This Friday, June 6th, 2014 will mark a year since our co-founder Robert West passed away. All this week we will be posting tributes to him from his friends, family, and colleagues. Today we are sharing the remarks given by Robert’s dear friends Betsy Bilger and Tom Warshauer at his memorial service held last June at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, NC. Re-reading these remembrances brought smiles to our faces, and we’ve spent the morning in the office telling stories about our dynamic friend and colleague. We hope that as you read and gain glimpses into Robert’s rich life that you too will recall your favorite anecdotes and share those memories of Robert with us in the comments section or on our facebook page.
Welcome. I am so gratified to be a part of this community of Robert’s friends and family as we remember our friend and celebrate his legacy.
He wanted us to gather here, built by his friend Ren Brown and the location of Ren’s Memorial service. Robert spent his last decade here in Wilmington, and the firehouse in this coastal town and his friend’s home in Windy Point were the places Robert loved as his final home. After he became ill, he didn’t travel. He stayed here and watched the boats, dolphins and birds on the intracoastal, the sunsets over the marsh, and you visited. He loved it here, so it is fitting that we should gather here today, and thank the Cameron Museum for making it possible.
He loved you and planned this day for you. He wanted you to relax into some good music that he selected with his friend Tom Noonan. He wanted you to think back into his life and your life with him as you hear from speakers he invited to address you today. He was always in control and is in control of this day too.
Robert left no one behind. He remembered his illustrious family – the 14th great grandson of Pocahontas, a descendant of Robert Pleasants who freed his slaves in 1782 and encouraged Thomas Jefferson and George Washington to do so to. His Uncle Charles Butterworth worked for the Catholic Workers Movement for social equity. His activism was deeply rooted in his family. So as you listen to stories from these aspects of his life, I believe we will see more clearly how this man we admired and loved was constructed.
Robert collected people about him, connected them together and then connected us to the world. When at Robert’s you knew that you mattered, that one person could change the world, because one person sitting with you, Robert, was doing just that.
He built a community as he served us with dinner and served us with thought. He never shied from something difficult. In fact, he preferred something difficult to talking about what you agreed on. He didn’t mind being challenged, or pushed in the pool. He knew that rigorous thought was honed by challenges, as steel is strengthened by fire. We argued,and we knew it was ok. So any arguments I may have had with anyone are no match for the arguments with Robert. I am practiced. His dinners weren’t empty conversation, but places where thinking mattered and good stories prevailed.
So today we all try to rise to the occasion to tell the stories Robert would love you to hear and to remember. Today you will hear of Robert’s impact on the world of film and activism on issues critical to our world, you will hear from family about their brother and uncle, and you will hear from friends, in Wilmington and long-time friends from Richmond. You may have heard some before- that’s not new – but today we hear them together and remember your friend, your brother, your uncle, and my good good friend – who challenged me and helped me grow.
When I say the name Robert West it feels like I am saying a word that is bigger than the individual. The name Robert West is like saying The Fourth of July – we all recognize it as something important. Because he is kind of famous… He is the director of Working Films; he is the guy that lives in the firehouse; he’s the person that kayaks on the Cape Fear River; he is the host of legendary dinner parties….
But then there is the personal experience. And that is the Robert West that unfolds slowly and is revealed when you get to spend time with him and pay attention.
Robert has been a regular presence in my life for around 30 years. So, I am really fortunate to have had that time with him. He was first someone I admired; then was a neighbor, a colleague, and a friend. Twice we lived on the same street at the same time. We partnered on projects together, and we went to the farmers market and planned meals together. In fact, I say that Robert was a rhythm in my life. If we were in the same town on Saturday, we were at the farmer’s market. That was true when we lived in Charlotte and in Wilmington. And if one of us was out of town, we picked up provisions for the other. I told people that Robert was the punctuation to my week. Saturday mornings with him was the thing I started to look forward to on Monday.
I told Robert before he died that he has been a steady, stalwart friend. And that is a big deal. But he was more than that. He was one of the most generous people I know. Many of us here have been the lucky beneficiaries of Robert’s generosity in the form of his dinner parties. Not only have I been lucky to eat at his table many, many Saturday nights, but he has welcomed friends of mine that he had never met to his house. In fact, he has welcomed friends of friends of mine to dinner. He just welcomed them without hesitation in his non-effusive, authentic way.
He was not effusive, but he was generous. He didn’t care about receiving or giving gifts in the traditional sense. But he gave many gifts. One of his gifts was the way he celebrated individuals. He acknowledged them and recognized their worth. Sometimes they were people he barely knew, and sometimes they were people close to him. When I started a new job at a museum in Charlotte he showed up with a carrier of coffee, cream, cups, and sugar for the whole staff. He wanted to celebrate my new job by giving to those around me so that they thought I was pretty cool. When I worked on projects with him he gave credit to me—even though he was the one who came up with the idea, who found the funding, made the contacts, and facilitated the activities.
He was also generous in his honesty. When you were at his house for dinner and it was time for you to leave he would say, “Ok, it’s time for you to go now.” When he was first in the hospital, and he needed time to himself he would again say, “Ok, it’s time for you to go now.” He once asked me if that was ok to do, and I told him it made it so much easier to be his guest, because I never had to worry about overstaying or being an imposition. He wouldn’t let you.
His honesty pushed him to guide people to unaccustomed and sometimes uncomfortable ways of seeing the world… and also of seeing your own life. I think of myself as a pretty happy person, but he often needled me about having more fun. In fact, in one of the last conversations I had with him, he asked me what I was doing for fun. I am a social studies teacher, and I told him that I was enjoying reading about history and preparing my classes. That didn’t satisfy him, and he said, “Yes, but, what are you doing for fun?” And I said, “Well, Eddie and I are taking lots of walks together.” And he said, “But what are you doing for fun?” And I realized that I wasn’t really taking care of my fun needs. And I am still not very well. And part of that is because he died and I am sad. But you know what—I have had such a great time thinking about and talking about him as this memorial was being planned, I think his final gift to me has been to have fun this weekend.
Robert taught me so much through the questions he asked, the way he lived in this world, and the opportunities he made happen and included me in. He could make me so annoyed at times, and at other times we would both be laughing so hard we were in tears. And, then of course, we shared tears of sadness and concern. First, after watching Judith’s film, A Healthy Baby Girl, and then, last, when he told me he was dying. He was not only generous until death but because of death.
I am grateful for all the experiences he offered me, and I am grateful to his family for sharing him with me.