used the awful word and blamed his deficits on old age. At this time, he became surprisingly domestic—obsessed with the trash bins, the laundry and keeping order in the house. His final brief illness spared him from the worst cruelties of Alzheimer’s. His family thanks the ever-attentive doctors, nurses, staff and hospice team at St. Lukes and the helpful folks at Potter’s Funeral Services. Many thanks to our kindly neighbors who watched out for Bob and special thanks to the ABC sanitation workers who became aware that Bob so coveted the trash bins, he did not easily let go.
When one is 86, there is much loss. He grieved for his late friends and colleagues—Jim Kaput, Patt Nicolet and Vern Ingraham. He grieved for his sister Joan and her husband Robert Grab. More recently, he lost two brothers-in-law and a sister-in-law, Don and Ray Lawton and Marie. Fortunately, his dear friends—Carlton Dasent and Carol Kolek, John and Mary Beth Dowd filled the gap with togetherness and fun, as did those stimulating talks over wine and scallops at Bayside with his brother-in-law, Bruce Lawton and his wife Nancy.
Bob leaves so very much. He leaves two wonderful old friends in Montana, Jim and Bunny Gaffney. He leaves Valerie Swaya, Kirsten Sherman and Sheelagh Beaulieuh—such loyal family friends. He leaves and leaves….Peter Mosher, Chris Perry, Josh Nebelkopf, and the late Jay Aruri. He leaves Tania Nicolet, Susan Kaput, Marcia, Sarah…It goes on.
Besides his wife, Marsha, he leaves his loving children Caroline McCabe-Sandler and her husband Dr. Jody Sandler of Duchess County, New York; Kathryn Lyden McCabe of Sarasota, Florida and Robb McCabe and his wife Myrna of Revere, MA. He leaves his two brothers whose memories bound and nurtured them—his older brother Howard and his wife Nancy of CoCo Beach, Florida and his younger brother Tom and his wife Carol of Far Hills, New Jersey. He leaves his fun-loving grandchildren, Connor and Evan Sandler and Sienna and Jake McCabe. Whenever Sienna, 13, shows her wit, Robb tells her—“You see, that’s your grandfather’s soul in you.” Bob leaves two super step-grandchildren, Dr. Rebecca Sandler and David Sandler. He leaves many wonderful nieces, nephews and friends.
Now he leaves all of us.
And so we say goodbye. Rest in infinity, dear Bob.
(Bob’s family said goodbye to him in Beech Grove cemetery in Westport, gathered around the family plot, where they shared tears, laughs and memories. )
Bob loved Buttonwood Park. If you’re inclined to honor him, then visit buttonwoodpark.org/. Or mail to The Friends of Buttonwood Park. P.O. Box 2011. New Bedford, MA 02741.)