I've had two very good and old friends pass away over the past week. Today, I take a step away from our regular programming to salute a great guy - Rob Vonk. Rob and I had known each other since our mid-teens. We hung together quite a bit throughout high school, and after he went off to college we'd hang together in the summertime when he came home. And when I finally went to college in Iowa City at the age of 24, Rob was in the College of Nursing at the University of Iowa on his way to becoming an anesthesiologist. Together, we had many great nights out over those next four years, much to the consternation of his wife.
Robbie's family lived in large house on First Avenue in Newton, IA - the main drag through town. His house was the defacto "ground zero" for kids to congregate and hang out. (Kenny Brown's house, about two blocks away, was the other place to go if no one was at Vonk's, which was rare.) Rob, along with his older brother, Rick, his younger brother, Rodger, and his sister, Rayleen, all had friends who would come over to the house and hang out in their pretty cool basement. I have to think that their parents, Dick and Lorraine, actually did like the kids coming over. They were great to sit down and talk with - even when none of the kids were around.
Once Rob went off to college at Iowa State, we'd still stay in touch - either with me going up and hanging with him and other friends from Newton, or when he came back in the summertime. Some of the best times happened when we would go down to the Des Moines River below the Red Rock dam and caught white bass as fast as we could get the hooks in the water. They were so small and so many that we got to a point that we would just chuck 'em up over our shoulder back onto the bank to let the raccoons eat the fish.
When I moved to Iowa City, Rob had been married for a couple years and we'd go out for beers with many of his nursing student friends. We had a couple of years of great times - as I said, much to the consternation of his wife, Deb. I know she didn't care much for me coming around and being a bad influence on Robbie. But it was sure a large time.
After Rob did his internship at the University of Iowa Hospitals, he went off to become an anesthesiologist taking courses at St. Mary's University in Minneapolis. Now, I knew Rob was a smart guy - surprisingly smart considering that we used to call him "Erratic Rob" when we were growing up - but when he first told me that he wanted to become an anesthesiologist, I was taken aback. But he became one and was a good one, becoming the Director of Anesthesiology at the Washington County Hospital in Washington, IA and had a house in Muscatine and a lake home on Lake Ponderosa. Robbie did very well for himself. I was certainly proud of his accomplishments.
He also worked a lot - tremendous hours at times. He actually lived in the Washington hospital at times because he was on call a lot. It also took a toll on his marriage. Deb and Rob had been separated for 17 years, but never divorced.
Rob and I would run into one another at class reunions and on occasions when I was in Iowa City. We'd always try to make time to get together, but it was difficult to do so. It was when I found out he was ill that we finally did make the time to get together for a few beers.
I had heard about 2 1/2 weeks ago that Rob was possibly ill. I contacted our good friend, Wes Ver Woert, who contacted our friend Kim Yeutsy, who dated Rob back in high school, trying to find out if anyone had heard anything. When it got back that no one knew, I just decided to call Rob.
He answered the phone, "Well, hello there!"
I said, "Are you all right?"
He sort of chuckled his little Rob chuckle and said, "No, not really."
Robbie began to tell me that he had prostate cancer that had gone too far before it was caught. It metastasized to his brain and he said, "I've been on some pretty aggressive chemotherapy and it's not working. It's only a matter of time."
We made plans to get together later in the week. I had to go to Iowa City for business and I met Rob over at his wife's house. She had taken him in when she found out that he had cancer. And in typical Rob fashion, he never let anyone know that he had cancer. He'd known for about six months before his hair started falling out. That's when his wife, and his children - daughter Davis, 20, and son, Darien, 18 - knew something was up. Rob told our friend Kim, "I didn't want people to treat me any differently, so that's why I didn't tell anyone that I had cancer."
Before we went out for a beer, I reconnected with Deb and met his two kids for the first time. Rob and I ended up going out for a few beers and caught up. He was especially proud of his smart and beautiful children. Davis was studying to be a neuropsychologist and Darien was getting ready to enter Iowa to study biology with an eye toward medical school. Rob said, "Dari got a 35 (out of 36) on his ACT's. And he was cocky about it! He said, 'I know what I missed. I could probably take it again and ace it.' "
Rob was in the process of making plans to travel with his kids to go look for white-faced monkeys in the jungles of Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. He had just gotten back from Jamaica - his 20th visit over the years - and was looking forward to going back again later in the fall. He was fully expecting to make those trips.
We spent a couple hours together and I lamented that we had been so close growing up and that we lived so relatively close that it was a shame that we didn't get together more often. Rob said, "Aw, I learned long ago that people have their lives and it's tough to fit everyone in." It was such a great afternoon that we decided to meet up with some other people at his lake home the following weekend, which would have been last Saturday. If I'd known our time together was going to be our last, I would have stayed longer. But he was getting tired and needed to rest. We hugged one last time and promised each other that we'd catch up the next weekend.
A week ago, I began to call Robbie to see if we were still on for getting together at the lake. A number of our friends - thanks to my big mouth - now knew that Rob had cancer and a few of them wanted to come to see Rob at the lake if we made it over. But I got Rob's voice mail and left him a message to see if he was still up for getting together. I didn't get a return phone call.
I called again on Thursday, same thing. Friday, the same. I remembered that Rob told me that after the aggressive chemo sessions that he was usually physically zapped for a couple weeks afterward. I figured that was the case this time as I was getting no answer or reply. I wasn't going to press the issue and told my friends the same thing. Imagine my shock when I received a phone call from a friend on Monday morning who told me Robbie had passed away on Sunday night.
Rob was always so close to the chest when it came to anything that involved him. He never wanted to be a burden on anyone and just wanted to live his life as normal as he could in his final days. As Kim and I were talking on Monday, she said, "Rob was so much like that when we were together years ago. It wasn't like he was keeping secrets, he just didn't talk much about himself. He probably knew that it was a lot further along than he was letting on, but I guess we'll never know." The way he was making plans with trips and getting together with friends, I knew he was optimistic of his chances. Sadly, it turned out that he really was on borrowed time.
About 40 years ago, Rob's great aunt, Alice Vonk, won a contest through the Burpee seed company for coming up with the first white marigold flowers. And his mom, Lorraine, loved Mandevilla vine flowers. Rob, I hope you're lying in a bed of white marigolds with pink and red Mandevillas climbing around you. I'm glad we got to spend a little time together toward the end.