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A Life: Robert Alan Maxfield, 1931-2013; ‘He Was the Inventor and He Wanted to Do Things That Would Help Other People’

  • Nancy Maxfield, Fernando Figueroa and Bob Maxfield in 1983. Figueroa was visiting the United States through an international exchange program. (Courtesy photograph)

    Nancy Maxfield, Fernando Figueroa and Bob Maxfield in 1983. Figueroa was visiting the United States through an international exchange program. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Bob Maxfield paints a garage at his home in Quechee in this undated photograph. He was paralyzed after he fell from staging while painting a barn years earlier. (Courtesy photograph)

    Bob Maxfield paints a garage at his home in Quechee in this undated photograph. He was paralyzed after he fell from staging while painting a barn years earlier. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Nancy Maxfield, Fernando Figueroa and Bob Maxfield in 1983. Figueroa was visiting the United States through an international exchange program. (Courtesy photograph)
  • Bob Maxfield paints a garage at his home in Quechee in this undated photograph. He was paralyzed after he fell from staging while painting a barn years earlier. (Courtesy photograph)

Tunbridge — In the early morning hours before the sun rose, Bob Maxfield would saddle a horse and head out to work with a Peruvian boy named Fernando Figueroa.

Maxfield was 36 years old, single and living in Paucartambo, a small town on the eastern slope of the Andes mountains. He had come to Peru as a Peace Corps volunteer to work on infrastructure projects. And Figueroa, who was just 10, saw in Maxfield a mentor.

“Since I was a young kid, I always liked to do things and Bob, I saw, was a doer,” said Figueroa, now 56, and a resident of New Orleans. “He was always trying to accomplish something that, as a result, would be useful or interesting in some way.”

The days that Figueroa and Maxfield spent together surveying the road to Figueroa’s family farm would prove life changing for them both. For Figueroa, it would develop into a long relationship with a generous mentor, lead to a college education and career as a NASA engineer. For Maxfield, Figueroa became the son that he never had.

Maxfield, who died Sept. 27, at 82, grew up in Tunbridge and graduated from Hartford High School. He lived nearly all his life in Vermont except for the few years that he spent in Peru and Ecuador, and the stint he served as an Army radio technician in Germany. But he made the most of his time traveling abroad and used it as an opportunity to have an impact on the world, to affect people’s lives and help someone realize his talent.

“I think he felt he could make a difference in someone’s life,” said Maxfield’s younger sister, Lorna Eaton, of Lunenburg, Vt. “And I think he did that very well with Fernando.”

Even before Maxfield traveled to Peru in the late 1960s, he searched for some way to put his creative talents to good use. The fourth of seven children, Maxfield had a talent for building things, for carpentry and figuring out how systems work, his family said. But he did not enjoy life on the family farm.

Maxfield’s older brother, Louis Maxfield, said he and Bob Maxfield were both strong-willed but in very different ways. Louis Maxfield was destined to assume the family business while his brother had other plans.

“I was to be the farmer and Bob was to be the one who did something on his own,” Louis Maxfield said. “Bob was very creative. He was the inventor and he wanted to do things that would help other people.”

Bob Maxfield left Vermont, went into the Army and was stationed in Germany, an experience that he confessed was like “18 months of paid vacation,” Louis Maxfield said. Then he went into the Peace Corps, which was in its infancy. It was then that Bob Maxfield discovered his life’s mission in a small Andean town in Peru.

He became known as “El Gringo Robert” and left an indelible mark on the place, Figueroa said. He worked with Figueroa’s father, the town’s mayor, to build a potable water system for the town. Maxfield tended to all kinds of projects, fixing tractors that had broken down and building bridges. He was welcomed throughout the town and from all circles, from farmers to local officials, school teachers and store proprietors. He even taught local residents square dancing, bringing a bit of his Yankee culture to South America.

After his Peace Corps service was up, Maxfield returned to Paucartambo. He stayed with Figueroa’s family and helped Figueroa’s father build an irrigation system and locate water sources for the farm. But it was while surveying the road that he and Figueroa developed a lifelong bond.

The two of them would awake before sunrise, eat breakfast and head out on their horses with a lunch packed by Figueroa’s mother, usually sandwiches with elderberry marmalade and butter. They would stay out all day, with Figueroa working under Maxfield’s guidance, and return just before dark.

Maxfield moved back to the United States and married a woman named Nancy, who remained his wife for 38 years until her death several years ago. But he never forgot Figueroa and offered to support the boy’s education if ever the opportunity arose.

Years later, that moment came. Figueroa had begun his university studies in Peru. He was interested in engineering and knew that the best schools were in the U.S., but his family could not afford an education abroad.

Bob and Nancy Maxfield sponsored Figueroa’s education in the United States, paying for two years of tuition at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. But their commitment to Figueroa went beyond money. Nancy and Bob visited Figueroa often and developed a familial relationship.

“They really were like my parents here in the U.S.,” Figueroa said. “They came to my university to visit like parents do.”

Figueroa went on to get a doctorate in engineering and now works at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, an achievement that Maxfield extolled like a proud father.

“He was just so happy to see a kid from this poor town in Peru accomplish so much,” said Dave Taylor, a friend of Maxfield’s. “He really did think of (Figueroa) as his kid and he was so proud of him.”

Figueroa’s accomplishments were something positive for Maxfield to think about even has he struggled with his own problems. In 1985, when Figueroa was at college in Hartford, Maxfield was badly injured in an accident. Maxfield was painting the upper reaches of a barn and, perhaps hurried to finish, built shoddy staging that collapsed beneath him.

He fell 40 or 50 feet, Taylor said, and ended up paralyzed from the waist down. Though he worked to regain his strength, he would never walk again.

“He was very non-accepting,” said Eaton, his sister. “He was just so determined that he was going to walk again.”

Maxfield never used his paralysis as an excuse to avoid work. He would shuffle himself around with leg braces, drive a car and use a wheelchair when necessary. He took up hobbies, such as restoring old chairs, and found other outlets for his creativity. Nancy proved a rock of support who enabled him to pursue his interests and live a full life after he could no longer work, friends and family say.

“They were very deeply in love,” said Scott Moore, Nancy’s brother.

They had also married late in life, and though many people felt they were perfect companions, Maxfield regretted that he and Nancy did not have children. Figueroa filled that role for him.

Although Maxfield’s fondness for Figueroa was well-known among the rest of his family, Maxfield’s siblings had only a basic impression of Figueroa, knowing little about him beyond what their brother would say. But when they read a tribute that Figueroa had written for the memorial service of his American “father,” they began to understand just how deep the relationship went. The page-long letter included details of Maxfield’s time in Peru, his relationship with Figueroa’s family and the support he provided for Figueroa’s education.

To Eaton, the tribute not only offered a window into Maxfield’s life, but also presented a fuller impression of the young Peruvian boy that her brother had talked about. Figueroa embodied the impact that Maxfield had wanted to have on the world.

“When I received that (tribute), I was blown away,” Eaton said. “I thought, ‘What a brilliant young man.’ And my brother saw that in him at 10 years old.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.