A Tribute to Bob Silbey
October 27, 2011 was a very bad day. It was the day that Bob Silbey passed away. He left us much too soon. Some say that the best amongst us are always the first ones to leave. Maybe that’s true, maybe not. All I know is that my heart is broken.
I first met Bob back in the 1990s when I worked for the Dean of Science, Robert J. Birgeneau, and Bob was the Chemistry Department Head. When he was named Dean of Science in 2000, I was thrilled because I knew that working with him would be a great experience.
We had the dream team back then in the Dean’s Office, or at least we liked to think so. And me, I had my boys – Bob, Ron Hasseltine, the money guy, and Marc Jones, the space guy. If you had money and space, and a Dean’s authority, most problems could be solved. Rounding out our awesome staff was Cindy LuBien, Chuck Munger, and Sara Frenier. It was a pleasure to come to work every day. Bob’s style of managing was all about teamwork. Everyone worked hard to make the Dean’s Office a friendly and inviting place. Bob believed that his staff working as a well-informed team was the ideal way to run the office.
His door was always open. We solved problems quickly and efficiently whenever possible, but it was Bob’s wise counsel and wit that usually saved the day. No problem was too big or too small to be brought to his attention – faculty, staff, or researchers could make an appointment to talk to Bob. That’s the kind of guy he was. Everyone was equal in his eyes and he led by example. He stayed long after quitting time to talk with a colleague or work on research with one of his students.
The best part about working with Bob was the personal side. He truly cared about people. You could see it from the way he talked about his wife, Susan, and his daughters, Jessica and Anna, and the grandchildren. The twinkle in his eye and his pride in each of them was evident, especially when he told stories about his grandbabies. I got to know them all, especially Susan, an MIT faculty member, and a frequent visitor to the office.
He extended that caring quality to me all the time, and one time in particular. When I received the phone call that my brother was being deployed to Iraq, I was very upset and shaking. Bob called out from his office asking for a file. I brought it to him, but the moment he saw my face he dropped everything and asked what was wrong. I told him about the deployment and he gave me a reassuring hug and told me it was going to be OK. We sat on his couch and talked about the war and how hard it was on the family left behind. Luckily, everything was OK. My brother came home safe from Iraq, but it was that gesture from Bob to stop everything that he was doing to comfort me that was so special. A Dean’s life is hectic and stressful. There’s no denying that, but Bob never hesitated to set aside important matters if someone needed his help or counsel.
There are so many things that made working for Bob so special. He was always open to new ideas I had for making the office more efficient or improving the way we conducted business. All of the Dean’s staff worked like a well-oiled machine and Bob appreciated everyone. He believed in happy employees and there was no happier bunch than the Dean of Science staff under Bob Silbey.
We were all devastated when he decided to step down, but we knew it was the best decision for Bob. There was a fundamental shift and my boys all went their separate ways – Bob went back to the Chemistry Department, Marc Jones went to the Dean’s Office in Humanities, and Ron Hasseltine stayed another year in the Dean of Science office before joining the office of the Vice President for Research.
I headed up to the Vice President for Research office and joined Claude Canizares’ administrative staff. It turned out that I was only at the other end of the Infinite Corridor from Bob’s faculty office. The most wonderful things happen when you venture out of your office and into the corridors. More likely than not, you’ll meet your former co-workers. I had the pleasure of meeting Bob numerous times during coffee runs. There was no mistaking that booming voice or his ready smile. He stopped and talked, always interested in how I was doing. I was doing well, but I still missed our dream team, most especially Bob.
This past June, Bob spoke at a get-well party for me. His kind words of our days together brought tears to my eyes. As Bob said, I was “the other woman” in his life for seven years. That was truly a tribute that I’ll always cherish. That day was the last time I saw him, but it is that image of him laughing and telling his stories that will always stay with me.
The Institute and the scientific community have lost a valued colleague and a great scientist. I’ve lost so much more. I lost my friend. A piece of my heart that was Robert J. Silbey is now gone forever, but I will never forget you Bob.