A Life: Malcolm Grobe, 1930 — 2013; ‘He Called It “I’ve Done a Good Job in My Hatching, Matching and Dispatching” ’
Malcolm Grobe struck a pose for a story about picking football games against Sports Editor Don Mahler in Dec. 1992. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Malcolm Grobe plays tennis in an undated photograph. (Family photograph)
Meriden — Malcolm Grobe wasn’t one to shy away from his convictions.
During his first year as an elementary school teacher, Grobe brought two of his sons with him to witness an example of his preaching and teaching.
A bus carrying Vietnam War conscripts was departing Lebanon, and Grobe, a fifth-grade teacher in Plainfield, didn’t want to see the young men go off to war.
“He sat in front of the bus,” his son, Jon Grobe, recalled in a recent interview. “I remember him coming back to us after he was with the Lebanon police for a short time and he says, ‘I didn’t get arrested. They just gave me a talking to. Let’s go back to school now.’ ”
The protest action was characteristic of Grobe, who died on May 15 at age 82. He never shied away from unorthodox methods and outspoken measures in his careers as a minister and teacher in the Upper Valley.
“He was a pacifist. … I think his pacifism was a logical extension for him of his Christian beliefs,” said son David Grobe.
As minister of West Lebanon Congregational Church, he preached in support of the Civil Rights movement and against the war in southeast Asia, much to the chagrin of some parishioners.
As a teacher, he brought students who needed a little extra encouragement to his home for dinner.
As a community member, he routinely attended potluck dinners, was Town Meeting moderator in Plainfield and would officiate services for anyone who asked.
“He had established so many ties, whether it be through funerals, marriages, kids that he baptized. ... He called it ‘I’ve done a good job in my hatching, matching and dispatching’ job,” said Bob Ricker, director and owner of Ricker Funeral Home, who first met Grobe when he was a young congregant at the church in West Lebanon.
Often, Grobe would accept an invitation to a wedding reception in lieu of payement, said the Rev. John Gregory-Davis of Meriden Congregational Church.
“He did a lot of these for nothing,” Jon Grobe said. “He didn’t get rich with the green stuff, but he got rich with his relationships and positive contributions.”
He tried to individualize each service . There was one committal service he performed for a woman who he found out loved strawberries. He brought a box to the burial and invited every person present to take a strawberry and remember her every time they ate one.
“I never forgot that,” Ricker said, “and I’m sure her family didn’t either.”
Grobe first came to the Upper Valley in the early 1960s to serve as minister at the Congregational Church in West Lebanon where he would often hold Saturday night dances for his parish’s youth in the church’s basement.
“Knowing my father, I’m sure that not all of the people were prepared for some of the things that came out of his mouth,” Jon Grobe said.
As the 1960s wore on and Grobe became more involved in the Civil Rights movement, some parishioners became wary of their forthright minister.
“He was very outspoken about his views on civil rights,” said Grobe’s first wife, Ann Grobe. “It did get him in trouble at the church.”
Added to that was the way he felt about the Vietnam War.
“Those issues sort of overtook the ability to stay in the church,” Ann Grobe said.
Grobe resigned in 1967 and returned to school to embark on a new career in education. Initially, he was supposed to be a state-hired counselor in the Lebanon School District, said David Grobe, but the School Board, familiar with his reputation as a minister, wasn’t too happy with the decision to hire him.
“When they found out it was going to be him ... they decided they wouldn’t fill that position,” David Grobe said. “He had gotten in a little bit of hot water.”
Shortly thereafter, Meriden White School, now known as Plainfield School, stepped in and offered Grobe a job.
“I think it was probably a bit of a gamble for the Plainfield people to hire him, but they were rewarded,” Jon Grobe said.
Jon Grobe has firsthand knowledge of his father’s teaching prowess. He was in his father’s class the first year he was a teacher.
One day, Jon Grobe had gotten into an argument at recess with a friend. Upon their return to the classroom, the fight continued, making it very difficult for Grobe to start class.
He paused and said, “Would you guys like to solve this issue right now?”
Grobe proceeded to have the students gather around in a circle while Jon Grobe and his classmate had a wrestling match to settle their disagreement.
“That’s how he ran his class,” Jon Grobe said. “Whatever needed to be taken care of was taken care of.”
Grobe would take his fifth-graders on field trips to his farm where he lived with his second wife, Theodora “Teddy” (Walther) Grobe, played rock music in the classroom and wrote plays for his students to perform.
“One thing that came through most there that his unorthodox way of teaching, hands-on learning,” Gregory-Davis said. “Clearly for some kids, it was the first time school made sense to them.”
Grobe retired in 1993 after teaching for 23 years.
“It is difficult to imagine Plainfield School without Malcolm,” Principal Joan Garipay wrote in the town report after Grobe announced his retirement. “He has always been a child advocate. If there was someone who was friendless, Mr. Grobe was there to fill the void. … He is quick to laugh at himself but not at others. Malcolm is never too tired or too busy for his students.”
Grobe’s retirement didn’t fit the traditional definition of the word. He became a substitute teacher at Hartford High School and coached the jayvee girls soccer team while Jon Grobe, a Hartford High teacher, served as the varsity coach, and he later went on to become a tennis coach.
A high school and Illinois singles champion in college, Grobe kept up with tennis most of his adult life.
“He was very easy going, really enjoyed challenging the kids, playing against them as a way of improving their skills,” said Iris Berezin, current Hartford High tennis coach, who worked with Grobe for five years. “Whenever there was snow on the courts early in the season, he would come in the middle of the day and shovel and sing.”
In addition to his above-par playing skill, there was something else that made Grobe stick out on the court.
“He was known for his frumpy dressing habits,” said David Grobe.
It was not unusual to see Grobe dressed in black sneakers, plaid shorts and clashing colors on the Dartmouth tennis courts, a sharp contrast to others dressed in traditional tennis whites.
“He only played well enough to beat you barely,” David Grobe said. “His game was competitive. He was a good player. Later on it was more about encouraging people to play.”
Gregory-Davis first met Grobe in 1995 when he became pastor at Meriden Congregational Church. Grobe had been serving as interim pastor, a role he had also filled at churches in Orford and Charlestown. Similar to his nontraditional definition of “retirement,” Grobe didn’t define “interim” as temporary either. He served in Orford for 11 years.
“He was a true shepherd of his flock for many, many, many, many years,” said Ricker, citing the guidance and comfort he gave to families grieving the death of a loved one. “It’s worth so much and he just was there for so many people.”
For weddings, he officiated on each couple’s terms. There was one in Lyme, Ann Grobe recalled, where the reception was held before the ceremony. Another was held in a peace symbol mowed into the middle of a field.
“He would do whatever people wanted ... that was legal,” Ann Grobe said. “It wouldn’t always be in the sanctuary. Someone’s garden or someone’s favorite waterfall.”
At a memorial service last month at Meriden Congregational Church, Gregory-Davis posed a series of questions to the overflow crowd: Who was baptized by Mal? Who was married by Mal? Who was a student of Mal?
After each question, more and more hands were raised .
“Malcolm baptized, married and buried more people than all the rest of the pastors in the Upper Valley,” Gregory-Davis said.
At the end of the service, the Rev. Gregory Marshall, a longtime friend and clergy colleague, asked those in attendance to call out two words that reminded them of Grobe.
There were shouts of “boisterous voice,” “life saver,” “bad driver,” and then, later, “best friend.”
Liz Sauchelli can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3305.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. Malcolm Grobe died on May 15, 2013. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for his death.