A Life: Bob Ammel, a Jack-of-All-Trades, ‘Could Fix Anything and He Would Do It for Anybody’

  • Working as an umpire on June 21, 2016, Bob Ammel signals to the catcher that his pitcher has one remaining warmup pitch that inning during an American Legion baseball game in Hartford, Vt. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Tris Wykes

  • Bob Ammel with his wife Jane in an undated photograph. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/5/2017 12:24:22 AM
Modified: 6/5/2017 12:24:23 AM

Hartford — The running joke in Bob Ammel’s family was that he could fall asleep in an instant and in almost any setting. In front of the fire or parked at a highway rest stop, he would close his eyes and be out cold, seemingly in seconds.

There was a reason for the big man’s habit: Bob Ammel often worked harder than any other two or three people combined.

From farming to selling feed supplements to delivering heating oil and repairing furnaces, Ammel always gave his employer more than a solid day’s toil. He didn’t slow when off the proverbial clock, umpiring high school football or baseball games around Vermont and New Hampshire, tending an enormous garden, building a greenhouse for his wife, Jane, and driving throughout the Northeast and beyond to watch his three children play sports.

Ammel, who was killed in a car crash on Route 4 in Bridgewater last fall at age 62, worked alongside his father, Robert E. Ammel Sr., to build the barn home where Jane continues to live.

He did much of the work to keep up the 130 surrounding acres of fields and woods, which are owned by his father and mother, Corabelle Ammel, who live in a house just across Ammel Road, off Jericho Road in Hartford.

“I miss him most when he’s not here to do something,” said Kylie Curtis, his youngest daughter, who recalls her father’s big, callused hands, one of them often sporting a blackened nail. “We want to help my mom stay in the house and doing all the things that need to be done here, it’s amazing to me that one guy used to do it all.”

Ammel was the longtime Santa Claus on the Polar Express trains that carry transfixed youngsters from White River Junction to the “North Pole” and back during the holidays. He’d play St. Nick for his extended family, day care centers and companies around the Upper Valley.

“Little kids would give him a stone or broken dolls or draw him a picture when he was Santa and he’d keep every one of them,” Jane Ammel said.

Ammel didn’t miss a day of school growing up until he sprained an ankle his senior year of high school and was ordered by a doctor to stay home. Around that time, he worked as a dishwasher at the Seven Gables Restaurant on Route 14, nearly a 3-mile ride from home on his one-speed bike. Getting there was a breeze, but pedaling back meant ascending two miles uphill, sometimes in the dark.

Ammel was part of the Hartford High School Class of 1973. He helped the school win a state football title and skated for a hockey team that flooded its own rink atop the tennis courts and slept near them overnight to ensure the job was done properly. Ammel ran track in the spring and played sousaphone and tuba in the band. He was on a swim team in the summers and he and his three younger siblings helped their parents garden and tend to livestock.

Attending Vermont Tech to focus on agricultural studies, Ammel graduated with honors and not long after, in 1974, married Jane Spaulding, a Hartford High majorette he’d begun dating after they hit it off at a Wilder church dance. He was in eighth grade and she was a sophomore when they met.

“They just went together like peanut butter and jelly,” said Corabelle Ammel, sitting on the barn house’s porch one evening last week. “It was a different time and you didn’t worry about them.”

A pause. Then from a deadpan Robert Sr., sitting alongside her: “I worried.”

The young couple first rented a farm in Bradford, Vt., then bought their own on 85 Hartland acres in the late 1970s. They had four children, including Nathan, who died in infancy. Betsy, Dan and Kylie grew up on the farm, often at their father’s side while their mother worked at a phone company.

“They’d just put us in a walker in the barn and let us fall in the cow poop,” chuckled Dan.

Betsy and her father were especially close in these early days and she recalls how even as a preschooler, she felt included in whatever he did. Her father usually rose at 4:30 a.m. to do the first of the day’s two milkings, then took a quick nap before heading out for mechanical work, cleaning, tending young livestock, planting corn and a hundred other chores.

“I remember feeling important and like I really made a difference by being there,” Betsy said. “I felt safe and that I was his right-hand man.”

Ammel stood roughly 6 feet 2 inches and was thick in the shoulders, chest and arms, though not in the waist. During haying season, he would routinely grasp a bale in each hand and in one motion, throw them up and over a pickup truck’s wooden sideboards.

He served as president of the Windsor County Farm Bureau in the mid-1980s, and a few years earlier, he and Jane had been picked for the Vermont Farm Bureau “Young Farmers of the Year” award.

Dairy farming was Ammel’s passion but milk prices plummeted in the 1980s and he put in a halfhearted bid to sell his 50 cows through a federal program designed to curtail production. To his surprise, the offer was accepted. Complying with the buy-out program’s terms that he brand his cattle and ship them to slaughter left him heartbroken.

“Leaving farming was very sad for Bob,” Jane Ammel said. “I, on the other hand, was tired of eating dirt. Our kids wouldn’t have been as active in other things had we remained farming, but they all learned a strong work ethic from it.”

Their herd and land sold, the Ammels eventually moved onto a North Hartland farm that Bob managed for an off-premises owner. They later lived in a West Hartford log cabin and then on White River Junction’s Rustic Road, where Bob built Jane a large greenhouse for flowers and vegetables.

In his later years, after they were in the Jericho district, he grew copious potato crops and donated much of the harvest to The Haven and local church suppers.

Over the years, Ammel also was a traveling salesman for a minerals company, working with farmers to supplement their animals’ feed. He had stints selling tires and heavy equipment and driving for a concrete company, but found time to teach his children cattle showmanship in a local 4-H organization.

Ammel was a member of the Hartford Rod and Gun Club, the Central Vermont Quad Riders and the Hurricane Riders snowmobile group. In 2003, the man who could fix anything joined Irving Oil, first as a delivery driver and then in service work.

At night and on his own time, Ammel would sort through the next day’s delivery or service tickets, figuring out the quickest routes between stops. His meticulousness carried over to studying for work certifications and to the high school officiating rule books for football and baseball. It was rare that he missed an exam question, and if he did, the sting lingered for days.

Josh Compo, another Irving employee, said that as a newcomer to the industry, he could ask or call Ammel for advice and know that he’d always give patient answers. Should there be a need for a part that Compo didn’t have, “Gramps” would insist he take it off his own truck, to be settled up the next morning.

“He moved at his own pace, a steady pace, all through the day,” Compo said. “By the end of the day, he’d have outworked all of us. He was always trying to make the company a better place, a better team.”

The Ammel children’s friends treaded carefully around their father, who liked to put up a gruff front. By the time they graduated high school, however, the list of kindnesses and insights he’d offered left an impression on them for life.

“He cared about us and our friends more than anything in the world,” Dan said. “He did push us hard, but only for things he knew we wanted to do or had to do.”

Bob and Jane’s kids each played an instrument and multiple sports. Betsy endured excessive body checks and opponents’ verbal taunts to become the first girl on the Hartford High boys hockey team, switching to the girls squad as a junior because she felt the need to support the just-created program. She graduated in 1996 and played at the University of Vermont.

Dan competed in baseball and hockey and was a star quarterback who played at Sacred Heart (Conn.) University, where Kylie skated for the women’s hockey team. She transferred to Castleton State and played for the Spartans as well. Each of them knew there was a good chance of spotting their father in the stands, no matter if the games were in Canada or in New Jersey.

Sadly, it was on the road and in freezing rain that Ammel died on Nov. 29, 2016. A motorist driving on Route 4 in Bridgewater lost control on a curve, causing her to cross into the eastbound lane and the path of an oncoming tractor-trailer, police said.

The big rig swerved into the westbound lane to avoid the woman’s car and struck Ammel’s Irving equipment truck head-on, police said. Ammel had worked on a job in Rutland the day before and was returning to finish it, his family said.

The death struck the Upper Valley sports community hard. Ammel was scheduled to officiate the annual Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl football all-star game this summer and he was a popular baseball umpire, which is something of an oxymoron. Rob Woodward, a former Major Leaguer and now a longtime Lebanon American Legion Post 22 coach, tells a story that helps show why.

Woodward said Ammel never began a game at Lebanon High without noting to coaches that, should a batted ball strike a particular part of the outfield fence, it would be ruled a home run. One day, not long after the usual explanation, such a play occurred and Ammel called the Lebanon fly ball a ... ground rule double.

Woodward, incensed, raced onto the field but Ammel interjected.

“He said ‘Go easy on me; I’m totally wrong here,’ ” Woodward said on a local sports radio show not long after Ammel’s death. “What are you going to say to that? I said ‘Don’t ever let it happen again’ and walked back to the dugout. We were laughing to ourselves.”

Ammel’s hardball dedication will be recognized and honored at a June 24 American Legion senior baseball game when White River Post 84 hosts Lebanon Post 22 at the Maxfield Sports Complex. Despite their proximity, the squads have not officially clashed in recent years, but they have united for this event. Funds raised will go to the Robert E. Ammel Jr. Scholarship Fund, to defray registration costs for Post 84 players. Post 22 competitors do not have to pay to play.

The game’s honorary captain will be Chuck Hunnewell, a legendary former baseball coach at Hanover High, Lebanon High and with Hartford’s now-defunct Post 26 Legion team. Aside from Hunnewell’s obvious accomplishments, he counted on Ammel to regularly fix his balky furnace.

“Bob had the magic touch with it,” Kylie Curtis said. “He could fix anything and he would do it for anybody.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.

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