The Auto-Obit of an Unassuming Hero

This is a different sort of post from my usual rants on “Lies and Damn Lies.”  Nonetheless, it somehow fits the theme.  (At least I think so; you can decide for yourself.)

A friend of mine passed away recently. Bob Peirce was an amazing person. In many ways, the sort of person I admire most – the person who does the right thing just because it is right.  About a year before he passed away (and just a year or so after he ceased leading trekking expeditions through the Himalayas for people 30 to 60 years younger than himself), he decided to sit down and write his own “auto-obituary.”  Below is what he wrote.  I know that I should present his words without commentary, but I just can’t.  So, here’s my commentary: don’t be fooled by Bob’s modesty. Bob was a man who moved people. Nepal named a mountain after him.  Out of the blue, they just did it.  On his 90th birthday, he led a 130-mile fund-raising bike trip from Portland to Seattle. The Portland Art Museum held a retrospective of his artwork.  When he became weak, Bob never asked for help.  Without prompting, Nepalese Sherpas tried to convince him to retire to Nepal.  When he refused, they simply moved from Nepal to care for him in Portland. He was that kind of person. To this day, don’t be surprised if, while trekking through Nepal, you meet a Sherpa whose middle name is Peirce.  So many loved him that much.  Anyway, here’s his auto-obituary.  I claim zero credit for his brilliance and all blame for any faults, typos or errors I introduced while transcribing it.


“Bob Peirce never made it to the top.

He never much got to the top of anything.

For that matter, he didn’t get to the top of Mr. Robson, the highest mountain in Canada, and he didn’t get anywhere near the top of Grand Teton in Wyoming (it turned out they were climbing the wrong peak, anyway).  Nor did he really get to the top of Mera Peak, the highest trekking peak in Nepal.  He said he did, but that was because getting up to the real top would be too much of a challenge and would take too long, so he told his group that what they were standing on was the top, that it was higher than that other hump over there (never mind appearances), and that they had reach the summit.

He was in an honors department at Harvard, the only honors department that that college had at the time, but he did not receive honors.  That was because on his very last term at Harvard, his grades dropped below a B average and that disqualified him.  He had to write a thesis anyway and the reader said it certainly deserved a summa cum laude,’ but he was already disqualified, so he graduated without honor.

He took the test for Officer Candidate School when he when into the army but, because he didn’t know any math, his grade was just below what it should be to make him an acceptable candidate.

So he spent his time in the US Army as a Private.  Sometime before the war was over, there was a change in the Table of Organization, the chart by which the army matched rank with jobs.  The job he had been doing was now supposed to be done by a Technician Fifth Class, a kind of broken-down corporal and only a small step up from Private.  Whether anyone wanted it or not, that meant a promotion for Bob Peirce.  Peirce was one of the people who did not want it (maybe this had to do with the ugly prospect of having to sew stripes on his sleeve).  He even went to his commanding officer to tell him this.  The CO agreed that it did not make sense for Peirce to be promoted, yet he had no choice.  You do not argue with the TO, which is created in heaven and inscribed on tablets.

In spite of two degrees from Harvard and a private school education, Bob Peirce was not qualified for any line of work when he finally had to leave school.  His job search took him from universities to hardware stores to the Federal Reserve Bank (where, at the end of his job interview, they felt compelled to ask him, as delicately as they could, just what ever made him think he would want to work there).  It was not until he walked into the Portland Art Museum that anyone asked him “which job do you want?”  (When, not having listened to the choices available, he answered, “Curator,” it turned out that was the job of the man who was interviewing him.  They hired him anyway, but as Librarian).

Earlier – back in New York where he had spent a year in the Statistical Department of Oxford University Press, he was presented with one of those opportunities that come out of the sky and can change a person’s life.  One of the editors had been impressed by Peirce’s hand-drawn Christmas card and had a proposition.  The Press was about to publish a book that they thought was very good (I’ve forgotten what kind of book it was) but the author wanted it to be illustrated by his friend, and the friend’s illustrations, in this editor’s view, were “pretty awful.”  Bob Peirce’s assignment was to take up pen and make his own version of what the friend had illustrated and to do such an outstanding job that the author would have to agree that Peirce would be the illustrator instead of his friend.  It had to be a secret mission; the author was not to know what was afoot until presented with drawings so dazzling that he would forgive the Press for its misgivings about his own choice of illustrator. And the fact is that the drawings Peirce made were outstanding – maybe even dazzling.  He did them in Maine where he had gone to spend a few days with his grandmother, and they were right there in the bag when he arrived back in New York.  What he had managed to leave on the train, and what was never recovered in spite of frantic searches, were the original drawings of the author’s friend.  There is no way of knowing how they explained this to the author.  What is known is that this marked the end of Bob Peirce’s career as an illustrator.  The rumor is that it was his picture that the editors posted just outside the bathroom door to throw darts at during their lunch hours.

Except for the Portland Art Museum, Bob Peirce was fired from ever job he ever had – and there is a good reason to believe that he was about to be fired from the Museum when, after 24 years and his first trip to Nepal, he quit.

And then there were smaller things where he missed the top.  After spending many hours interviewing Portland Symphony Conductor James dePreist and writing what would have been the feature in the forthcoming issue of Portland Quarterly, that magazine folded up before publication.

Later, Nancy Russell, a Portland lady who had done more than anyone else to preserve the natural beauty of the Columbia Gorge, asked him to write a book on the subject.  He worked on this for two years, interviewing many people and doing extensive research.  Nancy was suffering from A.L.S. (better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), under which you slowly deteriorate.  At some point (I think two years into the project), her son told Peirce that he had taken things over from his failing mother.  But because he wanted a book that would be something different from what he mother had in mind or what Peirce had already written, the latter dropped out of the project, turning over his manuscript with all his notes and files, yielding to a new author.  Not long after, Nancy died.  No book has ever been published.

Still later – he was asked to write a piece that would be an introduction to the catalogue for an exhibition at the Portland Art Museum celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Pacific Northwest College of Art.  They paid him handsomely (by his standards) but the catalogue was never published – they did not have enough money for it.

And, earlier, there were academic setbacks of one kind or another.  Peirce did not do well with languages, even his own, so he was happy when his freshman advisor, who happened to be Dean of Freshmen, told him not to worry until later about taking the language courses needed for graduation.  When “later” arrived, it turned out that the man was wrong: Peirce now was told he would have to stay in school a full year beyond his expected graduation date in order to complete the necessary language requirement.  There was only one language that could qualify him on time and that was Ancient Greek.  That was how, unexpectedly, he landed in the Greek History and Literature Department.

While there, he received another piece of bad advice (academics are not to be trusted).  He enrolled in the summer session of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens partly because he was told he would earn academic credit by doing this.  This too turned out to be false information, as he learned when he got back to the US, yet he had a wonderful summer.

Then, of course, there is the fact known to everyone that Bob Peirce never got married.  Nor do we think he ever had a serious love affair.  Even in a carnal sense, he was never on top.

But there were serious moments of truth in his life.  There was the time – he says he thinks it was 1953 – when, one night, he experienced a kind-of moment of revelation, the sort of thing that Saint Augustine or Moses talked about happening to them, except that in his case, God did not appear and nothing was revealed other than what seemed to be the certain knowledge that the world was good and that no matter what happened to him in future years – no matter how depraved he or it became, all was good.  And yes, there was a blinding light – or not exactly blinding but a real increased illumination of things that stayed with him for some time, diminishing as the days went by.  He remembered that in his vision, he could see that he was near the top of The Mountain, yet that was a far as he would ever go.  He would never get to the top, that that did not seem to matter.

So even though Bob Peirce never got to the top of anything, he had some kind of satisfaction in being where he was, wherever he was, wherever that happened to be, and knowing, in a way, that that’s where he was supposed to be. It’s like always hovering somewhere near ten minutes before the hour on the Buddhist Wheel of Life.  You may forever be below the pinnacle, but as you look ahead, you can have a chance to observe that the people on top of this moving wheel have nowhere to go but down.”