Thursday, February 5, 2009
Rob Anderson grew up in Monmouth, a small town on the northwestern Illinois prairie, population 10,000. Everyone walked to where they were going, came home for lunch and knew everybody in town. His father was the assistant postmaster and Monmouth College, where he earned his undergraduate degree, was three blocks away.
However, life would change drastically for Rob and everything he knew when World War II started. He would serve in transatlantic communications for General Eisenhower, become a research chemist at a prominent international pharmaceutical company and participate as a faithful and vital member of the Kalamazoo peace movement.
Tall, lean and brainy with a deep, resonant voice, Rob had already started college when the war began. Naturally, the draft became a popular topic of conversation among students. Eventually, Rob enlisted in the Army Reserve Corps and obtained a four-year deferment to finish his degree. However, in February 1943 he received orders from the U.S. Army to report to Infantry Basic Training. The Army needed smart people like Rob for technical work both during and after the war, so he took a qualifying exam for basic engineering and won a spot at St. Norbert College in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
After nine months his orders again changed and the Army sent him to the Signal Corps to train as a radio operator. In this work he learned how to type Morse Code translations for the high-speed radio teletype team. After one month’s training at the Pentagon he was sent to New York City to board a troop ship in what turned out to be the last major convoy sent to Europe in 1945.
“The sea was alive with ships as far as the eye could see,” says Rob.
On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered and Rob became part of the Army of Occupation and handled transatlantic communications for General Eisenhower’s headquarters. On April 17, 1946, he returned to the United States and picked up where he’d left off: at Monmouth College, only this time he met Amy, a first-year student there.
“Rob swept me off my feet,” says Amy. He was a hero, like all the returning soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen of World War II. And like so many of the veterans, Rob went to college through the G.I. Bill, married and had a family.
Monmouth College, a small Presbyterian college, was bulging with war veterans. Space for married couples was limited, but the Andersons found a room in a single, older woman’s house. By screening off the bedroom and sharing the bathroom and kitchen, the woman accommodated Rob and Amy—and one other returning G.I. and his wife.
Rob studied chemistry and Amy got a secretarial job in an agricultural extension office. Later they moved to the University of Illinois so Rob could obtain his master’s degree in organic chemistry. But even before he graduated, The Upjohn Company interviewed him on campus and hired him for the research unit in Kalamazoo. That was 1950 and for the next 34 years until his retirement Rob worked at Upjohn with his major responsibilities as a cataloguer and translator of pharmaceutical nomenclature.
Although Amy spent a lot of time with the peace movement beginning in 1972 and Rob was busy in the lab, the couple’s interest in peace grew and merged. Rob’s library is testament to the voluminous reading he did before his retirement, particularly on nuclear weapons and their dangers. After he left Upjohn in 1984, Rob became a full-time activist. He started by learning how to work the cameras and editing equipment at the Community Access Center where he worked on the Peace Video Project starting in May 1986. He produced and edited 202 out of the 267 programs aired over a nine-year period. Later, the Andersons served on the crew for “People and Politics,” a talk show produced over 10 years by the Kalamazoo County Democratic Party.
Rob was also a member of the Veterans for Peace and he and Amy went to several annual meetings held all over the county. (He regularly rode in the Vets for Peace float at the Memorial Day parades in downtown Kalamazoo.) He also joined the Pushkin-Kalamazoo Partnership, which holds events and fundraisers for Russian citizens needing food and medical supplies, and he volunteers at the First Presbyterian Church’s Health Clinic sorting the meds and doing other odd jobs.
In 1982 Betty Bumpers, wife of former Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, started Peace Links, a pen pal organization between Americans and Russians of the recently-fallen Soviet Union. After seeing an ad in the Kalamazoo Gazette inviting people to participate, Amy signed up and began correspondence with Galena, an English teacher from Spratov, Russia, on the Volga River. Rob also obtained a pen pal, a chemist in Kazakhstan. The two men continued to write to each other until recently.
Since 2003 Rob turned out for the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War (KNOW) peace vigils every Sunday in front of the Federal Building. He together with Amy would also attend KNOW planning meetings and major events. Rob also helped to assemble the silhouettes, a display representing the people of Iraq who were affected by the war. The photo above of Rob shows him working on the display.
“I never considered the possibility of not continuing this peace work,” said Rob, when he was 80 just a few years ago. “War is a problem still there needing to be solved.”