What About Bob Colby?

Bob Colby. photo/courtesy John Nichols

What About Bob Colby?

Editor’s note: Portland actor and writer Bob Colby passed away last month. His contributions to The Bollard include “Shafted: Riding the elevators of Portland” [July 2008] and “Food stamped: My adventure getting food assistance” [Sept. 2009]. We asked two of Bob’s many friends to write about him this month.



Do they ever wear Irish Handcuffs* in heaven? If so, Bob Colby will be too pissed to concede there is indeed a heaven to report back to us here on the other side.

Our friend Bob died March 13. He had cancer, endured horrible treatment, worse side effects, myriad complications, then even more cancer, and died anyway. Fucking cancer don’t care. His sister Kathleen wrote that even while very ill, “he wanted his cable channels, his chair, his weed, and his beer. When he couldn’t enjoy those things, we knew it was time [for hospice],” where he passed a few days later, surrounded by family.

Bob was so smart, so funny, so well-read, so opinionated. Anne Lamott’s advice for writers: “Have one honest, tough, loving friend who will read and mark up your work for you, and bust you on your overwrought bullshit.” Bob Colby was that friend for me.

You know how it’s said that to have a rich, full life, people should have home, work, and a third place? Bob is the reason I have my third place: Brian Ború, in downtown Portland. Brian Ború is a true Irish pub where all are welcome. Bow-tied wealth managers and lawyers dressed for court clink glasses and talk politics, stocks and baseball with old hippies in paint-spattered Carhartts and members of the robust, notorious group to which I am proud to belong: The Women of Ború.

In 2011 I was recently widowed and grieving, an empty-nester just beginning to peer out from under that dark monolith, to extend tendrils of human interaction. At a funeral I reconnected with old friends A and her partner, S. I knew they frequented the pub, so on the way home from work I would sometimes stop in and drift through the throng. If they were there, I’d stay and talk with them on the sunny brick patio. If not, I went on home for another night alone.

One evening I was floating anonymously through the happy hour hubbub when a scruffy dude in a jean jacket and baseball hat said, “Hey, aren’t you S and A’s friend?” I allowed that I was. That dude was Bob. He generously introduced me to the gang of regulars who are now my closest compatriots, and when Bob and I started talking, a conversation began that lasted the next several years. Bob had strong, expert opinions on many subjects. He was not shy to share his positions loudly and definitively, and, if necessary, to debate them with such force of logic that minds were changed — but never his.

Bob also introduced me to the man who became my new husband. The night I met him, everyone was discussing football except Bob and this stranger, who were having a lively conversation about grammar — specifically, the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition, a folly up with which I will not put. (I lifted that line from Bob.) I’m always happy to discuss grammar with anyone who will listen, so I sidled up next to Bob, insinuated myself into their conversation, met David, and changed the course of my life.

Bob paid me the best compliment ever when he commented on my wordy Facebook posts: “When it says ‘Read More,’ I always click.” Then he ruined it by saying, “except when you get too maudlin,” but quickly added, “I always read the whole thing, then decide if it’s the M word.”

When I looked up the definition on Google — “self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental, often through drunkenness” — Bob’s remark seemed much funnier, because I’d been writing about our bar.

I had been trying to summon the courage to visit Bob in hospice. I know all too well that it’s important to show up if you can. But every time I thought about it, I couldn’t stop crying. I was waiting to feel stronger.

Ha. That’s not what strong is. Strong is showing up anyway. The later stages of Bob’s illness brought up a lot of emotions from the last few days and weeks of my late husband Jeff’s life, some of which was very precious, all of which was very, very hard. I had the nerve to text a friend all my supposed reasons why I couldn’t visit Bob. Many were valid, but there was also “busy week.” It was a busy week, but no. No. We make time for the things that matter.

The truth is, I wasn’t brave enough to go see Bob in time, and now it’s too late. I regret not showing up to thank him, to talk about all this and more. He would have taunted me, called me maudlin. He would have been right again. But there are worse things to be accused of.

You are well loved, Bob Colby. The day you died, we clinked in your honor a tall, clear, nut-brown pint that stood on the bar sweating and untouched. We all cried. All the friends you helped me make at the pub will mourn your loss, tell your stories, lift a glass. You will be long remembered here.

Rest easy, my friend — or easily, as you would doubtless correct me.

— Carolyn Stephens Geary

*Hold a drink in each hand.


Bob Colby (at left, in hat) and John Nichols (far right) in the Stone Pinhead production of “Jesus and the Pirates.”

Stone Pinhead forever

The first time I met Bob Colby, he pissed me off. It wasn’t the last time, but this was ludicrous. He wouldn’t back down from his claim that Marty Barrett was the Red Sox’ greatest second baseman. I was like, “What about Bobby Doerr?” He stubbornly listed Barrett’s accomplishments: he led the American League (in 1986) in sacrifice bunts, with 18; he had a higher career batting average than Doerr (which he didn’t). And the greatest accomplishment: in one year (1985), Barrett pulled off the hidden-ball trick — three times.

I was astounded! What about Bobby Doerr being a perennial all-star? Piffle, replied Bob, he was elected on his reputation after one or two good years. Meanwhile, Paul Guerin, scrunching his face ruefully, interjected, “We don’t necessarily go by logic here, although baseball doesn’t lie.” What the hell? I thought to myself, What bunch of fact-fisters have we got here?

In the early ’90s, I had just gotten out of a three-year relationship and moved from the little house in Deering Center, next to the Quality Shop, to Sandi Flanagan’s Home for Strays on Waterville Street, atop Munjoy Hill. (Sandi was very kind, taking in adult orphans like me and Manny Verzosa, among others.) No longer living within walking distance of my standby bars — The Great Lost Bear and Portland’s greatest nightclub ever, Raoul’s Roadside Attraction — I had ambled down Fore Street to the Old Port, scoping out possible third places, when I happened upon a stuffy little bar called Three Dollar Deweys.

No air, hellish bathrooms, and a back table filled with ne’er-do-wells suited me fine. Roland Waddington, the grand old man of the back table, saw me looking around and invited me to sit down. I became acquainted with a lot of unusual people, people unconstrained by convention, artists and others who seemed to think having a good time was the most important thing in life. People like Bob Colby. They all seemed to look up to Roland, who was a great stimulator of laughter with his perpetually upbeat attitude and his own booming, infectious laugh.

Bob and I became very good friends. We shared a love of theater, as well as the urge to stick a pin in the pompous. He introduced me to James Hoban, who was looking to fill the part of Autolycus, a singing pickpocket in Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale. This led to the formation of a new theater group by eight members of Hoban’s cast. We got Penny Carson to rent us the space that later become Oak Street Theater, and the Stone Pinhead Ensemble was born. (We got the name from some graffiti scrawled on the building that proclaimed: STONE PINHEADS RULE.)

Bob would do anything to promote our plays. For the first one, Porktown, he came up with a flyer that riffed on the poster for a recent blockbuster, Jurassic Park: the familiar T-Rex skeleton, but with a pig’s head and a new title, Jurassic Pork. With a few exceptions, everyone involved in that play had come from Deweys. The cast was somewhat different from the actors one might meet at a regular audition, being interested in upsetting apple carts rather than taking direction. Bob knew many of these gutsy evildoers — Tim Ferrell, George Hamm, Bob Look, Jill St. John, Joanne Chessie, Pam Merritt, Mike Kimball — a great group of weirdly talented square pegs. The play was a success. Writing in the Falmouth Forecaster, critic Scott Andrews called it the “boffo smash hit of the summer!” Without Bob, it probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.

In the years that followed, Bob was instrumental to the continued success of the Stone Pinhead Ensemble, on stage and off. In Harold Be Thy Name (starring Mike Kimball as Jesus H. Christ!), Bob played the pope, based on Pope John Paul I, who suspiciously died after only 33 days in office. Bob’s pope outfit, made with terrifying detail by Christine Marshall, was a work of art, consisting of all the different layers and petticoats of the original. While wearing this burdensome bevy of lace and white linen, Pope Bob sang a paean to his best friends, the mountain goats he’d lived and frolicked with before becoming leader of the church. The way Bob sang the line “a goat is a wonderful guy” brought down the house every time. Some people were simultaneously laughing and crying (craughing) at Bob’s heartfelt ode to his lost wooly friends.

I hadn’t talked to Bob in quite a while when I found out he was sick. I had no details, and waited too long to find out where he was, by which time he was gone. I wish I could have told him how much he meant to me and how much his efforts enhanced the theater company he co-created. I’ll miss him, and the theater will miss one of its comedy zealots. You can never have too many of those.

— John Nichols