A creative life
Whatever doesn’t kill you can make you stronger – as long as you don’t lose faith. Almost everyone misplaces faith every once in a while. But that’s not the same as losing it. If you can find it again, it will take you where you need to go, even if you don’t always know where that is.
Bob Roumfort’s childhood was the kind that many people use as an excuse for failure. Born on November 6, 1928, in Gloversville, New York, he was the third child of a Woolworth’s manager whose “promotions” moved him and his family frequently. His little sister, June Rose, was born in Stamford, Connecticut. Then they lived for a short time in Corning, New York, before moving to Kearsarge, Pennsylvania, a couple of miles south of Erie.
While he always felt the pain of leaving much behind, he was able to take something with him through each move: his talent for drawing.
“I drew pictures on every scrap of paper I could find,” he said.
While they lived in Kearsarge, his father quit Woolworth’s to open his own small steakhouse, called The Hut. Their home outside the city and the thought of no more moving gave Bob a sense of permanence and security.
“I imagined this place to be as close to heaven as one could get without leaving the planet earth,” he said.
That sense of permanence was disturbed when Bob’s father moved the family into Erie, where Bob’s younger brother Ron was born. Not long after that, all sense of permanence and security was shattered.
“When I was ten,” Bob said, “my parents split up. Dad moved out, and Mom, Ruth, and Ron went to live with my aunt and uncle. Rick, June, and I went to live with my grandmother in Youngstown.”
Not only did Bob have to adjust to a new city and new school, but even to a new family.
“There was love in Grandma’s house,” Bob said, “but it was her family’s love, not mine. Sure, I had Rick and Junie with me, but I yearned for my own mom’s love, my dad’s, Ruth’s, Ron’s. My youngest brother Roger was born just after we moved to Youngstown, and I resented the fact that I couldn’t get to know him. Slowly, Grandma’s and her family’s love began to penetrate my hateful attitude. Time and exposure to their love was the only cure for my illness.”
When Bob was 16, his mother reunited what was left of her family. Bob moved back to live with his mother, Ruth, Ron, and Roger above their uncle’s saloon in Erie. Then they moved to a large old house on Chestnut Street. June moved back with them a year later.
While Bob attended Academy High School, he worked at the Planter’s Peanut store in downtown Erie. It was known as much for its showmanship as for its nuts. A person dressed up as Mr. Peanut strolled around out front, complete with top hat, monocle, and cane. Someone else roasted peanuts in the front window. For a while, that was Bob. He also decorated the window according to the seasons.
Shortly before he quit Planter’s, a girl named Theresa Szymanowski came to work there. Neither she nor Bob had the slightest hint that their meeting would turn out to be the most important event in their lives.
While in high school, Bob developed his artistic skills through a commercial art correspondence course. That enabled him to get an art apprentice at Erie Engraving Company. His main job was to come up with themes for high school yearbooks, but he was assigned other commercial art work, such as designing packaging for new products.
After graduation, he left Planter’s Peanuts to work at Erie Engraving full time. A few years later, the Korean War caused him to be drafted into the army. After training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, he sailed across the Pacific. When the ship arrived in Tokyo, he and his fellow soldiers were told that there were no openings on the front lines in Korea. Bob was happy to attend supply school instead.
In Korea, Bob was assigned to the 434th Engineer Construction Battalion which built roads and structures away from the front. He ordered the materials and supplies they needed.
Three months before he was due to come home, his six-foot stature got him assigned as a guard at the huge prisoner of war camp on Koje Island. It was overcrowded with more than 150,000 POWs. Riots had broken out, caused mostly by conflicts different communist/non-communist factions among the prisoners.
The only part of Bob that was wounded in Korea was his interest in art. “I didn’t think I was coming back from the war,” he said. “None of us did.”
Erie Engraving had filled his position while he was away.
“I could have claimed it back,” Bob said, “but this poor kid was planning on getting married.”
On his first birthday back home, he was celebrating with his family. He was surprised when the DJ on the radio said, “This is a song for Robert Roumfort, who just got back from Korea and is celebrating his birthday.” He was even more surprised when the phone rang a few minutes later. It was Theresa Szymanowski.
“She wished me a happy birthday. Then she invited me to a dance. We started dating, and got married on June 16, 1956.”
Bob’s loss of interest in art was probably a factor in his decision not to push for his job at Erie Engraving. He moved on to a distinctly non-artistic career when he started working at his uncle’s new beer distributorship with the understanding that he would eventually take it over. But that never happened, because his uncle sold the business. So Bob started his own commercial art business, mostly painting signs.
His artistic creativity revived when his wife gave him a set of oil paints and a canvas for his birthday. With a calendar photo of a lighthouse as his model, he painted the first of dozens and dozens of paintings.
Theresa was creative in a different way, giving birth to their first son Jeffrey in July, 1957, and to their second son David in September, 1959.
Unfortunately, Bob’s commercial art business wasn’t bringing in enough money. For three months, he searched unsuccessfully for a job in Erie. His brother, who worked for Youngstown Building Materials in Hickory Township, invited Bob to come work with him. After getting established here, Bob brought his family from Erie. They rented a flat in Youngstown before buying a house on Buhl Farm Drive, where Bob still lives.
When YBM sold Briggs Jones, Bob needed to find work again. Fortunately, he had continued to paint signs on his own. One of his customers was Ken Mulvey, who owned Marley Advertising and Printing in Greenville. Ken asked Bob if he wanted to be the firm’s artist.
“I started working for them about 1980,” Bob said, “and continued with them until I retired. I was their art department, designing brochures, advertisements, just about everything, including photography.”
Bob, Theresa, Jeff, and David were a very close family. When the boys graduated from school and prepared to start their own careers, there was nothing for them to do here in the Shenango Valley. First Jeff, then David moved to Houston, Texas, to find employment.
“It was like a wedge being driven into our family,” Bob said.
When Theresa died in 1991, Bob found himself living alone.
“My younger son David died four years later. Even my dog, Willie, died in 2002. He was the last of my loved ones to leave home.”
Now, if you think Bob just shriveled up and faded sadly away, you’re forgetting about the fact that loss, through faith, can make you stronger. Bob certainly had faith. After Theresa passed away, he painted more and more pictures, inspired by a unique conviction.
“God is the real artist, guiding my hand,” he says. “He just gives me the opportunity to hold the brush and spread the colors of His choice across the canvas.”
Bob has had an art exhibit at Notre Dame, one at the First Presbyterian Church, and two at the Shenango Valley Senior Center.
A few years ago, he discovered another talent: story writing.
“I have a good friend, Marguerite Feigert. She is also a painter, and we knew each other through Bible studies and other activities at Notre Dame parish. She saw an announcement about a class called ‘Writing the Stories of Your Life,’ and urged me to go with her to check it out. I wrote a story about my life for Evelyn Minshull, who was teaching the class. She told me I had talent.”
Bob started writing very imaginative short stories. To date, he has written more than 200, creating fantastic, colorful illustrations for many of them.
“I just do it for the pleasure of doing it, not to get published,” he said.
Unfortunately, that limits his audience to the members of the writing group at the Senior Center, who eagerly anticipate another 200 of his stories and artworks.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010