A Life: Robert Edward Couture, 1930 — 2013; ‘He Would Just Make Things’
Lifelong Lebanon resident Bob Couture cleans a unicorn figurine in Jan. 1999 at The Ceramic Center, his family-owned business in Lebanon. Couture died in June at age 83. (Valley News - Molly Lamb)
A first-place dragon float that Bob Couture helped build and design looms in front of the downtown Lebanon Library during the 1962 Alumni Day parade. The Granite State Free Press described it as "truly a monster which reared its head and spouted smoke from its nostrils." (Courtesy photograph)
Lebanon — It all culminated for Bob Couture on Alumni Day more than 50 years ago. The annual parade that melds ingenuity, history and handiwork, features an armada of floats that circle the city square downtown — each one boasting its graduation year and a successful class reunion. It was a natural fit for Couture, a third-generation carpenter with deep Lebanon roots who took great pride in his community.
“He was the class of ’47,” said Susan Desrosiers, one of Couture’s three daughters. “The class of ’47 always won first place.”
The Alumni Day Parade offered Couture, who died June 4 at the age of 83, a chance to get creative and see the people he grew up with, but perhaps more significantly it was an opportunity to show off his skills.
“When you’re the carpenter, you get to call the shots of what you should buy and how you should put it together,” Desrosiers said. “I think he really enjoyed that.”
It was a responsibility Couture took seriously. And in 1962, the class of 1947 came up with an ambitious project: a gray, scaled dragon with a moving neck and tail that spouted dry-ice-induced smoke from its mouth. Of course, it won first place.
But Couture wasn’t in it for the competition. It was the brainstorming and the act of figuring out how to piece everything together into a finished product. It was a chance for the New England carpenter to live up to his motto: “Work smarter, not harder.”
“He was huge on that,” said Couture’s son, Bob, who shares his name.
The elder Couture was a Lebanon native born in 1930 who lived most of his life in the same Spring Street home his family purchased in 1938. A carpenter by trade, Couture worked construction and other odd jobs until retiring and helping his wife Barbara, who died in 2001, run the Ceramic Cellar, a store in Lebanon, in the 1980s.
The family business had initially occupied the basement on Spring Street, hence the name, but eventually it branched out and the Coutures bought more molds, expanding the business to its own storefront.
For Barbara Couture, it represented the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition. And for her husband, it was a way to learn new skills and showcase his dedication to his wife.
“He learned all the aspects of the job and helped her realize the whole dream,” Bob Couture said.
In his later years, Couture was a history buff and a technophile who helped the Lebanon Historical Society organize its collections by scanning photos and digitizing records.
Ed Ashey, a Lebanon native and curator at the historical society, befriended Couture in 2010 through the group of about 20 history buffs.
“He didn’t say much, but when he did, you knew it was going to be important,” Ashey said.
But Ashey added that, “When you start talking history, then he really opened up.”
According to Ashey, Couture had a sneaky way of completing projects, such as an old cupboard above the chimes in the Marion Carter House that had fallen apart over the years. Couture overheard Ashey mention the cupboard to the historic building’s caretaker and told him to tackle the repair eventually.
“The next day, Bob had it done,” Ashey said. “Had it all fixed up. That’s the way he was.”
Couture was also an inventor — at least on a rural New England scale. Desrosiers remembered a time when her father went to the landfill and found a couple of large wheels that used to be on a carriage. He attached them to a bucket and created a unique sort of wheelbarrow.
“He would just make things,” Desrosiers said.
Julie Couture, who shares her father’s passion for Lebanon history, has traced the Couture lineage back to the 1600s, when the first family ancestor emigrated from France. She said the Coutures first arrived in Lebanon in the late 1800s from the White River Junction area in search of mill jobs.
At the historical society, Julie Couture said, her dad did his best to preserve Lebanon history, either through organizing records or filming programs, or anything else that might come up.
“He got the technology going because, I mean, it’s a historical society,” Julie Couture said. “That’s the way they were. They would write things down by hand.”
Couture passed down to his children his love for “the old Lebanon;” a mill town where everybody knew everybody.
“You’d go to church on Sunday morning and nothing was open,” Linda Couture said. “You’d go visit your grandparents in the afternoon, meet the kids next door ... it was a quieter place than it is nowadays.”
As the town turned to a city in the late 1950s it began to shift from a mill community to a more economically diverse and active place. Couture never showed any signs of bitterness, but he wasn’t ready to let go of the town’s old feel. It was that passion for what Lebanon used to be that drew Couture to the historical society later on in his life.
“He didn’t want it to go away,” Desrosiers said. “He didn’t mind the growth — controlled growth — but he was worried about losing the feel of downtown Lebanon.”
Ashey said he and Couture spent a lot of time reminiscing — despite an eight-year age difference — about the way things used to be.
“We all knew everybody and everybody knew us,” Ashey said. “It was not like it is now. There’s so many newcomers that come and go. They’re not really settled in like the old timers of this town, or city, now.”
Not everything Couture was drawn to smacked of New England in yesteryear. According to his children, he was obsessed with the latest technological trends, though the ever-growing complexities of the newest gadgets began to outpace him in his later years. For most of his life, however, Couture was likely the first on his block to grab any new gadget that came out.
And once he got a hold of them, he was reluctant to throw away old toys.
“We still have a Timex Sinclair computer and a Pong game, so don’t even ask,” said Linda Couture. “That’s how far back it goes.”
As a father, Couture took a hands-off approach to raising his children. Like everything else, it seemed to fall under that motto of his: “Work smarter, not harder.”
“The way we were raised was you make your own decisions and you learn from any mistakes that you made,” Desrosiers, a longtime teacher in Lebanon, said.
Couture turned down a construction job in Minnesota at one point and later in Iowa so that he could keep his family in the area he had always called home.
“He would go to jobs in places like Bennington, Vermont,” Bob Couture said of his dad. “He’d be gone for a week and only come back on the weekends in order to keep us where we were.”
Growing up as the only son out of four children, the younger Bob Couture said he had a lot of opportunities to soak up his dad’s knowledge in woodworking and carpentry, which had been passed down through the generations.
“I got some of that,” said Bob Couture, who now lives in the northeastern corner of Kansas. “Not as much as I should have.”
In 1983, Bob, the son, began looking for work locally to no avail. He was offered a position at a fire department in Kansas and moved out there with his wife.
“He wasn’t thrilled that we were doing it,” Bob Couture said. “He was about family being close and staying there.”
But Bob Couture said his dad eventually warmed up to Kansas, where he found a new passion: deep-fried catfish, caught fresh from a nearby pond. The elder Couture was an avid hunter, who early on in caring for his family used to hunt local game to put food on the table. But he never tried catfish until he visited the Great Plains.
“He just loved to do that,” Bob Couture said. “He loved to fish. He’d just throw a line in our pond.”
Couture’s last visit to Kansas came as his son was starting to build a home, a project for which he naturally had plenty of advice to share. And Bob Couture was eager to soak up his dad’s knowledge when he came to visit about a year and a half ago.
“I wanted his expertise out here because I was doing my own general, and his knowledge was invaluable,” said Bob Couture.
So Couture stayed out there for a month, making regular trips to the construction site with his son. It was the longest he had ever been away from home. Bob Couture heard plenty of that prolific motto, which he hadn’t forgotten in the first place.
“He would remind me of that when we were lifting boards and logs and things like that,” Bob said. “It was great having him out there during that.”
Couture wanted desperately to see the house completed but died just a few weeks before it was done.
But in typical fashion, Couture managed to leave his mark anyway. He built benches that now sit on the porch, which are signed with his name and dated. And inside the Kansas home, there remains the traces of a third-generation carpenter from Lebanon near the ceiling of the main bedroom.
“We’ve got some boot prints still on some of the beams that we put up that may well have been his,” Bob Couture said. “We purposely left them there.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.