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Remarks at the Memorial Service for Robert Lee Doty, Jr. January 18, 2020

Rev. Dr. Gregory Mobley


Dr. Robert Lee Doty, Jr. was a longtime member of the Campbellsville Review Editorial Board and an integral part of the intellectual and literary life of Campbellsville University.  Dr. Doty passed from this life on January 8, 2020 at the age of 84.  The following eulogy was given by his friend and colleague at his memorial service.


There are so many emotions in this for me.


Foremost, of course, is grief for the loss of the living presence of someone whom I loved and who loved me. You can say the same, can’t you?


And, in addition to grief, I feel honored to speak about this man who above all else was my first and best teacher. Bob taught me in classes on literature and philosophy, but Bob himself was always a more fascinating subject than whatever he was teaching. I have dedicated decades to studying this poet, naturalist, fisherman, fudge-maker, preacher, gadfly, scholar, teacher, man, and child that was Robert Lee Doty, Jr.  Yes, the child; those who knew him best saw it. Childlike in his wonder to witness daily anew the pageant of nature; childlike in his preoccupation with himself; childlike in his vulnerability; childlike in his humble citizenship in that kingdom in which we all remain children, eternally.


And, in addition to experiencing grief and love, and honor and joy, I am nervous because this feels like one more paper, one more exam, one more essay; and Professor Doty was the toughest grader I ever had.


Apart from his siblings and their kin, Bob never had a family of his own, and as a result, he was a member of so many other families. How many of you, like the Mobley clan, can say that Bob was family? Bob was friends with my mother and father for fifty years, fifty years. When my niece Hannah was a little girl, her grade school teacher asked all the children in the class if they knew the name of their doctor. Hannah said, “Yes, Dr. Doty!” He always showed up at mealtime.


Bob was at home nowhere, and everywhere. At last count, Bob told me that he had made 37 trips to Europe, and also Russia and Africa and South America. But, Bob had such an intense and painful awareness of this lack of home. I know all this because Bob told me some of it and also because I possess a 79 page autobiography he began to write in 2015 when he turned 80.


Three times in Bob’s life this sense of being, like the Apostle Paul, a stranger and a sojourner with no home in this world was cruelly revealed to him by circumstances in which he actually lost his home.


The first time came when Bob was six. It was Christmas time of 1940 in Estill County when Bob’s father died from pneumonia. At the funeral, Bob sat with his Uncle John who handed him a handkerchief to dry his tears. After the funeral, Bob went home with this surrogate-father and stayed with him for two weeks. During that fortnight, his family had to move to a new house and when he returned the Christmas hard candy was all gone. Bob writes of this new home, “I was a stranger there.” This was the first, but not the last, time that Bob’s family happened to move while he was away visiting relatives. And, as Bob later told me, “I was never home again for the rest of my life.”

It happened again when Bob was a teenager; while Bob was visiting relatives, his family moved without informing him from the county to the town of West Irvine and he had to search out his new home.


In 1965 when Bob was in his first year of doctoral work at the University of Kentucky, he left Lexington for his weekend in east central Illinois where he was pastor of the Hustonvillle Baptist Church. Between Friday when he left and Sunday night when he returned his landlady rented out his apartment to someone else. Bob’s key didn’t work, someone else was in his room, and his belongings were stacked in the hall.


There is an unbearable sadness in Bob’s recollections of his childhood. In his memoir, Bob wrote that during his childhood his feet were never warm. Another time Bob told me—honest to God, these are his exact words—“I never received one-on-one attention from an adult my entire childhood.” Though Bob in his memoirs did unwittingly reveal an anecdote that both contradicted the fact of that statement even as it verified its feeling. The summer before his father died, when Bob had just turned six, his father endeavored to teach Bob to swim. He took Bob down to the creek, threw him in a deep pool and then yelled to him, “Now, swim back to me!”


But, if Bob was fatherless, he was mother-full. You could hear the deep pride in his voice when he told me, “My mother always said that I never gave her a minute’s trouble.” Decades later, when Bob’s mother was the cook in Irvine’s most popular diner—everyone in town knew and loved her—she heard a customer at the counter lambasting Estill County High School. She came out of the kitchen and reprimanded him, “I’ll have you know that my son Robert went to Estill County High School, and there’s no one smarter than him anywhere.”


I never met anyone smarter, did you? Bob should have been famous. Bob was our own personal version of Wendell Berry, the lauded Kentucky poet, novelist, essayist, Christian critic, farmer, and naturalist.


Bob changed my life; did he change yours? It was as if when I was a college student, Bob took my hand and accompanied me into some special chamber of world culture where the artists, writers, and philosophers of all time gather. Bob introduced me to this cloud of witnesses and said, in effect, welcome to the club; you belong here.


How do you thank someone who has taken you from . . . comfortable ignorance to restless engagement with life’s mysteries?


What to make of the great mystery of how Robert Lee Doty grew from the soil of Appalachian poverty to world citizenship? In the early 1970’s when Bob was finishing his Ph.D., he was the last student in the history of the University of Kentucky who began his education in a one-room schoolhouse. Bob spent his childhood outdoors and Mother Nature was his first teacher. Bob read everything he could get his hands on and when he got to Estill County High School, his classmates called him “Vocabulary.”


You get the sense that the stork dropped Bob into the wrong nest; he was always so different. He didn’t take to sports. He described himself as painfully shy. Of his older sister, a pretty cheerleader, Bob wrote, “In high school Jewell was Miss Everything, and I was nobody.”


Bob always felt poor, despite the plain fact that by the end of his life he was not. He subsisted for 45 years on lunches of a single package of peanut butter-cracker Nabs, quarts of coffee, the hospitality of others, and doggie bags of leftovers. Bob’s grandmother proved to be a prophet when she addressed Bob and his hard-luck-bitten brother Charlie when they were boys. She said, “Charlie, someday you won’t have a nickel to buy a cigarette and Bob, you are going to be a millionaire.”


The mystery of Bob’s beard? On a fishing trip to Canada after Bob’s first year at Campbellsville he didn’t shave and when he returned to campus, he had a full beard. President Davenport saw Bob on campus and asked, “You aren’t going to leave that on, are you?” Bob writes, “He never should have said that. I have not had a cleanly shaved face since that day.”


How about the mystery of Bob’s bachelorhood? Here’s what he wrote to the world in his memoir.


What about getting married? Many may ask. Many have asked. I should address               this as well as I can. I have always loved and admired women. I loved a few of                them very much. I have dated several seriously. I have almost married at least                five times. Why didn’t I? There are no facile answers.


I have often wondered if the early deaths of my male progenitors and the                            enormous disruption of family life for two generations had some part not only in              my excessive childhood insecurity, but also in my reluctance to take the chances                     on marriage… Who can know?


“Facile”? “Progenitors”? “Disruption”? “Excessive”? “Enormous”? Even decades later, Mr. Vocabulary was using words as a shield against emotional vulnerability.


But Bob loved and was loved deeply. Bob cared so much for his friends, as you know; he treasured friendship: the Saturday coffee group with Bob Clark, Bob Street, Jim Coker and others; the fishing trips to Canada with a different band of brothers; the daily raucous conversation competitions around coffee with Harlie, Frank, Milton, Gordon, and my father; the Sunday school classes he weekly hijacked to go off on theological tangents; the scouting trips with Richie and other fellow scout leaders; the book groups with Tom Chaney; the local fishing with Dr. Angel; and Joe DeSpain, his friend from before he ever moved to Campbellsville.


Actually, Bob was married. Didn’t you know? Bob died two years shy of the golden anniversary of his marriage to Campbellsville College, now Campbellsville University. It was a marriage of unquestioned fidelity . . . and unending squabbling, and about two weeks ago, Bob died in her arms.


For 13 years, from 1962-1975, every other weekend Bob drove 300 miles to and from Lexington or Campbellsville to Crawford County, Illinois where he served as pastor of the Hutsonville Country Baptist Church. When Bob resigned in 1975, the church dissolved. Those of us who are here—and scores of others all over planet Earth—constitute another small but devoted congregation for whom Bob Doty was priest and prophet. I pray we never disband our fellowship.


Do you remember when the Bingham children, wearied by bickering, sold the Courier-Journal to a newspaper chain and all of us in the state lost a treasure we had taken for granted? David Jester, then Dean of the College, said to Bob when he hired him, “Dr. Doty, we can’t afford you here. We cannot pay you what you’re worth. But we need you.” O, how we needed Bob, how our community and school didn’t deserve but desperately needed Bob, our link to so much beauty and wisdom. I have seen enough to know of time’s ever-flowing stream bearing all its sons and daughters away, of that great junction of nature and eternity to which we are all traveling, and that none of us are irreplaceable, but mere cells in God’s universal body of creation. Still, doesn’t the world seem colder, coarser, more confusing without Bob to help us make sense of it?


Every morning before Bob left that nest of papers, books, boxes, jars, pieces of driftwood, and toiletries years past their expiration dates otherwise known as his apartment he paused to write a daily prayer. By now, there are over 75 volumes to his prayer diary.


Bob accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior when he was ten years old. When he was 80, I heard him tell a class of my seminary students in Boston this: “My ideas about Jesus have changed throughout my life, but that same Lord whom I asked into my heart when I was 10 is the one I still follow.” Bob took up his cross—and cartridge pen with India ink—daily to follow his Lord.


My feeble words are at an end.

At this portal where Bob has laid his burdens down,

let us too let go of any troubling thought or fretful fear

about whether we did enough,

about what we meant to say,

about any puzzles we had hoped that Bob, this wise and righteous man, might have helped us solve.

We submit him to God’s tender mercy.


At his crossroad, we pause and release his hand

so that Bob might walk on

to that home he never found in this wearisome world.

Let not your hearts be troubled.

Bob knows the way.


Let us pray:


Great God from whom all creatures borrow life,

we entrust your child Bob

to thy never-failing care and love.

And as we leave this hallowed space

to bravely walk our earthly way,

we carry hope

on some glad morning

for reunion

in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.