Bob Long's life revolved around his community, beginning in Dorchester, the Irish Catholic section of Boston where he grew up, and extending to the West End of Hartford, where he lived for more than 30 years.
"He cared about his neighborhood, and he cared about Hartford," said his neighbor Sandra LaJeunesse. "There's a hole in the neighborhood and the city."
Born Nov. 21, 1940, Long was the younger of two sons of Catherine and Edward R. Long. He also had two younger sisters. His father was liaison between the longshoremen's union and the Boston shipping association, a challenging job that required fairness, an open mind and diplomacy, all traits his younger son inherited.
Growing up, Long was the unofficial leader of a tight band of "Roberts," four boys with the same first name. He attended Catholic schools, was a star sprinter and played the snare drum in a drum and bugle corps and in the St. William's Band.
His older brother, Ed, had muscular dystrophy and couldn't walk, so Bob carried him many places so Ed wouldn't be left out. Their parents encouraged children to gather at the house so Ed would have company.
Later, Bob duplicated that hospitality.
"It was a real important value to have people to feel welcome, and he raised us with that open-house feeling," said his daughter, Gannon Long. "He was very open and very accepting of different kinds of people, and he made that known."
After graduating from Boston College High School, Long attended Boston State College, now part of the University of Massachusetts, and later got a master's degree in special education from Boston College.
During the Vietnam War, he applied for conscientious objector status and did alternate service at a Boston mental hospital. He married a childhood friend, Connie Connors, and they had three children. After they moved to Manhattan, he taught at Jersey City State college.
He enrolled in Teacher's College of Columbia University to earn a doctorate in special education, with an emphasis on blindness. He learned Braille and walked the neighborhood with dark glasses and a cane to get a sense of what blindness felt like. He was involved with Students for a Democratic Society and was active in anti-war activities.
After the couple divorced, Long met Gloria Gruber, an art student, at a Bach concert in Carnegie Hall. He was immediately smitten, and they were married on June 21, 1974, barely six months after they had met. They had three children.
The Longs moved to Hartford, where he became chief of children's services at the state Board of Education and Services for the Blind. There he developed programs for very young children and helped integrate blind students into regular classrooms.
One day, Long learned that a blind 6-month-old with many special needs was going to be placed in foster care. He volunteered to bring her to his house, where she lived for six months until a permanent home was found.
In 1985, Long began working for the Hartford Board of Education as a teacher of the visually impaired. He consulted with teachers, taught students how to use special devices and often took them camping or to the ballet. When a blind student was selected for the National Honor Society, he organized a dinner to inspire the others.
"If he had an idea or a dream, he made it happen," said Gloria Long
As his children progressed through Hartford schools, Long became active in many of their activities, from coaching the chess club at their elementary school to coaching West End soccer and high school football. He volunteered for various parent-teacher organizations, and after Riverfront Recapture brought a scull to the Hartford Public High School pool, he decided to learn rowing and sponsor a crew team.
"It was a foreign sport to most kids in the city," said Joe Marfuggi, president of Riverfront Recapture. "He wanted those kids to understand the possibilities lying out there. There was a bigger world." The program has since been expanded to all city students.
The Long household (his wife teaches art in Hartford) became a popular gathering place for their children's friends. Family dinners evoked discussions on important issues such as politics, personal responsibility and social justice.
"Food and dinner became a central piece of human dignity and community and relationship building," said his son Justin. "Each thing he did fit in and made sense, a life of integrity."
In his Hartford neighborhood, Long was a familiar sight, whether walking his two dogs or sitting on his porch and chatting with passers-by. "He'd form a connection with anyone walking down the street," said his daughter.
In 2001, Long retired and was searching for a way to do more. He spent more time sculpting, in wood and marble, and joined a program for retirees sponsored by Leadership Greater Hartford called the Third Age Initiative. The group started "Readers as Leaders," a program in which middle-school students read to kindergarten children, which has been since been copied in several other schools.
"He's an incredibly caring person, someone who understood that he could contribute to improving the life of others," said Doe Hentschel, the leadership's vice president.
In 2002, Long was elected to the Hartford Board of Education and served three years. About five years ago, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system. He became a hospice volunteer, saying he wanted to learn how to die.
He made regular visits to his patients, and his thoughts on dying were frequently incorporated into memorial services.
"He connected with people and liked listening to their stories," said his daughter. "He was interested in whatever walk of life they were in."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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